As a full-time editor, I have a confession to make: my biggest concern with the material I receive is not grammar. Don’t get me wrong. I keep a copy of The Elements of Style with me at all times, spend more time in style guides than should be legal, and actually enjoy books about the history and theory of the English language. However, grammar problems occupy only a small fraction of my time.
Why? Grammar issues are concrete problems. While there are some gray areas in the world of English prose (look at the first few sentence in A Tale of Two Cities and figure those out), for the most part punctuation, syntax, and the other assorted features of grammar have set rules. They’re predictable and dependable.
The issues that most occupy my time in editing are the “big-picture” problems. And in my own writing, I try to keep several key areas in mind, mainly because those are the areas where I spend the most energy hacking and haggling as an editor. Grammar is important, of course, but spend some time focusing on these other aspects as well:
Research: Checking fact claims is not just for non-fiction. With the Internet, anyone who reads your work can easily Google up some info—and they will. When I’m editing, a good chunk of my time is devoted to researching topics to verify accuracy, and I much prefer—and trust—writers who have done their homework. You don’t need a PhD in a topic to write expertly about it, but a few minutes in a library can make your writing stand out and your characters more believable in their occupations, for example.
Planning: The poet William Wordsworth is famous (infamous in some circles) for positing that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” but the second part of that sentence is often overlooked: “it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” In my opinion as a writer/editor, the second aspect is the most important. Writing is much more poignant when it is thought through. Obviously there are different expectations in different styles of writing (say, a blog versus a journal article), but I spend a great deal of time organizing and focusing others’ writing because it wasn’t thought through and planned out before it was sent to me. And this leads me to . . .
Organization: I would be willing to wager that most of the problems an editor deals with have to do with a lack of careful attention to organization. When I write, my urge is always to dive right into applying my ideas to the page. I’ve learned, however, that there’s no substitute for either outlining or mind-mapping my ideas first. My Google Docs folders are full of outlines, character sketches, and the like, and I spend just as much time working on the infrastructure as I do the actual words.
By thinking about these areas when you’re writing, you’ll be putting together tighter and more effective prose.