A tongue-in-cheek quote, attributed to various authors, is: “I hate writing, and I hate not writing. I only like having written.” This is a statement many authors would relate to, and perhaps this is one reason why it’s hard to pinpoint the writer who originally voiced these wise words.
I’m a writer, and I can certainly relate to this quote. However, I’m also a freelance editor, and I believe that when a writer says “I hate writing,” what they really mean is “I hate editing.”
If writing were merely about putting words one after another, there would be nothing too complicated about it, and few would hate it. However, with some rare exceptions such as stream-of-consciousness stories, a text needs to be something more than just raw ideas offered in written form.
And this is where editing enters the picture. If writing is about displaying ideas, editing is about putting flattering lights around them. Or, as Arthur Plotnik said, “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.”
Although perhaps editing is sometimes tedious, frustrating, or something less glamorous or liberating than writing, it is an integral part of the writing process, which begins with the inception of an idea and culminates in a mature text, ready to be distributed.
In this post I will share with you five tips on how to improve your editing productivity. Some of the advice will be more directly relevant to writers who edit their own texts; some will be more applicable to writers working with editors (and vice versa).
However, whether you are a writer or an editor, whether you work with blog posts or novels, understanding the intricacies involved in the editing process can be a crucial element of success. With the help of these tips you could learn to, if not like, at least appreciate editing.
This first tip might sound as something self-obvious. “The goal of editing is to make a text better” many writers and editors would say. They would be right, of course, but that’s not the point.
Rather, what’s important is to understand how and why editing makes a text better, because any misunderstandings can inhibit proper communication between the writer and the editor—or between your writing side and your editing side, if you’re editing your own text (more on that later).
Many writers have a flawed understanding of what editing really is. For some it might feel like some sort of criticism: Someone cuts pieces of your text here and there, or tells you about this or that mistake you made.
For some authors it might even feel like criticism of themselves as a person. This causes them to become defensive and to obstinately refuse to alter their original draft, even at the expense of the final product.
As Nathan Winfrey aptly puts it in his article on responding to edits as a professional writer, “Seeing the latest draft of your writing covered in an editor’s graffiti can be a test of your humility.”
It takes time to discard your authorial insecurities and learn not to be defensive. I know that because I used to be such an author. Even when I had to work with the house editor of my first publisher, I remember feeling extremely agitated by that poor man’s suggestions. It took me years to properly realize what editing involved.
I think I fully learned the lesson only during the long and painful process of my doctoral studies. Few things in writing can be more humbling than “wise old men” (and women) tearing apart your manuscript.
And so, if you’re a writer, my advice would be to spare yourself the unproductive process of feeling defensive about your text. First of all, understand that your text is not you. You wrote it, yes. And you can write something else, something that better expresses your thoughts.
If you’re working with an editor, keep in mind that the job of an editor is not to emphasize your mistakes—let alone criticize you as a writer or as a person. An editor’s job is to come up with ideas that would allow yours to better shine through the text.
At the same time, if you’re an editor working with a writer, do keep in mind that it’s human nature to feel taken aback when you are told some things could be better. One trick I have discovered is to focus not on how something currently doesn’t work but on how amazing it could become with just a few changes.
Of course, sometimes there are things that can’t be salvaged with “just a few” changes. Whether you’re editing your own text or someone else’s, you might end up in a situation where a chunk of text simply needs to go. Which brings us to the second tip.
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” That’s a quote attributed to French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
The reason I like sharing this quote with fellow writers and editors is because it focuses on a core issue of editing: removing existing text.
Being a writer as well as an editor, I can understand where both sides are coming from in this matter. From the writer’s perspective, few things can be more difficult to accept than the suggestion to discard something you’ve already written.
The reason should be obvious: The writer spent time, effort, and a lot of thought in producing this text. It feels like a waste to simply throw it away, right?
From an editing perspective, however, sometimes it’s clear that a chunk of text doesn’t work in its existing form. There could be many reasons for this: It could slow down the pace, it could feel odd in the context, or it could be better deployed somewhere else.
If you’re a writer editing your own work and you’re struggling with such a chunk of text, unable to decide whether to keep it or not, my advice is to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Be kind to the text in question; give it a chance by seeing whether some polishing would allow it to stay where it is. Perhaps it could still be used in some other part of the manuscript.
Nonetheless, your priority should not be this specific chunk of text but the entire narrative. If the narrative becomes better without this small piece, then don’t be afraid to let it go.
This is applicable to editors as well. Although it can feel difficult to ask a writer to remove text—for the reasons mentioned further above—sometimes it’s the only option. As an editor, you should then make it clear why this would be necessary. Writers are more likely to follow your advice if you explain why and how the narrative will become better after the given piece of text is removed.
