Editing for better

Posted: July 12, 2013 in writing
Tags: , ,

When we try to refine something, whether it’s a story, an essay, or a recipe for chilli, we tend to look for what doesn’t work. An attitude of ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ prevails. But while this is fine for avoiding producing rubbish, it doesn’t help us step up our game from good to awesome. So this week, I’ve been trying a different approach to editing, one inspired by my old job.

I used to work in continuous improvement. It’s an area full of meaningless buzz-words and over-extended job titles, but where we actually did some good. My job was to help people improve their working processes, and to keep improving them. Not just to respond to the broken bits, but to keep refining, on the basis that you can always do better.

Unfortunately, some people had trouble getting their heads around this. If I suggested changing something, they would often tell me it worked well enough, so why bother? Of course, the answer was that it could work even better, but that was a surprisingly hard sell. If something is good enough, if it has no troublesome errors, most of us are pre-disposed to leave it as it is, to say ‘that’ll do’. As someone whose job was to take us beyond ‘that’ll do’, it drove me nuts.

Fast forward to this Tuesday, and I realised I was taking that exact attitude to my own writing, at least where reading for edits was concerned. When I read a first draft of a story I was looking for what was wrong, with the intention of fixing it. That needs doing, of course, but that mentality meant I was reading for ‘good enough’.

Yesterday I picked up a chapter and started reading with a different approach. For every single paragraph, I was going to find a way that it could be improved. Whether it was fixing an error, making a description more poetic, adding character, foreshadowing a later development, whatever seemed most appropriate. I wasn’t going to settle for fixing it. I was going to improve everything.

It’s a slower process. It’s a more tiring process. But ultimately, I think it’ll yield better results.

Those of you who write, how do you read for edits? Do you look for errors? Do you focus on particular aspects of your writing? Are you already doing what I’ve just worked out? Let me know. I’m interested to learn from others’ methods.

And all of you, whatever you’re doing, don’t just settle for good enough – find something you’re working on and aim for awesome.

Here endeth the preaching.

  1. everwalker says:

    It sounds like you take a much more structured approach to editing than me, and I should learn from it. I edit by instinct – I read until a word or sentence jars me, or a better one occurs. Then I pass it to the raptor, who demands more/less description, characterisation, at which point I rewrite and start doing it again. I don’t think of it as fixing or improving, exactly, so much as ‘that needs to change’.

    • That sounds quite a lot like my ‘is it broken?’ approach, except that I’m doing it without the raptor’s assistance. It’s finding the things that aren’t right, rather than assuming that everything can be better.

      It’s interesting that you get someone else involved even doing those initial edits. I always have a go through without anyone else’s input first, which is easier to arrange but means that stage is just me talking to myself.

  2. This makes very good sense, Andy. I edit for a living, but because of what I am working on, and how, where and why, it is OK for me to take the “good enough” approach in the day job. For the small amount of creative writing work I did for Atlas, reading and re-reading to polish was always an important step in the process. When I edited for Hermes Portal, I tended toward “good enough”, however, as I was editing the work of others and striving to retain their personal choices and individual voice while ironing out lack of clarity and grammatical mistakes. If it is of any help, I would be honoured to read through anything of yours using that last approach.

    • Thanks Sheila, it’s interesting to see how people approach editing in different situations. I’ve taken that approach to editing other people’s work in the past as well – a light, error-focussed touch so as not to undermine their voice, even if I wasn’t a fan of that voice! And I’ll definitely take you up on the offer of reading at some point.

  3. glenatron says:

    It’s interesting how approaching editing is a bit different for everyone- I found it interesting when I started thinking about my writing in the way I think about programming and trying to imagine everything from the point of view of the reader’s experience of my narrative. It’s weird to be doing a kind of user-focussed writing rather than just churning out narrative, but I think my writing is a little sharper and more purposeful for it.

    I suppose the more we use these techniques the more they can become part of the originating style rather than an a later edit. There will always be need for editing as stories shift and characters grow, but I like to think that over time I might just learn enough from some of the types of edit I perform that I might need to do them less in future.

    • You’re right about that shift in what we need to edit. Even editing other people’s work has improved my initial writing, as I spot patterns in other people’s work I had a blind spot for in my own.

      I’m going to try your approach of thinking about the reader’s experience as well. Again, it’s something I should have learned from the old job, where we were meant to view everything from the customer’s perspective, but I’ve never thought to apply it to writing. Thanks for that one.

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