Research on Editing from the Author’s Viewpoint
Angela Eaton, Pamela Estes Brewer, Tiffany Craft Portewig, and Cynthia R. Davidson
We conducted 19 pilot interviews and a preliminary online survey of authors, examining their
conceptualization of the editorial process, including the definition of editing, the tenor of their past
editorial relationships, their preferred mode of editing, and the factors that lead them to accept or
reject an editorial comment. We also examined whether this information differed if the author was a
nonnative speaker of English.
From this information, we created a preliminary structural model that diagrams the variables at work
when an author decides whether or not to adopt an editorial suggestion. At the conference, we will
report the final, comprehensive results and structural model.
Many of us edit, whether our job title is “editor” or not. According to the 2004 STC Salary Survey, about three quarters
of the survey’s 580 respondents indicated that editing others was an important, though not primary, job function (Dayton,
Those of us who edit have often wondered about certain issues related to effective editing. The literature on editing,
however, is written primarily from the editor’s point of view and is rarely verified outside his or her experience. To
illuminate the viewpoint of the authors, we researched these following topics.
How do authors define editing?
Technical communication scholars have defined editing in a number of ways, emphasizing different purposes and tasks.
Some divide editing into two phases: comprehensive editing (Corbin et al. 2002, Rude 2002) and copyediting (Rude
2002). Others go beyond two levels of editing into models that involve phases, such as Adler and Lenan’s Global E-
Editing Model that contains four levels—developmental editing, technical accuracy, copyediting, and a final production
These definitions serve to help the editor conceptualize the editing process, but how do non-editing specialists define the
editing process? Knowing if authors envision the editing process similarly would help determine if discrepancies in the
understanding of the process affect quality of the author-editor relationship.
How do authors perceive the role of the editor?
Much has been written on the editor’s role in the writing process. Generally, most definitions of the editor’s role
incorporate some responsibility to the reader, such as “technical editors have a duty to the reader to ensure that the
accessibility of the overall document” (Albers, p. 194). Better definitions of the editor’s role incorporate both the reader
and the author, such as Dragga and Gong’s explanation that, "the editor's job is to mediate the writer-reader relationship,
and therefore requires a sensitivity to both the writer's aims and the reader's needs" (p. 9). McNeill summarizes the dual
responsibility quite neatly: “your role as editor is twofold: user’s advocate and author’s friend” (p.10).
However, these descriptions of the role of the editor are written by scholars in writing and editing—not necessarily by the
subject matter experts whose work technical editors often review. And if the views of the author and the editor aren’t in
agreement about the editor’s role, conflict can arise: “a major source of the dissatisfaction that authors and editors feel
with each other is their differing expectations. The roles and tasks of author and editor are frequently poorly defined”
(Grove, p. 235). Determining whether the authors and the editors agree on the role of the editor would help shed light on
the nature of the editing process.
Is the editorial relationship adversarial?
The editing literature often presents the editing relationship as tense and full of dissatisfaction (Collins and Lester;
McNeill; Rude; Sartoris). New editors can’t help but be concerned about the editing process when they read articles that
announce, "A good deal has been written about the relationship between editor and writer: the psychology applied by the
one, the tender ego of the other. Inevitably a writer becomes defensive about his writing" (Fourdrinier, p. 68) or ones
describing “the dissatisfaction that authors and editors feel with each other” (Grove, p. 235).
This tension, however, might not be as common as it is commonly reported. The personal experiences of the research
team have shown editing to be an agreeable task, and that authors are eager for help. Researching the prevalence of
adversarial relationships can advance our understanding of the editing process.
What editing mode do authors prefer?
Editors’ preferences for electronic versus hard copy editing have been well documented by David Dayton. In one of his
studies, he noted that his 444 editor participants were about evenly divided between those who used hard copy markup
alone as their primary editing method and those who keyboarded changes and annotations directly into computer files (p.
86). About two-thirds used some form of electronic procedures at least occasionally, and most of these editors used hard
copy to mark up or to proofread as part of their electronic editing process (Dayton, p. 87).
Limited study, however, has been done into what editing mode authors prefer. Clinton Lanier documented a small study
based on interviews with authors regarding their preference of editing mode. He found that training is key in preparing
an effective electronic editing experience and that concerns about the editor/author relationship suffering due to e-editing
may prove unfounded (Lanier, p. 535).We do not know, however, what editing mode authors prefer. With electronic
editing on the rise, it would be helpful to advise editors about favored methods.
