How to be a superhero editor

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an editor!

Editors are superheroes – at least according to a song by Samsa and Headhaunter. These are not musicians I had heard of until my 18-year-old son said: “Mom, you’ll love this song.”

I always listen to the music he plays me, and never say things like “you call that music? in my day rock and roll was good enough for us”. Avenues of communication and all that. I listen even when he plays me math rock, which I find deeply unsettling.

But he was right – I do like the song he played me – Superlative Heroes by the aforementioned Samsa and Headhaunter. It’s a complex and funny rap song on the joys of editing and writing, around the conceit of not being a conventional superhero, but rather being the kind who has powers like “laser vision page revision”.

Listen to it here:

And there’s a section of the lyrics (rather poorly rendered here) that spoke to me:

I’m not the type of vigilante who goes off avenging homicides
More the kind to just correct a comma splice
Constructive criticism super villain
Yes I’m honest when I prompt advice
But even when a novice writes I always leave my comments nice

These lines speak to me because they so neatly encapsulate the one “soft” skill that an editor needs: the ability to correct and change and cut someone’s precious work, while still being nice.

In addition to word processing programs and computers and PDF viewers (the things editors need that I have written about previously), people skills are paramount. I’ve written before about being a grammar cheerleader rather than a grammar scold. Yes, grammar needs to be correct, but there are ways to achieve that without hauling out a red pen.


There are different levels of editing in any given text – I would generally change grammar and spelling and formatting and punctuation without a qualm. But there are occasions where you aren’t sure what the author meant, or when a change you make might change the meaning. Then you are in the territory of the author query. This might be listed in an email, or contained in a comment on a Word or PDF document.

And it is the phrasing of that author query that is key.


The comment is never “What does this mean?” or “Clarify please”.

Rather it will say something like:
“I’m not sure I understand this correctly. I am wondering if this is clearer…” – and then insert your suggested rewording.

And this is more than just a tactical way of getting things done without making the author cross.

To quote a singer I have heard of this is all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

The way you communicate with an author should come from a genuine sense that you might be wrong, or that the person just needs a little help in getting to expressing what they wanted to say.

In other words – a genuine interest, a genuine expression of respect for the other person.

To me, this is the core of editing: a respect for the text and the person who wrote it.

If you have that, you are a long way down the road to being an editing ninja.

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Main photo: Yulia Matvienko on Unsplash

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