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5. Editing and Revising

[The fifth in a series.]

Congratulations! You’ve finished writing your rough draft.

Now what? Ship (or e-mail) it to a publisher?

Whoa! Hold on! Not so fast! You’re nowhere near ready for that momentous step yet. There’s much more to be done. You’re just getting started. This is where the real work begins.

What follows is not necessarily fun (at least not for most writers). In fact, it can be downright tedious. But it is necessary. Critical. Essential.

I’m referring to the editing and revising of that first draft. And I purposely say “first” because there will (or should) be many of them.

There are several types of editing, and you’ll be doing them all at some point. There is substantive editing, which involves checking the content of your subject; analyzing how you present your points; adding bunches of text where information was left out; rewriting text that’s unclear or needs elaboration, explanation, or support; eliminating discrepancies and contradictions; strengthening weak points; and revising the order of your points. It’s sometimes called a “heavy” edit for a reason.

Next comes copy editing, which ensures that everything is done according to the “house style” of the publisher(s) to whom you intend to submit your work. It also includes fact checking as well as catching and correcting grammar, usage, punctuation, and other technical problems.

As you do each edit, the work should get lighter and the volume and number of changes less. Eventually, it should get down to the “nitty-gritty” details: deciding on the precise word to use, making minor corrections in grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation, etc.–addressing anything and everything that is wrong with the text. Finally, it will involve (some people contend, although others disagree) the final proofreading of the text.

You’re probably not a trained editor; you’re a writer. You’re a creator, not a corrector. So why can’t you just submit your manuscript as you originally produce it and save yourself a lot of time and hard (to say nothing of boring) work by letting the publisher’s editor do the editing for you? After all, isn’t that his or her job?

Of course it is. But you want to make that editor’s job as easy as you can, thereby moving your manuscript another step closer to publication.

I’ve been on both sides of the editor’s desk, so I know what both sides feel and think.

I know what it’s like to have my darling manuscript ripped to shreds by a callous, overly zealous word maven. “Doesn’t she know that God gave me this article?! How dare she cut that word or reword that sentence?!”

I also know the frustration of the editor whose repeat clients keep repeating the same simple mistakes time after time. “Why can’t this guy learn the rule “i before e, except after c, and as in neighbor and weigh“? “Why can’t these otherwise brilliant scientists learn to use active voice instead of passive voice? Are they afraid to take responsibility for the results of their experiments?”

If you’re unsure what to look for when you’re editing your manuscript, get hold of and study some style guides. The “industry standard” of most of the publishing world is the Chicago Manual of Style. Learn well the sections most relevant to your genre. (For most of my work at the Oak Ridge nuclear facilities, the sections most relevant to my work were especially numbers and formulas. For my own writing, it has been source citations, the end note and bibliographic formats for various types of source materials.)

If Chicago is a bit intimidating (it is, after all, a nearly 1,000-page monstrosity), consider one of the several more concise style guides written for the average writer. Two that I have occasionally used are A Christian Writer’s Manual of Style by Bob Hudson and Shelley Townsend and The Little Style Guide to Great Christian Writing and Publishing by Leonard and Carolyn Goss (I was reared on Chicago, though, so I’m partial to it.)

At some point, on one of the many edits you do, you should read your writing aloud slowly. Do you stumble over any places? Is anything unclear? Does anything not sound right? When in doubt, check it out! Study how it can be clarified, said more precisely, worded more beautifully. (I’m not talking about writing “purple prose” here but rather writing for the ear, making your sentences conversational rather than jargon-filled or academic.)

Does a portion sound wordy? When in doubt, cut it out! Make every word count!

Just when you think you’ve produced a perfect manuscript, ask someone else (ideally, several people) to read it and comment on it. Don’t ask your mother or grandmother; they’ll only tell you it’s wonderful. Ask someone who will honestly assess your writing and tell you what’s wrong with it, which parts don’t read clearly, what needs further support, and where your typos are. Then weigh carefully their comments and suggestions for improvement, and make changes accordingly. (That doesn’t mean you have to do everything they suggest, but at least consider what they have to say.)

Remember, it’s always good to have another set of eyes go over what you’ve written. You alone are insufficient to do the editing. You’re too close to the subject matter. You’ve spent hours, weeks, maybe even years researching the topic, and you naturally assume of readers an understanding of the subject they might not have and therefore leave out things that really should be explained. In writing multiple drafts and reading and rereading so many times, you’re apt to miss little details and typos, your mind filling in missing letters or words.

I’m still amazed by how a tiny, but often enormously important typo or other error can escape so many different sets of eyes. Authors, editors, proofreaders, design and layout people, and even secretaries can all read the same piece of writing without seeing that one error. But, believe me, your readers will see it once it’s in print!

Avoid that embarrassment as much as you can by careful editing and revising. You might not catch every mistake, but you’ll make the editor’s decision about publishing your writing easier.

Your assignment: After you’ve finished writing your rough draft, do the hard part that separates the published authors from the wannabe’s. Edit and revise!

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