Editors often wonder about the most effective way to write editorial comments, the suggestions and corrections we
provide authors while editing. Should we just tell the author what to do, using the imperative form, such as “reorganize
this section”? Should we phrase our suggestions gently, although we worry about the author disregarding our advice, such
as “Perhaps you may want to reorganize this section”? And how do we edit so that we’re respectful yet effective with
both native and nonnative speakers of English?
Advice in the literature about how to give editorial comments can be grouped into four main, and sometimes
contradictory, recommendations: be sensitive, phrase suggestions as questions, provide a full explanation, and vary
directness based on your author’s native culture.
Some of the most general advice simply cautions editors to be sensitive to the author’s feelings (Dukes, p. 63). Collins
and Lester recommend being diplomatic and sensitive, and even to avoid offending the author by avoiding using a red
Many writers recommend crafting editorial comments as questions rather than commands to make them more palatable to
authors (Collins and Lester 1997; Doumont 2002, p. 40; Dukes, p. 64; Sartoris 1993). Dragga and Gong believe in this
strategy so strongly that 13 out of 15 of the comments used as examples are stated in question form (p. 32). In contrast,
however, Mackiewicz and Riley (2003) advocate using questions only when the editor’s real purpose is inquiry.
Other scholars suggest providing very explicit comments and the rationale behind them (Doumont, p. 40). Bernhardt
advises that the best comments are problem-solving, offering an identification, diagnosis, and solution of the document’s
problems (2003, p. 463). Others note that telling the author why a particular change is suggested will help the reader
understand or retain a message (Grove, p. 236; Sartoris 1993). Another suggestion is to rewrite an unclear passage
according to the editor’s best instinct and query the author to see if the revision is accurate (Dukes, p. 65).
Finally, advice is given about how to structure a comment, especially about how direct or indirect it ought to be, such as
Stevens’ experience: “If I were editing for an Australian author, I might write, ‘This statement is illogical. B does not
follow from A. Please rewrite.’ For a Japanese author, I would write this as “I do not understand the meaning of this
statement. It appears to be saying blah blah blah. Is this what you mean?” (p. 1). He finds all authors seem to prefer the
deferential tone he always adopts for Japanese authors (p. 1).
Perhaps the most extensive treatment of editorial suggestions was given by Mackiewicz and Riley in their February 2003
Technical Communication article, “The Technical Editor as Diplomat: Linguistic Strategies for Balancing Clarity and
Politeness.” In it, Mackiewicz and Riley provide an explanation of three suggestion categories—direct strategies,
conventionally indirect strategies, and nonconventionally indirect strategies—which contain eight strategies in all, and six
downgraders, which can be added to any of the strategies to temper the directness of the suggestion. The authors then
rank their eight strategies from most to least recommended. While their exhaustive description of editorial comments is
quite helpful, their advice about which strategy to use in each situation isn’t supported by research.
Editing in International Contexts
Published accounts of problematic editing in international contexts might lead us to believe that international
professionals working in the U.S. might also react sensitively to being edited. For example, Ward describes his difficulty
editing native Spanish speakers of differing backgrounds at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, noting “the very
concept of editing in Hispanic cultures is foreign” (p. 222-4). He noticed that editing in a bilingual, bicultural context
exacerbates some issues—such as ego involvement, lack of linguistic discipline, and false assumptions about the writer’s
audience—and introduces unique issues, such as types of usage (p. 222).
In another study, Hinkle explored when giving advice is appropriate among native and nonnative speakers of English as
well as what forms the advice should take (p. 71). He found that in some cultures giving advice is a threat to face while in
others it is considered an act of benevolence that builds rapport. While it is widely accepted that threat to face should be
minimized, the manner of doing so differs by culture and context. The wide differences found between cultures in
whether it is appropriate to give advice to others indicates that editing might be a problematic process when working with
nonnative speakers of English.
In another international context, Matthew Stevens, an Australian editor who works primarily for Japanese clients writing
in English, notes “editing for authors who speak English as a second language presents special problems, both mechanical
and cultural. . . . Cultural problems occur when it comes to correcting or querying the author. Some authors (from any
culture) will not accept instruction from a ‘subordinate’ and may be offended by the way a query is phrased” (p. 1). In
addition to the hierarchy concern, he notes that Western communication is direct and Asian is not: “I can’t address a
Japanese author in the familiar way that Australians and other Westerners use, as Japanese culture demands formality; if I
did, I would have lost the editing agency a client and myself the income” (Stevens, p. 1).
