Elementary, My Dear Watson: the Editor as Detective

In a classic detective story, the intrepid investigator sets out to discover the true story behind an event—in literature, perhaps a murder or theft. But in editing, we’re trying to find the author’s compelling story and reconstruct it, as necessary, into a coherent whole that fits logically together and that is enlightening to the reader. (We also solve greater or lesser crimes against the English language.) Only by understanding the chain of events can the detective understand what led to a crime.

Jest notwithstanding, editors rarely solve actual crimes, but the process of editorial “detection” bears a surprising resemblance to solving a criminal case. In particular, three key ingredients must coincide before authors can commit a manuscript:

  • motive
  • opportunity
  • means

That is, the criminal must have a reason for investing the effort to commit a crime, since otherwise they would find it difficult to justify the effort. They must then have an opportunity to commit the crime because (by definition), it would not be possible to commit without an opportunity to do so. Finally, once they have become motivated to invest the effort and have an opportunity to do so, they must have the means (tools at hand) to commit the crime. By analogy, an author must have something to say, someone willing to listen to that message, and a way to communicate that message. In the rest of this article, I’ll provide a few thoughts on how editors can apply the detective’s art to editing.


Authors share one thing that unites them despite their widely disparate backgrounds, genres, and goals: they have a message they want to communicate, or a story they want to tell. Just as criminals don’t commit crimes of passion randomly, without cause, authors don’t commit their verbal crimes without a motive. As a detective, understanding the motives for a crime greatly narrows the list of potential suspects. As an editor, understanding the author’s motives helps us to identify the key factors required for them to successfully convey their message.

Any effort to understand an author’s motives begins with the question why? The effort may well continue with the other four W’s (Hart 1996), but understanding the why comes first, and defines the overall context for our editing strategy. Compare, for instance, the motives of fiction and risk communication: the fiction author’s motives may be to entertain or amuse the reader, whereas the risk communicator’s motive may be to scare the reader enough that they take action to avoid the risk, without being paralyzed by fear. (Perhaps that observation will inspire readers of this article to contemplate the merits of applying Stephen King’s methods to technical communication. I can imagine this would lead to more effective software warning messages…)

Understanding the why behind their message provides strong insights into the audience for whom they’ll be writing and their characteristics. That, in turn, leads us to consider the most appropriate medium and the constraints and opportunities it imposes (discussed under “Opportunity”), and the most suitable methods for conveying the message under those constraints (discussed under “Means”).


To commit a crime, the criminal needs a few moments alone with their victim or victims. To commit a message, an author needs an audience willing to listen and an opportunity to send them that message. Authors commonly assume that their audience comprises a group of people who resemble them, and as a result, forget that they inevitably know things the audience does not; were that not the case, there’d be no need for them to communicate the message, since the audience would already know it. However, in many cases, such as the case of subject-matter experts who are writing for an audience that does not resemble them, editors must understand the audience sufficiently well that they can predict the audience’s communication needs. In criminal investigations, the detective may round up and interview potential witnesses. The editorial equivalent would be rounding up (or at least characterizing) representative members of the audience. In technical editing, we call this audience analysis, and there’s a broad range of techniques we can use to obtain the necessary information. I’ve written extensively about this over the years (http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/bibliography.html#audience).

Audiences always impose certain constraints on the author, so a recurring editorial challenge is to clarify the audience’s needs to the author. Often, we do this through the levels of editing:

  • As developmental editors, we define those characteristics for the author when we describe the communication context and the constraints it creates
  • As substantive editors, we shape the communication in ways that accommodate those constraints
  • As copyeditors, we fine-tune the details to maximize the likelihood of communicating successfully.

All of these roles involve figuring out ways to bridge the gap between the author’s mind and the minds of their audience, something I’ve often referred to as an act of translation.

One key step in this process entails determining what the audience does not know but must learn before they can understand the message (not to mention things that they incorrectly think they know). Knowledge gaps represent obstacles to understanding that must be filled (e.g., by providing context and orientation, by providing defining key terminology) and incorrect preconceptions must be corrected. Another key step involves re-examining the manuscript’s structure to ensure that it removes these obstacles and fills these gaps by creating a logical, efficient sequence that starts with what the audience already knows and leads the reader to a new understanding.

A final aspect of opportunity involves identifying the optimal communication medium or media. Things were much easier for us when the only options were print and oral communication. Each medium had its own distinct requirements. For example, long and complex sentences that were perfectly acceptable in written communication were entirely inappropriate for oral communication. Thus, we needed to learn how to break down long and complex messages suitable for perusal at the reader’s leisure into a series of shorter ideas that could be absorbed while listening. (I’ve spent a lot of time doing this to speeches and presentations over the years. You’d be amazed at how many authors forget to try reading their presentation aloud, which is the best way to reveal excessively long sentences.) As our profession has evolved and expanded, we’ve carried that approach forward into forms of online communication such as context-sensitive help systems for software.

