Let’s talk about editing.
There are few things that may come to mind when hearing the term “editing.” The first, if you’re anything like me, is likely to do with the business side of writing — you might think of a Perry White or J. Jonah Jameson figure sitting with a cigar and a scotch in an office marked “Editor-in-Chief” while people rush about putting a daily paper together. This figure probably yells a lot.
The second thing you might think of is going through your own work to make changes and cuts, or to fix spelling and grammar errors (which is actually proofreading, only a small part of editing). This is, of course, a very important step in the writing process, and I’ve said before that it’s one of the reasons I prefer to write by hand first. Catching errors and making changes to strengthen your piece is almost as important as writing the piece in the first place.
But I’m here to talk about a third kind of editing.
Unless you’re a writer or in some way part of the publishing industry, you might not think immediately of editing as someone else looking at your work to find errors and suggest ways to make the piece stronger. It may actually be the most important type of editing — which, of course, is why I’m talking to you about it.
I mean, that should have been obvious; do I ever write about anything that’s not important?
You might be wondering, “Why is it important to show people unfinished or unpolished work just so they can tell you it’s terrible?” But the thing people — both writers and readers — don’t always realize is that the point of editing isn’t to tear down a piece. In fact, if all you’re getting is negativity, you probably have a pretty bad editor — even the worst writing is bound to have some upside. A good editor will point out flaws as well as strengths, and will suggest ways to make your work better, rather than just saying it’s terrible. Can it be hard to accept critique on work you’ve slaved over and love? Of course. I’ve been writing for most of my life, and I still have trouble with that sometimes. But even though it’s not easy, it’s a critical step in improving your work. In fact, unless your reader is just insulting you or your work, it’s probably better when you don’t like it.
Writers, like any other artists, are known for being overly critical about their own work, sometimes even to the point of hating it. I’m sure most of us by now have heard the story that Stephen King threw out the manuscript for Carrie, and it was only because of his wife salvaging and reading it that he got it published and became the foremost horror writer in recent history. But writers also have a tendency to get attached to things that might actually be weakening their work. An unecessarily flowery description, perhaps, or a scene that doesn’t add anything to the story. To be blunt, writers have a habit of getting to close to their work and completely missing what’s good and what needs to be cut. We aren’t always a very intelligent or objective bunch.
The most famous quote about how to clean up your work is “Kill your darlings,” coined originally as “Murder your darlings” by the writer Arthur Quiller-Couch in hist 1913 book On the Art of Writing; but most of us have heard it attributed to Allen Ginsberg, of course. It means that just because you love something doesn’t mean it needs to be kept in your work. And often the things we love so much are detrimental to the piece.
That’s why you need a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) set of eyes.
Another reader will be able to look at your work from a hopefully unbiased point of view. Which means that whatever they do and don’t like won’t be because they have some connection to it, but because they have an actual opinion about it, as a reader. I mean, assuming they’re being honest. If they’re lying, they aren’t very good editors. Which is why it’s a good idea to have more than one, of course, because you can get more feedback to work with and gauge what really should be fixed, and what changes might just be optional. The more more editors you have, the stronger your work will be, ultimately.
Of course, I say all this, but I’m actually really bad at seeking editorial feedback. Which is why, despite all I just talked about up there, I really want to talk about providing that feedback, rather than dwelling on receiving it.
Of late, editing has actually been one of my favorite writing-related activities. First off, it’s fun, even though it can be pretty time-consuming. You get to read something new, and then you get to talk about it on a really, really deep level. Which, as a writer, I can tell you is very gratifying. Secondly, you get to improve your own writing, even though you aren’t even dealing with it.
I promise, that’s not my primary concern with editing; I’m not that selfish.
As far as the first point goes, you might be surprised by just how far in-depth editing can go. It’s not just a matter of saying “This is spelled wrong,” or “That’s a run-on sentence.” And it goes even further than looking for continuity errors. A good editor will go down to the very smallest details. I’m talking “small” on the level of word choice and even punctuation. I’ve talked before about our (as in the blog staff’s) friend Rob Whitaker and his Midnight Murder Party project (actually, I’ve talked about it twice), but, of course, as a writer, he has plenty of other pieces. Some of which I’ve helped edit. And he will confirm that we have spent, quite literally, hours debating words, grammar, and even comma placement.
I almost wish I were joking.