Generally, these studies indicate that “degrees of social distance and power between participants are among the most
important factors, yet their relative importance can interact with other situational factors and might be subject to cultural
variation” (Blum-Kulka & House, p. 3). However, the personal experience of our research team in the U.S. is very
different than these reports; we have found nonnative speakers to be more flexible, more eager to learn, more accepting
of suggestions, and more appreciative of the editor than the native speakers we have edited. Perhaps by assuming that the
results of these studies would apply outside of their context, we have mistakenly overgeneralized.
Overall, few of these articles provide research about which types of editorial suggestions the authors prefer, and
recommended strategies are not supported with empirical research. Perhaps the largest problem in the literature is that
some of the advice, such as using more indirect suggestions to be more polite, may actually make it more difficult for
nonnative speakers of English to edit their documents effectively, because indirect suggestions are longer and more
difficult to translate. And finally, studies in international contexts are not supported by research in the U.S.
To fill these gaps in the research, we have examined the factors that lead authors to accept or reject editorial comments.
In addition, we asked how authors define editing, what they think the role of the editor is, whether their editing
relationships have been adversarial, what behaviors are indicative of good and poor editors, and in what mode they most
prefer their edits.
We conducted 19 pilot interviews and an online survey to understand the factors that affect the reception of editorial
comments and authors’ conceptualization of editors and the editing process.
We used those interviews to refine our questionnaire. We then administered it to a sample group and constructed a factor
analysis with its results. Factor analysis “refers to a variety of statistical techniques whose common objective is to
represent a set of variables in terms of a smaller set of hypothetical variables” (Kim and Mueller 1978, p. 8). In other
words, factor analysis examines many data relationships to see if there are underlying causes: these causes are called
factors. One common example used when explaining factor analysis is describing hundreds of scores on educational tests
by three factors—mathematical ability, verbal ability, and spatial reasoning.
We began analyzing the data by constructing a correlation matrix. Because of the small size of our convenience sample,
we only examined strong correlations (higher than .5). Those variables with coefficients higher than .5 in a column are
examined, and a description of what appears to be common between all the variables is described—and that is the factor.
The geographic dispersion of the research team allowed us to find participants for our sample residing in California,
Kentucky, Texas, and Wisconsin. The participants ranged in age from 22 to 50, with an average age of 36.2 years
(SD=9.6). Eleven respondents were female, seven were male, and one respondent (via email) did not identify his or her
Overall, ten participants were born in the U.S., and nine were born elsewhere. Of the ten U.S.-born participants, nine
participants speak English as a first language and one speaks Spanish. Four respondents speak Chinese as a first
language; three were born in Taiwan and one was born in China. Two respondents reported having two first languages:
one, born in Japan, reported Japanese and English, and the other, born in Gambia, West Africa, noted Wollof and
Mandinka as first languages. The remaining participants were born in England with British English as a first language,
Cameroon with Mock as a first language, and Russia with Russian as a first language.
The professions of the participants varied; eleven were in industry and eight were in the academy. Native and nonnative
speakers were mixed in both industry and the academy. The participants from industry included a public relations writing
manager at a prominent computer company, a member services provider and a social justice coordinator for nonprofit
organizations, a researcher in residential and commercial lighting, three technical writers, a legal secretary, a director of
finance, a lifestyle consultant for a nursing home, and a registered nurse. The academics included five professors of
English, one of whom is a director of freshman composition, and one professor and two doctoral students of restaurant
and hotel management. As for education attained, the industry participants varied. One had completed two years of
college, five had completed their bachelor’s, and five had completed a Master’s degree. One academic participant had a
Master’s degree, and the others either had a Ph.D. or were pursuing one.
Please note that these results are only pilot results, meaning that they cannot be generalized beyond this group of
participants. Stated another way, we expect that what they reported is true, but because we chose people we knew directly
or through extended networks, we cannot be sure that these results apply to others. At the STC conference, we will
provide the final results during our session. We will also submit them to Technical Communication, and we will happily
send them to you if you email one of us.
How do pilot participants define editing?
We began the interview by asking participants to define editing. Only two of the respondents’ answers limited editing to
copyediting issues, defining it as “what you do when you go back and check your documents to be sure all the grammar,
spelling, and punctuation is correct.” All the other definitions included comprehensive editing issues, stated either
generally—“suggestions to improve something I’ve written”—or specifically, such as “to make sure that the writing is
appropriate in content, arrangement, style, and audience analysis, all the aspects of the rhetorical canon” or “editing is
modifying content to make it fit a particular style, voice, and flow standards.” Three definitions included some reference
to when editing should take place in the writing process. One mentioned that “editing is the second round of looking over
anything written—anything after the first draft is editing.” Another stated that an editor functions as quality control and
should “control the whole process, not really at the end of the process.”
