What is editing and why is it so difficult?

It’s more than simply reading, more than offering opinions

Divorced from context, the term “editing” can mean almost anything related to changes in text, by anyone, for any reason.  Someone reviewing and correcting grammar and punctuation? (Perhaps well, perhaps not.) “Editing.” Someone remarking on or altering your word choice or tone of voice? “Editing.” People from other teams popping into your doc and suggesting substantive changes based on their own perspectives? “Editing.”

But thinking of this work as editing is like equating the words that anyone sets down on the page, with whatever degree of success, with the work of a trained and accomplished writer.

What is “editing”?

With professional editing, there is a framework for process and approach, and as part of this framework, editors work within what are known as the levels of edit. Here’s an intro to that concept, something a little deeper, and sample checklists that help distinguish the concerns of each level. There’s plenty more about it online as well. This is just the briefest look.

Not all the levels are identical across contexts. Sometimes the labels differ, sometimes the divisions between levels are drawn a bit differently — and of course, editing for fiction focuses on the narrative framework — but the work always progresses from deeper, more substantive work to lighter, more language-oriented work. Not unlike the thinking and exploring and work that you engage in as you develop and refine a piece of writing yourself, although seldom in simple sweeps from deep to light.

The work of a professional editor is to assist you in that process, bringing to bear on the work another set of eyes trained to see problems and to offer solutions, trained also to work as much as possible to remove the element of subjectivity from that process.

Why is another pair of eyes so useful? Why is it so difficult to edit our own work?

When we’re engaged in the process of writing, we tend to sieve back and forth between deeper layers of thought and the more surface layers of language. In fact, that division itself is artificial: thought informs language; language, thought.

As we work, we’re deeply entangled in the process of refining and augmenting and clarifying, and organizing the whole of it. By the time we’re done, we’re so bound up in the work that it can be difficult to step back and see where the thinking we’d intended is not quite there yet on the page. Additionally, it can be difficult to separate ourselves from the meaning of the text to skate over it at the surface level, seeing all the little glitches of mechanics that can creep in as we work.

And of course, there’s that specialized training too. Professional editors train (often with coaching or mentoring), and then they practice day in and day out. They will see things in your text that you did not, not only because they come to the work with “fresh eyes” but also because they are trained to spot issues, and potential issues, and to sort out difficult tangles. Even when an editor does not know the subject matter or does not know it well, she can identify issues with the expression of thought on the page and the flow of the text itself. She might then have remedies to offer or she might have several questions to ask, in order to get at the best remedy or remedies.

Through the guidance of a good editor, you’ll see your own work anew. You’ll approach it with those “fresh eyes.” And you’ll become a better writer through the process.