Writing is a pretty straightforward endeavor. You start out with a blank page and you end up with a page that’s full of words. You are essentially creating something out of nothing.
Editing, on the other hand, is a little more subtle. You start with pages that are already full of words. And when you’re done, you end up with… pages full of words. So you’re not so much creating something out of nothing as creating something that is a little (or substantially) better than the something you started with.
I work as both a professional writer and editor. Some of my clients want me to do the hard work of creating something out of nothing. And some of them want me to do the more nuanced work of taking their draft and making it better. But even when I’m writing, I still spend time editing my own work.
How exactly should you go about the editing process? What do editors actually do to those pages full of words, and what can you learn from them and their (metaphorical) red pens?
Here are five of my tips to help you become a better editor.
1. Don’t try to wear two hats at once
First, a little wardrobe consultation. No, I’m not also a professional stylist, but just bear with me for a moment.
Imagine you have two hats: your writing hat and your editing hat.
I like to think of the writing hat as one of those rainbow caps with a propeller on top. It lets me be playful and tap into my creativity. The editing hat is one of those big fleecy ones with ear flaps. It makes me feel all cozy and unable to see anything that’s not directly in front of me.
If you don’t like my hats, you can swap them out for any two hats of your choice.
Whatever hats you settle on, do not try to wear both hats at the same time. Not only is this a fashion crime, but it prevents you from doing either job well.
It turns out that there are psychological reasons for this. Multi-tasking puts a heavy burden on our brains. It takes time and mental effort to switch from one task to another. And the more we try to do this, the more we overwhelm our poor brains and the less efficient we become.
So if you want to improve your editing skills, the first step is to stop trying to edit as you write! When you sit down to write, let all your ideas flow. Try not to read back every sentence and criticize how inarticulate or unfunny you are. Just write. Your primary goal is to get some words down on the page. Remember: You’re making something out of nothing.
Then, once you’ve gotten your ideas out into a weird, messy draft, you can take off your writing hat. Stow it safely on its hook and thank it for its hard work. You are now ready to put on your editing hat. Now is the time to take a critical eye to your writing and get rid of all the weird, unhelpful, unfunny stuff.
I don’t always succeed at writing and editing this way, but when I do, I find it a much easier, less painful process. And my hair looks much better.
2. Step away from the computer
This is related to—but not quite the same as—the previous point. Once you have finished writing a draft, make sure to step away from the computer. You want to allow yourself time to make the mental transition between writing and editing.
Taking an actual break is one of the best ways to make sure this happens. When you give yourself a little time and space between tasks, you’ll find it much easier to view your writing with fresh eyes. You’ll be more likely to spot typos or notice places where you made a mental leap and forgot to bring your reader along with you.
When you give yourself a little time and space between tasks, you’ll find it much easier to view your writing with fresh eyes.
How much time should you allow between writing and editing? It depends on how much time you have. But ideally you’ll want to be able to step away from a draft for at least a few hours. Leaving it overnight is even better.
If you’re really crunched for time, at least give yourself a short break by going for a little walk, taking a quick dance break, or doing any other activity that will help you change your perspective.
What if you’re editing someone else’s work? I think this is still a good rule to follow. Take time away from the draft, get some fresh air, and give yourself a break before you come back to do the final review.
3. Familiarize yourself with (or define) the house style
If you’re writing for an external publication—whether it’s a news outlet or company blog—there’s a good chance they have an existing style guide. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, style guides tell editors how to approach stylistic concerns for a particular publication.
There are many aspects of writing that are a matter of style rather than flat-out errors. Here are a few of the questions a style guide might address:
- Which words should be hyphenated? Capitalized? Italicized?
- How do you handle slang? Words from other languages?
- What do you do about numbers? Dashes? Titles?
Style guides help maintain consistency and make for a more pleasant reading experience.
If you’re working with an existing style guide—great. You can simply check the draft against it to make sure you’ve followed the guidelines. This might be a slow and painstaking process at first, but when you write or edit for the same publications on a regular basis, you’ll probably start to internalize many of these rules.
No style guide? No problem. If you’re writing for your own blog or website, you can simply find one you like and adopt it. You can find plenty of versions online. Check out BuzzFeed’s and Mailchimp’s for some inspiration.
4. Look for inconsistencies
One of the biggest tasks of an editor is to ensure consistency within a document. Inconsistency can be disorienting or confusing for readers. The types of things to consider include:
- Formatting: This includes things like spaces between sentences, lines, and paragraphs as well as font sizes and treatments of headings.
- Spelling: Does the document switch between UK and US spelling? It shouldn’t. Are proper names spelled correctly and consistently?
- Stylistic issues: Do you use the Oxford comma? (I say, “Yes, obviously!” But not all style guides agree with me on that one.) How do you handle numerals? What about titles of books, songs, or websites?
Frequently used or specialized terms: Publications may decide on particular styling conventions for frequently used or specialized terms. For example, the word “résumé” (the document you use to list out your experience and qualifications when applying for a job), can also be styled as resume or even resumé. While all are technically acceptable, it’s a good idea to choose a single styling and stick with it. This will normally be addressed within the style guide. And when you’re editing, you want to be aware of those guidelines and make sure you use the same styling each time.
5. Put your reader first
Finally, an editor’s job is to put themselves in the reader’s shoes. My goal as an editor is to try to make the reader’s experience as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
This is why I recommend things like:
- Links that open up in new tabs. This is less interruptive for the reader and means they’re not constantly having to click the “back” button on their browser if they want to return to your page.
- Quick explanations of people or concepts that are being introduced for the first time. These avoid confusion and save time readers might spend looking things up.
- Short sentences and paragraphs. These make it easier to scan and absorb information.
When editing, try to maintain the mindset of someone who is curious but new to the topic. Try to reduce the use of jargon or technical terms. If you get lost when reading through a sentence or paragraph, that’s a good sign other readers will, too.
My goal as an editor is to try to make the reader’s experience as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
Remember: You want to make it easy for readers to scan through an article, capture main points and big ideas, and learn more about topics that capture their interest.
And there you have it—five tips that will make you a better editor. I included a few big picture, behavioral changes as well as a few technical ideas to give you a sense of both the art and science that’s involved.
Was there anything that stood out to you, either because it’s something you already do, something you definitely don’t do, or something you would like to try to add to your toolkit? I’d love to hear about it, along with any descriptions or photos of your writing and editing hats!