What is Editing?
Does this seem like an obvious question? Of course the answer is simple, right? Editing is the process of taking a piece of writing and making it better . . . isn’t it? Although the word editing immediately conjures up words like grammar, spelling, and punctuation; here are a few other things that editing entails that might not immediately spring to mind:
- Perfecting a document’s tone and mood (for example, to make a document sound more professional, or less formal.)
- Formatting a document to fit a specified word length or typographic space.
- Ensuring a document is appropriate for a perceived audience.
- Verifying a document’s claims are true.
Audience and Purpose
As promised, this post is mainly about self-editing, but I’ve begun with the question “Why Edit?” because I think this is the first question with which every self-editor should start: “Why am I editing this document?” Along with that question come tangential questions like, “Who is my audience?” and “What is my purpose?”Once a reader has a clear sense of who they’re writing to and the reason they’re writing, they can establish a methodological approach for self-editing.
So, for example, I won’t edit this blog post as closely as I would edit a printer’s proof that will be sent out for a $70,000 job. If I make a spelling or grammar mistake in this blog post, likely a friend will remind to fix it, or a reader will make some type of quick judgment about my writing abilities. But if I miss an error on an expensive print job . . . well that could make me look really bad at work and, if repeated, could cost me my job. So when I edit a blog post, I know that I have a small audience and a fun purpose; whereas, when I proofread for my employer, I know that I have a large, complex audience (my employers and their clients) and a very serious purpose.
So once you’ve established your audience and your purpose, you’re ready to move on to self-editing. Here are a few tricks that I’ve come across in my experience as an editor that help. They likely won’t all work for you, but hopefully some do:
Create a Style Sheet or Use a Style Guide
There are plenty of excellent resources stylistic writing out there and having one close at hand is the quickest, most efficient, and most reliable way to answer those niggling questions like: “is it 7 or seven?,” “should I use a semi-colon?,” and “what’s the best way to write the date?” (In order: seven, to link two related independent clauses, and October 16, 2008.) But there’s no point in looking these points up if you’re not going to remember them, so that’s why you create your own Style Sheet. A Style Sheet can be a document on your computer, or a crinkled piece of paper on your desk—its main purpose is to be available as a ready reference when you can’t remember one of those little details that always slips your mind.
The great eighteenth century scholar, critic, lexicographer, and rhetorician Samuel Johnson once wrote that he put all of his writing in a desk drawer for seven years before he would even consider editing it. If he read it after seven years and felt that it was still worthy of publication, he would edit; if he didn’t like the piece, he tossed it away. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the same deadlines as the great Dr. Johnson—after all, back in the eighteenth century, writers had patrons. However, it is a good idea to save time in between those two crucial early writing stages: the first draft and the first edit. A general rule is that the longer and more complex the document, the more time you should put it away in a desk drawer. This isn’t always possible, but, as I mentioned in my last post, when we write, we fill in logical “gaps” that others might not be able to fill in for themselves. Similarly, when you leave a piece of writing for a length of time, you lose the ability to fill in those gaps—which is a good thing because it allows you to read your own writing in the same way that your audience will.
Reading against the grain
Quite frankly, there’s not always time to leave a piece of writing before you publish it. But there are other strategies that can give you a different perspective on those logical gaps and allow you to fill them for your reader. Reading out loud is the best example of this. Reading out loud takes longer than reading silently, and therefore gives your brain more time to process the way you’re using language—again decreasing your brain’s ability to fill in gaps. Sorry for the pun here, but hearing the sound of your own writing allows you to realize when something doesn’t sound right.
Another strategy is reading your writing out of order. Try reading sentences or paragraphs in reverse order. This again displaces your brain from the logical flow of the document and allows greater time to consider portions of your document and focus on how language is used at the sentence level. If you don’t have a day to put away your writing, just read it out loud and out of order, you’ll notice mistakes immediately.
Ultimately, you’re the best judge of your own writing. And so, for example, you may already be aware that you have a penchant for flowery language, run-on sentences, ineffective jargon, or lapses in consistency. Keep these habits in mind when you’re editing—and write them down as reminders on your Style Sheet. This will allow you to focus on specific errors that you know will be present in your document.