“I've found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that
somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”
I love writing. I love editing. I love helping people sound the absolute best they can in the written word.
Writing takes a lot of guts to do. I give people that credit because it's not an easy thing to organize thoughts and then sit down to a keyboard and pour those out in an exact order that informs, invokes thought, and sometimes entertains.
I give people credit for trying to attempt something that seems to magically happen for some people, and for others, it's a constant struggle. I try not to be a complete asshat when I'm editing someone's work. I also don't complain when someone points out several flaws in my own writing. I appreciate what they are doing to help. Whether it's making me realize I wrote something in a tone which wouldn't be well received or pointing out when key things are missing in my work.
In all the time I've written things, I've never gotten upset at someone editing my work unless somehow, in the editing of it, it makes me look really bad. It's only happened a couple of times that I can think of and most of those were situations were early in my career.
Here are a few things I learned about writing & editing over the last 20 years. Some of them are pet peeves of mine, so feel free to comment as to why you think otherwise. It would make for a good discussion.
Tips For Writers:
- Don't refer to the article in the article; it's not a term paper. I know I'm reading an article. The phrase "In this article.." shouldn't be in an article at all unless I'm actually referring to another article which has something I'm trying to make a point about.
- Don't use the words "Introduction", "Summary", or "Conclusion" as sub-headers. Again, it's not a term paper. Be more creative than that or get someone to help you work up something clever instead.
- Be careful of overusing adjectives, especially flowery ones.
- Watch for your crutch words and phrases. We have them when we are speaking; we certainly have them when we are writing. If you are starting every other sentence with "So", or "But", or "However", you might have some editing to do.
- The more complex a topic, the more simple the wording/writing trying to explain the topic should be, if possible. Don't use large words if you can explain the same thing with a small one.
- Outlines are actually useful. I use them for writing blog posts and articles. Organized thoughts and ideas are better than word vomit you have to edit and reorder later.
- Sentences starting with "And" or "Because" are usually horrible sentences and need to be rewritten, unless it's someone being quoted or a character speaking. I rarely, if ever, find a good reason to start a sentence with either of these words.
- Titles and Sub-titles or sub-headers should never, ever, be a question or an exclamation. There are rare occasions where this can work, but if everything is a question, it leaves me thinking you don't know what you are writing about. If you do use this device, limit it to once in an article, otherwise it loses it's meaning.
- Never write a paragraph of questions. A reader reads an article to get answers to questions. They don't want more questions. Good rule is to have one question in a paragraph and then answer that question within that paragraph and/or additional paragraphs.
- The paragraph of questions has it's roots as an advertising gimmick. The more people say 'yes' in their heads, answering the questions, the more they are drawn in. If you are writing an ad, great you can use it, if not, don't abuse the reader. It's mean.
- Use bullet points. Readers are drawn to these, especially those that read on mobile devices. If you find yourself writing out a list in paragraph form, it's a good indication those could be turned into a bullet list.
- Love your white space. It's a design thing, but it's good for article writing too. Add images or graphics, where you can, to break up the text. If you have long paragraphs, find a way to make those more digestible chunks instead of a solid wall of text on a screen or page.
Tips For Editors:
- The Wil Wheaton Rule: Don't be a dick. Editing can be pretty ruthless at times. Work with the writer, not against them.
- Make useful suggestions. I've seen comments from editors that basically cross a bunch of things out but never explain why or for what reason. People don't improve without feedback, give it to them.
- Point writers in a direction. I always make suggestions on how to improve or add to a section in an article if I think it's lacking. Saying it's lacking or confusing without stating why doesn't help the writer fix the problem. If there is a more general problem with the article, tell the writer. This does take time. Be patient with each other.
- Be nice, but not too nice. Sometimes you have to say something is not good. Sometimes you have to tell a writer that what they've been working on isn't something worth publishing. That's a hard pill to swallow for anyone. It might be the topic, it might be their writing style, whatever it is, if they are willing to keep trying, keep pointing them in the right direction, but also let them know it's OK to not get it the first time around. No one does. I certainly don't.
- Have conversations with your writer during the editing process. Don't leave them in the dark. Communication is important. It's hard to do sometimes. Make the effort.
That's it. That's my current sum total of things I try to do as an editor and a writer. Feel free to comment. Feel free to tell me I'm wrong and why. Or even better, tell me I'm right and why. Keep the conversation going.