Effective Editing: The Difference Between Good Writing and Great Writing
I’ve written before, “Great writing is good writing without the noise.”
This is absolutely true. And the way to remove the noise is with editing.
If you’ll forgive me for invoking the transitive property, if great writing is good writing after editing, then it stands to reason the key to great writing is great editing.
Great editing goes beyond removing the unessential. When you edit to make writing stronger, better, and more impactful, it’s about looking at the written piece as a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
You improve it by making any of those individual parts better, yes. Better words, better sentences, more dynamic syntax. More artistry in your choices.
But you also get to look at the piece as a structural unit: what happens if you move something higher in the piece? Or switch these two sentences or paragraphs? How does it improve flow? How does it affect tone? Does holding back something until the end create better payoff? Does writing a conclusion with call-back to the intro make it feel more satisfying?
This is why editing is so important. While you do get to make all of these choices during the writing process, it’s so easier and more effective when everything is on the page in front of you.
But making the choices is hard. And there’s something you need to make the best choices the best way. Something most people don’t even think about. A missing piece of insight that’ll allow you to make every aspect of your writing better.
That magic piece is objectivity.
If you’re going to edit your own work (and you should) you need to be objective. You need to cultivate dual vision: a ruthless editor’s eye in one socket, and an artist’s eye in the other.
Being objective about your own work is no easy feat. You want to keep everything. It’s all good, right? If it weren’t you wouldn’t have written it in the first place.
Not so, my friend. Everything can stand an edit.
Here’s the rub: when you write anything, you’re emotionally attached to three aspects of it. The three Cs.
- The Content
- The Craft
- The Creation
Objectivity about the first one is easy. If you’re an expert in your field, your content is good. Simple. If it’s not, we’ve got bigger problems, and no amount of editing will help.
Being objective about the Craft is impeded by the Creation.
When you first write anything, your vision is clouded by the amount of work you put into it. You just spent a lot of time and energy writing it. Maybe an hour, maybe a day. You’re so tied to the effort you can’t be objective about what you produced.
So, here’s the secret, the little trick to cultivating the objectivity necessary to edit things for true improvement.
Extend the time between writing it and publishing it.
That’s it. It’s that simple.
Most people don’t do this. They finish writing something and they hit publish right away. Ready, fire, aim. And that’s okay. Sometimes it’s even necessary because no matter what it is, finishing it is at the heart of everything.
It can be good enough if you want good enough to be good enough.
But if you want it to be great? If you want the Craft to be as good as the Content?
Put the fucking thing away. Put it somewhere and leave it. Tuck it away into a proverbial drawer, and leave it there for a bit.
When you come back to it in a few days, you’ll find editing much easier—because you will have detached from the amount of time spent. That gives you the space you need to focus on improving it.
Separating writing and publishing by a few days is the easiest way to edit more objectively and effectively, which improves the piece in the immediacy, and makes you a better writer over the long term.
Just about every content creator feels like they’re “behind.”
As most of us are trying to produce and publish every day to stay ahead of the micro-cycle of the content sphere, I absolutely understand the impetus to just get the fucking thing out there.
We forget something: whatever you just wrote is the first draft. And as Hemingway said, “the first draft of anything is shit.” He also said, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
If it’s good enough for Papa, it’s good enough for you.
So when you’re done writing something, it’s just your first draft. Let it sit, then trim the shit.
What remains is always better. And working towards better is the only way to eventually bring out your best.