Respondents were asked when in the writing process they typically worked with an editor. Ten typically worked with an
editor in what they often characterized as the “middle” of the writing process, after the first (or in one case, second) solid
draft. Seven tended to work with an editor after the writing was nearly complete; one specifically mentioned that he
would only involve an editor after he has done all the work he can. Only two respondents mentioned involving an editor
from the beginning of the document, to chat about ideas or to look over a potential table of contents. There was no clear
difference between native and nonnative speakers on this question.
Have participants experienced adversarial editing relationships?
In an attempt to examine the anecdotal work in the field about editing relationships often being adversarial and about the
negative experiences authors often have with editors, we asked participants about their experiences. The majority of
participants described positive relationships with their editors, stating that the relationships are “fun,” “good—positive,”
and “supporting, caring, and understanding.” One student called her editor an “essential partner for my doctoral study.”
Two described positive relationships with some editors and frustrating or “mean” relationships with others. Only two
reported adversarial relationships, one with an editor with a “G*d complex” who rewrote work instead of providing
comments, and another who had difficulty: “things get a little sweaty, because he gets very heavy-handed in his
rewriting.” There was no clear difference by native language on this question. Overall, only four of eighteen participants
related having frustrating or adversarial relationships with an editor.
What editing mode do pilot participants prefer?
After asking participants about their editorial experience, we asked participants about their preferences for mode and
depth of editing. For modes of editing, nine preferred face-to-face editing, four preferred electronic, four preferred hard
copy, and two preferred a combination. Many cited the desire for a combination of methods, such as beginning with a
face-to-face meeting and then exchanging electronic comments with a final face-to-face meeting, but did make a selection
of a favorite mode. One participant pointed out that the advantage of face-to-face comments is that an editor can give
more information than he or she has the patience to write, but the disadvantage is that an editor may be more reluctant to
express criticism in person. Of the participants who addressed the depth of editing issue, all but one preferred
comprehensive comments or both comprehensive comments and proofreading. Only one respondent of eighteen preferred
to receive only proofreading.
What factors affect whether an editor’s suggestions are followed?
Participants were then asked which kinds of editing comments they usually followed and which they ignored. Three
participants, one native and two nonnative speakers, mentioned that they follow nearly every comment given them. The
majority of the participants always accepts comments about grammatical errors, but often rejects stylistic suggestions.
One nonnative speaker generally doesn’t accept any comments except those about sentence length, a problem she knows
she has; she stated, “I trust the suffering I endured in English as a second language and all of the drilling in punctuation
rules.” Comments that are frequently ignored are those that are too vague, that rewrite their work, and that are purely
matters of opinion on style. Participants also ignore suggestions on comprehensive editing issues such as logic,
persuasion, or audience analysis if they disagree with the editor.
How do participants interpret typical editorial suggestions?
Participants were then asked to look at Mackiewicz and Riley’s examples of eight editorial strategies and classify each
strategy as a command or a suggestion. In their article, Mackiewicz and Riley predict that the first four strategies will be
interpreted as commands and the second four as suggestions. Mackiewicz and Riley highly recommend the first four
strategies and predict that they will convey that the author is obligated to make the change. However, participants only
consistently classified one of those four strategies as a command. There were no trends in interpretation based on the
participants’ native language. These preliminary results indicate that the recommendations made by Mackiewicz and
Riley about which editorial comments to use in which situations may not be completely accurate and suggest a need for
further research in this area.
Factor Analysis Results
We determined that there were four main factors at work in the data. The first factor appears to be measuring:
helpful commenting styles, styles that use “would” and “could” in their construction
equal or subordinate positions in the hierarchy, co-worker, subordinate, and employee (but not boss)
time, although both limited time and unlimited time correlated strongly with this factor.
We might label this factor “cooperative improvement” because it depends on helpful comments from equals or
subordinates on major rhetorical issues.
In the second factor, all of the different ways the suggestions are phrased are scoring similarly, which means that the
factor is probably measuring the forecasting statement mentioned in each example comment. We have revised these
questions in the current survey.
In the third factor, only style comments and style comments the author agreed with are strongly correlated with
acceptance of the comment. We can name the third factor “style.”
