Editing

Editing your Writing

Writing is hard, but don’t overlook the difficulty — and the importance — of editing your work before letting others (or us!) see it.

The secret to good writing is good editing. It’s what separates hastily written, randomly punctuated, incoherent rants from learned polemics and op-eds, and cringe-worthy fan fiction from a critically acclaimed novel.

If you think you need the services of a professional and experienced editor for your work get in touch and we will do our best to help you.

It doesn’t matter how good you think you are as a writer — the first words you put on the page are a first draft. Writing is thinking: It’s rare that you’ll know exactly what you’re going to say before you say it. At the end, you need, at the very least, to go back through the draft, tidy everything up and make sure the introduction you wrote at the start matches what you eventually said.

The time you put into editing, reworking and refining turns your first draft into a second — and then into a third and, if you keep at it, eventually something great. The biggest mistake you can make as a writer is to assume that what you wrote the first time through was good enough.

Common errors

Most writing mistakes are depressingly common; good writers just get better at catching them before they hit the page. Some of the things to watch for are:

  • Overuse of jargon and business speak. Horrible jargon like “utilise,” “endeavor” or “communicate” — instead of “use,” “try” or “chat” — creep in when people are trying to sound smart. All this sort of writing does is obscure the point you want to make behind false intellectualism. As Orwell said, “Never use a long word when a short one will do.”
  • Clichés. If you’re not sure whether something is a cliché, it’s better to just avoid it. Clichés are stale phrases that have lost their impact and novelty through overuse. At some point, “The grass is always greener on the other side” was a witty observation, but it’s a cliché now. Again, Orwell said it well: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
  • The passive voice. In most cases, the subject of the sentence should be the person or thing taking action, not the thing being acted on. For example, “This article was written by George” is written in the passive voice because the subject (“this article”) is the thing being acted on. The equivalent active construction would be: “George wrote this article.” Prose written in the passive voice tends to have an aloofness and passivity to it, which is why it’s generally better to write an active sentence.
  • Rambling. When you’re not quite sure what you want to say, it’s easy to ramble around a point, phrasing it in three or four different ways and then, instead of cutting them down to a single concise sentence, slapping all four together into a clunky, unclear paragraph. A single direct sentence is almost always better than four that tease around a point.

When you write something, you get very close to it. It’s almost impossible to have the distance to edit properly straight away. Instead, you need to step away and come back later with fresh eyes. The longer you can leave a draft before editing it, the better. For most things somewhere from half an hour to two days is enough of a break that you can then edit well.

And when you sit down to edit, read your work out loud. By forcing yourself to speak the words, rather than just scanning them on a computer screen, you’ll catch more problems and get a better feel for how everything flows. If you stumble over something, your reader will probably stumble over it, too. Some writers even print out their drafts and make edits with a pen while they read them aloud.

Overwriting is a bigger problem than underwriting. It’s much more likely you’ve written too much than too little. It’s a lot easier to throw words at a problem than to take the time to find the right ones. As Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century writer and scientist wrote in a letter, “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”

The rule for most writers is, “If in doubt, cut it.” Novelist Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch exhorted a version of the oft-repeated phrase, “In writing you must kill all your darlings.” This is true at every level: If a word isn’t necessary in a sentence, cut it; if a sentence isn’t necessary in a paragraph, cut it; and if a paragraph isn’t necessary, cut it, too.

Go through what you’ve written and look for the bits you can cut without affecting the whole — and cut them. It will tighten the work and make everything you’re trying to say clearer.

The beginning of anything you write is the most important part. If you can’t catch someone’s attention at the start, you won’t have a chance to hold it later. You should spend a disproportionate amount of time working on the first few sentences, paragraphs or pages. A lot of problems that can be glossed over in the middle are your undoing at the start.

The structure is what your writing hangs on. It doesn’t matter how perfectly the individual sentences are phrased if the whole thing is a nonsensical mess. A series of long, unrelenting paragraphs will discourage people from reading.

For novels, structure is something you’ll need to put a lot of work into. Stream of consciousness writing rarely reads well. Narratives need to flow and arguments need to build. You have to think about what you’re trying to say in each chapter, section or paragraph, and consider whether it’s working — or if that part would be better placed elsewhere. It’s normal (and even desirable) that the structure of your work will change drastically between drafts; it’s a sign that you’re developing the piece as a whole, rather than just fixing the small problems.

A lot of the time when something you’ve written “just doesn’t work” for people, the structure is to blame. They might not be able to put the problems into words, but they can feel something’s off.

While you might not have access to an editor, there are services that can help.

Grammarly is a writing assistant that flags common writing, spelling and grammatical errors; it’s great for catching simple mistakes and cleaning up drafts of your work. A good thesaurus (or even Thesaurus.com) is also essential for finding just the right word. And don’t neglect a second pair of eyes: Ask relatives and friends to read over your work. They might catch some things you missed and can tell you when something is amiss.

Editing your work is at least as important as writing it in the first place. The tweaking, revisiting and revising is what takes something that could be good — and makes it good. Don’t neglect it.

This article is adapted from and hat tip to Harry Guinness. NYTimes

If you think you need the services of a professional and experienced editor for your work get in touch and we will do our best to help you.

Posted in Publishing Notes.