Editing helps only if it’s the right kind of editing. Some people will read a manuscript about, for instance, a farmer with an apple orchard and say, “Wouldn’t it be better to write about a farmer growing avocados?” Well, avocado farming may be fascinating, but that’s not what the piece is about. The best editors respect the writer’s vision.
As I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman, the best editing enhances and clarifies the text but does not change the writer’s intent. “Comment on the piece the writer has written,” Len told us on the first day of class, “not on whatever you would have written given that material.”
An editor can help you weed out the great writing that must be in the piece from the (perhaps equally great) writing that weighs the piece down.
Does every detail drive the story forward? If not, move the passage into your Outtakes file.
Yes, no matter how brilliant your writing is, you will have passages that don’t belong in what you’re writing. Editing them out of this piece doesn’t mean losing them forever when you maintain an Outtakes file for each project. You’re not “killing your darlings,” just moving them to another room until you find the right place for them to live.
Editing helps identify overused tricks
Do you have any favorite stylistic devices? Things you just love to make words do. When you dip into your bag of writer’s tricks too often, you draw attention away from what you’re saying. Instead, the reader focuses on how you’re saying it. Not good.
Every writer has tricks like that—in fact, I just edited one out of the paragraph beginning “As I learned from…” Originally, the paragraph read:
The best editing, as I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman, enhances and clarifies the text but does not change the writer’s intent. “Comment on the piece the writer has written,” Len told us on the first day of class, “not on whatever you would have written given that material.”
What’s wrong with that? Nothing much, except that I make the same stylistic choice in two back-to-back sentences. I interrupt the narrative flow with a clause set off by commas—”as I learned from my legendary playwrighting teacher Len Berkman” and “Len told us on the first day of class.”
I love identifying a speaker in mid-quote. But you can’t pull that sort of trick in every sentence. It gets really boring, really quickly. So I kept the mid-quote identification and edited the previous sentence instead.
When you’re studying writing, your teacher becomes your first editor. Eventually, you learn enough to become your own first editor. Even Fran Lebowitz—who famously doesn’t let anyone else edit her—edits herself. Probably too much. As she told The Paris Review:
“I write a sentence a thousand times, changing it all the time to look at it in different ways.”
Imagine how much time that wastes—editing yourself sentence by sentence. No wonder she hasn’t published anything for more than two decades.
I advise my writers to just write—get their ideas out, create a first draft and then let it sit—for an hour, a day, a week, depending on how long it took you to write in the first place. Editing helps, but not until you’re ready for it. So you’ve got to take a break; let it rest.
And don’t edit a thousand times; edit once. Then let that draft sit while you do something else. And when your head has cleared, re-read it and see what you think.
I’m cooking up a webinar program to help writers become their own first editors. (Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch. ) Smart writers know their work can always be improved. Great writers discover how to do that themselves. And then they’re ready to seek advice from a trusted editor to make their work extraordinary.