The context is a technical document that is written by one person and then sent out for review by others. The reviewers change word tense, change from active to passive voice, and make other style changes. Is that a valid job for an editor, or am I reacting correctly when I claim that is completely unprofessional?

I thought that an editor should fix spelling errors and very minor grammatical errors, and simply points out other errors so the author can fix them. That way the style, good or bad, of the original author is preserved. Is it appropriate for a reviewer to change the style as well?

  • 5
    Perhaps it's best to tackle this by calling them reviewers, and pointing out that they're not editors.
    – MGOwen
    Commented Dec 2, 2010 at 1:56

6 Answers 6


While I can't be sure of your exact context, the things you've listed seem entirely reasonable activities for the role of "editor" (in a general case). Whether or not it's appropriate for the role of "reviewer" depends on what powers a reviewer has in your organisation. (Keeping this in mind, I'll answer in terms of how I see the role of "editor", since it sounds like that's what your reviewers are actually doing).

An editor may make anything from major structural and/or content changes down to fixing typos and grammar. Usually I would expect these to be in the form of suggestions, rather than outright changes that you (as the original author) have no control over. Is it the changes themselves that are the problem, or perhaps the way those changes are made that is annoying you?

Ideally an editor is going to maintain both the style and intent of the original author, assuming these are appropriate for the target audience. In fiction you probably wouldn't want an editor changing your "style" (because the style is often part of the art), but in technical writing you want the style to be clear, concise and standardised (basically, to not get in the way of the reader's understanding).

If changing from passive to active voice removes words and makes something clearer, that can only be a good thing. Changing word tense would be reasonable to ensure the consistency of tense throughout the document. If an editor changes a word's tense and it is then inconsistent with the rest of the document, I would feel entitled to ignore/revert that change altogether.

If you think the editor's suggestions make things worse, you could either ignore the suggestion, go back to the editor to plead your case (negotiate), or accept it (if the editor is the "boss" and won't negoatiate anyway).

At the end of the day, if something is published with your name on it, you need to be happy with the finished product. If your editors aren't helping make things better, it may indicate problems beyond the technical changes they're making, but higher-level problems such as agreeing on who the target audience is, or whether they're competent editors in the first place.

As a final note, this may be an opportunity for you to develop a style guide for technical documentation in your organisation (if you don't have one). As long as you get everyone to agree to it, you can point at it for any "edits" you don't like. ;)

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    Note that I said the piece was changed from active to passive voice, not passive to active, which would be an improvement. So the problem is not that an editing process is inappropriate, but that the reviewers think they are editors and think they can write -- both of which are incorrect. Commented Dec 1, 2010 at 16:27
  • @thursdaysgeek: Sorry, I think I misread that point in your question. As far as the editors vs reviewer thing goes, if I'm asked to "review" something, in my experience I'm generally expected to be editing the document for its accuracy, appropriateness and potentially its structure, in addition to typos/grammar.
    – Ash
    Commented Dec 2, 2010 at 8:18

I am a professional editor as well as writer. As other say: It depends. Mostly it's an issue of expectations, since "reviewer" can mean anything from "someone who will admire me whether or not I deserve it" to copy editor (the role wherein the editor is checking for accuracy of spelling, grammar, and -- these days -- URLs) to line editor or development editor (responsible for the article overall, not just the words used).

The "right" answer is a matter of what each of you expect from the other. If you thought someone would make suggestions in the margins (so to speak) using Word's comments feature, or perhaps just an overall evaluation, then I can imagine that you'd be dismayed that they changed the text (for good or ill, though in my experience I've learned that writers often don't recognize you changed anything when they agree with the improvements). Ideally the changes are made in a "revision marking" way so the author can accept or reject them, or at least you can see what terrible things were done to your perfect prose before they're published. In the real world (at least in news-centric journalism) that doesn't always happen, which is one reason that one should choose an editor carefully (which sometimes means, "Get hired by the right person") and establish the ground rules.


