How to approach your work when Writing versus Editing

There is a part of writing work that many writers hate: the Editing phase.

I am one of those writers. The second draft phase is where I get to see what my writing really looks like after writing from 3:00am to 6:45am (see: last Saturday night, and not something I recommend for everyone), and I wonder just what I was thinking when I wrote some of the dialog.

Essentially, I get to see just how bad of a writer I sometimes am, which can be a painful process.

Note: This is not a criticism of my own writing ability. Every good writer is a bad writer at least 10% of the time. I consider it a mark of self-awareness when we can admit to this fact.

If there is one thing clear to me about being a writer, it is that in order to be a good Writer, you also have to be a good Editor. In order to be a good Editor, you need to approach your work in a completely different and critical way from how you approached it while writing.

Writer = Creator:

  • Develop your characters
  • Develop your plot
  • Create lovely prose

Editor = Tinker, Tailor, Creator, Destroyer:

  • Eliminate typos and grammatical errors
  • Maintain plot continuity
  • Identify what needs expanded upon or clarified for the reader
  • Eliminate what the reader doesn’t need and/or probably won’t care about

This last item is the most important element of being an Editor, and also the hardest element for writers when editing their own work. You’re forced to tell yourself that although putting in all those little details seemed like a great idea when you wrote them, few people other than you will care about them.

When I first started writing, I found that a hard pill to swallow. I know now that recognizing those things that aren’t needed in my writing is the key to producing the tightest writing I can.

So, as you enter the editing phase of your work, remember that you are a good writer most of the time, but sometimes you aren’t. Check your ego at the door. Look at your work how a complete stranger might look at your work, and reduce your work down to only its best parts. Just remember to also be fair to yourself.


Update: adventuresofalgy made a good point in the notes, by mentioning that there is no substitute for a third party editing your work. I cannot agree more, and I want to make clear that this post is in regards to you editing your own work, prior to passing it off to a third party for additional editing, whether they are a hired professional or just a trusted friend. I always have multiple parties read and annotate my work, but only after I’ve put on my editing hat and attacked it first.

Further reading - Use Two Brains for Writing and Rewriting by Richard Ridley