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How to Be a Great Edit


I know it’ll come as a shock to some of you, but as much as the writing process is about staying in the work until you’ve said everything you need to say, the editing process is all about staying in the posture of listening.


Once again, I’m stealing advice from Donald M. Murray’s excellent essay on the practice and teaching of writing, Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.

“How do you motivate your student…? First by shutting up.”

This is the part many writing teachers get wrong. They endlessly go on about the importance of editing and refining and how to do it and why it’s so vital (insert ironic laughter here). And, guilty. Even editors forget communication is a two-way street. And because we’re selfish human children who forget the world isn’t all about us and our needs, we could all use the reminder that no good book (or conversation) happens with just one person speaking.


So obviously, getting the readers’ interests and questions into your work doesn’t happen automatically. You’ve got to be willing to quit pushing the river and listen for them. And that’s where a well-trained editor can help.

Then, once you’ve heard the readers’ concerns from a more objective voice, it’s time to get to work.

“You don’t learn a process by talking about it, but by doing it.”

I think for too long I saw my job as editor as pointing out the assignments and telling writers where to focus and what to do and how to say it, and according to Murray, “thereby cheat[ing] your student of the opportunity to learn the process of discovery we call writing.”

I’ve had to accept this is my own ego, my selfishness, just like it’s the writer’s ego and selfishness that cheats readers out of discovering the story instead of stepping back and being willing to learn to replace your instinctual habit to talk with quietness.

To trade speaking for listening, to consider your response, and become not the initiator or the motivator, but the reader, the recipient, this is how to be a great edit for your editor. The waiting can be agonizing, but an editor can’t help you learn the process if you won’t practice patience.

And I had to do it, so now you get to. :)


“[R]espect the student, not for his product…but for the search for truth in which he is engaged.”

The editor listens for your voice, the truth you’re after, even if both are mere potentials yet.

But this is the work, and you can do much of it before you seek an outside editor. Focus not on what is but what it could be. Look deeper and let it change and grow if it can. Look for the potential for more inspired suggestions, more implied connections. This is what your editor will do, take what you’ve got and consider what with more time and insight, could be great.

You can get ahead of the game and make your editor really happy by spending time first considering the reader’s questions and expectations before turning it in.

The same way an editor does this for a writer, the writer can do this for a reader. It’s like good customer service: serve your editor by making your reader the center of your attention.

Ask, Will they feel served? Is everything clear and as precise as it can be to prevent trip-ups and confusion?

Do that and you can rest assured you’re going to be a GREAT edit.


“Seeing into” is the vital work of the editing process, to recognize what the reader feels and needs next.

So practically, what does this look like? Of course, you won’t simply answer every question, thereby ruining the mystery and romance of the read. But you do want to make readers aware that you are aware of their questions by giving them a character to identify with who’s also confused, usually the hero.

If you practiced this perfectly, you could get away with a lot of mystery, create great tension and have a very engaging story. But with practice you’ll see where in the story you told too much, too many things readers should figure out on their own. And you’ll also see where you told too little, not explaining what’s needed to understand the basic plot or theme.

Again, if you did this before your editor had to, you’d have much better material to fine tune with him or her. Of course, I know it’s hard and laborious and you have wine to drink, but read through your work out loud (wait, one sec—where’s caps lock?) OUT LOUD! That way you will hear the problems your brain is skipping over. If you want to know if something sounds okay or your dialogue sounds authentic, have someone else read it to you in monotone—this removes the way you’re hearing it in your head and you’ll know if it translates.

I know–ugh! Hard work!


But you can do it. You need to do it.

In nonfiction, when you share an illustration, remove things like “as this illustration makes clear…” It’s unneeded. You might as well say, “As this phrase makes clear, I didn’t edit.”

And overall, use fewer words to increase interest. This applies to fiction in dialogue and descriptions, and to nonfiction in explanations of things that the reader can and should be allowed to assume or connect themselves. Presume some reader familiarity and reduce your pandering, didacticism, extraneous, long-winded spelling-everything-out as much as possible. Spotting these things becomes easier with practice, but the key is always to focus on interest and how you can increase it.

Ask yourself, Does this [phrase, sentence, paragraph, chapter, illustration, character, story, example, sidebar, backstory, footnote, piece of dialogue] add to the reader’s interest or steal it by removing the tension, mystery or excitement of discovery?

With patient practice and attention to listening over sharing, you can be a great edit and reap the rich rewards of a careful, considered editing process.

And that should make everybody happy.

One Response to “How to Be a Great Edit”

  1. Cathy West says:

    Yes, I’m probably guilty of all of the above, before you very kindly pointed me in the better direction. (see what I did there?). And I’m sure the rest of this piece was awesome, but whatever you said after that Hey Girl – it’s just a blur.
    Carry on.

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