Essential writing skills: tricks for better content editing

Content editing is the part of writing that takes an author from their ‘bad first draft’ to their ‘good final version’.

1197094932257185876johnny_automatic_books_svg_medIt’s also called ‘polishing’, sometimes ‘crafting’. But it’s all the same thing – it’s about taking that raw draft and reviewing the material. For me it’s the fun part of writing. But it’s also a process. Floundering through it absorbs time – time that those of us on deadlines seldom have.

Direction and system can help. The biggest time-sink when editing is getting half way through a detailed re-work only to discover something’s fundamentally adrift with structure.

On my experience the best way to discover this – and, for that matter, the other content editing issues  – is to look at the work from the over-arching perspective, as a complete object. Some authors write by polishing every sentence to finish point, then moving on to the next. The problem with this “detail first” approach is that it loses perspective; all the author focuses on is individual parts, without stepping back and visualising the whole work as a single entity.

To speed up the whole process – and get a better quality overall – the trick is to get that wider perspective. Hence the importance of a complete “bad first draft”. Then you can deal with the content in multiple passes over the whole document, whatever its length.

It’s a technique of the computer age – word processors make it easy. Earlier authors didn’t get that luxury without a lot of re-typing.

I usually ask these questions – and implement them, in order.

1. What is my broad intent with this piece of writing? Does the draft meet it structurally, from beginning to end? What can I do to adjust that?
2. Now I’ve got the structure right, time for that closer detail. Does the draft meet that intent in detail (sentences and phrases)? How can I amend that?
3. Working down to even closer detail – is the tone consistent – the style? If not, make it so. This can sometimes take more than one revision pass.

It also helps, if you have the time, to put the manuscript into a metaphorical drawer for a day or four – then repeat the three steps above.

For me, at least, that process-from-overview, followed by breaking the content editing down into a system which deals with the largest scale aspects first, then moves on progressively to detail, means that the fundamental purpose – and structure – will be right before I start monkeying with the wording.

Does a process of this kind work for you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: more writing tips, proof-editing tricks, fun science and humour. Watch this space.


20 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: tricks for better content editing

  1. This makes perfect sense to me. One of the reasons it has been slow going on my WIP is that I saw a major flaw in the character arcs and a secondary plot line caused by the initial flash sections being written without an overarching plan. So I spent a good deal of time over the last several months doing some “world-building” and structure changes. I seem to be humming along now so I’ll wait for the complete MS and then take another look to make sure the structure is what I was after.

    1. Sounds good – and all the very best for the project! It’s hugely satisfying (certainly to me, and I’m sure for you too) to have that creative process rolling along. There’s that sense of ‘what’s gonna happen next?’ – which readers get when reading…and authors get when writing, sometimes. I always think it’s hugely rewarding for the writer when their story – or non-fic, for that matter – leads them down unexpected paths.

  2. Excellent advice, Matthew! It is a long process to edit a book which I am finding out as I edit mine. It is taking almost as long as it did to write it. I will try to look at like it as you suggested. Thank you!

    1. Glad to be of assistance! On my experience the editing process is often longer than the base writing process…but to me the whole lot classifies as “writing”. Typically, when I’ve got a first draft finished, I figure I’m maybe only half way through the actual “writing” process – which includes editing.

  3. Great article. Before I’d write a book and then edit only for grammar neglecting many problems along the way. About four months ago I decided to educate of many writer related topics — starting from the beginning up — It turns out all the ‘editing’ I did before counted for nothing. I have since learned to slow down edit for structure, plot, and voice, repetition, telling and a laundry list of other things once I did that a fair few times it is on to grammar.

  4. Yes, you basically describe my process. I’ve never understood the approach where you agonize over and polish a sentence or paragraph to perfection before moving on. To me that’s a time waster, for necessity may lead to the passage being excised or drastically altered. No, I try to keep my perspective and see the whole. I get lost in the trees far less often that way. A great post.

    1. Needless to say I agree absolutely! Others may differ, but as you say, this is the only real way forward. Certainly it’s essential when deadlines press. The alternative methods aren’t time-efficient.

  5. I’m with you, Matthew. I enjoy editing, or at least the first few passes. Eventually I get real sick of reading the same words. Thank you for this three-point checklist to help structure the process.

  6. For sure, I hear you on that one. I just pulled out an old ms from five years ago that I’d spent MONTHS polishing to perfection in the fine detail and presentation but never felt it was quite right. Re-reading it with five more years of experience I can see the gaping plot holes, the irrational character behaviour and major structural flaws. (Oh Matthew, if only I’d found your blog back then!) I like the way you share illumination to light the path for others. All part of improving the literary world around us.

    1. Thank you! I wish I’d thought of blogging way back when. I have had the exact same experience with a novel I have been trying to write since forever. I can only get to it in tbe interstices between my non fiction. The long gaps mean I inevitably find I can recast. And so completion remains an elusive future aspiration. But the quality of Chapter 1 is pretty good…. 🙂

  7. Another excellent writing post! I love your three questions and the idea of taking a systematic, reverse pyramid, approach to editing. Having a system in place, whether dealing with housework or refining one’s literary contribution to humanity, is the best way to avoid becoming bogged down by emotion or obsessive fiddling (or heaven forbid the black cloaked pariah procrastination) when the whole thing just seems so overwhelming…. like the horrendous pile of dirty dishes I have to deal when I go home tonight… groan.

    An interesting tidbit for you about plot and structure ~ I once read that F Scott Fitzgerald said he had to be sober while writing his novels because (not verbatim) “you can’t keep an entire novel in your head when you’re drinking.” This, of course, explains most of his short stories lol, and why the fellow was so miserable. If the three things he loved the most (alcohol, writing, and Zelda) were such incompatible bedfellows… well, doing the dishes would have been a vacation!

    1. Thank you! I have to say that the deconstructional approach I use does require keeping at least the ovewview of the writing in mind. Can get challenging at book length! I really don’t know how the G&T set haunting Raffles and other writing venues in the deco age managed to mix drinking with writing. Fitzgerald was quite right.

      1. That’s why blog posts are such great palate cleansers for us writers – get in, get out, and get back to drinking, dancing the Charleston, or even those dang dishes!

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