Editing Everything

I was listening to an interview with the writer Ayelet Waldman, who made an interesting comment about editing. When asked if she and her husband – the intimidatingly great Michael Chabon – edit each other’s work, she said that they edit each other’s everything, even emails. She said that very little writing leaves the house that wasn’t looked over.

I tend to agree with this practice. I edit just about everything over a couple of sentences. Part of this is professional habit/paranoia – hard to ask someone to pay for my writing with an unsharp email – but I also do it because words are important. I’ve already read these words over twice, and I’ll read it again after I hit submit. Mania!

Wondering how many of you share the compulsive need to edit.

Well, my day job is editing, and I’d rate my compulsive need to edit my own writing somewhere just shy of Rainman-raccoon hand-washing. As a writer this slows me down considerably, compared with the output some on this forum talk about, but then when I’m finally done with something it usually needs little more than somewhere between a heavy-duty proofreading and a light-touch copyedit–someone else’s eyes to catch those infelicities we all make but can’t see, because we made them.

Of course, how much time I spend editing a piece of writing is directly related to how much I’m going to be paid for it. You get that way, when sitting at the keyboard is your only visible means of support.

Emails, and postings to a forum, get a quick twice-over, and then off they go. A 1500-word magazine column might be edited 20 or 30 times before I’m done enough to let it settle, unrevisited, for a week or two or as long as I can spare, and then spit-shined once or twice more before haring off to the publisher.

But then I have a peculiar way of writing that seems a form of editing itself, in that I begin each morning at the beginning of whatever I’m working on, and then I rewrite my way to where I left off, and then I write as much more as I have thoughts in my head to sustain, and then I start from the beginning again the next morning.

On book-length projects, this can be, as we say hereabouts, a job of work.

Quoting Oscar Wilde:

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

This anecdote shows up in several variations, which I take as evidence, not that some are wrong, but that Wilde used the line many times, in slightly altered form, editing each version as he went along. I’d try to figure out which was his final choice, except that he probably went to his grave planning yet another teeny tiny modification.

I know how he felt. I edit everything, sometimes in the middle of a word. The compulsion carries over to conversation, where I often stammer, not because I cannot think of the word, but because I cannot quickly enough sort out the absolutely best one. (The problem never arises on stage; when I’m working with someone else’s words, the choice has already been made.)


Speaking of editing, PJS… :smiling_imp: :smiling_imp: :smiling_imp:

The way I originally heard this anecdote was thus:

X: How was your morning, Mr. Wilde?
W: Absolutely DREADFUL! I spent the entire morning putting in a comma!!
X: [clucking apologetically] I am so sorry to hear that. [Pause] And what about your afternoon?
W: Much much better, thank you. I took the comma out!

[double post] how’s that for editing?

I edit according to what the writing is for and where it is going. For instance, I edit a post on this forum far more closely than I edit an email sent to remind myself do something.

When in the heat of an initial draft of a story, I tend to do no editing whatsoever. I write the story with typos misspellings and all. As I said, this is initial draft that is seen only by me. Spell checked and rough edit makes it presentable to my first reader(s).

That said, having had some notable names in fiction edit my writing in the past couple years has brought my initial draft quality up to a degree that there are few changes to make it presentable to my first reader(s).

Also, working (not always voluntarily) in some fiction workshop settings, I can say that editing—even basic grammar/spelling edits—is a step that far too many writers lack an eye for or enthusiasm to do. This is a mark of a lazy writer, and one who is likely to not proceed very far until they take that step.

I love editing my work, and the work of other writers who care about their work. Reading a good story in the process is also nice. :slight_smile:

Chabon is no more intimidating to me than anyone else (intimidating for me is reading some first draft manuscripts from Nabokov). Chabon is very good at what he does, but far more of that excellence is dedication and desire than “natural ability” … of course, not everyone will agree with that. The best thing I’ve ever read from Mr. Chabon is the simplistic statement, “I am that bored reader, in that circumscribed world, laying aside his book with a sigh; only the book is my own, and it is filled with my own short stories, plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew.”

