Writing can be a powerful way to convey your ideas and information – if you can get people to read your writing.
Have you noticed that when you are reading from different sources, there are times that you are not able to focus on the writing, and there are other times when you can’t stop reading? That there are times when you struggle to figure out what the writer is trying to express and times when it is clear as day?
For writing to do all it is capable of, it needs to be good.
But what is good writing? And how do you make your writing good?
Good writing is clear, correct, and concise.
Good writing uses rhythm to create flow.
Good writing eliminates friction for the reader.
Good writing does not draw attention to itself.
You’re probably thinking, “yes, this all sounds great… but how do I actually do this?!”
That’s what we will consider in this article.
Writing, Rewriting, and Editing
Writing is not a one-step process – there’s no way your first draft will be perfect.
Good writing often goes through many stages, from idea to initial narrative to first draft, followed by one or more rounds of editing. If you begin writing thinking that your first draft will be perfect, you will likely freeze and not be able to write at all because you’re trying to do too many things at once. This is, of course, what people call writer’s block – which everyone experiences at one time or another.
Writers approach the writing process differently — some begin with a brain dump to get the thoughts out of their heads onto paper. Then they start working with what they have, making it better and moving toward the final product.
Some writers—including me—take a different approach. When I start writing, I spend quite a bit of time thinking and creating a preliminary structure in my head. I think of this as developing the architecture of the work. Then, I continue with the process described above, putting this down on paper and starting to work with it.
The first process starts with ideas and then organizes them into a structure. The second way starts with the structure and then adds the details and ideas to it.
Neither way is better than the other – in fact, a writer’s approach reflects their personality, thought processes, characteristics, and style.
What both ways have in common, though, is what you do once you have completed a draft: editing.
There are many levels of editing ranging from the big picture to the small details, including developmental, structural, line, copy, and proofreading. Editing is a critical process in the creation of good writing.
Many writers work with professional editors who can correct, improve, and polish their writing. On the other hand, many writers can’t afford to hire a professional editor.
In this article, I will share ideas, principles, and practical suggestions to help any writer improve their writing through the process of editing. Even if you plan to hire a professional editor, being able to edit your work to the best of your ability before sending it to an editor will make your final work stronger and reduce your editor’s fees.
Becoming a Professional Editor
I have been writing and editing professionally for more than 20 years. I had a lengthy academic training that culminated in a Ph.D. in music theory. I also have a successful career as an academic, with peer-reviewed publications, papers, and a book.
That being said, my extensive academic training did not teach me good writing or how to edit. In fact, I would say that I learned how to write well despite my extensive academic training.
I grew up in a working-class, blue-collar environment, and the public school I attended was very poor and, to be honest, quite substandard.
I graduated from high school having written almost no papers or essays and did not really receive instruction on how to write. When I begin college, I was a music major (specializing in classical piano performance), so my classes were almost entirely based on studying or performing music; there was very little writing. Same for my master’s degree, which was also in classical piano performance.
When I decided to switch directions and move to a more academic study of music, I entered a doctoral program in music theory. This discipline is entirely based on writing. You analyze music and write about what you find; you develop theories about how music works and write papers to explain your theory to others, and so on.
At first, I was somewhat worried about how I would succeed in this field, having very little training or background in writing.
My worry was unnecessary, however. After my first semester and multiple papers, my major professor expressed surprise at how good my writing was, telling me I was one of the best writers he’d ever had as a student. As someone who teaches students to write, he wanted to know how l learned to write so well.
Needless to say, he was very surprised to find that I had very little education and experience in writing. What I did have, however, was an intuitive understanding of good writing based on reading constantly for my entire life.
This leads to the first and most crucial step to good writing and editing:
Read, Read, and Read Some More.
It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read much in your life; if you start reading more, your writing and editing will get better.
What you read is less important than that you read.
If you give yourself the time to read every day, your writing will improve.
People often tell me that they don’t feel they can take the time to read – that rather than permitting themselves the pleasure of reading a good story, they think they need to be using their time more productively.
For writers and editors, reading is a productive activity. It just happens to be fun, too.
So, if you are interested in improving your writing, I challenge you to spend some time reading every day. I guarantee your writing will improve.
Writing vs. Rewriting vs. Editing
So, is this article about writing or editing? And what is rewriting, and how does that factor in?
Great questions. I think of writing and editing not as separate activities but intertwined processes – two sides of the same coin. An explanation of the common types of editing may help clarify.
Developmental editing deals with a text at the deepest level – what is it about? What is the tone? How will the story be told? If it’s fiction, how are the characters developed? What is the nature of their relationships?
Structural editing begins where developmental ending fades – what is the structure of the document? Does it flow? Is it logical? Is it coherent? Is anything missing?
Line editing and Copy editing are often confused because they both involve going through the document sentence by sentence, though their goals are different.
Copy editing is more mechanical and rules-based; Line editing is more concerned with flow, style, tone, clarity, and concision. Copy editing makes sure that all the rules of spelling, grammar, punctuation, abbreviations, capitalization, etc. are followed consistently and in compliance with a style guide. Line editing won’t find every mistake but will make your document easier to understand and nicer to read.
Finally, Proofreading is a purely mechanical check for errors in spelling, punctuation, spacing, and so on. Proofreading only finds mistakes but does not improve the quality of your writing. It’s like a Quality Control step. In fact, I edit NIH and NSF grant proposals for a grant-writing foundation, and my particular role is called a Quality Control Specialist.
