Editing is a strange skill to learn, but the best way I have found is to edit other people’s writing. To edit properly, you need to be able to look at a piece objectively, and the best way to understand that is to learn the craft of editing on things you are not connected to.
It’s important to understand that editing is more than just spotting typos or grammar mistakes. Editing is looking for consistency—or lack thereof—in everything: writing style, voice, characters, motivations, dialogue, plot, pacing; all aspects of the written piece. A good editor spots inconsistencies and consistencies alike, and can identify when each is present, but also when one or the other is missing. Editing is not stylistic alteration, and it should not be done to satisfy the ego of the editor; editing is purely for the benefit of the piece itself.
Editing your own work is a lot harder than editing someone else’s, mainly because you know the intent of the writing. When you read something written by another writer, you can only work with what is actually on the page. With your own writing, you know what you meant, even if it isn’t there. You are too close to it, and separating yourself from it enough to successfully edit it requires distance.
A lot of writers conflate the jobs of writing and editing, either through rewriting what they have just written before moving on, or by treating both writing and editing as the same thing. That is the biggest mistake that a writer can make. Editing is not writing—it is a completely different job—and it needs to be treated as a separate task.
I really enjoy writing. The process of creating and capturing something—anything—is challenging and rewarding in equal measures, often at the same time. I also enjoy editing, though I think of it as a job I need to do rather than the creation of art. I used to struggle with mixing the two, though. Whenever I would sat down at my desk to write, I would find myself in ‘work’ mode and be unable to focus on creating. I would need to do other things—including edit—so I would either write something mediocre or nothing at all. Then I noticed that the stuff I wrote that was good was written when I was not at my desk—not even at my computer, but on a rubbish laptop that was too slow to do any proper work on and only good for typing. I needed that distraction-free environment, but I also needed to be away from my work-space to create.
The laptop was on the way out, so I purchased a word processor for a few quid. It’s basically a keyboard with a calculator screen above, and it allows me to write anything, anywhere, without having to power up a computer or sit at a desk. I write on the sofa, or in the kitchen, or even in bed. I don’t write at my desk at all anymore.
Once my first draft is out, that’s when I go to a computer. My desk is for work, and editing is work. I transfer the writing to the computer and edit it on-screen. Then, for the next round of editing, I print it out.
A lot of writers suggest taking time between drafts, and I agree this is a good idea. At the very least, give it a week. Ideally give it a year, but that’s not always possible. Somewhere between a week and a year will be about right—you want to have forgotten the detail, so things feel vaguely new to you. But you also need to edit using a different platform to the one you wrote on.
If you write using a laptop, in Word, using the standard Calibri font and single-line spacing, then for your first edit you need to change the formatting at the very least. Try Times New Roman, size 12, with double-line spacing. Sit in a different room, or at least in a different chair. Have one space, one chair, for writing, and another for editing, so the two jobs separate in your mind. Do one at day, the other at night, or one using the main light and another using a lamp. If you have the option of using a different device, do so. I like to do one round of editing on my Windows laptop, and another on my Mac. Both use Word, but they look and feel different. The keyboards are not the same. It gives me distance.
The best advice I can give to create a fresh perspective is to swap from digital to analogue, or the other way around. If you write on a computer, print it out and edit by hand using a different coloured pen. If you write by hand, type it up and then edit on-screen. Use a different font again, so your eyes are forced to read the words and not just recognise the exact same shapes on a different surface and skim. Then you need to read it aloud.
Work out how you write best. If that is at a desk, that’s what you should do. If it’s on the sofa, write there. Then set up a dedicated editing space and ensure you only edit in that place. Don’t mix the two or your brain will confuse itself and your focus will waver. Use different devices, fonts, rooms, anything you can to make each draft look and feel different. Finished draft three? Wait a month, change the font, change the size, change the screen or paper or device, go to a different room, and start draft four.
If you practice editing other people’s writing—a craft learned quickly be observing others, often as a result of attending a writers’ group—you will be able to use your skills on your own work, but only by creating distance. Step back, see the bigger picture, and then dive into the details anew.
© 2019 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.