Alas, in my reading, far too many published works are plotless without having been precipitated with epiphanic dew. And an increasing number of published works read as if the manuscript didn’t even enter a building where an editor works.

Such editing starts with the writer. I’m one who usually lets a story conclude before beginning to edit it.

Most published works these days spend only a brief time in a building where an editor works, and then they’re Fed-Exed to a freelancer who used to work in the building where other editors worked, but like them has been downsized (except the acquisitions editor, who these days probably came up through Marketing and not Editorial, and the managing editor, an air-traffic controller directing the flow of words from freelancer to freelancer and ultimately to manufacturing).

Back in the late 1960s, I worked in a fair-sized house as a proofreader, and two of us sat facing each other and took turns reading the manuscript aloud to wring out the last of the errors–this after the acquisitions editor had done his development work, and the line editor had his go, and the copy editor, and the author had followed up with all three. Now, proofreading typically occurs on a card table in a den between runs to the market and loads of laundry, after the acquisitions/line editor passed it off very quickly, having a signing quota to meet, and the freelance copyeditor did the best he could afford to do, considering his pay, adjusted for inflation, is 20% lower than it was 10 years ago, when he started freelancing, and 65% lower than when he involuntarily joined the freelance workforce.

There are still a number of old-fashioned houses where words mean everything, but far too many of today’s publishers–small unprofitable divisions of giant conglomerates who thought they were buying something else, apparently, than a toehold in the business that has rarely delivered more than a 9% return on equity since the days of Wynken de Worde–are chop shops meant to quickly move product: what a sales manager of an international publisher I worked for once called our Fall List of Titles, as in “we gotta move more product this quarter.”

Based on the number of corrections I find myself doing, post submit, over on the digression thread, I am not convinced that even my fourth or fifth pass is irrelevant. Apparently I am only capable of finding the most obvious mistakes the next day.


That read aloud thing is becoming critical to me. I can not see my own mistakes (due to the forest of them) until I hear the error with my own ears. My poor wife and kids. They are subjected to the most hideous readings of horrid writing imaginable. But there is a positive side effect of this. My kids are seeing first hand that perfection is not possible for most of us (meaning those with a portion of my genes), and certainly not in the first 2, 3 or 75 drafts. They have started asking us to listen to them read their essays for school, and they bring a pencil of their own. Their work is making dramatic improvements even in these first drafts, but more importantly to them their overall grades are improving due to simple improvements in grammar and readability. I wish someone had suggested that to me 10 years ago. I think I started this when you or one of the other “old school” editor types commented on the value of the audible read.

I still read all my (paying) stuff aloud the last thing before sending it off–though I wait until the house is vacant, with only the cats to stare on in open-mouthed horror. Anyone can write barbarously; few of us can stand to speak so. It grates on our ears.

BTW, the longer you can let something simmer, after theoretically completing it but before actually completing it, the better. I let a magazine piece sit idle two or three weeks after finishing, so that when I go back in I’ve forgotten what I meant to say, and can then see whether I said it or not. For book-length things, I try to let them sit at least three or four months. Sometimes this isn’t possible; fortunately, the error-tolerance rate for a book is far higher than it is for a short story.

Really, there’s no end to the compulsion to edit: When I go back in and read a book I wrote 10 years ago, I have to throttle the urge to make ex-post-facto corrections and contrive to have them mailed to everyone how bought it. Now that my most recent attempt (the first stab at fiction, and the first written wholly on Scrivener) is circulating through the lay-off factories of Midtown Manhattan (“we’re just taking a bit of a break from fiction right now”), I’m having to hide the manuscript from myself so I don’t look at it, cringe, and then get caught breaking in to some hapless acq-ed’s office to make midnight commando corrections on the fly.

An editor friend and I and our wives went to see a subtitled movie some years ago, and both wives swore never to repeat the experience: My friend and I criticized the transcription pretty much nonstop. As my wife said, “at least those robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 are funny.”

