I’ve been told the secret to writing well is to practice every day. I do, not because I think my writing will achieve greatness, but because I enjoy the habit.
But I believe the biggest leaps in the quality of my writing didn’t coincide with bursts of raw prose. I became much better at writing during periods of intense editing.
It has been my great fortune to realize that while I may be a serviceable writer, I am often a diligent and thoughtful editor. I strive to keep the writing in the writer’s voice, but seek ways to condense, to clarify and to improve the work before me.
I learned very early in my career that my input as an editor was both unwelcome and usually unheeded. Writers often fought for every bloated sentence, forgetting that the first three words of the piece included their name. This is a valuable lesson: For every writer we scorn, somewhere lies an editor who falls even lower in stature and regard.
I can’t speak for editing in movies (even as I consider the many I’ve watched and wished for 20 minutes trimmed for the sake of impact). But having edited stories, captions, headlines, blog posts, essays, term papers, speeches, novels, tests, tweets, columns, cartoons, chyrons, editorials, scripts, brochures, flyers, rough drafts and final drafts, I know that careful editing is a must for great writing and communication.
Working with professional and amateur writers has broadened my perspective while allowing me to guide and learn from the best (and the worst). It forced me to think about the needs of the reader, the range of the writer and the options I have to coach as an editor.
I grew over time as an editor. The best outcome wasn’t a perfect story. The best outcome evolved, and for me as editor, it’s having a writer who has picked up some small skill with each editing session. For her, it might be how to write a sentence more concisely. Or sticking to one tense throughout a piece. Or ensuring that the post fulfills the promise made by the headline.
I’ve had the good fortune to work as both a lowly copy editor and as a story editor at various publications. I’ve also had the good fortune to work with learned editors who were unselfish with their time and their craft.
Want to be a better writer? Want to tell better stories? Learn to edit.
Editors have made my prose and my reputation shine more brightly than either could unpolished.
I learned editing on the job. You may need to learn in the classroom. Check your local 2-year and 4-year colleges for editing courses. I can also suggest a couple of online courses from the Poynter Institute: the Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing and Fundamentals of Editing.
Your suggestions for editing courses, tutorials and books are welcome in the comments.