Guest Post by Author, Scott Bury

Thanks to PJ and Karen for inviting me to write about my editing process. This is what works for me, and it has also worked for hundreds of students I taught it to when I was a college English professor.

My editing process

What’s the most erroneous myth about writers? The scene in TV shows and movies, where the writer types an opening sentence and immediately rips the page out of the typewriter, crumples it in rage and throwing it into an overflowing waste-basket, only to repeat process without ever getting to the second sentence. (The writer has to use a typewriter — there’s no visual drama in deleting a sentence on a computer screen.)

Ridiculous. Write something down and don’t worry that it’s not the most attention-getting, grabbiest expression in the history of English literature. Edit it later. Writing is an iterative process, and every writer needs to edit his or her own stuff before giving it to someone else to edit it again.

When I write any document, fiction or non-fiction, I always start with GRIP: defining the goal, readers, idea and plan.

The goal might be something small, or something big. For example: to get shopping malls to stop playing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” through the Christmas season!

Then, I consider the readers. Whom will I tell this to? Why should they care? What’s in it for them? Maybe they like “Winter Wonderland.” How can I convince them they’re wrong?

Then, the main idea, or thesis statement: one sentence that sums up your message. “’Walking in a Winter Wonderland’ is not only a lame song, but every new version recorded by a lazy pop sensation only adds ammunition that malls can use in their campaign to take your hard-earned money and give you junk in return.”

As you can see, a thesis statement can be a long, compound-complex sentence, but it has to be ONE clear, grammatically correct sentence.

Next, the Plan, or outline: all the points you will have to write to convince the readers that your thesis is correct, and to take the action that will advance your goal. I write ideas down, trying for some kind of order, but at this point, it’s more important just to get the ideas down. Just write single words or short phrases; resist the temptation to crank out that clever sentence.

Once I think I have everything I need, I organize it. I put ideas into some kind of order, look for points that are larger categories and others that fit within those categories. That’s how you achieve the “flow” that some people talk about.

Editing begins when writing

Once I’m happy with the order or flow of the points, I can turn the outline into prose. If I’ve done it right, the document just about writes itself. It’s almost as easy as filling in the spaces: adding words to the bullet points to turn them into grammatically correct writing.

When I think that I’ve completed a draft, I quickly look it over on-screen to make sure that I haven’t missed any major points. I usually catch some silly typos at this stage. But it’s important to put the document aside for a while and do something different before starting to edit it. If I have enough time, I like to wait at least overnight before revisiting the document.

The second look is to make sure that the document actually makes sense. I like to print it out — I find I catch more errors when reading something on paper than on screen. I consider the order again, and whether the sentences and phrases I’ve written work. I look for awkward sentences, and usually change those really cute expressions that seemed so clever and creative when I wrote them.

One common problem is what I call “overstuffed sentences”: sentences that try to cram together too many ideas. You can spot them easily because they are long and have a lot of clauses introduced by “because,” “and,” “which” or “but.” Break them up. Every sentence is a SINGLE complete thought.

If I have time (and at this point, I usually don’t), I like to put the document aside for a night again, and come back to it once more to check for typos, silly grammatical errors, missing words and the other little things.

The longer that you can leave it aside, the better. Every time I come back to something I wrote, I find things I want to change. That's okay; writing is iterative. Was it Mark Twain who said “writing is re-writing”?

Now it’s time for someone else to read it. Another pair of eyes will catch the things you did not see, because what your brain registered was what you meant to write. My editor, Will Grainger, asked tough questions caught plot errors and places where I used the same descriptive phrase twice in two paragraphs.

Letting go

You could keep editing and keep improving the text forever, but if you want an audience, you have to let go at some point. If you’re a journalist, the editor is waiting. The presses gotta roll, or the Web server has to … serve? And with fiction, you still have to let go if an audience is going to read it.

The point is, you have to edit your own work at least once, and then you have to get someone else to edit it, as well.

Knowing this is liberating. If you know that you’re going to edit and re-write, the blank screen or page cannot pressure you. You don’t have to write the perfect first sentence, because you know you can come back to it and make it better.

Don’t rip that page out of typewriter. Write the second sentence, then the third, and soon the words will flow faster than your fingers can keep up.

Connect with Scott on Twitter: @ScottTheWriter
Scott's books on Amazon
Scott's Website
Scott's Blog