The zen of editing
A lot goes on at once when I edit a document.
I am attempting to accomplish two goals simultaneously. First, make the document better. And second, make the writer a better writer.
How this works
Here’s how I edit a document. First I give it a cursory once over, just to see the general shape, length, and structure of the document (headings, paragraph length, things like that). After that, I start at the beginning and read linearly, as any reader would.
As I read, I’m analyzing the document at multiple levels simultaneously.
- Is this fluid? Am I enjoying reading this? Why or why not?
- Is this believable? Is it convincing?
- Is it boring? If so, why is it boring?
- Is there a main idea? How long does it take to get to that idea? Is it stated clearly? Does it remain consistent throughout the document?
- Is it repetitive? How could like ideas be brought together and compressed?
- What’s the general structure and through line of the document? Is it easy to follow? Does it connect?
- Are there lots of meaningless platitudes — things everybody already knows?
- Are the paragraphs well structured and readable? Are they too long?
- Do the transitions connect paragraphs and sections well?
- Are the sentences effective, grammatical, and not too long?
- Is there a lot of passive voice? (This is separate from the other grammatical issues because it is too common. I have a passive voice detector in my editing mind that sets off an alert when I read a passive sentence.)
- Are there other distracting writing tics, like too many em-dashes, exclamation points, rhetorical questions, profanity, or the like?
- If there is jargon, is it dense or incomprehensible?
- Are there too many weasel words?
- Are there words that the author repeats enough to be distracting?
- Does the author use pronouns in a distracting way (unclear antecedents or switching between “we” and “you,” for example)?
- Are there too many “asides” or personal comments that distract from the actual content?
- Are sources noted appropriately?
- If there are quotes from famous people, are they things those people actually said?
- Are there any common grammatical errors, such as sentence fragments, subject/verb disagreement, or words used inappropriately?
- Would the text be better if it included bulleted lists, numbered lists, links, direct quotes, block quotes, tables, graphics, or other methods to break up the litany of paragraph after paragraph?
- Are there inconsistencies in terminology?
- Are there any other poor writing habits that interfere with readability? (It seems like every time I read a document I find a new way authors can fail.)
- Why is the author writing the way they do, and what insights might I offer that would help them to understand a better way to write?
This is mostly an unconscious process. The only way I know to do it is to read from beginning to end. I am generally making redline edits throughout and noting patterns I detect in comments. I’m also compiling a list of those patterns in a document that will become an edit memo. To create that memo, I look for overarching perspectives from the patterns and write directly to the author, describing the major issues, why I believe they are happening, and how they might be better.
In longer documents like books, the process is similar
When editing a book (or any document longer than 20,000 words), the main difference is that there are multiple levels of structure to evaluate. In a book, I need to see if the chapters tell a story, and if within a chapter, the sections and paragraphs tell a story. And I need to look for consistency broadly across the whole document. Other than that, the process is the same.
What I don’t understand about my own process
There is a zen quality to this. As I read, different parts of my brain are analyzing words, sentences, paragraphs, structure, ideas, writing tics, motivations, and the psychology of writing. I have no idea how I do all that at once (and I worry that if I investigated it too fully, it might all fall apart).
Somehow, at the end of all of this, I know not just what’s wrong with the document, but how to fix it and why the writer has these issues. I can teach how to write better, but could I teach how to edit the way I do? I don’t really know.
What I do know is that making documents better using the skills I’ve developed over decades makes me happy. And making writers better makes me fulfilled as well. Finding that out has made my life and work far better.
You’ve laid out a great template for writers/students to self-edit here, too. Editing will be the new super power of good writers as AI becomes more prevalent.