Editing in a think tank: a challenge and a way out

23 September 2016

Editing involves performing checks and corrections of various aspects of a document, ranging from grammar and spelling, construction, typography, readability, factual accuracy, etc., to taking a more detailed approach by restructuring content for a coherent logical flow. In other words, editing enriches the final deliverable for a lasting impact on the target audience.

Editors in think tanks: the next big thing in think tank communications.

In the context of policy research/impact, the role of editing evidently therefore assumes a lot of importance. Policy research aims to influence an existing policy scenario by enriching it with scientific analysis and technological innovation. This involves persuading central, state, private agencies, etc., who have multilateral agendas for achieving ambitious targets in overlapping time frames and, hence, are sometimes unable to make a significant time commitment to reading and understanding written deliverables of varied lengths. In this context, the role of a think tank becomes important. Often they need to simplify useful research output which could be technical and, hence, a round of diligent editing is pertinent. In fact, the goals of both the author(s) and editor(s) become identical at this point, which means both have to understand the purpose of a document and also the role of the target audience/reader.

Challenges for an editor and a way out

Possibly the greatest challenge for an Editor is to explain the rationale behind every correctional edit that is made to a document. In a research scenario, this means to be doing a rather difficult tightrope walk of explaining the Editor perspective while maintaining harmony with the authors’ viewpoint. While some authors may be appreciative of the Editor’s approach, others might not be equally amenable to such symbiosis. In such times, it is important that the Editor assume a neutral stance and be rationally appreciative of, but not blindly accept, the author’s perspective.

An example in this context is the varied approach of Editor(s) and author(s) towards the use of jargon. While they may be allowed in reports and journal articles which are mostly meant for domain experts, scholars, etc., documents meant largely for public outreach such as press releases, blog posts are preferred jargon-free for easy understanding by a non-technical audience as well. While editing a document, an Editor should, therefore, consider this difference. The challenge, however, is to convince the author of this rationale. A deadlock could be averted by the Editor being a good listener first to understand the author’s perspective. Following this, to address the author’s viewpoint in a stepwise manner and offer suggestions that are implementable yet do not violate the authors’ priority.

Documents authored by researchers in Think Tanks are founded on hard evidence, industry expertise and scholarly literature. While editing these documents, the Editor must understand, and not be too openly critical of, the authors’ viewpoints. This opens the possibility to add value to the deliverable through discussion and informed feedback.

Providing feedback

Every published document goes through a life cycle before it is made live for the end audience. Feedback is an indispensable part of this cycle. Editors use feedback when they are unsure of the meaning of a text, enforce a required change or suggest possible changes. This is usually done with the help of comments. The ideal way to phrase feedback is to keep them “short and sweet”, and, importantly, pertinent to the context.

Editors don the hat of a reader and through close scrutiny help authors to produce documents that create the desired impact by being understandable and accurate. The end-to-end process of feedback contributes to the final deliverable through the incorporation of the informed opinions of both the author and Editor (or the reader), making the document truly complete.

Being an Editor often requires strategising how best to inform authors about inconsistencies in a written piece. These could involve:

  • Major omissions in a text
  • Incomprehensible or poorly written portions
  • Proofing language.

Such issues, and more, can mostly be resolved by understanding each other’s role in each stage of the process.

Lessons Learnt


In the end, both authors and Editors constitute the foundation for the quality of a written document. While the former produce original content, the latter enhance it from the reader’s perspective. In a think tank scenario, where policy impact is imperative, a balanced combination of an Editor and an author makes for a lasting impact through deliverables that are not only technically sound, but also logically structured and firmly rooted in the principles of writing and communication: after all that is what the aim is precisely—communicate and inform.

Editing is helping:

  • Authors write clearly so that readers see the ideas and not the words
  • Editors identify scopes for improvement

Most important, editing is not only grammar and spellcheck which are tools of the trade.