Words on a Page Writings about writing

Editing: the secret to good writing

Editing on paper

If writers were like magicians, I’d probably be blackballed from whatever organization I’d belonged to for what I’m about to write.

After speaking at a conference a few years ago, I was talking to one of the people who attended my session about creating minimalist documentation. Although he wasn’t a writer, he had to create documentation. During our chat, he mentioned that writing was difficult and that he always had a hard time getting what he wanted to say, in the way he wanted to say it, on paper.

I told him that writing is hard, even for people who do it professionally. But the secret of good writing isn’t simply being good with stringing words together. The secret is editing.

The need for editing

With very few exceptions, I don’t think I’ve every written anything that I haven’t edited. The posts in this space included. Sometimes the edits have been minor tweaks — tightening up a sentence, cutting a word or sentence here or there, or rewriting/moving a paragraph around. Sometimes, the edits have been pretty major — trimming an article or essay in half or rewriting huge chunks of a piece. Once in a while, it’s been a combination of the two.

In some ways, editing your own work can be tougher than writing it. Sometimes, that difficulty is a matter of ego — you wrote it and can’t bear to part with some or any of it. Yes, professional writers can succumb to that. At other times, it can be difficult to know what or how much to cut.

The scalpel, not the chainsaw

Unless you turned your brain off while writing, you generally don’t need to hack large chunks out of what you’ve written. Instead, focus on fine tuning your work. Tighten up and merge sentences, rework paragraphs, deal with those turns of phrase that seem awkward.

Again, it’s not easy. It can take time. Good editing involves analyzing what you’ve written and thinking about how to make it better. In many cases, a good alternative will come to you immediately. At other points, you’ll wrack your brain trying to find the best alternative.

Sometimes, though, you’ll need to grab the chainsaw. Maybe you wrote in haste and what came out wasn’t even a good first draft. Or maybe you’re trying to target a longer piece of work for a market that prefers shorter pieces. The latter happened to me with an essay that appeared in a travel anthology. The original was around 2,600 words. The editors wanted it cut down to 1,000. That’s a pretty large chunk to cut out. It was tough going. In the end, I had to cut out some of my favourite parts of the essay while still trying to maintain the feel, tone, and flow of the piece. It worked, though I have to admit that I still prefer the original …

Final thoughts

Editing is just as difficult as writing. Probably even more difficult. Editing is a balancing act — cleaning up a piece of writing while keeping the package true to its intentions.

That said, proper editing can definitely improve your writing. You just need to take the time to do the job properly.

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