Guilty as charged.

When I first started working in TV, many programmes were broadcast live, not just news. The script of many of these was typed on to a Tele-prompter or Autocue. This consisted of a continuous strip of paper like a loo-roll with the words on it, whose image was then projected in front of the presenters or hosts as they read it. Editing the script in the minutes just before On-Air required a typewriter, scissors, glue and a fairly strong nerve. You cut out the bits out of the roll that you didn’t want and glued in the bits that you did. If you got it wrong, as frequently happened (glue and a paper roll have a strong potential for chaos), the presenters ended up mouthing nonsense - or nothing at all. I and others soon learnt that with an even stronger nerve you could actually make changes as the loo-roll passed through the machine. We frequently did, although we were not supposed to. And then there arguments over what the exact wording should be…

So - the modern version of “History is written by the victors” became - “History is written by the last person to lay hands on and edit the Autocue.”

Now the script is digital and changes can be and are made just before the words pass in front of the presenter, I suspect this is even more true.


Reading Aloud: I do this too. I have even taken to having my Mac read certain things back to me while I do dishes or whatever. It was a little off putting at first, but there’s something so clinical about the flat intonation of the computer that I like. It certainly gives you a sense of when you’re repeating yourself.

I just figured out how to push the daughditor over the edge. I will buy her a Mac then when she least expects it I will have it start reading over a particular passage that she hates with a passion. A little perl, applescript and an apache config later and she will profane your name with as much vehemence as she does mine.

On second thought snort would get wind of this and then my value of my life would go down hill pretty fast. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

For TV scripts, reading aloud before delivery is essential. Sadly the evidence of news voice-overs is that it doesn’t happen to the extent it should.

In addition, I have trouble resisting the temptation to point out what we know in the UK as greengrocers’ apostrophes. Though I’ve never yet attempted to edit one in situ.

A few places I’ve lived, I’ve been lucky enough to have encountered reading groups. That is, groups of writers who, instead of offering straight critique reading each other’s work, get together and read their stuff aloud. One group like this in Chicago meets every week, and offers open mic once a month (sort of an audition for new readers, to ensue a certain level of quality).

I’d always read my own stuff aloud at home, but reading it for a willing, yet critical, audience offers additional benefits.

The downside of this is that some stories play out well when read aloud, but don’t work in the same way when read on the page.

There’s balance in everything. :slight_smile:


I had thought I would wickedly post “the collected lines-that-really-needed-editing” culled from the posts to this thread, but then a clear pattern emerged–it was one per post with but rare exception. Chastened, I thought how like you sly wordsters to have you’re subtle little joke…


My multitude of errors are not a rare exception. They are the norm. :imp:

First line: cut hyphens in “lines that really needed editing”
Second line: replace em dash after “emerged” with colon; cut “but” before rare
Third line: replace “you’re” with 'your"; add “s” after “joke”; replace ellipsis at end of sentence with period.

Ha. I rest my case.


got it bad… definitely got it bad… getting worse… getting worse all the time… 8)

Punctuation is an arbitrary system of symbols whose function is to indicate how the writer intends his/her material to be read. If most readers correctly gauge your tone, inflection, and intent, punctuation has served your purpose. If, despite adhering to the illogical and post-hoc rules of punctuation inflicted by grammarians, your tone or inflection or intent is lost, punctuation has failed.

Not all credit or blame can be assigned to punctuation, however. Context, sentence structure, and vocabulary also affect the reading.

That said, and if I have correctly inferred your meaning, I suggest these revisions.

First line: delete “the collected” and quotation marks.
Second line: delete “the” and “then;” add space before and after em dash.
Third line: replace “but rare” with a specific number; replace “you’re” with “your.”

In general: simplify verb sequences (“I had thought I would” rambles); where possible, eliminate adverbs (“wickedly” adds little); avoid extravagance (“sly” and “subtle” and “little” are too much ornament for “joke”); end each sentence with a period.