Come to terms with editing — here’s how

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Are you the type of person who finds editing to be a discouraging, torturous process? Here’s how to come to terms with editing….

Many of the people I work with start off by detesting writing. Instead, they’d much rather be editing. In fact, I’d say this describes about 80% of my clients and readers.

But there is also an important 20% of people who fall into the opposite category. These are people who adore writing — they do it quickly and easily — but they loathe editing. 

If this description fits you, I understand the problem is no less acute because it affects fewer people. It’s bloody annoying, but I have seven suggestions for you:

1-Before you even consider picking up your red pencil, take a break. I call this break ‘incubation and it’s the crucially important step of allowing your draft to “rest” before you re-read it and try to make it better. Think of it as similar to the stage where bread needs to rise or beer needs to ferment; without the resting stage, you’d have wallpaper paste or vinegar. 

For writers, the problem arises because we’re too close to our work. Think about it: You’ve done the research, the planning, the thinking and even the writing for goodness’s sake! How are you going to put yourself into the mindset of your readers who have none of those advantages? You won’t be able to understand their confusion or blank spots until you gain the advantage of some perspective. And perspective comes only with time. Allow as much time as your deadline permits and for long-form projects like books or dissertations, make it a minimum of six weeks. When the deadline doesn’t permit that much time, take as long as you can get.

2-Declare a time of day and a time commitment for editing and make it small.  You’re lucky that writing hasn’t been a problem for you but you can use some of the same strategies that your writing-averse colleagues have employed to make writing easier. The most effective trick is to make your work both predictable and small. Why? Most of us can do just about anything — even stuff we hate — for five minutes. Especially if we do it in the morning, when our willpower is at its highest

People often describe themselves as “lazy” for being procrastinators. But I have never found this to be true. Instead, the people who procrastinate are usually overwhelmed. Refuse to let editing overwhelm you. Instead, turn it into a habit by spending 5 to 15 minutes on it daily. 

3-Build an editing checklist. Don’t just read and re-read your writing with the vague intent of making it better. Such a strategy won’t work and will only make you feel bad about yourself. Understand that editing is a step-by-step process (that will vary slightly for each piece of work and each individual) and spelling out your own list of tasks to do will give you a ‘checklist’ to follow. See here for some ideas. Doesn’t following a checklist sound easier than building a new process from scratch?

Also be aware that there are at least two distinct stages to the editing process: substantive editing and copy editing. The former (which is ignored by many new writers who run out of time to consider it) relates to content. For non-fiction it addresses such questions as: Is your argument convincing? Have you marshalled enough evidence? Is everything in the right order? For fiction it addresses such questions as: Are all of the characters fully fleshed enough? Have they experienced significant change(s) by the denouement? Does the plot hang together or are there any loose ends? 

Once you’ve done the substantive edit, then you can turn to copy editing, where the questions relate to rules and style: spelling, grammar, sentence length, passive vs active voice etc.  

4-Use software to help. Editing feels like lonely, frightening work to some. But it needn’t be! Good software can help turn the process into a game. I have experimented with both Grammarly and ProWritingAid and I can say with utmost certainty that ProWritingAid is the superior software. And it’s cheaper, too! (Read my analysis here.) It will give you more control of editing and help you become a much more knowledgeable and skillful self-editor. 

5-Consider outlining. I find many people are eager to prepare outlines before writing (when such a process is usually a bad idea. Mindmap, before writing; don’t outline!) But constructing a retrospective outline after writing can be exceptionally useful. Think of it as an ‘engineering drawing’ of your piece of writing. It will display to you the structure you’ve used and areas of potential confusion for readers. For long-form projects like books or dissertations, the outline will also act as a detailed table of contents (I suggest you use page numbers with it), allowing you to find exactly where you’ve raised specific points. This will be an ongoing benefit to you as you continue with your editing.

6-Remind yourself of your motivation/goal. Some parts of writing are uncomfortable for everyone. Here is where you can help yourself with reminders of your overall goal. WHY are you doing this writing? Do you need it to earn a degree? How will that help you? Or perhaps you’re writing to help other people. If your failure to edit prevents you from sharing this work with others, imagine the number of people who could benefit from your words but will not be able to see them because you haven’t been able to bring yourself to finish. Wouldn’t a slightly less excellent product be better for them than nothing?

7-Don’t depend only on yourself. If editing is something that you loathe so much you absolutely can’t bear to do it, consider getting help. At the very least you can use beta readers for feedback. These are unpaid people who are willing to read your work and give you their honest thoughts and opinions. (Choosing the right people for this job is important. See here and here for advice.) And if your budget will permit it, you could also consider hiring a professional editor. Most universities will allow grad students to hire editors to review their theses or dissertations, although be sure to confirm with authorities first.

A small number of the people I’ve worked with have other, more complex issues that affect their ability to come to terms with editing. (Just guessing here, but I’d put that number at fewer than 2%.) If you feel you fall into this group, I suggest you consider using the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help yourself. This is not a type of “positive thinking” exercise. Instead, it’s a way of building a rational plan to get around problems that are bothering you. The workbook Mind Over Mood, should help you a great deal. 


Need some help developing a sustainable writing or editing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week addressed the marketability of various genres of fiction. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


What tricks do you use to come to terms with editing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Rick Ross, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a Dec. 21/21 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Rick!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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