Editing – early lessons learnt from professional editors

edit manuscript

In this blog I want to discuss editing, why it is so important, and when to do it. I also want to draw upon some of my early experiences with professional editors and communication in the business world.

A simple definition of editing from Google is as follows:

Editing is a stage of the writing process in which a writer or editor strives to improve a draft ( and sometimes prepare it for publication) by correcting errors and by making words and sentences clearer, more precise, and more effective.

I think all writers will agree that the quality of a publication depends in part on the effectiveness of the editing process. There is nothing more infuriating than finding errors in a published work, or having a review that disparages your work because of errors. Patricia Fuller explains the importance of editing in an interesting way as follows:

Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing out of the house in your underwear.

So if we are all agreed about the importance of editing, who should do it? The first stage of the editing process should always be done by the writer before submission to an editor. The second stage of editing should ideally be done by an editor, subject to a final review and edit by the writer.

CJ Webb explains the intensity of the writer’s process as follows:

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time.

If a writer cannot use and editor, then he/she should leave the material for a significant period of time (months) before attempting to edit the material, and approach his/her review as if he/she were reviewing someone else’s work. The time gap will help to enforce an element of objectivity over your work. However, if you wish to publish your work I would always recommend the use an editor.

So how should the writer prepare his draft for the editor? Should he wait to complete the first draft before starting to edit, or edit as he/she goes along?

This is one of those areas where writers will have differing views in much the same way as they differ in their attitudes to detailed planning.

There are writers that write a scene, and then edit the same scene the following day before starting a new scene. And at the opposite extreme, there are writers that refuse to edit until the first draft is complete. For example, Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones says:

Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.) Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying in the margins and lines on the page.) Lose control. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, drive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

This is what I would describe as ‘free’ writing. I have tried it in ten minute bursts, and it can be wonderful for developing a scene. But while you might find some gems in the material you will also generate a lot of garbage. I couldn’t bear to endure this approach for a 70-90,000 word first draft. I guess like many writers I am a bit of a perfectionist and leaving something wrong would continue to irritate me until I corrected it. But I can see the merits of Goldberg’s idea of getting the story down in writing as quickly as possible, and not being paralysed by perfectionism. If you’re like me, there is a happy medium somewhere between these extremes.

As W. Somerset Maugham once famously said:

There are three rules of writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

The point I am making is that writers write and revise in many different ways. You need to find out what works for you. The one point writers do agree on is that revision is a vital part of the process.

My first experience of external editors was in the 1980s. In those days I was the editor of a technical newsletter for a global firm of accountants. I was also the author of four technical books published by Euromoney, Tolleys and Farringdon Press. I won’t bore you with the details of the publications. But they were subject to detailed technical review by a large number of technical experts, an internal communications expert and an editor from the publishing industry.

I learnt a very important lesson: there is nothing more permanent that the published word. It follows that any technical publication has to be correct. The more technical eyes that review the material, the better. But technical eyes are not enough. It also has to be clear and concise, and this is where an editor or communications consultant can add value, even if they are unfamiliar with the technical nature of the material.

My first experience of a consultants review was a painful experience. He congratulated me on the excellent quality of my draft, but returned it to me covered in red ink. Any writer that has received his/her manuscript from an editor like this will understand the emotions that this can create. I thought I could write — and all this red ink! But as writers we can learn an enormous amount from this process.

One of the first lessons I learnt was the need to write where possible in the active voice. You have probably heard the same advice. For example, if you say “I slashed my sword across his throat…” It sounds much more effective and in character’s point of view.  Whereas “the villains throat was slashed…” sounds like we are in the author’s head, not the main character’s head.

But there is another reason for using the active voice. It is so much clearer about who is doing what to whom. For example, if I write “It is recommended that…” It is unclear who is recommending the action. It is far more clear to say “The Government recommends that…” 

Many of the lessons I learnt when writing business publication about the importance of consistency, clarity and brevity helped in the transformation from business writer to fiction writer. But there is a world of difference between technical writing and creative writing. In the coming blogs I want to deal with how editing fiction is different from other writing, the grammar rules you can break to write creatively, and some of the editing tools that helped me.