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This is the second part of a series where I discuss the writing process from the perspective of a specialist blogger. In the last installment, I looked at choosing topics and how a lot of the standard blogging advice can be difficult to follow if you’re writing about more specialized topics. Today, I'll be talking about one of the unsung heroes of the writing process: editing.
Who am I?
My name is Jason Loch and I’ve been writing professionally since 2010. In the first part of the 2010s, I did some freelance journalism, and since 2014, I have written a blog about the British constitution called A Venerable Puzzle. I’ve also been editing others’ work since my days on the high school newspaper.
Why is editing important?
Non-writers often assume that editing and proofreading are synonymous, but that’s not the case. Proofreading focuses on catching typos and fixing grammatical mistakes. Editing, on the other hand, involves a deep dive into your work that looks at things like structure, pacing, voice, clarity, and style.
The editor’s job tends to be an underappreciated part of the creative process. Non-writers often assume that Good Writers™ produce masterpieces on the first draft, but it’s not quite that simple, unfortunately. On the contrary, even veteran writers often say that their initial drafts are horrible. And that’s to be expected. When you’re actively writing, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Editing can also feel like something of a buzzkill, especially if you’ve written something you’re particularly proud of. After pouring your creativity into a project, it’s only natural that you’d be eager to share it with the world as soon as possible. But things posted in haste often come back to haunt us.
Editing is a multi-step process
You’re not going to be publishing your work the moment you finish your first draft. You still have to edit your work, so don’t worry too much about wordsmithing when you’re still fleshing out your prose. First drafts are a safe space where you can find out what works. Novice writers sometimes spend so much time agonizing over word choice that it saps their momentum and they never actually finish the piece. There’s a time for polishing your prose, but it’s not your first draft.
Distance is key
Familiarity is the biggest obstacle to successfully editing your own work. Editing requires you to view your work through a critical lens, and that’s not easy to do. It’s not just a question of sentiment. Because you know the material so well, your mind is liable to fill in gaps and make you see things that aren’t actually on the page. And since you know what it took to get those words onto the page, it can be easy to assume that you’ve done the best job you could possibly do.
The easiest way to get yourself in the right headspace is to walk away from your work for a while before you start editing. There’s no surefire formula for figuring out how long to wait, but in my experience, the longer the interval between writing and editing, the easier it becomes to view my work critically.
For example, I’ve been working on a piece about the appointment of bishops in pre-Reformation England. When I reached the end of my initial draft, I felt pretty confident about the way I’d structured the piece. It was only when I revisited the project later that I realized that I needed to reformat my introduction and move some bits around. But don’t worry if you can’t afford to put a project away for an extended period of time. Even a delay of a few hours is better than no delay at all.
Other viewpoints help
Another way to combat familiarity is by getting input from trusted outsiders. They needn’t be editors or writers; they don’t even need to know your subject matter at all. All you’re asking them to do is tell you whether the piece makes sense and if it accomplishes whatever goals you set for it.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing a piece about the royal prerogative in the United Kingdom. The main thing you want your readers to understand is that “the royal prerogative” isn’t just a fancy term for “things the King does;” it refers to a specific subset of powers and privileges that are derived from common law rather than statute law. When you ask your outside readers to look over the piece, you could ask them to explain the royal prerogative in their own words once they’ve finished reading.
While you don’t need to turn to fellow subject-matter experts or professional writers for this kind of feedback, you do want to make sure you’re getting input from people whose opinion you trust.
It can be helpful to get feedback from different sources. Just because one other person totally gets the argument you’re making, it doesn’t automatically mean that everyone else in the world is going to get it, too. But there is such a thing as too much feedback, and not all feedback is created equal. If you aren’t careful, you can find yourself being pulled in all sorts of different directions, which can leave you feeling paralyzed.
Common mistakes to watch out for
Once you’re ready to put on your editor’s hat, here are some things to watch out for:
- Awkward writing. Good writing is more than just stringing the right words together; you need to do it in a way that’s harmonious. It’s also important to avoid unfortunate implications. When I was in high school, I wrote a paper about church/state relations in the Byzantine Empire in which I mentioned that a certain Patriarch of Constantinople “bounced back under” a certain Emperor. When my mother looked over the paper, she pointed out that my phrasing could have…carnal…overtones; I rewrote it. Awkward writing can be difficult to pick up by just reading through your work. If you’re having a hard time with it, you might consider reading your work aloud. I’ve found that to be a great way to find awkward patches–if something sounds clunky, it’s probably a good idea to fix it.
- Repetition. A classic piece of writing advice suggests that you should “murder your darlings.” We all have our favorite words and phrases that tend to crop up again and again in our writing. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it’s usually better to aim for variety whenever possible.
- Excessive detail. When you’re really excited about something that you’re writing, it’s easy to go overboard with the details. This is particularly true if, like me, you’re primarily writing to educate. But your readers probably don’t need you to explain every single facet of a topic–after all, simplicity is one of the hallmarks of authoritative content. Instead, you’d be better off focusing on the most salient points. It’s often better to break your work up into smaller bits rather than presenting your readers with an enormous wall of text.
- Mechanical issues. Misspellings, homophone issues, and punctuation mistakes might seem like tiny details, but they can really undermine your credibility if you aren’t careful. If your readers see that you can’t be bothered to get the little things right, they may question whether you can be trusted with the big things. Just as reading your work out loud can help you spot clunky prose, reading your work in hard copy can help you pick up on these little infelicities.
Wrapping things up
Editing can be one of the most stressful parts of the writing process. But that doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore it. Editing is what transforms good prose into great prose. However, it’s important to do it properly. If possible, put your project aside for a while to help you revisit it with a critical eye. Get feedback from people you trust. Be on the lookout for common issues like stilted prose, repetition, or excessive detail. By taking the time to edit properly, you stand a better chance of producing the kind of content that won’t make you cringe in a few years’ time.
Next time, I'll be talking about research and how it can help you tell your story.