Episode 12: Make the Edit, Part 2


If this were a cheesy ‘80s TV show, this is the part of the show where the announcer would say, “Last week on MNbtW . . . .” But instead, let’s just say that last week we talked about looking at the big picture while editing. The reason that we do that first is to make sure that the main questions are answered and that there is cohesion. For more, take a look.

This week, we’re going to talk about what to do once you’ve assessed and are ready to tackle the problems. I may sound a bit like an iconoclast, but the main point of editing is not merely grammar. That is important, yes, and you aren’t likely to be published if the work is full of errors. However, editing is much more about polishing. The grammar errors are usually something I catch along the way.

Here is the process I use. Feel free to modify.

1. Assess problems. First, I review the writing to see if there are repeated category mistakes. For example, the writer may have repeatedly left out important details, used logical fallacies, or overused expressions. This is generally where I begin marking up the text—whether with a pen or with digital comments.

2. Research. Once I have a handle on the big issues—and depending on how much editing I need to do—I tend to spend some time researching the topic. For technical articles, this may involve a great deal of time reading and processing. But this is important: if I don’t understand what I’m working with, then I cannot be an effective editor. This isn’t to say that I need a PhD in order to edit, but a few moments in the library or on the Internet or with a subject matter expert can really help reveal flaws in the paper. Even fiction often relies on characters with special skills or knowledge. Knowing what those characters know can help you make the writing more authentic.

3. Plot it out. Once I understand more, I sometimes work up an outline or a mind map of the piece I’m editing. This allows me to see how the work flows and to rearrange things more easily. If it’s my work, then hopefully I already have an outline, but I can still see if the finished product follows my conception.

4. Scramble. Depending on how much say I have, this is the part where I begin slicing and dicing. I may, in fact, move whole sections if the flow is better. Don’t be afraid to experiment with the structure. A move or two could do wonders for the cohesion.

5. Chip away. Once I’ve taken care of the heavy lifting, I turn to refining the details. This can vary a great deal depending on the type of work, but there are some basic guidelines.

  • Keep in mind the overall picture of what the work is doing and where it’s going.
  • Stick with the tone.
  • A thesaurus is not always your best friend (picking witty synonyms can make the work feel overwrought).
  • Be bold and take a risk or two.
  • And remember this: editing is just as much a creative expression as is the original writing.
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