Whatever their level of competence, revisers can make only three types of alterations: delete, replace, and insert. Any of these should improve a piece, not detract from it.
Deletions involve removing whatever is unhelpful, whether superfluous words (June of 2022 becomes June 2022), redundancies (general consensus becomes consensus), undesirable repetitions (often resulting from inexpert phrasing), and even weak arguments. Yes, sometimes you need to delete whole sections. At the word level, though, you can’t delete willy-nilly, as ineffective editors often do: you must keep the prose within the mainstream of standard idiomatic English. Hence you’d never, for written prose, change a couple of people to a couple people.
Replacements involve changing legalisms to everyday words (vel non becomes or not), formalisms to down-to-earth language (we are in receipt of becomes we’ve received), and imprecise expressions to more accurate ones (cause of action becomes claim or right of action, or sometimes even case). To know the hundreds of usual replacements that professional editors routinely make, you must be familiar with a thorough dictionary of usage, such as Garner’s Modern English Usage (Oxford, 5th ed. 2022) or Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (Oxford, 3d ed. 2011). For example, the need to replace cause of action wouldn’t be known to someone unfamiliar with the literature on legal usage.
Insertions involve new words, sentences, and paragraphs supplied to clarify matters, as by immediately answering a question that would arise in the minds of reasonable readers—and inserting it so deftly that it doesn’t seem like something added. You must have a knack for knowing what clarifications are needed, without which readers would find the prose puzzling. Among the poor insertions that inept legal editors make are the kneejerk parenthetical (“Gribaldi”) after the first reference to Geraldine Gribaldi—when she’s the only Gribaldi anywhere in view. No conceivable reader would be puzzled by a follow-on reference to Gribaldi.
Bringing a piece of writing into pleasing proportions is a matter of amplifying some things and diminishing others. What are pleasing proportions? Saying just enough about each matter discussed, and no more.
On that point, we’ll conclude.
Next time: the difference between editing and proofing.