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“Writing offers us one of the rare chances in life at a do-over: to get it right and say what we meant this time. To the extent writers are able to appear any smarter or wittier than readers, it’s only because they’ve cheated by taking so much time to think up what they meant to say and refining it over days or weeks or, yes, even years, until they’ve said it as clearly and elegantly as they can.”
~ Tim Kreider, Essayist and Cartoonist
Good writing is the product of good editing. Working with a good editor is incredibly satisfying. A good editor takes your words and turns them into vehicles that convey your thoughts and ideas. A good editor takes what is clear to you and makes it clear and compelling to the reader. Here’s how you can capture some of that magic and become a better self-editor.
Understand that writing and editing are two distinct processes.
Editing is not writing.
Writing captures fresh thoughts, ideas, and expressions on the page. It is a process that results in several drafts. The first draft is written quickly and without referencing your notes. Its purpose is to get the ideas on the page so you have something to work with.
It’s a lot like a jigsaw puzzle.
You’ve got to get all the pieces on the table and right-side-up before you can find the edges and start putting together the picture.
Once the first draft is done, you start the rewriting process. You are no longer writing for yourself — now you’re writing for the reader.
This is when you clarify your ideas, add structure to the piece, and incorporate details from your research.
This is when your piece starts to take shape.
You may rewrite, rework, and refine your piece a few times before you feel like you’ve captured everything you want to share with the reader. Only after you complete that process are you ready to start editing your work.
Editing takes everything you’ve captured on the page and makes it clear and compelling to the reader.
But you can’t switch from writing to editing immediately.
Give your work room to breathe.
The more work you’ve put into a piece of writing, the more time you need to allow the piece to sit before you start editing.
When possible, let the piece sit overnight so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. If that isn’t possible, print the piece, close out of your word processing program, and take yourself for a walk. At the very least, make yourself a cup of tea and putter around the house for a bit.
Then you can come back to your work with a bit more perspective.
Embrace a systematic approach to editing.
There are two phases of the editing process: the developmental edit and the substantive edit.
Start with the big picture.
The developmental edit improves the structure and organization of a piece of writing. It focuses on the audience, clarifies the purpose of the piece, and makes sure it has a consistent tone and perspective.
Once the structure is sound, you can focus on the nitty-gritty details.
The substantive edit is the line-by-line edit that most people think of when we talk about editing. It includes grammar, punctuation, and spelling but goes deeper. It identifies and eliminates confusing, complicated, and wordy sentences that cause readers to tune out and move on to the next thing on their list.
Becoming a better editor helps you become a better writer. That, in turn, enables you to become a deeper thinker. In the next installment of this series, we’ll dive into the developmental edit, and I’ll give you a list of questions to ask that will strengthen the foundation of your work. In the final installment, we'll look a bit more closely at the substantive edit, and I'll give you a checklist to help you tighten up each sentence.