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.
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