I view writing and editing as a spectrum or a continuous give-and-take, with writing leaning more toward content and editing toward presentation. I reserve the term rewriting for scrapping what you’ve done and starting over from scratch.
The easiest way to have your writing well-edited is to hire an editor. Brilliant suggestion, right? Not everyone can do this, of course. And again, even if you plan to hire an editor, self-editing your work before sending it to the editor will save you money and likely lead to a better end product.
So, what can you do if you plan to do all of your editing yourself or if you want to do as much as you can before hiring an editor?
There are many articles, books, and websites that give you lists of rules to follow and checklists of things to look for when editing your own work – e.g., don’t use passive voice, avoid using “that,” axe the adverbs (what?!). While many of these suggestions may be statistically helpful, every edit needs to be considered in context.
Blind application of these rules will not result in good writing; seriously… are they saying not to use adverbs? Should we drop adjectives, too?
There are also software tools to help edit, and they can be useful. Grammarly and Hemingwayapp.com can point out errors and suggest better ways of saying things. I use Grammarly Premium on a document when I’m done editing as a final QC, and it’s great at catching the minute details that can be easily read right over.
The problem with editing software is, again, that it blindly applies rules without considering context. When I use Grammarly, I find approximately 40% of the items it flags are incorrectly identified as errors, and another 30-50% are suggestions that make rule-based sense but do not fit the specific context.
As I’m writing this, I just clicked the check button on my Grammarly extension in Word, and it has identified 76 mistakes so far in this document. I’m going to take a minute and go through them and will show some examples of what it’s suggesting and offer my comments.
In the following example, Grammarly is saying that my final punctuation is incorrect; it should be a period, not a question mark:
This ignores the parallel construction with the second half of the previous sentence; in this case, the question mark is correct.
In the example below it tells me that I need to add the article “the” before “first draft,” even though it is not needed here and would have a negative effect on the flow of the passage.
Here, it tells me that “actually” is unnecessarily wordy:
While I strongly agree with the general principle that fewer words are better, in this case, the accent is on the word “actually,” which emphasizes the meaning of the sentence and creates a specific rhythm and flow that I want in this passage.
These few are all in the first paragraphs of the document.
It also makes style recommendations, like here:
It tells me that “making it better” is wordy, and “improving it” would be better. In this spot, I strongly (whoops, there’s an adjective I forgot to axe) prefer the original text for reasons of rhythm and flow. The phrase “improving it” flows right through to the next clause; “making it better” causes a brief pause, which I think helps to present the idea more clearly.
And another great example of a stylistic recommendation I disagree with:
Making this change would omit the directness of the cause-and-effect that I’m describing.
After working through Grammarly’s 76 flags, 6 of them were legitimate – things like a missing comma, a wrong verb tense (“begin” instead of “began”), and so on.
So, What Do You Do?
If you can’t afford to hire an editor, online-editing checklists are somewhat suspect, and you can’t rely on software, how do you edit your own work? How do you create good writing? Are you doomed to bad writing that no one will read?
Absolutely not! I would like to share some principles to guide you in becoming a better writer and editor of your work. This is not a quick fix, complete this checklist, and after you’ve “axed” all the adverbs, your writing will be good. This is more about cultivating a way of thinking and a philosophy of writing and editing.
For specific recommendations, you can google “editing tips” and get long lists of things to consider.
Near the beginning of this article, I listed several statements describing good writing. I’d like to revisit those here, with some elaboration.
Good writing is clear, correct, and concise. In his book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams begins by writing, “This book rests on two convictions: it is good to write clearly, and anyone can.”
This influential book has helped many writers become better, and while it discusses 10 different characteristics to strive for, the quote above shows that Williams believes the most important characteristic is clarity. (By the way, I highly recommend this book).
Writing concisely means using the fewest words necessary to convey your idea. This does not mean that “shorter is always better” (though it often is).
And of course, correctness in content and presentation is necessary for your writing to be effective.
Good writing uses rhythm to create flow. Flow is very important for good writing; this describes how the reader moves through the text, where they slow down or speed up, where they pause for emphasis, and how they move on to the next idea.
Rhythm is an important part of this. My training and experience as a professional musician have really opened my eyes to the rhythm of language and its importance in creating flow and leading the reader through the text. Reading your writing out loud really helps you understand and feel the rhythm and flow and will also reveal any “dead spots” that need more work.
Good writing eliminates friction for the reader. Friction is anything that confuses the reader or impedes their flow through the text. Clear, concise, and correct writing with good rhythm and flow will minimize the friction that turns readers away.
Good writing does not draw attention to itself. Most importantly, the purpose of writing is to convey ideas and information, not to impress with your mastery of grammar, large vocabulary, or linguistic creativity.
If you become a more avid reader, feed your brain with good writing every day, and strive for clarity, concision, correctness, transparency, flow, and rhythm, your writing will improve by leaps and bounds.
To close, I’ll make several concrete recommendations to help you become a better writer and editor.
- Read, read, and read some more.
- When editing, read your work out loud; this will provide a direct, physical sense of the rhythm and flow of your writing.
- Use software such as Grammarly to find errors and make suggestions but evaluate each of these suggestions with a critical eye.
- Ask friends, family members, and colleagues to read your work and provide feedback.
I wish you luck in your journey to becoming a better writer and editor. If I can help with anything or answer any questions, please get in touch.