But that’s the kind of attention to detail you need to have when editing (ok, maybe not necessarily as much as we have, but, you know). If all of your feedback is just about spelling errors and vague remarks about what you like and dislike, you’re only being minimally helpful. Sure, you’ll help clean up some typos, but other than that, you aren’t really doing a whole lot.
Saying “I like this” to an author for whom you’re editing does approximately nothing. Telling a writer why you feel a certain way, that’s what really helps. “This word choice is good, and helps do this,” and “This passage needs to be reworked because of x, y, and z,” and “This sentence doesn’t add anything” are all useful comments. They give us an idea of what works and what doesn’t work. The best comments you can give not only say why you feel a certain way, but also give suggestions on how to fix things.
I don’t mean to say a compliment is a bad thing, but in the context of editing it’s just a thing that feels good, and not a thing that can really provide a usable amount of feedback. You might be motivated to write more because you know that people like it, but you won’t get a feel of how to improve. It’s good but in a different way.
And then you spend hours on Google Hangouts agonizing over tiny, tiny details. I am seriously both proud and terrified that that’s a regular thing. So I’m probably going to keep mentioning it. Bear with me.
So, now that we’ve covered the first point, let’s talk about the second. In case you forgot, the second point was that editing can improve your own writing. Some of you probably already understand this point, and maybe you’ve experienced it yourself. But the rest of you are probably wondering how working on another person’s writing can affect your own.
See, here’s the thing. When you look so closely at someone’s work and start making suggestions, you begin to see how things you would do are different from what someone else would do. Whether or not they use your ideas is irrelevant here. The simple act of making the suggestions will reinforce and develop your own writing style. On top of that, you can get a feel for the kinds of things that do and don’t work in a piece. All of this works together to make you a better writer. The amount of attention you pay to another person’s work will cause you to end up noticing a lot of things in your work that you might not have noticed before. I frequently find myself immediately revising sentences I just laid down, or, at the very least, leaving myself very visible notes in the margins about what I need to fix later. That’s usually done when I have too much I need to get down on the page and can’t waste the time fixing things when there’s work to be done.
And aside from making you aware of your style and what effective writing is and isn’t, you’ll also pick up a lot of grammar tips. When you’re editing, you’ll notice things like run-on sentences and misplaced modifiers. You’ll notice when and where things like commas, semi-colons, parentheses, and em-dashes are needed, or where they can impact the tone and pacing of a sentence. Eagle-eyed readers have probably noticed how much I use all four of those, and just scrolling up on this post alone will display my proclivity toward punctuation, so if you haven’t noticed it, you can look up there and take a look. I’m sure that somewhere I must have used all of them in a single sentence.
I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.
I think that the most important thing to keep in mind, whether you’re the editor or the… editee, I suppose, is that editing is about feedback. Proofreading is a part of that, sure, but just about anyone can look for spelling errors and basic grammar mistakes. And criticism is definitely not a part of the process. Remember, there’s a difference between critique and criticism, or at least I draw a distinction there. The former is constructive and promotes growth and discussion. The latter is not; it focuses on pointing out flaws and, occasionally, strengths, without offering a way to fix or expand them. You find criticism in a review, or maybe an academic article dissecting a work. Editing is about building something up, not breaking it down and analyzing everything to parse out flaws.
I know that all sounds very contradictory given how I just talked about looking at everything in minute detail when you’re editing, but trust me, there’s a difference between breaking down a piece to make it stronger and breaking it down for the sake of talking about flaws without the end goal of improving them. Also, criticism is often associated with completed and released works, which means it isn’t even in a position to help anyone.
I’ve been going on about this for almost two thousand words now, and I guess you’re waiting for me to wrap up and just get to the point. So I’ll distill this all down to a few basic ideas.
- When editing, look at things closely with the intent of improving the piece, rather than finding flaws and offering no way to fix them.
- Editing will improve your writing by teaching you to look closely and objectively at things, as well as showing you what does and doesn’t work.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for and offer help, and don’t get upset or take comments personally. Sometimes the things that upset us are ultimately the things that make a piece better, and they should be looked at and taken into account, no matter how hard it might be to cut things.
And I guess that’s about all I’ve got. I probably could have had someone edit this post, but honestly I’d rather save my readers’ talents and time for my real wor- I mean, my fiction, of course this is real work…
Look, I don’t have to justify myself to you, ok?!
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