I've had editors do everything from just say, "it looks great as-is" to heavy-handed edits that moved sections around with tweaks to nearly every word.

Part of this is the difference between copy editing (e.g., spelling, grammar, punctuation) and development editing (e.g., content, style, format).

It all depends.

You don't say whether this project is short or long form, and whether it is freelance or in-house—those can make a difference as well.

About all I can suggest is that you learn to love (and use) the word stet.

  • "Development editing" sounds like a relative of what I call "line editing", where an editor is going through the text line-by-line and making major changes and suggestions. Commented Dec 1, 2010 at 6:03
  • @neilfein - I haven't been able to find one definition that everyone agrees on. For instance, see here, here, here, and here for some different takes on line vs. development editing.
    – Dori
    Commented Dec 1, 2010 at 6:17
  • This is one reason it can be hard to explain what an editor actually does: the vocabulary is ill-formed and there's no standard. How ironic! Commented Dec 2, 2010 at 18:29
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    @neilfein: Line editing (and manuscript editing) describe an activity, copy/developmental editing describe editorial roles. Developmental editing is done to manuscripts that are not what one would usually call ready for publication: an author's agent might do this. Copy-editing is the editing a publisher does to a submitted manuscript to get the text ready for the typesetter. Anything that a developmental editor might do to a text, a copy-editor might do as well. Note that style manuals like Chicago don't have much to say about copy/developmental editing, cf. Chicago #16, 2.45. Commented Dec 7, 2010 at 10:57

It's important to bear in mind that all changes made by an editor are suggestions meant to help you. The editor (at least, not the kind of editor we're talking about here) is not your boss. They are finding (what they perceive to be) problems with your writing and, in many cases, providing a sample way in which you might fix it. Sometimes an editor will completely misread something and find the wrong or even a non-existent problem. It happens. Editors are humans, not gods. As the writer, the final piece is always your responsibility, so it is left to your discretion how to handle each edit.

So, to answer your question, how much help would you rather an editor provide? A little? Or a lot? And why would you be offended when someone provides more help than you were expecting?

Of course, additional edits may be necessary at the publication stage (for example, to fit allotted space or to make a particular line hyphenate more nicely), and these will be made without your consent, but they will usually be quite minor.

If an editor (the other kind of editor, one who is responsible for acquiring materials for publication) won't buy your piece without certain changes, that is a somewhat different matter, assuming you want him or her to buy your piece. These will usually be a more general nature, however: more support is needed for this point; your conclusion isn't working. If you disagree, perhaps you would rather withdraw it and send it elsewhere; the final say is still yours.


There are different kinds of editing. Proofreading is traditionally the last check of a text that has been prepared by typesetters, where it is assumed that the text is pretty much ready for publication. Then it is a matter of "fix spelling errors and very minor grammatical errors", but calling attention to the author of wider difficulties is entirely inappropriate. This is because time is usually very tight, because the publishers has a deadline, and large fixes cause costly work for the typesetter.

With editing before that stage, generally called copy-editing or developmental editing, bigger changes to the text are appropriate, and discussion with the author becomes useful.

Reviewers generally aren't given the source of the texts they review, and aren't invited to make changes to the text, although some do. Their job is to comment on whether a text is worth publishing.

It's generally good for an editor to jump in and fix problems, rather than point out their existence because (i) editors can usually fix the problem faster than the author, and (ii) the author can judge whether the fixed version is better than the original. If you don't think an edit improves the text, you should do as Dori says and say "stet". With my clients, I will add notes to edits where I think it might not be obvious to the author why the edit improves the text. If there is time, I like to discuss changes with the author. But there often is not.

  • +1 for pointing out the time crunch that faces most editors, which is why it's more efficient for them to make immediate changes to the text with a comment to the author.
    – Sky Red
    Commented Feb 24, 2011 at 16:38

For technical documentation JPL has actually defined "The Levels of edit". There are nine in all. Well worth reading: www.technical-expressions.com/learn2edit/levels-of-edit/levels_of_edit.pdf

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