What is editing? It’s a cryptic question in some ways. It’s an abstract concept that can mean many things in different contexts. Often, it’s a term that’s qualified by using other words to describe the process more accurately, such as copy editing, content editing, and others. At its essence, however, it refers to a process of cleaning up, clarifying and overall improving a piece of writing in draft form.
Years ago, an acquaintance of mine gave me the following writing advice: ‘When you’re writing the first draft, think of it as the best, most amazing piece of writing ever conceived, and you’re the most brilliant writer ever to have walked the face of the earth. When you’re editing, however, think of the draft you’re editing as the worst, most vile piece of trash ever written. Then you make it better.’ I needed many years to take this advice to heart, because it sounded both unrealistic and cruel. How could I write a first draft and think it was the best thing ever? How could I be so heartless as to treat the editing process as fixing trash? As I began revising my first book, I finally understood the advice. It’s not that my draft was terrible, but rather that it needed a lot of work. There were spots where the prose was pedantic and slow. There were spots where it seemed juvenile. And there whole chapters that just didn’t fit the story I was trying to tell. I realised, when the work was in front of me, that being a ruthless editor would only benefit my story.
Many writers struggle with what is commonly known as writer’s block. I’ve come to understand that affliction as two distinct processes butting heads. Writing and editing are necessarily different acts. When writing, you must throw out your critical faculty and let yourself flow. If your grammar and spelling are bad, so be it! If you write too many run-on sentences, let them flow anyway. You don’t ever have to show anyone your first drafts.
Editing is where the rubber hits the road, and it can be even more arduous than drafting was. I sometimes call it the Very, Really, and Absolutely phase of a writing project, after those words we use when writing a draft, but which add little value to a finished piece. For example, how many times have you described someone or something as ‘very unique’? How often have you related to a friend the ‘really fun time’ you had on your holiday in Fiji? Or how about referring to last night’s meal at an expensive restaurant as ‘absolutely the best’ you’ve ever had? When you remove those empty words, and perhaps even use more evocative verbs to describe the events in question, your prose becomes more vibrant and more readable. Other times, good editing consists of paring down clunky phrases like ‘at this point in time’ and replacing those five words with ‘currently’ or even ‘now.’
Sometimes you even have to recast entire passages in another tense when editing a piece. I wrote half my first book in the past tense and then figured out that the story would be more immediate if I used the present tense. Oh no! That meant going through more than 50,000 words of a draft and rewriting the whole lot. In the process of doing that, I discovered other problems with the text, which I then proceeded to fix.
Make no mistake, writing and editing are often slow, mind wearying tasks. There are no muses or magical insights. No great piece of writing is automatic. If the goal is to write the best blog post, article, monograph or book, you owe it to yourself to spend at least as much time editing your work as you did drafting it. And then, if you’re writing a long form work, make sure you hire a professional editor. Your readers will thank you for the effort.