Editing: Saying what you mean and meaning what you say

Today I would like to take a brief intermission from my series on speculative fiction (which will return next week) to look at a key part of writing that many beginners misunderstand and almost all professionals loathe:  the editing process.  It certainly is the most boring, most frustrating, and least engaging part of writing anything; it is also absolutely and completely necessary.

This fact has been brought home to me again and again during my time as a college professor.  Here is a sample of just a few of the reminders I get sometimes on a daily basis.  Bear in mind that all but one of the following actually occurred in one of my classes (these are my best reproductions from memory, the emphasis in some is mine):

  •  The person who said “I conquer with your opening statement…” We cannot help but thank God that Hitler, Napoleon, and Stalin never rose to such rhetorical heights!
  • An individual who evaluated Andrew Jackson by stating that “one may find him to be unflavored or for the lack of better words not the most popular president of the United States.”  There is still open debate as to whether or not Jackson would have been helped in the polls by the addition of barbecue or teriyaki sauce.
  • At the bottom of an essay, I found, “The Constitution of the United States established in 11/15/1977.”  I still have no idea what this person was thinking or what it was supposed to mean.
  • The journalist who reported that “The ship was christened by Mrs. Coolidge.  The lines of her bottom were applauded by an admiring crowd.”  I’ll bet that would have provoked her husband, President “Silent Cal” Coolidge into a few choice words.
  • One person observed that “Because of Perry and Elliott’s vigorous excretions, the Americans were able to win the Battle of Lake Eerie.”  Wow.  That must have been some other burrito!

What all of these have in common with each other is a lack of careful editing.  None of the authors–those that I know personally–are unintelligent or otherwise incapable.  I’ve seen most of them produce good and even excellent work in other situations.  But, for whatever reason, they did not take proper care in that particular instant.

That is completely normal, of course.  Being that we are all human, we will make mistakes.  The simple question is when and where will we commit them?  Unfortunately, as natural as making mistakes might be, it is also true that allowing them to remain in a finished product is completely unacceptable.  The much harder question is what steps will we take to catch and eliminate those errors in our writing?  No one writes a perfect first draft–but almost anyone can, with the proper safeguards and effort, put together a close to flawless finished product, from a technical/grammatical standpoint.   In the end, the author and the author alone is responsible for the text that he or she unleashes upon the world (at least until a publisher gets hold of it–but that is another post), and therefore we have no one to blame but ourselves when something goes wrong.

Of course, that is much more easily said than done.  By the time we reach serious editing, we are often reading for tiny points of grammar and there is very little of the excitement of raw creativity left.  We are reading the same words over and over, without much to add or learn from them.  We simply pound our brains against the words until we think we’ve shaken out all the kinks.  That takes determination and plain nerve.  As Churchill said,

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.

Here are some suggestions that you might find useful in your quest to tackle the editing process:

  • Allow enough time to complete the process:  Most people can’t edit even a short piece in only an hour or two. I usually write these blog posts two or three days in advance and I go over them multiple times, and I usually still find something I need to correct after they go live.  For bigger projects, you may need to allow months worth of time.  Take that into account for planning deadlines.
  • Don’t edit a project unceasingly:  Your brain has a tendency to see what it wants to see, especially in something that it is wrapped up in.  So, for instance, you can easily read the correct spelling into a word that is obviously wrong when you go into it expecting to see the right word.  Taking a break gives your mind a chance to look at your piece in a fresh way and it helps you see the text you actually wrote, not the text you wanted to write.  If you give yourself a week of editing time, at least a third of it should be spent doing things completely unconnected to your project.  Take a walk.  Ride a horse.  Play a game.  Wash the dishes.  Just do anything to take your mind off your project.
  • Edit a hard copy (Related–don’t trust your Word processor):  It never ceases to amaze me how many more errors I and others catch when we grade a hard copy instead of just keeping it all on-line.  Computer text just doesn’t seem to stick with most people like text on a page–just think of how quickly you scan through even the longest e-mail.  Also, we come to rely on spell-check and grammar check far too much.  That can get you into significant trouble, as we saw above.  “Excretions,” “conquer,” and “unflavored” were all properly spelled and therefore they didn’t pop up in spell check.  Unfortunately, they were all very  wrong words.
  • Enlist the help of others:  The simple fact is that we will never be far enough away from our subject to really see it with absolute clarity.  We have to rely on others for that.  And you will get their opinions, whether you like it or not, if you want to try to publish something.  Therefore, if you aren’t a part of a writers’ group, I would suggest forming one with some honest friends–preferably brutally honest.  It is always better to hear the truth from them in private than to have to face that same truth in public, in front of an editor or at the hands of a reviewer.

In the end, much of this takes plain and difficult determination–a driving desire to get it right. If you have that, you’re already well on your way to editing success.

I can only hope I’ve caught all the issues in this post!  🙂



About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on February 16, 2012, in Brian Melton, Editing, Grammar, Style and Structure, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Preach it, brother! Here are my Five Rules for Good Proofreading:
    1. Do it.
    2. Do it in hard copy.
    3. Let at least 24 hours elapse between finishing the paper and doing the final proofread. (You will be amazed at how much more objective you are.)
    4. Do it out loud. (Things that your brain would pass over, your ears will catch.)
    5. Do it for specifics. (You should by now know what your besetting grammatical sins are. So do a whole proofread looking for just that one thing, e.g., disagreement of pronoun/antecedent. You know you do it–use the plural “they/their/them” to refer to a singular noun. OK, if your’re just looking for stuff in general you will miss it, but it that’s the only thing you are looking for,you will probably find it.)

  2. But what about those of us who don’t MAKE mistakes….?

    Actually, I was greatly humbled to have several typos identified in my last essay after I had handed it in thinking it was good to go. And I do find them all the time in my writing, much to my eternal chagrin. I don’t think there is anyone, even a grammar nazi, who can escape several rounds of editing if he or she expects a grammatically sound piece of writing. It just doesn’t happen.

    And what I don’t get is why students gripe so very much about editing. That’s the fun part. You’ve got the hard writing out of the way and now it’s time to make it pretty! Seriously, this is good stuff!

    The Grammar Ninja has spoken.

  3. Very informative post! Thank you for sharing!


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