As every writer knows, writing is just half the job. The other half is editing. I like to think of my first draft as clay I’ve thrown onto the potter’s wheel. (Not that I have the faintest ceramic skills, but as a writer I’m allowed to imagine!). Now I’ve created that raw, wet stuff, I’m going to shape it into something beautiful…. something that will stand the heat of criticism, last a long time, and be useful, entertaining or inspiring to others.
People confuse editing with proofreading. You certainly should proofread, but that’s the very last step, and these days you get ample help from digital spellchecks and grammar tools. Editing is different. Editing is the art of reading your text as if you were someone else, perhaps someone quite unlike you. In a word, it’s the art of empathy.
That’s why the worst time to edit is just after you’ve finished your draft, when you’re still full of your own voice. You want to get far away, forget all about it, read something else, get consumed in other issues, and then come back. So far as you can, when you’re editing, you want to approach your text as a stranger.
To guide your editing, here are some simple questions to hold in mind. Ask them from the point of view of that imaginary reader:
1 “Am I captivated from the start?“
Look at your headline and your opening sentences. This is the sales pitch that will cause your reader to buy into the rest of the piece. Imagine you’re coming to this distracted, skeptical, busy with other stuff. Would you be sold? Would you be compelled to read on?
2 “Is the reader’s journey clear?”
Every piece ever written has three things in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. That creates a journey, the movement that carries the reader to the destination you’ve created. Does your piece have a clear sweep that’s easy and enthralling to follow? Does the beginning make a promise that the middle keeps? Does the end leave the reader with a satisfying feeling of completion, of something achieved or arrived at?
3 “Am I guided step by step?“
You may have a good structure, but how’s your signposting? Does the reader know at every step how one part is linked to the next, and why? Where appropriate, do you make good use of subheads to mark a change of focus and prepare the reader of new content?
4 “Are there plenty of specifics?”
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, the familiar rule holds sway: “Don’t tell me, show me.” With non-fiction, we might modify this: “Don’t just tell me…” but the principle remains. Be sure to enrich your piece with examples, stories, and mental pictures. Unless you’re writing philosophy, too much abstraction will send your readers to sleep.
5 “Is the writing lively and varied?”
The vitality of your writing has a lot to do with pacing. Long sentences have their place, linking different points in a single span and allowing your reader to stroll slowly through a large field of ideas. Use short ones, too! Varying sentence length is a simple technique to liven up your writing. As for paragraphs, in most situations, these should be short. Readers today are in cognitive overload and simply can’t hold their attention for long. Let them catch their breath.
6 “Is the tone right for me?“
There’s no one right tone of voice for writing. Different voices suit different audiences. You wouldn’t write a job application as if it were an Instagram post, or an obituary as if it were a sales letter. This is where empathy kicks in. Feel your way into the mindset, concerns and culture of your readers. Hear their voices as you write. Speak to them in their language.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that your writing is as good as your editing. So much can happen when you revisit your first draft and set to work lifting it towards completion. The roughest draft can turn into the finest piece — if you’re willing to do the work. For beginners, the rush of the first attempt can feel like the greatest fun, and editing just a chore. As you mature, you realize how much art there is at the editing stage, an art you can learn to love.