How to Take the "Ouch" Out of Editing

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In the past few years, I have published several books and have had the opportunity to work with professional editors. I submitted my manuscripts with a bit of trepidation. I hoped they didn’t red-line my work and call me a hack! If they viciously cut out whole sections of my manuscript, I wouldn’t meet their expectations for 300 pages or earn my advance.

I was so relieved to find out that working with professional editors is a pleasure! What a professional editor realizes is that you cannot change someone’s style. I was hired to write a book called Accounting Demystified. McGraw-Hill chose me because I make complex ideas easy to understand and because my writing style is conversational and light. (They did not hire my UT accounting professor to write it—because the title would have to be changed to Accounting Made Really, Really Hard!)

The professional editors pointed out when things weren’t clear and when sentences were awkward and allowed me to fix it in my own way. They didn’t rewrite my sentences. They also didn’t bother to tell me about my punctuation errors; they just fixed them. I have always had a stubborn mental blockage about whether an apostrophe goes in “its” or not. They didn’t rub that in my face, they just fixed it. I thought that was very kind.

More importantly, they caught me at the front end and gave me feedback early on so that I didn’t waste my time. They sent me three examples of other authors’ detailed outlines and asked me to create something similar before I started writing. So before I invested another moment on the project, they asked me to cut two chapters and add another. Meaningful and timely feedback.

Here are two big tips for editing:      
1. Put off writing full sentences for as long as you can
2. Relax your control freak nature—do not concern yourself with another writer’s style      

Put off writing full sentences for as long as you can

Once you write a full sentence, you become married to it. You have spent time and effort choosing each word and arranging them intelligently. Woe be it to the jerk who puts a red pen to your masterpiece!

In my role as editor at an audit office, I have often found that whole paragraphs would disappear after I had come to a big picture understanding of the piece. Talk about PAIN. Whole families of sentences would get wiped out!

Eventually I figured out that I if I asked the team to submit an outline of their report or finding to me before they wrote full sentences, we minimized the pain considerably. No one cares much if you move a singlet of a sentence around or eliminate it and replace it with something else. There isn’t that much attachment to the outline—the staff is still flexible at this point.

So, to reiterate, get agreement from staff, supervisors, managers, directors, and the client at the outline stage before writing full sentences. Try it, you’ll like it!

Relax, you control freak you!

Who died and made you Stephen King? Who says your style of writing is better than anyone else’s? Ego, ego, ego!

Here is where I got my come-uppance: A virtual governmental accounting genius in our office had written a 30-page report and I was to edit it before it went to our directors. He was a Ph.D. in something incredibly boring and now works for the GASB. You get the picture?

So, I opened up his report and was immediately repulsed by his academic sounding prose. I felt like I was reading a very, very dry accounting textbook. “Arrgh!” I told a colleague, “This is going to demand quite a bit of rewrite.” See how snotty I was?

But then I went back and followed my own rules for editing—which I’ll go into more detail on next month—and first checked to see if he had a logically constructed argument for each of his conclusions.

I made a mini-outline of his argument by using a highlighter and making notes in the margin—and found that his argument was P.E.R.F.E.C.T. He was a genius! All the rumors were true.

I didn’t touch it much after that. I will admit to having to put my two cents in and so I changed a few of his more hoity-toity words to something less academic. A very short editing process for me and virtually painless for him. Looking back on it, I should have just left those two-cent words alone, too.

What would have happened if I had decided that I needed to change his style to mine? I’d probably still be working on that project AND he would have hated me forever. We would have battled like Rock’em Sock’em Robots!

So, in stronger, more direct terms—IF A SENTENCE IS FINE THE WAY IT IS, LEAVE IT THE HECK ALONE! (Hey, you control freaks out there, did you hear that? I say it with only love, your best interests, and hopes for world peace in my heart.)

So, next month, more on editing. We will discuss the three stages of editing and how editing in stages saves major time and frustration—on everyone’s part.



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