The fourth factor only highly correlates with two variables—positively if the comments come from the supervisor and
negatively if the comment is a style question and the author disagrees. We might label this factor “internal vs. external
Together, these factors account for 68.69% of the variance in whether an editorial comment is accepted or not. We can
use these results to predict whether a comment is accepted or not by how it relates to cooperative improvement, style, and
internal vs. external authority.
The results of this pilot study have enabled us to create the beginning of a structural model that diagrams the variables at
work when an author decides whether or not to adopt an editorial suggestion. The results also let us know that this group
of authors envisions editing similarly to the process described in our literature. The final results of this study should
provide previously unavailable insight into the editing process, so that we can better prepare graduates and enhance
editorial relationships among practitioners.
Adler, Linda J., and Helen Lenane. 2003. “E-editing for global audiences.” In Proceedings of the 50th Annual
Conference of the Society for Technical Communication, 433-37. Dallas: Society for Technical Communication.
Albers, Michael J. 2000. “The technical editor and document databases: What the future may hold.” Technical
Communication Quarterly 9: 191-206.
Bernhardt, Stephen A. 2003. “Improving document review practices in pharmaceutical companies.” Journal of Business
and Technical Communication 17 (4): 439-73.
Blum-Kulka, S. & House, J. 1989. “Investigating cross-cultural pragmatics: An introductory overview.” In Shoshana
Blum-Kulka, Juliane House, and Gabriele Kasper (Eds.), Cross-cultural pragmatics: Requests and apologies (pp. 1-
34). Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing.
Collins, William L. and Susan M. J. Lester. 1997. “Writer-editor interactions: What works?” In Proceedings of the
Society for Technical Communication, 477-78. Alexandria, VA: Society for Technical Communication.
Corbin, Michelle, Pat Moell, and Mike Boyd. “Technical Editing as Quality Assurance: Adding Value to Content.”
Technical Communication 49.3 (Corbin et al., 2002): 286-300.
Dayton, David. 2002. “Electronic editing.” In Technical editing, 3rd Edition, 84-105. New York: Longman.
Doumont, Jean-Luc. 2002. “Gentle feedback that encourages learning.” Intercom (February): 30-40.
Dragga, Sam, and Gwendolyn Gong. 1989. Editing: The design of rhetoric. Amityville, NY: Baywood.
Dukes, Eva P. “The Art of Editing.” Technical Editing: Principles and Practices. STC Anthology Series. Ed. Lola M.
Zook. United States: Society for Technical Communication, 1975.
Fourdrinier, Sylvia. “The Editor as a Teacher.” Technical Editing: Principles and Practices. STC Anthology Series. Ed.
Lola M. Zook. United States: Society for Technical Communication, 1975.
Grove, L.K. 1990. “The editor as ally.” Technical Communication 37 (3): 235-38.
Hinkel, Eli. 2002. “Appropriateness of advice as L2 solidarity strategy.” RELC Journal 25: 71-93.
Kim, Jao-On, and Charles W. Mueller. 1978. Introduction to factor analysis: What it is and how to do it. Quantitative
Applications in the Social Sciences Series, ed. Eric M. Uslaner. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Lanier, Clinton R. 2004. “Electronic editing and the author.” Technical Communication 51.4: 526-536.
Mackiewicz, Jo, and Kathryn Riley. 2003. “The technical editor as diplomat: Linguistic strategies for balancing clarity
and politeness.” Technical Communication 50: 83-94.
Sartoris, Brenda E. 1993. “Editing to teach.” In Proceedings of the Society for Technical Communication, 179-82.
Alexandria, VA: Society for Technical Communication.
Stevens, Matthew. 2000. “Editing for ESL authors.” The exchange: The newsletter of STC’s Scientific Communication
special interest group. (March): 1-3.
Ward, James. 1988. “Editing in a bilingual, bicultural context.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 18:
Angela Eaton (email@example.com, 806-742-2500 x229) is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication and
Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. She studies professional and technical communication practice and pedagogy,
especially within online environments, and teaches courses in editing and research methods.
Pamela Estes Brewer is Director of Professional Writing at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. She is also a
student in the online Ph.D. program in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. Her research
examines intercultural technical communication as well as technical communication pedagogy and computer literacy.
Tiffany Craft Portewig is a doctoral candidate in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University. She
has worked on a number of research projects in the areas of visual literacy, visual rhetoric, and technical communication
Cynthia R. Davidson is an attorney with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. She is a part-time student in the Master’s of
Technical Communication program at Texas Tech University. Her primary research interest is grant writing.