The process of removing text is a bit like spring cleaning. You might feel reluctant to throw away some old magazines or gimcracks, but once you do, there is a feeling of things being as they should. It’s the same with removing text that is dysfunctional (in lieu of a better word). Feeling sad that you removed it is temporary; having a better narrative is permanent.
If you’re a writer editing your own work, have you ever spotted a typo or other problem in your text only after you publish it or post it online? Yeah, same here! Annoying and frustrating, isn’t it? It also makes you wonder how it could have happened, since you reread the text after writing it.
The thing is, rereading the text after writing it is not the same as editing it.
The single most important difference between the two processes—and the reason it is relevant to this post—is that rereading your text is closer to writing than editing. You are still looking at the word processor, and it’s inviting you to type.
Editing means you are away from the word processor, mentally disconnected from the writing process. You are in what I refer to as “reader mode”; you treat the text not as its writer but as the intended audience.
I have discovered that I am more likely to spot errors or problems with my texts when I read them on a printed page or at least on an e-reader, not on the word processor screen. Similarly, when I write a blog post, I usually spot errors and problems only when I hit the “preview” button and read the text the way it would appear when published.
Perhaps there is a reason for it. This is only speculation, but maybe the human brain learns to associate the word processor interface with creating, and it focuses on producing text, rather than approaching it critically. Reading a text from the audience’s perspective is much better for that.
And so, in order to maximize the efficiency of both processes—the creative part and the critical part—it’s best to keep them separated.
Separating writing from editing is also important because it allows you to approach the text more objectively, without emotion. An emotional, personal approach to writing is important for creativity. However, it doesn’t work very well with editing.
As I mentioned above, in Tip 2, writers often resist changing what they have already written. This is particularly the case if they are asked to remove text or make great changes. I believe that what occurs then is a conflict between the emotional/creative side and the pragmatic/critical one.
In other words, a writer can often become attached to a piece of text simply because it was written in a creative burst or in a certain state of mind.
There can be a personal, often undisclosed motivation behind a certain portion of text, and that is fine because that’s a part of the creative process. However, it’s also a bad point of reference for deciding whether it supports the narrative or not.
Just as it’s fine—indeed imperative—to allow your personal voice and thoughts to come through in your writing, it’s also crucial not to let your emotional attachment to portions of the text interfere with approaching it critically.
Whether you are a writer editing your own work or an editor working on someone else’s, the goal should be to see the text as objectively as possible. Of course this can be difficult, particularly if you are an author editing your own text. Which brings us to the most important tip of them all.
Inexperienced writers might believe nobody is better equipped to edit their texts than themselves. I used to think that, too. “Nobody knows what was in my mind when I wrote this,” I used to think. In fact, this statement is true. And that’s the problem.
One of the best reasons to have an editor take a look at your text—besides that they are professionals who know what to look for—is precisely the fact that they don’t know what was in your mind when you wrote it.
If you wonder why this is an advantage from an editing perspective, let me ask you this: Would you like your readers to be able to understand your ideas and thoughts having only your text as reference, or would you like them to need to read your mind to do so?
The whole idea of a mature, successful text, is that it communicates its contents without recourse to secondary information outside the textual confines. This is the case whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Indeed, it is the case with most art forms, too.
A professional photographer once told me: “If any title other than ‘untitled’ is required for your photo, you’re doing it wrong.” What she meant was that the image alone should convey the photographer’s intention.
It is very difficult for a writer to know whether their text succeeds in communicating the intended idea, as they already know what that idea is. A fresh pair of eyes can offer immense help in recognizing problem areas, and a professional editing team can be fundamental in perfecting your text.
I might be extrapolating a general conclusion from my own experiences, but I would say that writers are peculiar creatures. It’s arguably part of the creative process that when we write we follow emotions, not reason—what looks good, not what is good.
But writers, like everyone else, also want to see results. It can be fun and productive to write without constraints, allowing your ideas to simply pour out of your mind, but this doesn’t mean everything should be part of the final product.
Editing acts as a last line of defense, a filter that makes sure the good things pass through while the unnecessary ones stay behind. A writer might dislike this process, as it’s less creative and more structured, but writers who respect their own work eventually realize that editing is what brings results—in the form of a text that successfully communicates the intended ideas.
I could call editing an inevitable aspect of writing, but that wouldn’t do it justice. Editing is far more than a necessary evil.
Instead, I would call it an extension of writing, the way developing film used to be an extension of photography. They are two interconnected processes that dance together to produce something worthwhile.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.