On Writing: Editing—the Spit and Polish of a Good Writer

James Hurd, January, 2015 This is the third in a five-part series: 1. Starting your memoir or story, 2. Revising, 3. Editing, 4. Layout, 5. Getting your story out to others. All these articles will (eventually) appear on the Wingspread website: jimhurd.com   Message me, or post comments on this, or any other writing, on Wingspread at http://jimhurd.com. Thanks! Subscribe free to the biweekly Wingspread E-zine at http://wp.me/P5hvfJ-35, and receive a gift article.

Wingspread: Memoirs of Faith and Flying. Review this book, or buy it at:   http://booklocker.com/books/7785.html, or through Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. Please recommend to interested friends. *    *    * So you’ve written your article and even revised it. You’re done, right? Well, not exactly. Now’s the time to carefully edit your piece. Are you a lousy editor? Get an outside reader. Are you a great editor? Get an outside reader! You can never see your own writing as clearly as another pair of eyes. Friends are usually too kind—they love you and wish to encourage, not critique. A professional editor will be more critical—they charge upwards of $15 per hour, but they’re worth it. Or you can go the middle route with an unprofessional editor, for instance college English majors ($10 per hour). And sometimes, writer-friends will edit your stuff for the price of a medium vanilla latte.

Types of editing Editing comes in all different shapes and sizes:

  1. Content—what to include/not include, structure, arrangement of parts
  2. Voice, tone and writing style—is it too formal or informal (e.g., use of contractions, everyday language, etc.)
  3. Logic—does it make sense?
  4. Formatting—subheadings, paragraphing, spacing, margins, underlining, italics
  5. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar

Tell your outside reader what you’re most concerned about and ask them to look for it.  

Sentences and paragraphs Aim to shorten your piece by 10-20%. The fewer the words, the more weight each carries. Vary the length of the sentences. Start the sentence with simpler, more familiar stuff, and end with the new, more significant stuff. Weaker: “John felt completely lost when he entered his first year of college” Stronger: “When he entered his first year of college, John felt completely lost.” A well-structured paragraph should start with a topic sentence, and end with a brief summary sentence. If the piece is intended for a popular audience, don’t run on with long paragraphs; break them up a bit, and provide a transition between paragraphs such as “In other words,” “In contrast,” or “Afterwards,” so the reader can easily follow you.  

Logic Never leave your reader wandering in the weeds (unless you’re William Faulkner, who could get away with murder). Orient your reader to the person, time, and place where each event happens. Never leave the reader asking, “Huh?” We know the logic behind our words (unless we’re fuzzy thinkers), but make sure your reader sees the logic also.

Punctuation In dialogue, each speaker gets a new paragraph, e.g., John said, “Where’s Mary?” Sally replied, “In the bedroom.” “OK.” With few exceptions, all punctuation goes inside the quote marks:     Wrong: Bill replied, “I don’t think so”!     Correct: Bill replied, “I don’t think so!” You may use three kinds of dashes:     hyphen (e.g., sit-ups)     en dash (e.g., 1985–6)     em dash (e.g., Semicolons are so 20th century—-I tend to substitute an “em” dash.)  

Commas Ah, the pesky comma… so small, yet it causes so much trouble. You should use a comma at a pause, except when you shouldn’t, and sometimes when you don’t pause. See what I mean? Use a comma:

  • between items in a series (…John, Jack, and Bill)
  • after an introductory phrase (In the first place, …)
  • before a conjunction that connects two independent clauses (He played the game well, but his injuries always hindered him.)
  • some other places

Modern writers tend to use fewer commas than earlier, more formal writers do. In popular writing, I try to avoid commas unless they’re necessary for understanding. Use the rule: If a careful reader would not notice a missing comma, leave it out!  

Consistency Consistency impresses. Always spell the same word the same. A reader will forgive a unique usage, but they won’t forgive you for changing usages throughout the piece. Be consistent about how you format subheadings, how and when you use italics, and how you spell and accent foreign words. Keep track of your usages in a style sheet so you’ll be consistent throughout. Write out numbers less than 10, and numbers beginning a sentence. E.g., “Twelve people attended the event, nine of whom were already members, but 15 more joined the organization.” Don’t play fast and loose with tenses, especially within one single chapter or article—be consistent. Don’t jump between present and past tense.

*                      *                      *

So, go through your piece several times. Have a friend read it. Then have a hard-hearted editor scrutinize it. You’ll be happy you did!

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