Yes, you need an editor!

Whether you’re a wizard with words or a Hogwarts dropout, this one’s for you.

When I sat down to write this, I was bursting with frustration. I read no fewer than three articles from around the Internet in one morning, all riddled with errors and dense with clunky writing.

Admittedly, I’m the sort to lose sleep over misplaced commas; I don’t expect everyone to share my nitpicking ways. But I do want to demonstrate that with cleaner, clearer writing, we avoid confusing (or aggravating!) readers and stand a better chance of effectively getting our points across.

So, I wrote a draft of this post and then worked with an editor to clean it up, using my own experience to complement the following advice.

Wait, but why?

A lot of people are inspired, hammer something out on their keyboard, then hit “publish” and call it a day. 

What’s wrong with that? Well, to be blunt, it sucks. In effect, that piece is a published rough draft. And a first attempt is rarely as well-structured, insightful, and concise as our second or third efforts. The real gold comes as we reread, get feedback from others, and refine.

(Not to mention, typos and punctuation errors abound without proofing.)

We want to show people our best selves. And when we don’t edit, it’s the equivalent of showing up to a job interview in a wrinkled, stained shirt. We look a mess, and others will respond accordingly.

Your audience won’t hear you out when they can’t take you seriously. If you didn’t pay attention to the details in your writing, where else were you sloppy or careless?

Lower barriers =/= lower standards

Editing: whether by other humans, robots or your own brain, it’s worth it.

The last thing I mean to do is discourage creative folks. This post is not an indictment of spontaneity or of sharing work that’s still relatively “raw”—say, an idea that’s not yet fully formed but has tremendous potential. Nor is this a rant on how “today’s kids” have lost respect for language because the barrier to publishing has been lowered.

On the contrary, I think it’s fantastic those barriers are coming down! Ideas and inventions shouldn’t be filtered by who has enough money or connections to get published.

It’s wonderful that anyone with computer access can start a blog, just as it’s great that anyone handy with knitting needles can set up shop on Etsy:

These days, when I buy a woolly hat to survive a brutal winter, my funds support a talented crafter, rather than a faceless corporation. But there’s a downside. The Etsy hat has more chance of arriving with a hole in it than if I’d gone to a big department store. Because factory-made stuff undergoes formal quality control.

Does this mean I should never buy whimsical knits from independent artists? No! It means only that those knitters should check their work carefully and impose high standards on themselves. By the same token, writers should read back through their copy for redundancies, improper punctuation and typos: anything that might put holes in their credibility in the eyes of the reader.

Practicing what I preach…or just talking through my hat?

Knowing that a poorly written piece is easily written off, I’ve tried to make sure that doesn’t happen in this post. It was important for the introduction to be good because I wanted to make a positive first impression…as most of us do!

As a result, I rewrote the first sentence three times. The first version: “Whether you consider yourself a good writer, or you’d rather shovel snow with a soup spoon than try to string words together, this one’s for you.” Not bad, but it could be better. For one thing, a “good writer” isn’t quite the opposite of someone who hates writing.

The second, “Whether you’re a level-5 word ninja or you feel like writing is a battle that keeps kicking your butt, this one’s for you.” Better. But karate isn’t quite parallel to the writing process.

Then I came up with the final version that you read at the top. “Whether you’re a wizard with words or a Hogwarts dropout, this one’s for you.” An apt analogy that works at both ends of its spectrum (someone with a knack for writing versus someone who struggles with it), paired with a reference the reader understands quickly. A marked upgrade.

How did I get here? My editor! She pointed out the shortcomings of the opening line and helped me iterate—and think more critically about each version—until I found a winner.

There are a couple of things to be gleaned from this.

1. It’s really hard to edit yourself.

We have blind spots when it comes to our own work. And even seasoned grammaristas make flubs. An editor can catch our mistakes, assess our approach, and bring in points we haven’t considered.

A second perspective makes your writing better.

Ever been stuck in a tough spot and turned to a friend for advice? It works for writing, too. An outsider can look at something with fresh eyes and offer insights or ask questions that we may have missed.

For instance, my editor on this post suggested making it more engaging with a personal anecdote: it’s a piece about hiring an editor, for which I…hired an editor? I hadn’t even thought of it!

So, editing makes a difference. But it’s not a task just anyone can do. Be discerning.

2. It doesn’t have to be expensive or inconvenient, just choose wisely.

To be sure, hiring a professional editor means professional results; editing is its own skill that takes years to develop. But if you choose someone who is good at giving constructive feedback—a friend or coworker who understands the nuances of the writing process—chances are good they’ll still offer valuable insights. You’ll need at least that much help, if you want to do truly high-quality work.

If you can’t get an editor…

OK, editors aren’t always necessary.  Maybe you’re writing something informal (like a long Instagram caption or a personal blog post).  Maybe you’re pressed for time and it’s not practical to find an editor—or even to wait on a friend to look something over. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to pull another person into your project’s orbit.

For such times, here’s my self-editing advice for not-so-dummies:

  • First and foremost, get your thoughts down on paper. Then take a breath. Walk away and clear your head.
  • Read it through, looking for word repetition, rambling, any areas where you’ve been verbose. Cut it down. Use to change up vocabulary.
  • Outsource. I know, I know. We just acknowledged that it doesn’t always make sense to recruit another person. But lucky you, it’s 2019 and not all editors are human! Use an automated editing tool, such as Hemingway or Grammarly. They’re super speedy and make pretty decent suggestions on the basics, such as sentence mechanics, word choice and readability.
  • Read aloud to someone else, ideally, but to yourself at least, to catch any kinks in word- and sentence-flow.
  • Finally, do a thorough word-by-word sweep for typos and spelling mistakes. (Don’t skip this one! In fact, if you do NOTHING else, do the typo sweep as a bare minimum.)

It may sound like a long process, but for an average-length piece, it shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes. Especially once you get some practice and find your groove as a self-editor. And? It will almost certainly save you some embarrassment. Editing: whether by other humans, robots or your own brain, it’s worth it.