(This post originally appeared in an A-to-Z Challenge as “T-Tautologies: Writing VS Editing“. I’ve tidied it up and expanded it, following my own advice, to better suit the BLOGABLE blog.)
As one grows from the lone newbie author, to a more prolific writer with a wider audience, it becomes necessary to separate the creative writing from the editing; it is like different personas with different hats.
Back at secondary school (1960s), I was never very good at English composition. I hated it partly because it all had to be written long hand so revision or rewriting was almost never done. Oh the memories or having to write my thesis out long hand, hundreds of pages long, sending it off for typing, then marking up corrections and sending single pages back for retyping – those were the bad-old-days.
It wasn’t til I got into the business world that I had to come to grips with writing professionally. Even though I was a computer techie, I had to write proposals, specifications, management reports, user guides and training manuals, then later, web-site content. Fortunately, word processors were just becoming available in the 80’s. As my experience and professional standing grew, I moved into quality assurance and in particular, reviewing and editing the written work of others.
In the editing process especially, I learned a lot of basic writing techniques and taboos that were never mentioned at school. The original title mentioned ‘tautology’, the use of superfluous additional words that mean similar things (did you notice my deliberate tautology in that sentence?). In poetry and song, repetition (of the same word or phrase) can be a useful tool in the rhythm of a piece. But in prose, and especially in technical writing, succinctness is key – never use two words when one will
be enough suffice.
Writing vs Editing – Two Different Hats
In my own writing, I found it better to keep the creative and editing processes separate, like switching hats. I realized that my writing issues had been in trying to get it right on the first pass. This is one of the key causes of “writer’s block“.
Think about who your audience will be – should “Introduction” become “Management Overview”?
Getting Started: Story Board or Free Word Association
Sometimes it’s better to let the words pour out in free association, perhaps twice as much as is needed. Some people with a more visual style of thinking, prefer to use mind-maps or a story board to collect and organize their thoughts before putting it into a document. I discuss “out-lining” below under “Structure,” but out-ling or bullet points can be used at this first stage then the writing is primarily expanding the contents of each section.
It’s important to clearly know what your aim is in writing, your key subject matter. This will help you to know when to stop, when you have finished. This guides the structure’s flow, from beginning to end/conclusion. The Goal and Audience will determine the type of document you are writing – fiction, informational, documentary, argumentative, instructional, etc.
Once you have the first pass of words written, read it over several times, so you know you have reached your goal, the culmination of your thoughts somewhere in there.
In a short piece, like a BLOG post, the Title might be sufficient to convey the Goal. Otherwise the Introduction should let the reader know where you are taking them. Section headings should summarize each section, and if a reader only ever skim reads the section headings of your document, they will have got a good idea of the gist of your story/argument.
Now look at getting some structure into your work. As a preacher friend told me the key to a good sermon is to, “First you tell them what your going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them!” – its the old “introduction, body and summary” structure, the “Rule of Three“.
You will find you might want to move sentences or paragraphs around to collect related thoughts into the same sections, or into a better sequence so the subject flows. This is when you might find you have similar thoughts from different places that might best be merged and condensed, or superfluous fragments that add nothing to the core theme, that should be deleted. This is where I discovered the power of ‘out-lining’, either within MS-Word or a dedicated ‘Outliner’ tool. Organizing your work into paragraphs, sections and chapters helps clarify your thinking. Section headings become mini summaries of their content. Use the outline view to hide the content to just view the overall structure of your document with just the section headings.
Now you come to the nitty gritty of editing, of consistent tense and voice, alternate word choice (Flaubert’s ‘le mot juste‘), sentence constructs, phraseology, grammar, punctuation and of course spelling.
Then put your work aside for a day or two and come back to review with fresh eyes. Try reading it out loud to see if it ‘flows’ through the subject. Some people suggest reading it backwards, sentence by sentence. This is not the proof-reading stage – you should be reviewing the semantic content – is there anything missing from the theme and goal, and is there anything that just doesn’t fit or belong. When writing on a word-processor or on-line blogging editor, I sometime like to print my work off – seeing it in print with different font, page width, pagination etc, helps you see your work in a different light.
Formatting for Readability
As an adjunct to semantic, grammatical and stylistic editing, is the formatting of your document. In a long work, you might consider promoting a group of sections into chapters. Consider whether illustrations will enhance the story or argument you are trying to convey. Look at breaking large paragraphs into pieces – 10-12 lines per paragraph makes for comfortable reading.
Choose text font, size and colour appropriate to your audience and anticipated publication media. One of my pet hates is web sites with poor colour contrast – this Silver Fox’s eyesight isn’t what it used to be.
I recently sold the family house, and one of the things I learnt from that TV program “Selling Houses”, is “Dressing for Sale”. This is what this stage of document creation involves. What will catch a reader’s attention? A catchy title, an eye-catching picture? What will keep them reading? An easy on the eye format and colour, structured document with sub-headings that draw the reader through the subject.
Note that Proof Reading is different from Editing. Depending on the size of your piece and its purpose, it is very useful to get someone else to proof-read it. I used to use my mother-in-law who had no knowledge of the subject matter but had an eagle eye for grammar and spelling.
Search Engine Optimization and Branding
This is part of the marketing of your document on the internet. How will readers find your work? Look for Keywords in your document or similar documents you have found. Perhaps re-edit your piece to ensure searchable key-words appear in the title, sub-headings and text. In a blogging environment, ensure search key-words are listed in the categories or labels lists. If you are writing regular posts in a BLOG, this leads to the Branding of your BLOG.
I’m not going to recommend any specific book or web-site on editing, but a basic Google search on “editing and writing techniques” will provide an extensive list of sources of tips and strategies.
If you are a gardener, think of it like early pruning to give the core branches of a shrub a good structure. Then once the foliage has become a bit overgrown, pruning and shaping creates the specimen plant.
Select the types of techniques to use according to the type and size of your document. A User Manual or novel for limited or general publication should involve all these stages. A BLOG post might not have section headings, but organization into semantically related paragraphs is still important. Often a shorter piece like a ‘100 word’ structure, or a poem (from ‘free form’, to rhyming, to strongly structured like haiku or tanka), requires even stronger editing, where editing moves from being a technical stage to an art in its own right.
Notes, References and Attributions
A mention should be included of attribution. Though not quite editing, it is part of the completeness of a piece. All creation builds on the shoulders of those who have gone before, and proper attribution of significant or obscure external sources is polite and at times a copyright requirement. In printed work, foot-notes and bibliographies are the norm. In online work, like BLOG posts, hyperlinks to on-line resources or pop-up ‘hover over’ explanations (HTML “abbr” construct) serve the purpose. A hyper-link or pop-up can also be used to provide addition background information or explanation, best not put into the body of your writing.
Now you summarize what has gone before. Set yourself a Goal/Subject/Theme. Don’t get bogged down in getting the first sentence right. Start in the middle, start at the end and work backwards, use bullet points, a mind-map or story board, just let you ideas pour out. Don’t worry about word-count at this point, just write, write, write.
Now with your editor’s hat on, step out of your creative persona and be ruthlessly critical to ensure the writing has kept on track, flowing from beginning to end, clearly and concisely, with no distracting or jarring grammatical or spelling mistakes.
Before publication, review and edit for visual attractiveness, comfortable reading, Branding and Search Optimization.
Finally, accept that your work will never be perfect. You can never please all of the people all of the time. Receive criticism openly, evaluate alternate opinions dispassionately. In on-line work, be prepared to make corrections, amendments or addenda.
Guest Post ~ Writing Vs Editing
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