In his classic work The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists, acclaimed editor Arthur Plotnik writes an incredibly helpful and practical guide for aspiring editors or other positions in the publishing industry. It is by now, over three decades later, dated in some important aspects. These areas deal primarily with technology, media delivery, and some now-dated relational dynamics at work on an editorial team.
There are other aspects in which his advice has endured and which reveals his aptitude as an editor. In his chapter titled, “Editor and Writer: An Uneasy Alliance” he offers three criteria by which to judge a manuscript. These elements apply just as well to online content, including the more relaxed medium of a blog. And of course, since most published content these days doesn’t require ink and paper, one may be more charitable in how strictly you judge a work. Nonetheless, the principles that inform your readers’ reception apply just as much, even not more, to internet content consumption over against traditional publishing.
By memorizing these criteria and using them in formal ways to edit manuscripts or articles, you’ll develop a working vocabulary with which you can communicate effectively with your clients.
The maxim is true—content is king. It’s what will keep readers coming back for more and investing in your work with their buying power. Within this criterion, Plotnik offers four further specifications for judging: 1. Information 2. Analysis and Interpretation 3. Balance 4. Originality.
This aspect refers specifically to the grammar and style of a piece. Three further specifications are outlined: 1. Appeal 2. Concreteness and Clarity 3. Color and tone. If you present the same thesis in two different works, and embellish one with better style, one will definitely stand out to the reader. For more on this, see the helpful but controversial Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White.
One last aspect by which you can judge a work’s merit is its impact. Is the argument made with: 1. Enlightenment 2. Force 3. Relevance? Another way of putting this is by asking if the work is compelling, and will it stand the test of time? An work’s lasting impact is one of the greatest measures of literature, and it is sheerly amazing but absolutely possible to read works of literature that are thousands of years old and yet still resonate with modern readers. Only writers that understand the human condition are able to pull this off.