“Perfection” is a strong word. I don’t mean to scare you with it. The goal is to write something you’re willing to send into the world without nagging guilt or remorse. You don’t feel the need to revise it, redo it, or wreck it. For me, that’s as close to “perfect” as I’m ever going to get. By this definition, not everything I’ve written and published has been perfect. Occasionally, I’ll get a strange pain in my chest. I wonder where it came from, and then it hits me. Deep in my bones, I’m still lamenting that one sentence I wish I could’ve rewritten … from something I wrote years ago. I’m not kidding. I’ve been estranged from friends. I’ve been divorced. I’ve lost pets and loved ones. All of which, I’ve dealt with and accepted. And yet, I can’t get over a badly-written piece of prose.
What is wrong with me?
My favorite blunder: I once wrote a query letter to a literary agent. At that time, I thought it was the most important letter I would ever write. It was my big break. I told her about this story I was working on. I said it was about “a police officer who investigates a school shooting,” except I actually wrote “a police officer who instigates a school shooting,” which is a completely different story. Oops.
I want to save you from the pain I know too well. Learn how to edit, so you can love your work.
Editing is still writing, but you’re using a different set of mental muscles. It’s hard to give you one or two guiding concepts. Instead, editing involves a set of numerous, disparate skills.
Here are the basics:
- Give yourself something to edit — In theory, you should worry about editing once you’ve finished writing your first draft. If you find yourself editing a sentence over and over without moving on, your writing will be disjointed. You’ll never find a rhythm in your work. Hemingway once said, “Write drunk. Edit sober.” Maybe a more responsible way to view it is: let your first draft be uninhibited. You can always panic later while editing.
- Read your work aloud — The best writers always mumble quietly to themselves. There’s no other way around it. You need to hear the words to know if they’re any good.
- Read your work multiple times — You’re not going to catch everything the first time. If you’re not willing to read through your work a few times, would anyone else read through it once?
- Spend time away from your work — Deadlines get in the way of this premise. Generally speaking, you need to step away from whatever you’ve written for a day or two, so you can see it with a fresh perspective when you return. If you don’t have time, at least, get up and go for a walk. Tune out, return to your desk, and tune back in.
- Get someone else to read your work — Even the best writers can subconsciously skip over the mistakes in their own work. It’s not a failing on their part. Everybody does it. You need another pair of eyes. You don’t want just anyone reading your work. Find someone you trust. (For instance, Alvin, my copywriter, and Frances, my creative director, edited this blog. Both are talented, intelligent writers, each with a different approach. Hi guys!) You don’t want someone to hack your work to bits—it’s not as helpful as you’d think—nor do you want a person to arbitrarily mark up your work. Mostly, you want an editor who is willing to suggest improvements, point out errors, and give feedback on how it sounds to them.
- Don’t get lured into strange tactics — Some writers have bizarre editing tricks. Highlighting every other sentence with different colors. Reading the essay backwards and upside down. Having a spouse read it while you lie on the ground. If it works, go for it. But be careful. These editing fads aren’t always as useful as simply reading it.
- Not all edits are “typos” — A typo is a flat-out, always-wrong mistake. It could be a misspelled word, misplaced punctuation, misuse of a word, a spacing issue, or any number of embarrassing goofs. Typos will drive you crazy. However, issues of style or areas for improvement are not typos. You eventually want to get to the point where typos only occupy 10 percent or less of your editing energy. Instead, you’re focused on style, voice, and general betterment of your ideas.
- Know when to rewrite — Here’s a painful one. Sometimes a piece just isn’t working, from beginning to end, and there’s no amount of editing that will save it. Your ideas weren’t fully-formed. The work isn’t viable. In these sad cases, editing will not help. You need to throw it away and start fresh. I’m sorry for your loss.
- Start with an axe; end with a scalpel — The best editing starts with the big changes, such as an idea that needs more support or a paragraph to be moved. Then, you move to the smaller adjustments, fine tuning your phrases and the cadence of a particular sentence. The precision detail work is best saved for when you’re almost done.
- Know when to leave it alone — Your work is never finished, just due. You can edit and edit endlessly, poke and pull at every word, every sentence. At a certain point, you have to let it go and send it into the world. In this situation, the issue is almost always your own sense of confidence and not the work itself. Every writer is simultaneously ego-driven and insecure. You need to know when to nod your head, and simply say “OK. This will do.”
Anyone, with clear thinking and a willingness to work, is capable of writing something that makes them proud. I’m convinced of it. The secret shouldn’t be too surprising. You have to care enough to risk disappointment, and you must be willing to change your work for the sake of the final product. You have to suffer a bit, and you have to endure. To quote David Remnick, “This is not a normal activity. Writing, to do it well, is horribly difficult. It breaks people in half sometimes. I don’t recommend it. But all those things said, there’s no greater pleasure.” Our writing can achieve a sublime power. When it does, it’s an incredible feeling, and the words on the page feel perfect enough.