Much of my work for the last year has been editing someone else’s existing content. I don’t mind this–it’s an opportunity to smooth out bumpy or clunky places and make the prose flow better. However, I didn’t realize how much I missed writing until I had the opportunity to do some actual writing for a customer. What’s the fundamental difference, and why should you care? Read on!
I have a great respect for editors. They have to look at a document with several different skills and perspectives in mind:
- Content & meaning
- Style & flow
All of these aspects of writing are in the editor’s mind as s/he reads sentence after sentence someone else has put down on paper or the screen. It requires attention to detail and a writer’s sensibilities (the editor may be required to rewrite entire sentences or paragraphs) while ensuring, above all, that a document’s quality is improved.
I’ve gotten better at editing over the years, to the extent that I’ve had more practice and I’ve learned when to leave the writer’s style alone. Such was not always the case. The point, most of the time, is not to enforce your style or word choices on the writer but to ensure that his/her words meet the needs of the customer/employer. If the writer’s words get the point across without expressing things exactly as you would have them, I’ve had to learn to leave it alone.
That being said, if the words make no sense or are put together badly, it falls to the editor to polish up what is there so that it blends well with the rest of the document. In essence, the editor has to learn the writer’s style and keep the whole thing sounding like one person wrote it.
One tool that I found eye-opening and life-changing in its impact was Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Better than Strunk & White’s Element’s of Style, which has been made worse by subsequent years of editorial tinkering, Williams’ book remains clear and relevant for its ability to help the editor (and writer) understand how to make their prose more direct and effective. He doesn’t just talk about simple mechanics but better ways to state and organize your ideas (or someone else’s). So if you don’t own a copy, here’s my unpaid advertisement and advice for you to run to your nearest bookstore or Amazon/Barnes & Noble app and acquire a copy.
Editing can be a thankless job, especially if you encounter a more sensitive or picky writer (I’ve been one myself on occasion) who takes offense to having their prose tinkered with. Thus, an editor often requires tact and patience in addition to an ability to make words flow well on the page. The best editor I’ve ever worked with has since retired to write novels, but if I’m ever in a pinch, she is my go-to person because she can see the forest and the trees and make the entire flow of a document make better sense, regardless of the number of times she’s read it previously. She was also a diplomat when it came to dealing with grumpy writers. Such editors are worth their weight in [pick your precious substance]. An editor who helps make you look good is not someone to be treated lightly.
Writing is the act of translating research and one’s own communication sensibilities to a given document. It’s your particular way of shaping reality using the written word. You have the responsibility for defining terminology, shaping a discussion, and explaining what it all means. It’s a form of teaching or philosophizing. The skills or knowledge involved in technical writing include:
- Vocabulary and memory
- Appropriate tone
- Connection making
- Narrative shaping
- Understanding grammar, spelling, punctuation, and mechanics
Notice I put grammar, spelling, and the picky stuff last. That is not to say they are unimportant–they most certainly are not!–however, if you don’t have an interest in absorbing a lot of information and developing a story or overall explanation of what it all means, you won’t be terribly effective. In short, you have to have something to say before you can start making it better. My joy is in writing what I think needs to be said. I’ve learned to appreciate the editorial process and the need for it, but putting the words together in the first place is what makes me happy.
My aforementioned favorite editor would tell you that if you wanted something written about space/NASA that hadn’t been said before, you find Bart. If you want your writing clarified and made better, you go to her. Therein lay the difference.