Episode 11: Make the Edit, Part 1

Editing is not spell checking. Correct spelling is important, of course, but the biggest part of editing is much more involved than just reviewing punctuation and grammar. So, I want to take a couple of weeks to examine how to re-envision your work and how to make it better through careful revision.

First, let’s define. Editing is the process of evaluting the work as a finished product for effectiveness, utility, artistry, and polish (you can always edit before it’s finished, but the point is still to look at the overall flow). If writing is the paint roller, then editing is the cut-in brush, the touch-up brush, and the fancy finish.

So, when you’re ready to jump in, here are some steps that I find most useful.

Stop: If you are editing your own work, I cannot stress enough the importance of letting it “cool” for a week or so. The reason is simple: you need to be out of the mindset you were in while writing. You need to be past the “this is so cool” mentality, which takes time. If you are editing someone else’s work, I recommend spending a bit of time skimming over the work and doing some research in the area covered (even for fiction and poetry when you know the topic).

Read: The first time through a work, if time allows, it’s best to leave the red pen locked up. You can fix grammatical issues, yes, but concentrate on the work as a whole. Some parts may jump out at you (and I sometimes simply mark them for future reference), but the point of the first reading is to see how well the piece communicates the message. If you spend your time marking unclear sections, you may lose the ebb and flow of the words.

Ask: After I have gone through the work once (as I said, if time allows), I usually try to answer the big questions about what I read.

  • What does the piece communicate?
  • Does that message come through?
  • Am I convinced?

There are a number of more specific questions as well that depend upon the type of work I reviewed. For example, with fiction, I might ask questions about the characters or the imagery. With a journal article, I might make a brief outline of the points covered and examine the references. With poetry, I might sketch out the images. With a play, I might try to remember the main themes and crises. And with technical writing, I might try to summarize the main point in a single sentence. You may also want to do some further research on the topic if something is unclear.

Review: Before you dive in to the revisions or recommendations, take a moment to skim over the work again and review the notes you made while answering your questions. Good editing (and writing) requires that you see on two levels: the trees and the forest. Great sentences or lines don’t guarantee a great finished product, and great vision doesn’t mean the details will be effective.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the actual slashing and burning.


2 thoughts on “Episode 11: Make the Edit, Part 1

  1. Several good points, John. “Stopping” is indeed invaluable, though it can be so frustrating to return to a work you once thought brilliant and complete, and realize from your outsider’s point of view that it is neither. That’s why it’s also good, as you point out, to “read.” Spending hours nitpicking an ultimately unpromising story is a mistake I’d prefer to make only once!

  2. Pingback: Episode 12: Make the Edit, Part 2 « More Novel by the Week

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