Beat the editor at his game

EDITING A TEXT proceeds in rounds, each of which takes a document up one notch, to the next level. Sometimes it may feel like playing Donkey Kong, with an angry editor throwing dynamite barrels at you to keep you down at the bottom of the ladder. In reality, the unhelpful creature tends to be the author’s own ego, while the set of ladders and levels is, in fact, the editing process—the path the text must escalate to reach the top. Authors can and will improve only by playing the game, over and over again. They will graduate to the next stage by substituting a layer of self-editing to a tier of third-party corrections. To do so, they must put themselves in the shoes of editors, assimilate their logic, and master their art.

This learning curve has the additional merit of liberating both the author and the editor from the grueling first rounds of back-and-forth, which consume much energy and often cause frustration on all sides. Here we carefully unpack each level, in a thorough editing process, to clarify exactly what happens at each.

Free trial

Writing is always good practice, but some texts simply aren’t ready to be shared with anyone—let alone someone you expect to improve them. A document that doesn’t qualify to enter the editing game is missing one of these basic components:

  • A provisional title, spelling out what the reader is about to read;
  • Some basic shape, notably an initial framing clarifying the text’s intent, as well as a conclusion of sorts—in other words, a beginning and an end;
  • Clean, conscientious presentation, which is the most elementary form of courtesy to whomever you are sharing the piece with.

When editors receive scribblings lacking any of these components, they are entitled to just send them right back to the author. The positive way of seeing this is that it doesn’t take much, after all, for a text to qualify.

Level 1

A text worth editing, at a beginner level, is a confused mass of sentences, typically containing some very interesting—albeit buried—ideas and instincts. This lack of structure may occur even if the author is highly intelligent, writes from experience accrued through enormous fieldwork, and followed a much-discussed outline. Only through extensive practice in the fields of writing and editing will structure begin to emerge more naturally.

It would be counterproductive, at this early stage, to focus on language. The goal is to assist the author in defining what exactly they want to say, rather than how to say it. “Edits”—in the sense of changes to words and sentences—in fact distract from that process. Instead, this early stage is best served by questions: what did you mean by this? What makes you say that? Have you considered this opposing statement? Doesn’t this contradict your earlier point? Can you support your general argument with examples? And so on. Through a list of well-considered queries, shared in writing or over an oral conversation, the editor will assist the author in clarifying, developing and organizing his or her thought process. Level 1, so to speak, is about bringing out the author in his or her own work.

This phase is also one where a unifying argument should emerge, along with a more refined and operational outline, to reflect the logical sequence of ideas derived from the answers to said questions. In other words, these must start articulating a robust structure, short of which the same problems will keep arising in subsequent drafts, which will remain stuck at level 1.

Level 2

The second layer in the editing process is geared toward improving the flow and style, thus producing a text that will only require polishing moving forward. Before that can be done, the document must be well laid out, well-argued, and properly sourced. This entails a series of operations that typically leave the piece, if the “track changes” function is turned on, more red than black. A breakdown of classic interventions includes:

  • Bringing together, in the same paragraph or section, related ideas dispersed in different parts of the text. This not only eliminates any sense of repetition, but usually clarifies and consolidates the essential points being made;
  • Separating two or three distinct ideas that happen to be amalgamated in the same paragraph, granting each one a paragraph of its own. Spacing them out will shed light on their specific importance;
  • Clarifying any leftover haziness around such ideas, with each spelled out explicitly at the start of individual sections or paragraphs;
  • Collecting, under such statements, all the material necessary to explain, illustrate, and nuance them, and thereby determining what is still missing—such as sources—to “make the point”;
  • Specifying, finally, the logical transitions from one such sequence to the next.

This process largely consists in cutting and moving material that is already in the text, before sewing the various clippings back together. A new, more fluid text will thus take form. Writing out subtitles per section (which can be removed later if need be) is a useful prop editors can use to keep track of what snipping should be going where. It also sheds light on how the text’s various moving parts ultimately will relate to each other. At the end of this stage, every component of the text must be in the right place, in the right order. Finishing ensues.

Boss level

This last stage comes close to what most authors would like editing to boil down to: cutting a word here, suggesting a change there, and marveling at just how good the piece is. Experienced writers may sail through the first stretches, correcting their own course along the way, until they land on the golden shores of soft-touch editing. But it’s not rare that even they run aground long before that. In any event, the ultimate phase is almost always more rugged than just gracious tweaking. It likely involves:

  • Removing any passive voice (as in “the text was written by the author,” to be replaced by “the author wrote the text”);
  • Substituting strong verbs to weak ones (e.g. “she sputtered, yelled, sighed” versus “she said”);
  • Replacing unnecessarily complicated language with simpler words, wherever possible;
  • Eliminating any superfluous words—with excess adjectives and adverbs standing out as usual suspects;
  • Trimming paragraphs—which as a rule should never be longer than ten lines, and whose concision is key to the piece’s overall flow;
  • Ensuring metaphors are used appropriately and discerningly;
  • And finalizing titles and subtitles.

The conventional view is that great texts are the outcome of a writing process in which editing plays a secondary part. The truth of the matter is quite different: great texts are the product of an editing process, in which writing is a necessary input. Authors who feel dispossessed by layers of editing have a perfect way of reclaiming full ownership: by becoming editors themselves.

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Illustration credit: Bresciani Emanuele Gynoug Wings of Wor – Boss Locomotive Breath by Flickr / licensed by CC. 

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