When it comes to editing, most people fall into two camps: either they’re better at it than they think…or they’re worse than they think.
Unfortunately, a lot of people fall into the latter camp. That’s because too many people have rigid notions about writing.
They think it’s an innate talent you either have or you don’t; that first drafts must be perfect or what you’ve written isn’t worth anything; that the people who make millions from writing are special snowflakes. None of these things are true.
Writing is a skill, but it’s nothing without editing.
Editing is what makes writing truly great, not writing on its own.
Writing is getting your idea onto the page; editing is what tightens it and makes it interesting, memorable, and high-converting.
Without editing, most writing would be nothing more than extra, forgotten space on the internet.
If you see writing—and therefore, by association, editing—as a magical skill that cannot be learned, then you’ll never be great at either.
To get good at both, you need to reevaluate how you approach editing and writing.
All things can be learned
Up until a couple of years ago, I despised editing. It’s hard to put into words just how much I hated it, but for me, it was right up there with raw red onion and celery. Just thinking of it made me dry heave.
I wanted to write and publish books. I couldn’t do that without editing. So, through sheer determination and exposure, my hatred turned into a love/hate thing, then…I kinda love it now, actually. Most of the time, anyway.
And, the more editing I did, the better I got at it. I now regularly help people edit their video scripts, book manuscripts, and even poetry.
And of course, I do it for myself on a daily basis. I’ve edited this very blog post multiple times before sharing it with you, to make sure it says what I want it to.
When I wrote my first draft, though, I didn’t consider any of that.
First, I focused on getting the damn idea down.
Editing and writing use different parts of the brain
I’ve written time and time again about why you shouldn’t edit and write at the same time. I’ll keep belabouring the point because it’s so important.
Writing is creative.
Editing is analytical.
They therefore use different parts of the brain, and if you try to do both at the same time, it’s multitasking.
In the 90s, multitasking was cool, but in the 20s, we’ve come to realise that’s it’s bad for our mental health, productivity, and focus.
When you multitask, what you produce ends up being of a lower quality because neither task has your full attention, so you can’t do what you’re doing to the best of your ability. So you make silly mistakes.
When you single task, you can give something your all. You can reach a state of flow. And you can create something you’re truly proud of, whether that’s a first draft or something that’s ready to be published.
Separating writing and editing
When you’re in the habit of editing as you write, it can be hard to stop yourself.
The simple solution? Turn your monitor off.
Then you can’t see what you’ve done. And if you can’t see it, you can’t edit it.
You could also try closing your eyes if you can touch type. (Or sort-of touch type. Fixing typos is for editing!)
It also helps to set yourself a timer and a goal.
Say you have half an hour, you could aim to write 1000 words in that time. Whatever is just outside of your usual average words per minute.
Set the timer, then get writing. If you want to hit your goal, you can’t write and edit at the same time. You’ll never hit it.
Once you’re done, reward yourself! This is really important, as you’re then encouraging your brain to build newer, healthier habits.
If you fail, reward yourself anyway. Rewarding ourselves for failure is important, because we need to remind ourselves that it’s ok to try and fail!
Of course we want those epic results. But most people don’t even try. Getting past that hurdle is a big step towards success.
Before you sit down to edit what you’ve written, you need to separate yourself from it emotionally.
Emotional distance is really important regardless of what you’re writing, because it allows you to read it like a total stranger would.
When it comes to your writing, what you want and like doesn’t matter. Sorry.
What matters is what your target audience wants, likes, and needs.
They’re only going to give you their money if you can tap into that, and you can only do that if you’ve separated yourself from your work in progress enough to edit it with a clear head.
The length of the piece will dictate how long you need to take a break from it for.
If you’re on a tight deadline, I’d suggest taking at least a couple of hours to work on something totally different. This is important as it stops your brain from thinking about your work in progress.
Ideally, though, you want to take as long as possible.
For a novel, I recommend at least a month.
For something shorter like a blog post or copy, at least a week.
This time will shorten as you get better at editing, but while you’re still building your skills and learning objectivity, this emotional distance is one of the most important steps you can take.
If you’re editing someone else’s piece, that doesn’t automatically make you objective.
You might mince your words so that you don’t hurt someone’s feelings, or not be the right person to give feedback because you don’t know the topic in enough depth.
Or maybe you worked together on the idea, so while the words aren’t yours, the concept is.
Think carefully about if you’re really as detached from the piece as you think you are. If you can’t comment on it without worrying about upsetting or offending someone, you’re probably the wrong person to edit it.
Know what your audience needs to hear
It doesn’t matter what you’re writing; knowing your audience is vital to the success of your words.
If you can’t connect with your audience and tell them the right thing at the right time, it won’t get you anywhere.
It won’t get you readers, and it most definitely won’t get you sales.
It’s your job to understand what your audience wants and needs, and if you don’t know what that is, you need to stop typing and go do some research.
Research should always be the first step, no matter what you write. If you haven’t done your research, what on earth are you writing?
Using emotional language
One of the best ways to make your words more impactful is to add in emotional language.
For example, instead of saying that something ‘hurts’—which is vague and doesn’t create much of an image—you could say something ‘stings’ or ‘burns’. These are both very specific types of pain that are likely to create empathy between writer and reader.
When you’re throwing ideas onto the page, you can’t remember everything.
Emotional language often gets forgotten, particularly when it comes to specifics.
But that’s why we edit it.
Editing is when we turn those words into more than just space on the internet; they become a form of poetry.
The images are more vivid; the emotional connection is deeper; readers feel like you truly get them.
If you’re in a rush to publish something, it’s easy to neglect this part.
But the best writing is poetry no matter whether it’s copy, content, or a book.
Poetry sings not in a way that makes people’s heads explode, but in a way that makes people go, ‘yeah. They get me,’ in the same way their favourite artist or band does.
Sometimes, what you want to write isn’t always what you need to write.
Part of being a great editor is allowing yourself to let go. This isn’t your baby. It isn’t a piece of your soul. They’re just words you’ve written to promote something. That’s it.
You’ll probably have to change them again, or A/B test them to see if something different is more effective.
Experimentation is at the core of business success, and if you’re overly attached to what you’ve written, you’ll never be able to do that. Which means you put a limit on your own achievements.
While feedback can feel personal sometimes, particularly when it’s critical, it isn’t. It’s this feedback that allows us to grow as writers and editors.
Without it, we stagnate, becoming frozen in ice like the wooly mammoths that came before us. And I’m going to assume you don’t want that, since you’re still reading.
If you feel down about all of this, or like you need to refine your writing systems, don’t worry! It’s not all doom and gloom—it’s a journey.
The beauty of writing is that it’s a never ending one, where there’s always something new to learn.
And if that doesn’t appeal to you, you could always outsource your writing.
How to improve your editing skills
- Never, ever, ever write and edit at the same time
- Take a break between writing and editing
- Study the writing of people you admire—what can you learn from them?
- Get to know your audience
- Look for ways to use more specific, emotive language