The Problem With Editing
Posted by Mitch Mitchell on Jul 18, 2010
As y’all know, I fancy myself as a writer. I think at this point I can qualify that statement with all the different types of things I write and have written. I thought about recounting all the things I write, but then decided it was easier to link you back to a previous post on how much I write. Actually, I’m writing more than what was in this post at the time, which is scary.
However, I wanted to talk about editing for a little bit. There’s always problems with editing, especially when you’re editing something that someone else wrote. Editing really comes down to the issue of what you like and are looking for versus what someone else has said. I find that it’s a fine line sometimes between editing to help someone fix typographical or grammatical errors and changing the entire tenor of what someone has written.
About six weeks ago I helped a friend edit her book. She’d had some other people look at it and I guess they’d made some suggestions here and there. I went at it with a critical eye, first looking for typing errors, then looking for grammatical errors, and finally what I consider errors of omission. Let’s take these in order, because they’re quite different.
Typing errors are more than just misspellings. A typographical error could mean things that are capitalized that shouldn’t be and vice versa. They could mean words that are spelled correctly but not the right word for the sentence, such as when we see people always getting wrong the concept of ‘there’, ‘they’re’, and ‘their’. This is actually the easiest thing to fix because most often the rules are cut and dry.
Grammatical errors are in a way the hardest edits to make. One of the issues with grammatical errors is that you have to take into account the fact that people speak differently depending on where they live, and of course where you live. For instance, most places I’ve lived in, when you went outside to throw the ball around, you were ‘playing catch.’ In downstate New York, and it appears areas of Pennsylvania, they call that ‘having a catch.’ Another example is that when I was younger we would ‘go to lunch’, and now people ‘do lunch’.
Those are small examples, but they become important when you need to make sure a person’s home voice is heard instead of the voice of the editor. There are words I often use when writing something that someone will say “I’d have used this word instead.” My general thought is that “You might have used that word, but I wrote it”, so I tend to stick to my guns. However, if someone used the same word four times in one sentence, suddenly it’s a different issue because the readability of the sentence is in question, whether the writer understood what he or she meant to say. There’s also the issue of writing for your audience to understand you, yet, because it’s how you talk, suddenly throwing in a word like ‘perspicacious’ because it hits your fancy, and now you’re sending people scrambling to look it up because you didn’t think of writing ‘using good judgment’ at the time. If it’s honest and how someone speaks, every once in awhile you just have to leave it alone.
Errors of omission are either difficult or hard, depending on the reader and the types of things they’re used to looking for. At my writer’s group, one of the participants is always looking for more detailed descriptions of people and what they look like, little touches in rooms to help her see it in her mind, and other thing such as what foods smelled like, did mouths water, what kind of sound a car made, etc. That kind of thing doesn’t always enter my mind. What I look for are things that don’t explain something that a writer has put into a story. For instance, a character’s name being mentioned without any explanation before or afterwards as to who that person is or was. Or a tale being told that’s missing so much detail that you wonder why it’s there in the first place.
Something I don’t do all that often on this blog is edit. When I write here, I’m kind of in my own Mozart zone; what I say is what I say, and when I’m done saying it I move on. I do look for typos, but as Sire has shown, every once in awhile I miss a word. This blog is freestyle, and I enjoy it for that reason. I edit much more thoroughly on both my business blog and my finance blog, because the audience for those blogs is much different than this one, and the topics always more serious. When I wrote my first book I edited it 7 times, and I asked a few other people to edit portions of it as well. Remember I helped Guy Kawasaki edit his book Reality Check back in 2008, one of many people he asked for help (talk about feeling honored!). That was one time I didn’t speed read.
Editing is a very important component of writing, but its importance devolves depending on what it is you’re doing and your audience. While no one wants to read a lot of stuff that’s missing simple words over and over so that it gets in the way of easy reading, studies have found that most of us will insert words here and there that are missing so that it’s not a big deal. If you’re writing your own blog, do the best you can with some effort, but don’t hurt yourself. If you’re writing for others, or hoping to make money, that’s a different story altogether. Remember the three critical areas of editing, whether it’s for yourself or for someone else.