When I was an English teacher, an administrator once told me I should always walk around the classroom with a pencil. That way, as I’m helping my students improve their writing, I can simply correct errors right then and there to give them a proper visual.
If I’m being honest, I’ve also wanted to apply this concept to my life outside of the classroom. See a billboard with a misspelling? A terribly written magazine article? A novel with unauthentic characters? Just pull out your pencil and fix it.
As writers and editors, we do make errors. Well, at least I do. But when it comes to editing, it's sometimes difficult for us to overlook the errors of others. When applying for a freelance gig, I was once asked what I liked and disliked about editing. It took me a few moments to put into words how I felt about the editing process.
There’s a big difference between editing someone else’s work and editing my own. But regardless of which type of editing I’m doing, what I like most about it is watching how the words come alive after making a few small changes. I love the moment when suddenly it clicks— and a few adjustments to the sentence structure makes the writing more fluid and compelling.
What I don't like about editing is battling perfectionism. French painter Pierre Bonnard was known for adding to his paintings even after they were finished. Apparently, he had a friend distract a guard in the Louvre so he could add a few more brush strokes to his painting hanging there. That's how editing feels sometimes. Even after the content is finished, I still want to add a few more "brush strokes."
So what does the editing process look like, and how do you know when you’re “done”?
When I’m doing a complete edit of a draft, the editing process typically looks like this:
First read-through This gives me an overall idea of what the piece is about and what areas I may need to focus on.
Structural edit Whether it’s a poem, short story, or a blog, there should be a clear message and it should connect from beginning to end.
Copyedit Line-by-line, I go through the content and check for accuracy. This is the time to catch any grammatical or structural errors that I didn’t catch earlier.
Proofread I like to think of the proofreading stage as going through the draft with a super-fine tooth comb. There shouldn’t be any major errors at this point, but there may be small inconsistencies or spelling errors that were previously missed.
Final read-through When I’m editing a longer piece, it’s sometimes helpful to take a break from the content before doing the final read-through. It’s easy to miss things when you’ve looked at the content a thousand times.
Whether you're editing someone else's work or your own, always start by doing a read-through and end by doing a read-through. I find myself frequently reading the draft out loud because it gives me a good idea of what the flow is like. I check for repetitive sentence structure and unnecessary words. It’s easy to add unnecessary words when we’re trying to describe or explain something, but sometimes fewer is better.
How Do You Know When You’re Done?
One of the challenging parts of editing is knowing when to stop. Some may argue content can never be perfect. If you’ve done your final read-through and there’s no glaring errors or areas that need help, trust your instinct.
You may be tempted to keep going back to the draft with fear in your eyes, worrying that you missed something. Be thorough and be accurate, but don’t let worry drive your editing. It’s unlikely that the clouds will part and angels will sing to signal that the draft is finally finished, but when you get to a point where you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished, trust that your work is done.
In the wise words of Stephen King, “To write is human, to edit divine.” For many writers, editing is where the magic happens. Getting the words down in the first place can be the most challenging part. After all, it’s easier to edit a crummy first draft than it is to create one. Once you’ve got the words down you can focus on putting them together in a way that will inspire and if you’re editing someone else’s work, you get to be the one to make their work shine.