Picture this: First job out of college…first week on the job. I’m a fresh-faced newspaper reporter in the hamlet of Raton, New Mexico (population 6,600). I’m standing in my editor’s faux wood-paneled office, holding draft printouts of seven stories—the first stories I’ve ever written professionally. I hand them over, take a seat and smile.
I entered the field of journalism because I knew in my heart I could write well. Exceptionally well, I thought. I had enormous potential, I was going places and Raton was my launch point.
Within minutes, that illusion is crushed like a hot grape. Wielding a red pen I would come to fear, the editor highlights a near-countless assortment of literary and journalistic transgressions —from lousy leads, to overreliance on passive voice, gross misuse of adjectives, disorganized layout, inappropriate editorializing, etc. Edits seem to fly off the pages in every direction, creating a crimson blur.
I’m stunned, speechless—and a bit queasy to boot. But I take it constructively and study these edits carefully (as well as edits from subsequent sessions). As my writing skills improve over time, the red pen expels proportionately less ink.
Ask anyone who’s been edited and they’ll agree, it’s a painful process. After all, edits raise questions and often highlight errors. Yet, editing is absolutely necessary if you want to become a better writer. Even if you’re not a professional, you should aim for better writing in every way—from blogs, letters and emails to memos, proposals, social media posts and more. Writing well gives your words – and by extension, your intentions – extra power, whether your purpose is to inform, persuade or compel action. Equally important, it demonstrates your intelligence, attention to detail and clarity of thought. That’s valuable in any context.
Back in Raton, I needed a good editor every time I wrote a story. Today, with nearly 30 years of professional writing under my belt, I still do. My copy is edited every day—and I’m a better writer for it.
There are lots of ways to improve your writing. My colleague at Skoda Minotti, senior content director Cindy Spitz, recently wrote a blog on the importance of cutting clutter in your writing. Cindy’s blog delivers great ideas to make your writing more direct, purposeful and powerful. That’s a solid start. But there are two other avenues that can lead your writing to a higher plane: (1) outside editing assistance, and (2) thoughtful self-editing.
Let’s first touch on outside editing. The person you identify for editing duty doesn’t have to be an editor or copywriter by trade. It helps, of course. But it could simply be a friend or colleague who writes professionally or prolifically—or just seems to have a knack for expressing themselves well with words. Don’t feel like you need to limit yourself to just one person, either. You could call on several editors, which actually is better, since you’ll benefit from multiple perspectives and not overburden one person. Whomever you identify, send them a sample of your writing – be it a blog post, cover letter, résumé, business proposal, social media post or really anything – and put them to work.
In her wonderful book, “Everybody Writes,” Ann Handley identifies three major types of editors:
- Copyeditors/proofreaders, who check facts, clean up style issues, punctuation, typos and misspellings
- Substantive editors, who provide a deeper level of analysis and offer suggestions on how parts can be expanded, condensed or generally improved
- Line editors, who perform copyediting chores while revising/rewriting as needed
I recommend you use Ann’s classification as a guide to help you articulate your intentions. Want your editor to just scan your new business proposal for typos and grammatical errors before you send it to your prospect? Give them that instruction. If you seek suggestions or ideas for rephrasing certain things, or reorganizing thoughts in your first draft, make the request.
What you get back may surprise you, shock you, horrify you, or like me in that faux wood-paneled office, even induce nausea. You may feel defensive and, depending on the edits/suggestions, you may accept or reject them. (By the way, rejecting edits isn’t a bad thing if those edits don’t align with your vision for the piece in question. It’s your writing—you make the call.) Whatever the reaction, study the edits, try to understand the rationale behind them, and appreciate the opportunity for growth that this represents.
As for self-editing, there are two techniques that many writers utilize when evaluating their own work. I like them, and I recommend them for you:
- Read your copy out loud. If you stumble, that’s usually a sign of something that can be improved. It’s also helpful to “hear” the copy because rhythm is an important element to powerful writing.
- Take a breath test. If more than one breath is necessary to get through the sentence you’re reading, that sentence more than likely is too long.
Again, editing can be painful; but feeling the burn via an unbiased, third-party review and the self-editing techniques I described will give your copy its best look; it will strengthen your writing chops; and in doing so, you’ll be equipped to communicate and persuade more powerfully.