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.
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Main picture: Brandi Redd, Unsplash