How I Edit

For a creative person, the difference between reading “You suck!” and reading “Here’s where I think you made some wrong decisions” is the difference between being shamed into crawling under the covers and never putting their work out there ever again, and being encouraged to make their product better. We should always, always aim to do the latter. – Rian

The red pen is on the move.I have an odd relationship with editing, primarily because I’ve followed different veins of it. I’ve been a copy editor for a newspaper (Ancient history, but still.). I’ve been an editor for a few journals, mostly ones from my undergraduate and graduate school days. I’ve also been an editor of other people’s writing, both their professional or creative work.

That editing brings the other two editing roles together. The first role focuses on mistakes in the copy, i.e., spelling, punctuation, and grammar; the second focuses on the ideas. It weighs them. It examines how the individual elements contribute to the whole.

I combine the two roles because editing, for me, is more than proofreader’s marks. I use those things if and when they’re helpful, but I tend to focus on the big picture and the language itself. It isn’t enough to slice and dice. Red ink without an explanation doesn’t do anything but quell the desire to write or destroy a person’s confidence.

My version of editing is meant to restore confidence, although it is brutal in its own way. It’s a mistake to think that the Write Right way of editing means glossing over the truth. My role is to be a second set of eyes and to provide an external perspective. That perspective might say a work isn’t ready. It might pinpoint where the writing becomes forced or where the text needs additional support. It does so because it sees the things to which the writer has become blind, including what the work could be. I know this blindness because, as a writer, I’m often a victim of it myself. I can be too close to a text or a drawing. I can become immune to the trouble spots. I can get lost in my own context. I need someone to examine my work and say where it could improve. I need to know what someone else sees when he or she looks at it. What themes exist? What is the motion of the text? Where does the writing need work?

It’s those questions that concern me when I edit, not merely ones of correct spelling and grammar. I look at the idea itself. I wonder how to best help the writer to discover the answers he or she needs. I only can do so much as a copy editor. Acting as one might make the copy sparkle, but it doesn’t help the writer to grow and that – that – is my overriding concern.

Photo: Jenny Kaczorowski (CC BY NC SA 2.0)


  1. Too many editors try to make the writer’s work their own. That’s hard not to do, but editing is always taken for granted, too. I like hearing about your train of thought on this.

    • Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing It is hard, but if that’s what’s happening when an editor edits, he or she is doing it wrong. I loved reading the conversation between George Saunders and his editor. They have an amazing understanding of each other and of what each brings to the work. I aspire to be an editor like that, not one that forces writers to march to the beat of my own drum. Besides, that’s boring. The world is a much more vibrant place when different voices and different perspectives are shared.

    • Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing I’ve worked with a number of editors and 85-90% of their suggestions I take and fix, but almost all of those are punctuation or tense related. Far too often, when they try to change something for reasons other than technical errors, it is because they didn’t “GET” the passage. This happens a lot with the Henry Wood stuff, because I do a lot of research and insert language and such that is appropriate for 1955. I don’t care if my editor doesn’t know what the word means, or if most readers don’t either, because some of them will just ignore it, while others will look the word up. It is the latter group for whom I write.

      • ExtremelyAvg Have you read the interview between George Saunders and his editor? They have a beautiful relationship. It’s something I aspire to as an editor. Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing

  2. If I write another book, will you edit it?

  3. Great thoughts to keep in mind when self-editing! Thanks Erin.

    • barrettrossie You’re welcome! I think, though, self-editing only works so far. At some point, someone else has to look at the work. What do you think?

    • barrettrossie Self editing is hard for me. Most days I dread reading something I’ve written and know needs a serious polish. It is one of those strange things about me, because often when I sit down and work on one of my finished novels for a few hours, I get in a groove and quite like it. Why then, do I so dread something that almost always ends up being somewhat enjoyable?
      I don’t know, but I do.

      • ExtremelyAvg barrettrossie I think Steven Pressfield calls that “resistance.” Maybe it would help to use Lamott’s short assignments when it comes to editing – focus on one paragraph, then another. Bird by bird as she says.

  4. A nice way to edit. I am very bad at it and this might help a lot!

  5. Great thoughts. This ties so nicely into a process that my firm uses to manage quality assurance. The second set of eyes on a set of drawings or documents is a critical part of how we produce our work. The first important piece is what you are getting at with being too close to a piece to see your own mistakes anymore. We all suffer from that. Human nature.
    The second is the educational aspect. The editing allows the editor to offer insight as to the nature of the edits. In the architectural profession the approach of the critique has existed forever and has traditionally been harsh and often without empathy for the creators design. Ego has often driven critique. I know, I know but true.
    In our office we have dispelled with the ego driven aspect and use the quality assurance review to ensure documentation is at its best before it leaves the office. We base the process in learning, being the best we can be and as an opportunity to share knowledge. It sounds altruistic but it’s true and it works. After 2-1/2 years I can say it is a process that is critical to our success.
    Thanks for offering the opportunity. Great, great post.

    • rdopping Thanks! I’m familiar with ego-driven critiques. The same happens in other circles such as graphic design or writing. I suppose that’s part of the reason I approach editing differently. Another part of it is that I do work on both sides of the fence. Doing so makes me more self-aware. At least, I hope it does.


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