The importance of voice, flow, and courteous editing

Luc Sante wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal recently about finding (and listening to) the editor within. He hits some really good notes—like how being a good writer is not the same as being a good editor, although the two are closely linked.

Toward the end, Sante offers what is arguably his best advice:

One of the means to assure such things is constant rereading. I reread from the top—or some similar landmark if the work is long—whenever I take a significant break from writing, and that doesn’t just mean overnight but includes eating lunch, going to the bathroom, answering the phone and searching for elusive facts.

Rereading not only ferrets out problems, but it also ensures continuity of voice, as well as that elusive quality dear to both writers and rappers: flow. Constant rereading, which can be done out loud if you don’t trust your inner ear, is especially important now that progress has eliminated the tiresome but useful drudgery of retyping. Sometimes a glaring error that you motored blithely past a dozen times will become apparent only on the 13th read.

In the time I’ve worked as a writing tutor and copy editor, I’ve learned two undeniable tenets of the trade: Ripping other people’s writing to shreds is easy. Doing as much to our own happens far less frequently.

The key is a balanced approach. Take a little space and time to let the writing simmer and breathe, no matter whose it is. Reread not only for flow, but to concentrate on various aspects of the piece and allows yourself to catch different sorts of problems. Keep the voice, cut the excess, and dispose of words that hinder effective communication—no matter how enamored you are with a particular phrase. Most importantly, trust your gut. If something feels wrong when reading a sentence, it probably needs work. This instinct applies to whole paragraphs, too.

Be gentle with other people’s writing. As much as you might want to because you’re a Grammar Nazi or the Best Writer Ever in your world, don’t take sadistic joy in tearing another person’s efforts apart. I learned this through experience. The best method is to look for weak openings in grammar, punctuation, and style while keeping a close eye on readability and clarity. Don’t overload sentences and make sure, whatever you do, that the author’s voice is intact. Have a firm, irrefutable reason for changing anything.

Voice is important for our own writing, as well. Sometimes when we edit we’re tempted to iron out any hint of personality for fear that it might sound too informal or risky. But often a little flavor can elevate even the most perfected writing, taking it from flat to extraordinary! Like Burrito Kitty here.

10 thoughts on “The importance of voice, flow, and courteous editing

  1. Sarah

    THIS is excellent!! I need so much help in writing in a clear, concise tone without losing personality. What I’m taking from this is that I need to slow down, really think and then “let it breathe” before I call it done. I definitely will make a conscious effort to do that no matter what I’m writing. And I’m writing a lot more these days….mostly for the fun of it. Really needed this one Stephanie. Thank you so much!

    Feel free to tear my writing down at any time, by the way…. :) I want to be better at this! Writing in a conversational, but clear voice is my goal.

    1. Stephanie

      Thanks, Sarah! Glad the post was helpful. Blogging is a different beast entirely—it’s meant to be churned out quick and snappy, and it’s a great way to practice, but you can definitely hone your skills in editing no matter what form of writing you do.

      And having fun is the most important part!

  2. Supahcute

    Great post!! My day job is in marketing communications, and we have to constantly edit, edit, edit. Sometimes I’m just not in an editing mood but it has to be done!

  3. KM Huber

    Good, solid post, Stephanie. Writing seems endless at times but I wouldn’t know what else to do, frankly. Up to now, most of my writing life has been editing professionally but now, I’m concentrating on my own writing.

    Your point about not ripping to shreds a piece of writing is so important. How can that ever be helpful, much less useful yet I see so much of that in critique groups and writing workshops. Civil and constructive comments win the moment any day, I think.

    Nicely written, Stephanie.

    Karen

    1. Stephanie

      Thank you, Karen! And thanks for reading my blog so often. :) I appreciate it. I think the temptation to rip other people’s writing to shreds might stem from the innocuous and frequently unfulfilled desire to do the same rigorous editing to our own … If we can scrub a piece of writing to death with editing that’s brutal and observant, then we can certainly apply the same honesty to our own, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, so we need to step back and acknowledge that our writing needs just as much work sometimes, and we’d do better to sympathize with the efforts of others and be more modest about ours.

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