What is great editing?

The art and science of editing

I love great editing. Great editing is recognizable to me when I finish a piece, whether a success story, scholarly article, or New York Times bestseller, and realize that I didn’t notice the writing at all. I didn’t have to stop to think about the writing. I just sailed through the piece–easy reading.

That’s why great editing is so powerful: Because great editing makes it possible for readers to read without interruption, without stumbling, without thinking about the act of reading. It allows readers to follow your train of thought from conception to completion and, hopefully, to understanding and YES. By anticipating and answering possible reader questions, and by anticipating and overcoming potential reader objections, great editing paves the way for a pleasurable reading experience and fosters an exchange between the author and reader that, ultimately, builds reader respect and trust.​

Isn’t that, inevitably, what all authors want?

Isn’t that what YOU want?​

Great editing keeps readers from stumbling on your prose.

As a reader, I stumble (and sometimes fall flat on my face) when confronted with poor organization, lapses in logic, and shallow or missing evidence—the big-picture issues that a good developmental or substantive editor knows how to find.

The last novel I read comes to mind; in it, several passages began and ended without the author ever sharing which characters were doing the thinking, speaking, and acting. I not only wondered who was doing what; I also wondered what had happened to the editor! The issue was so prominent that the book would have landed in my dud pile, the home of unfinished books, had its premise not been strong. Despite my impatience and frustration, I wanted to know how the story ended.

Great editing keeps readers from becoming “error detectors.”

Smaller bugaboos, those usually caught by a proficient copy editor, interrupt my reading as well, turning me into what tech writer Brad Connatser calls an error detector. Connatser, in his May 2004 Technical Communication article, “Reconsidering Some Prescriptive Rules of Grammar and Composition,” points out how prescriptive grammar—the grammar documented in English texts, dictionaries, and style manuals—can cause readers to stumble when it deviates from organic grammar—the grammar that people read, speak, and write in their everyday lives.

Why is this a problem? As Connatser explains:​

“The danger of violating organic grammar is the unintended shift in rhetorical roles from ‘reader’ to ‘error detector.’ Once a reader becomes aware of the reading process, he or she is likely to become more critical. Finding a few errors could set off a counterproductive shift in the rhetorical role of the reader.” (p. 265)

The shift Connatser described happens to me all the time, whether caused by breaks in prescriptive grammar—think misspellings, typographical errors, and improper word usage—or organic grammar, such as when an author “insist[s] on unifying a verb and its auxiliary at the expense of satisfying the reader’s speech instinct” (Connatser, 2004, p. 274).

Great editing helps you build trust with your readers.

I (and, I would think, most readers) always begin each reading journey with an open mind and a sense of expectation, hoping for the best. When I stumble over errors or questions or objections, I begin to lose my trust in the text and, if the errors continue, ultimately, my respect for the author.

Great editing aims to keep the reader from making that rhetorical leap from reader to error detector. Of course the same could also be said of great writing. But when writing is simply good, or even when it is not so good, then great editing can lift it to heights it never could have reached on its own.

What’s next?

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