Editing – The process of improvement


If you’re a writer, it’s inevitable that your work will need to be edited at some point. That’s true no matter what type of writing you do – short stories, novels, journalism, non-fiction, blogs, essays, etc. – and whether you’re working with an established publishing house or are self-publishing your creation. But when is the right time to edit, and who should be doing the work? These are questions every writer needs to address.


In order to understand how and when to edit, it’s necessary to talk a bit about the writing process. For the sake of an example, let’s assume you’re writing either a novel or a long-form non-fiction piece. Your first step will inevitably be research. For non-fiction you may need to study a given historical period, biographies of famous people, or the development of a given technology over time. Fiction, too, requires research. Every character in a novel needs backstory – a history of who they were and what they did before they appeared on the pages of your book. You may also be setting the plot in a certain region of the world or against a given series of events, and it’s important to get all the details straight so that readers find the events and the characters’ interactions with them believable.


After this, some people draw up an outline and/or a treatment, and others start right in on putting the story down on the page – it’s a matter of personal preference. The key to this phase though, is that you write – not edit, write. What comes out on the page will invariably change from the original outline or thought as you realize that certain ideas will not work in the developing story any more or that you need to add sections or characters for clarity or development. You may also get struck with some interesting ideas during the writing process that you’re not sure will work in the final story. One way to deal with these is to keep a file detailing these ideas and refer back to them periodically to see if you can work them in or if you really should leave them out. I cannot stress this enough: at NO point during the writing period should you go back and edit your document for things like grammar, punctuation, or word choice. The most you should do is to see if you should include one of your “other file” ideas. If you start to edit while you’re writing, there is a high probability that you will get bogged down in minutiae and never finish the actual story. The “writing stage” is very clear – you write. Nothing else.


Once you’ve finished your story or book, what next? Because all you’ve done up until this point is research and write, your document is going to be filled with technical – and maybe even some developmental – errors. If you start right in on the editing, though, you’re not going to get much accomplished. That’s because your mind is so focused on the story at the moment that you can’t see the forest for the trees. Put the document aside for a few days and do something else. Then pick it up again and read through it, correcting mistakes as you go along, and determining if you have any gaping plot holes or wrong information.


Next, contact some of your writing friends and see if they will “beta read” for you. A beta reader’s function is to go through your document and see if they find any big, developmental errors (i.e. a posed question that’s not answered, a character who appears in two places at once, a conversation that makes no sense, etc.) and communicate those to you. They may also look for grammatical and typographical errors. Consider everyone’s opinion seriously – if they find problems with the document, the chances are that your end reader is going to find them, too.


After you’ve gone through the document a couple of times and made the necessary changes, it’s time to hand your work off to an editor – a REAL editor. Do NOT try to do a final edit yourself. You are too close to your story to be objective about what it does or does not need, and you will see what you want to see, not what’s really on the page. If you are going through a publishing house, they will have their own editorial staff to handle it; if you are self-publishing, you will have to find an editor who fits within your budget. A good place to look for someone is the Editorial Freelance Association (EFA), or you can get a recommendation from one of your writing friends who’s found someone she particularly likes and thinks is qualified. Not all editors handle all types of writing, so make sure to ask if he/she is comfortable editing your type of document.


The editor will mark up your document and send back all the recommended changes. This is the part most writers hate, because they feel their work is now “bleeding red ink.” Like many other writers, I usually spend some time screaming and kicking the wall – how dare they suggest changing my brilliant work! Once I’ve calmed down, though, I look closely at the comments and changes, and I realize how valid and appropriate they are. Make the changes the editor recommends and, if you have the time and money, go through a second cycle of revision; if you don’t, put the document aside for a few weeks and then look at it again with fresh eyes. Then hand it off to a proofreader to make sure everything’s shipshape.


I know this sounds like an exhausting process, and it is. However, good editing can make or break a book, and it should not be taken lightly. Listen to what others tell you, and stay on top of the process yourself. It’s your name on the cover – you are ultimately responsible for all the good things and all the errors that are in the pages in between.


By Miriam Ruff, PoetsIN contributor.


© 2017 Miriam Ruff


Please follow and like us:
Interview: Writer Profile - Harlequin Grim
Interview: Writer Profile - Miles Nowhere


  • Commenter's Avatar
    Dusty Grein — December 22, 2017 at 6:45 am

    As the Managing Editor for a small-press publishing house / indie publishing services company, I completely agree with you. A writer, especially a writer who is an editor, should NEVER do their own final edit. We are invariably our worst clients. I edit an anthology every quarter, and have now worked successfully with over 100 authors and poets, but I always rely on another editor to do my own final polish.

    You need to keep in mind that you must make sure you and the editor you use are compatible. Editing a story, especially a full-length story is–and always should be–a collaborative effort between the author and the editor. My focus as an editor is not to inflate my ego, or massage the author’s ego, but to help make the experience of reading the story the best it can be for the reader.

    For me, and all my author clients, it is the story that matters, and not the technical knowledge either of us brings to bear. Any match-up of author and editor should bring out the best in both and with mutual respect, a good editor will help to make your story the best it can be.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.