Editing is the flowers on the windowsill in a beautifully clean and tidy room.
Well, that’s how I think of it anyway.
Writing is creative, and therefore messy. It opens drawers, scatters papers, shakes things up. Gets involved, forgets to tidy up, leaves the coffee cups on the desk. And at the end there is a piece of text: a poem, a novel, a short story, a blog post, a scientific paper.
And then there is editing. Where the papers are gathered and organised, the coffee cups cleared away, the shelves dusted, the piles of books decluttered. And then a vase of flowers on the windowsill in the sun to mark a job well done, a poem or a novel or a thesis made to shine as it was always meant to.
This is how I feel when I have finished working on something: that it is better than when I started – but better in the sense that I have unearthed its hidden treasures and made them visible.
The ways of the editor
Poetic visions aside, how does all that tidying (aka editing) happen? What’s the process?
It helps first to understand that there are different kinds of editing for different kinds of writing. A text that is almost ready to be published needs proofreading; a novel in its very early stages might need developmental editing. This article goes some way to demystifying this. And, professional editors will all have their own ways of doing things.
Here is a brief, broad outline of my own routines for different kinds of writing:
If it’s short, I start with a quick scan, letting my hands and my eyes find the spelling mistakes, the grammar issues, the small inconsistencies, the typos (when things are typed wrong) and getting a sense of the overall structure.
Then I read it properly, changing, rearranging, rewriting, researching, noting things which need to be queried with the writer. Those queries get sent off to the writer, or to the commissioning editor, for answering.
Once the answers to the queries are incorporated, I skim it again, looking for all the errors I might have introduced in all the steps above.
Then I do a spell check, sort out layout issues and let it go.
If it’s long, I will start with a quick page through to see what’s ahead. Then I will do the detailed read, sort out the writer queries and only then work on the small things.
The question of voice
The trickiest part of all of this is to change and correct and improve while still keeping the author’s voice. It is their writing and not mine, and respecting that is a cornerstone of the editor’s craft.
Respect is key to dealing with something really problematic about editing: it can feel as though what is going on is that one person is effectively pointing out another person’s mistakes, wielding a red pen like a teacher.
Actually, the process is a two-way street: creation and mess, followed by tidying and refining and polishing. There’s no room for a red pen in that scenario. Instead, at the end, there are those flowers on the window sill.
I know, I know. A writer is someone who writes books. An editor does something important at a newspaper. That’s not you, right?
But every time you write an email, or post something on Facebook, you are writing.
Every time you go to the local print shop and organise a card or a flyer for your business, you are writing.
Every time you send a WhatsApp message, you are writing.
And every time you pause before you send and look again at the email or WhatsApp or Facebook post and add a full stop or wonder if Coronivirus starts with a capital letter or not (it doesn’t), you are editing.
We don’t think about these things at all, because they seem so ordinary. But they are important.
When things go wrong
They are important because they are all forms of communication, with another person at the other end.
Human beings are good at face to face communication. We’re not so good at written communication. As one consultant says:
In face-to-face communication, we rely heavily on non-verbal information like facial expression, body posture, gestures, and voice tone to interpret and predict other people’s behavior.
Without these important non-verbal cues, our imaginations fill in the blanks of what the person sending the message intended, and how they felt about the communication. We rarely fill in the blanks with positive intentions. This can lead to misunderstandings, damaged relationships, and poor business decisions.
We’ve all sent emails or made posts that blew up in our faces because the readers just didn’t get it.
How to fix it
For informal communication, the first step is taking our communication more seriously. Even a WhatsApp to your teenager could do with a second read before you send it (especially, probably, a text to your teenager). And think like a writer: do that second read while trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
For more formal communication, the first step is the same. Take everything seriously. Even a hastily made poster explaining that you are closed during the lockdown needs to be thought through. Read it again. Put it away, even if just for 10 minutes. Then read it again. Make changes.
And if you are still unsure – ask a friend or colleague to read it.
And only then do you hit print.
And for the big stuff? The annual report, the novel, the flyer, the billboard. Just spend money on a professional writer or editor – or both!
Writing in Russian cyrillic script with a fountain pen. Picture: Petar Milošević, Wikimedia Commons
Is writing for the web different from any other kind of writing?
The short answer is not really.
Writing on any platform should follow the same basic rules: good sense, good grammar and spelling, good reasoning. Clarity and conciseness. Lack of jargon. No padding… and so on.
That said, there are some things that need special attention on the web – and those are largely to do with the fact that the reader is not looking a text on a page. Let’s break this down.
When you are reading text on a page:
* You can see the text in a large context – if it’s in a newspaper or magazine, you can see the article in one glance along with its pictures and headlines and pull quotes and so on.
* You are likely to be spending a little time with text – with a book or a newspaper, there’s a built-in expectation that the reader has sat down metaphorically with a cup of tea or coffee and is going to read and inwardly digest as the saying goes.
When you are reading text on a screen:
* You don’t necessarily see all the related content at once – you have to scroll in one way or another to get to the pictures and other illustrations.
* You might be looking at a phone or a tablet in very small bits of time – quickly in a queue, or while sitting at a traffic light.
Studies suggest that people scan screens in particular ways – there is a whole field of research called eyetracking with keeps tabs on this, and the latest research suggests that people scan a page in a F-Shaped pattern. There’s a lot of detail on that but the takeaway for the purposes of this articles is making an assumption that people start at the top of an article and read to the bottom is not useful. Research also shows that when people encounter text which is not formatted for the web, they are likely to lose interest and click away:
“the vast majority of the web users would rather finish their tasks as fast as possible with the minimum amount of effort; they visit a page because they want to find a quick answer rather than read a dissertation on the topic and educate themselves.”
So the way in which text is formatted can be very important in keeping people reading. Vital elements of formatting for the web (or the smartphone) include:
Bolding important words
Bulleted lists (like this one!)
Headings and subheadings
Making sure the important information is easy to find
Visually grouping related content
Including pictures, maps and graphics
In other words, break the text up. Long screens on text simply don’t cut it!