But the communications options have exploded, and each new option has its own complexities. Compare blogs (Web logs, primarily text but with considerable graphics capabilities) with vlogs (video blogs, mostly images) and podcasts (essentially, short radio programs with no visuals). Now compare traditional printed matter, including fixed-format text such as PDF files, with flexible-format text such as EPUB and hypertexts, in which readers control the information format or the sequence of access to information. Moreover, the modern context increasingly includes mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, which have very different requirements and very different usage environments from traditional devices (Hart 2015).

Different messages and different audience contexts require different solutions, and modern editors must be familiar with the range of solutions that exist before they can help authors to choose the optimal format.


The means of burglary are the tools of breaking and entering, and the means of murder is a weapon. Creating a killer communication requires only the gentler tactics of persuasion. Persuasion requires an understanding of the things that will bias an audience against listening with an open mind to what the author is saying—so you can help the author avoid these things—and an understanding of the things that will convince the audience to listen to and accept the author’s message—so you can help the author accomplish these things. The tools of persuasion include means of establishing a connection with the audience (i.e., an empathic connection), establishing that the author knows what they’re talking about (i.e., a logical connection based on the supporting facts), and a means for the audience to explore the message in a way that lets them prove to themselves that the message is both worth hearing and correct.

Empathic connections are subtle, but they begin with a demonstration that you understand the audience’s concerns. For example, in risk communication, acknowledging the audience’s fears provides validation of those fears and proof that you are listening with an open mind before you begin trying to send your own message. A logical argument, supported by clear examples and persuasive evidence, such as the literature citations I’ve embedded in this article, provide the logical connection. Additional forms of persuasion depend on the context, such as:

  • Providing reassurance in software documentation by starting with an overview of the context (so readers know what they’ll be doing and why)
  • Providing warnings and precautions (so readers approach the task well armed to succeed, or at least to avoid failure)
  • Offering encouragement (so readers are less worried they’ll fail)
  • Giving validation (so readers will know whether they’ve failed or succeeded, and what to do next in each case).

The sequence that results from these investigations provides an outline for a new (as yet unwritten) manuscript or a plan for revising the structure of an existing manuscript. In many cases, a predetermined structure determines that outline; I have discussed this previously in both general terms (Hart 2006), and in very specific terms, in the context of writing for science journals (Hart 2014). Developing a strong outline makes the writing process far more efficient for the author, but also greatly facilitates the task of designing an effective review and revision process and greatly improves its outcomes (Hart 2012).

And the murderer was…

messin around by Dawn Beattie on flickr.com… (hopefully) not the editor, which might be the case if we carried this detective metaphor too far and felt the need to take heroic measures to prevent the author from committing further manuscripts. Though the metaphor provides some interesting insights, you shouldn’t extend it too far. In particular, there’s much more we must do once we’ve established the motive, opportunity, and means.

Importantly, we must understand the genre in which the author is writing. Although both fiction and nonfiction require a logical or causal sequence of events, that sequence must only be plausible in fiction, but must actually be true in non-fiction. Truth places an additional burden on the editor, namely fact-checking. Because truth also implies a certain completeness and logic, we may also need to find ways to ensure that each of the steps in the sequence is presented in the most effective order. For example, a technical editor may need to compare a sequence of software instructions with the actual sequence required by software and ensure that the sequence produces the result described by the author. An editor who lacks the expertise to perform such a review may need to enlist suitable subject-matter experts to peer-review the instructions.

Like a detective working with a criminal, we may occasionally need to be forceful with our authors, but we should never step too far outside the law. Here, the law is that it’s their manuscript, not ours, and that while we should rigorously interrogate it until the truth emerges, we should cause it no lasting harm. The perfect crime is one that goes unsolved because the criminal was too clever for the detective; the perfect manuscript is one that requires no detective work on the part of the reader because it efficiently communicates the correct message to the desired audience, with as little room for misinterpretation as possible.

If you enjoy mystery stories, considering editing as a form of detection should give you some interesting insights into the editing process.


Hart, G.J. 1996. The five W’s: an old tool for the new task of audience analysis. Technical Communication 43(2):139–145. http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/1995-1998/five-w.htm

Hart, G. 2006. Effective outlining: designing workable blueprints for writing.  Intercom September/October 2006:18–19. http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2006/outlining.htm

Hart, G. 2012. Reimagining the review and revision process by challenging old assumptions. Intercom February:22–27. http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2012/kaizen-long-version.html

Hart, G. 2014. Writing for Science Journals: Tips, Tricks, and a Learning Plan. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec. http://www.geoff-hart.com/books/journals/journal-book.htm

Hart, G. 2015. Optimizing the mobile Web-browsing experience through responsive design. (originally published on techwhirl.com) http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2015/optimizing.html

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