Editing in Support of Sustainable Writing

Good editing is good writing (or something damn close!). This is why some of the best editors are also, or even primarily, writers. In this blog, I share some tips I wrote for a recent editing workshop. These basic principles can help editors to give feedback in ways likely to sustain the author’s growth.

All editors face a quandary: how do we help writers improve their manuscripts without undercutting their sense of authority or confidence in their ability?  Terrific editorial feedback raises real questions about the manuscript in ways that put the decision-making ball firmly back in the author’s court.

First things first. Start by engaging the essay’s idea. If you only have an outline, that’s easy.  But, even if you have a full draft, address substance first and foremost. Copy-editing and proofreading are most helpful once the ideas are fleshed out. Focusing first on errors (grammar problems or typos) makes many writers feel belittled or even ashamed.

Affirm what works. Whether looking at list of ideas or a draft, identify and name something that is highly effective or has the potential to be (“a diamond in the rough”). Often the best parts of drafts are embedded in passages that need serious revision. Help the writer see what the “keeper” is (so that idea or phrase will not be lost in revision). Trust your gut in identifying such “keepers.”  Here’s an example of that kind of editorial query: The sensory details in the account of the basket-ball game really bring it to life. Could you say a bit more directly how that example illustrates your main point?

Re-enforce a multiple-stage process.  Typically, the best writing comes from series of fairly brief drafting and editing sessions spread out over time. Emphasize that working on the essay, for one hour on eight different days will produce a dramatically better final essay that working in a single eight-hour session (or even two four-hour sessions). Really! Psychologists call that “binge writing.” Also, look for opportunities to  point out that the work for this essay is developing skills that the writer will probably use over and over again (for scholarship or internship applications, job application cover letters, grant proposals, book proposals, etc…).

Suggestions for Copyediting and Proofreading Feedback.  Flag typos and other errors and try to name the type of problem in the margin. Correcting them is writer’s job. Even if the writer begs you to “just fix it,” doing so ultimately undermines the writer’s development and self-confidence.  Copy-editing queries, for example, may look like:  Verb-agreement problem here?Sentence fragment here?   Correct spelling here?


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