Writing Advice From an Editor

Want to know more about the writing and editing process? I’ve been a writer and an editor for most of my life. Of the two, editing is easier – looking at a piece of writing and seeing what it needs, rather than producing something worthwhile from scratch.

I’ve learned a lot about editing from other editors, but I’ve also learned a lot about writing from them. Here is some advice, primarily about writing for magazines, which is where I spent most of my career.

Every piece of writing needs editing. Without exception. There is nothing that cannot be improved. I don’t care if you’re Hemingway (who said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.”). Many times pieces of writing don’t get the editing they need, whether because the editor is too lazy or the writer is too famous. I cringed when I heard that an unedited version of Stephen King’s The Stand was going to be released. The original version was seriously overwritten and needed a good editing. I gave up reading King after that. Every piece of published writing gets edited. Or should, anyway.

There are different kinds of editing. Many people think that editing is all about putting the commas in the right place. They’re right, but they’re also wrong. Editing comprises several levels: acquisitions editing (choosing or commissioning pieces of writing for publication); content editing (preparing a piece of writing for publication, including additions and deletions, errors of fact or grammar, and more); copy editing (correcting grammar and punctuation errors and making suggestions regarding style). What most people think of as editing is either proofreading or copy editing. Of course, at a small magazine, an editor may perform more than one of these functions.

There are many reasons a piece of writing gets changed. Not all of them imply that the writing is bad. The editor is not your enemy. Sometimes editing makes a good piece of writing better – or more in line with what the publication needs. A piece can be edited because it’s too long or too short for the space allotted. Cuts may be a word or two here and there, or entire paragraphs.

Work with your editor. If he or she requests revisions, it’s best not to argue. Magazine editors won’t have the time for much back-and-forth. A request for revisions means the editor trusts you enough to fix your own work. Most of the time the editor just goes ahead and makes the changes. If you’re difficult about revising, you likely won’t be asked back.

The first and last paragraphs of a piece of writing often need the most editing. Too many writers write “In the beginning” first paragraphs that start too far in the background. The first paragraph should answer the question, “Why should I read this article?” The last paragraph should tie back to the first paragraph, ask a relevant question, or do anything but say, “Time will tell.”

Your own work is the most difficult to edit. It’s hard to gain enough distance from your own writing to analyze it. One thing you can try is to put the piece away for a day or two, or at the very least a few hours. Work on something else, preferably something entirely different. Then come back to the first piece with a clear mind and more perspective. You could also try reading your writing aloud. If a sentence is difficult to say, if it rambles, or if you lose the thread of it, it probably needs shortening or rewriting.

Don’t spend too long trying to fix a stubborn sentence. Make it into two shorter sentences, or reframe the thought and write it a different way. There’s always more than one way to express a thought. You can express a thought in many ways. Thoughts are adaptable to many grammatical forms. If a sentence doesn’t work, find some other way to say it. Your first attempt at a sentence doesn’t have to be your last. Stay open to alternate modes of expression. Your sentences aren’t chiseled in granite.

(See what I did there?)

Editing is a process. If you edit your own work, you may want to make more than one editing pass. The first time, read for meaning. The second time, read for grammar and style. Then read for punctuation. If you try to do all of them at once, you’re sure to miss something – especially if you’ve already found an error on a page.

Do not trust spelling or grammar checkers. A spell checker can’t tell whether you meant “form” or “from” and accepts either as a valid word. You may have used a sentence fragment on purpose, to achieve a particular effect. That’s why you need a human editor as well as a machine.

Love them or hate them, editors are not going to go away. They are the gatekeepers of published writing and, at their best, they are resources to help you make your writing more effective, more correct – and more publishable.

 

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