In defense of ruthless editing

Photo: Mythbusters via YouTube

I edit smart people. And I don’t pull punches. If your writing has a problem, I’m going to tell you about it.

One of my writer clients recently posted some of my editorial comments on Facebook, so everyone could see how, ahem, “direct” I was. He called me “ruthlessly encouraging.” This guy is writing a terrific book, and 90% of what I read is in his prose is either awesome, or just needs a little tweak. Which is why, in the cases where he goes astray, I need to stop him.

My process is always the same:

  1. Read as if I were a naive reader, reading these words for the first time.
  2. Identify which parts of the text fit together logically and persuasively, and which parts don’t effectively communicate the writer’s vision.
  3. Figure out why there is a problem: What is the flaw that’s getting in the way?
  4. Describe the flaw and suggest ways to fix as honestly as possible.

This method requires holding several contradictory ideas in your head at once.

You must be able to simulate complete ignorance in step 1, and then apply great editorial intelligence in steps 2 and 3.

You must have complete belief in the reader’s vision, and then you have to bring a skeptic’s perspective to finding flaws in the argument.

You must be hard on the text, but easy on the writer.

You must be brief, but explain yourself. My edits often include detailed justifications, not just suggestions on what words to fix.

I’ve been doing this so long that I don’t know any other way to do it. I learned from the best. 

What ruthless editing looks like

Here are some comments I’ve written recently. You tell me if I’m mean, or just ruthlessly honest:

“Broken record” is only relevant for people who remember vinyl.

This is a great and pointed story until it veers off course into proving exactly the opposite of what you were saying.

Your metaphor doesn’t need another metaphor to explain it.

If you’re going to quote a 17-year-old book, don’t make it sound more dated by actually giving the date.

I’m strictly rationing your use of exclamation points. Less is definitely more.

The minute you bring up Donald Trump, anything you say is immediately drowned out by the visceral reaction people have – specifically, people who hate Trump. They cannot accept your message because of the blood beating behind their eyeballs.

Fix this metaphor. It’s confusing. The fact that you had to apologize for it should have told you that.

In case you’re wondering, this is passive voice. I’m allergic to it.

This story makes a point. The point it makes is that metaphors are dangerous. Is that the point you wanted to make? It’s vivid, but off-topic.

I have learned over time that [“would your mom understand”] isn’t the best way to characterize this. Some people have moms who are surgeons or CEOs or scientists.

I have no idea what this paragraph is about. I can’t edit this to be better because I have no idea what it’s trying to do.

This is the beginning of a story. What’s the freaking ending?

Surely you can see why this phrase is a direct contradiction of the message of this chapter.

“Have tended (thus far) to” – weasel words, my friend!

This stuff is a bit of a mess. Your main example of your own career move from 20 years ago is both too personal and too old to be convincing on its own. There is no point in word-editing the material you have produced so far since it will have to be completely exploded, reordered, augmented, and integrated.

Blah blah blah blah. Lacks meaning or actionability.

“Accelerates” is good. “Dramatically accelerates ” reads as bullshit. Adverbs — cut as many as possible.

Your opener is a snooze.

“Nascent” is one of those trend code words that mean more to analysts than to readers. And I’m not sure that the comparative “more nascent” has a clear meaning.

“There is a potentially infinite number of megatrends” is a little over the top. If they are mega, there can’t be that many.

There’s a contradiction here. In two successive sentences, you say that something is “table stakes” (that is, everybody will do it) and that it’s going to be nearly impossible.

I don’t think you can be “game changing in making nudges.”

I rewrote this because the sentence was collapsing under its own weight.

Mixed metaphor: you can’t take pressures to a breaking point.

I want the writer to smack herself on the head

I am ruthless with prose. I am honest with writers.

I try never to insult the writer. I only work with smart writers, so there is no point in insulting them. My objective is to get the writer to smack herself on the head and say “D’oh! I see now that what I wrote is obviously wrong. I better fix that.”

If the trick of editing is to be both as naive as a reader and as smart as a psychologist, the trick of writing is to love what you write as you write it, and then be brutally hard on it after you have written it. After all, the words have no feelings to be hurt. When the writer and I agree on this — that we both must be hard on the writing to make it great — then there is not a problem. I point out what needs to be fixed, and the writer fixes it.

I am not perfect at this.

I once edited a book in which the writer basically wrote what was in his head, stream of consciousness. This resulted in chapters that alternated between brilliant insights and self-indulgent babbling. My edits were withering, and I suggested deleting whole sections. Luckily for me, the writer had a thick skin and reacted only to the edits, and not to my frustration. The result was actually excellent — because once we deleted the self-indulgent parts, the remainder held together beautifully and was uniformly brilliant and engaging. I learned my lesson; in later chapters, I just suggested the edits and left the comments about the writer’s self-indulgence out, since they weren’t helping either of us.

On a different book, I once commented that the writer had made a math error that any fifth grader knew was wrong. He stopped speaking to me for two days. I was right to point out the error, but wrong to characterize it in such an insulting way.

I have learned from those exchanges. I am still hard on text, but not on writers.

Okay, now I can admit it. I’m brutal and nasty. But it’s for your own good.

If you want someone to be nice to you, find a good friend.

If you want someone to tell you the truth so your writing can be better, get a ruthless editor like me. You’ll sound smarter if you do.

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  1. Re-reading some of these editorial comments makes me laugh (and cringe a bit). Lot’s of D’oh! moments. But I’d far rather undergo the pruning of a skillful editor than have all my dramatically game-changing megatrending metaphors collapse under their own weight!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. One of the common problems with writing; it is easy for most people to put words on a page, but difficult for them to see the flaws in their own work, hence the need for editors. Personally I found the feedback comments above quite entertaining, but I have a thick skin. Perhaps you may wish to provide a warning to new clients. Your goal is to encourage them to craft the absolute best content possible, and sometimes your feedback may come across as harsh. The role they are engaging you for contains two parts drill sergeant, one part cheerleader. Provide examples of each. If they seem a little sensitive, offer coffee and chocolate whenever possible during reviews.

    1. Roger’s comment resonates and reminds me of the book “Thanks for the Feedback” by Doug Stone & Sheila Heen. Now when someone asks me to review something, I confirm with the requestor what they’re looking for (appreciation, coaching, evaluation) and align accordingly.

  3. I worked in a corporate environment and it was policy that some documents had to be edited. Initially some lawyers, both young and old ones, did not like their words being touched by a non lawyer.

    I aimed to give reasons for my suggestions and tried a little humour when it was safe to do so. And my observations of their work remained confidential between the two of us. I generally edited before they sent documents up to their supervisors .

    In time virtually all of them realised that I made them look better. Few external people knew that there was editing and they could present the documents as their own. In another job a scientist was so pleased that I had made his document on an important break through topic so much better. He was the one who took the praise about the overall document as well as his content matter.

    Astute people realise what an editor can do for their imagine both inside and outside their workplace. It is in their best interests to present a good document. They quickly get over the hurt they initially feel.

    And the smart authors learnt from my comments and their writing improved. And they train their staff accordingly.