Teachers, business people, and just about everyone else it seems complain often and loudly that people today (usually “kids today”) don’t know how to write. I’m convinced, though, that a big part of the problem (perhaps the biggest part of the problem) is that people don’t know how to edit. We labor under the notion that good writing flows easily from the pen or typing fingers, and that editing too much will “kill” our work.
The best writers know differently, of course — their memoirs and biographies and writing manuals are filled with stories of books that needed to be cut in half to be readable, sentences that took weeks or months to get just right, and lifetimes spent tinkering with a single work that never strikes them as “just right”. To paraphrase a common saying among writers, there is no good writing, only good re-writing.
But if writing isn’t taught well enough or often enough these days, editing is hardly taught at all. This is too bad, since editing is where the real work of writing is at. More than just proofreading, good editing improves the clarity and forcefulness of a piece. Here’s some tips and tricks to help you make your writing more effective:
- Read out loud: Reading a piece out loud helps you to identify clunky, awkward passages that seem to make sense to the eye, especially to the author’s eye.
- Read in reverse: You may have heard about reading backwards, word by word, to help proofread. This works because you bypass your brain’s tendency to fill in what it expects to see, allowing you to catch spelling errors you might otherwise gloss over. This is useless, though, when it comes to content, where meaning comes from phrases and word order. Instead, read from back to front, sentence by sentence (or maybe paragraph by paragraph, or both) to make sure that each sentence and each paragraph is internally coherent — that it makes sense on its own.
- Sleep on it: Wait at least a night, and preferably longer, before starting your editing. Ideally, you want to forget what you wrote, so that — again — your brain doesn’t see what it expects to see but only sees what’s really there. A lot of times we make logical errors that make sense at the time, because our minds are filled with ideas, examples, and arguments related to our topic; when we approach our writing with a clear mind, though, those mental connections are gone, and only what we’ve actually written counts.
- Cut, don’t add: We are almost always too wordy. While you may need to add a word or two while editing, for the most part you should be removing words. Concise writing is more powerful and easier to read than lengthy prose.
- Justify yourself: Every point, statement, question, joke, even every word should have a reason to be in your piece; if it doesn’t, strike it. Be harsh — if a word or phrase does not add value to your writing, get rid of it.
- Establish cognizance of pretentious language usages and eliminate such material: That is, watch for fancy words and cut them. Inexperienced writers often ape the language of academia, or rather the language they imagine academia uses. Even if you’re in academia, don’t use academic writing as a model. While there is a time and place for jargon, for the most part jargon exists to exclude readers, not include them. For most readers, the language of journalists is a much more appropriate model — and that means aiming for at best a smart eighth-grader’s reading level.
- Throw out and get rid of unnecessary redundancies you don’t need: This applies in both sentences and the work as a whole. In high school, you might have learned to “say it, say it again, and then say what you said”; for most readers, this is a waste of their time and an insult to their intelligence; in the end, they’ll just tune you out. Say it clearly the first time, then move on.
- Kill unsightly adverbs: Some adverbs are fine, but usually they serve only to pad out a statement that doesn’t need padding. For example: “He ran quickly”. It is in the nature of running to be quick. If there’s something unusual about his running (perhaps he ran slowly), then mention it; if not, just say “he ran” and trust your readers to know what running means.
- Passive sentences are to be avoided: Beware of the use of “to be” and its conjugations (is, was, were, are, am). These often indicate a passive sentence, where the subject is acted upon instead of acting. Passivity makes for weak, unconvincing writing. Passivity is often the hallmark of someone trying to weasel out of something: “Mistakes were made” assigns no blame, while “I made a mistake” tells the world you’re taking responsibility. It does not convey the action, it only suggests the effect. So avoid passive sentences.
Good editing, like good writing (or, better, as part of good writing), is an art. It takes time and practice to develop a real talent for editing, but the end result is worth it — your writing will be more alive, more effective, and ultimately more likely to be read. And that is, after all, what’s important: that your audience reads and, just as crucially, understands your work.