5 Tips on Writing from an Editor
Working as an editor, I regularly meet with people who have a lot of anxiety, and therefore also questions, about writing.
My work puts me in close proximity with writers (and people who don’t call themselves writers but still write, as a business choice or corollary to public speaking, for example). From this vantage point, I offer you the following tips.
Tip #1: Writing and editing are two different animals
The same way that producing a song recording in a studio is different from writing (or performing) the actual song. If there was only one, most important tip for me to give you about writing, this would be it.
Because of this, don’t try to do both at the same time. Stephen King says it perfectly in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
The work often changes shape as you go. Even if you started from an outline (common for nonfiction writers), you may discover that certain things work or don’t, or that other questions arise, while writing. If you start editing while writing, you’ll lack clarity about WHAT story you are actually telling. And the story will lack cohesion.
Plus it’s really, really hard to finish writing if you keep stopping to edit yourself.
Tip #2: Find the habits that best work for you
Every writer’s work habits and process look different. If you go online and google “writing tips,” or “habits to become a successful writer,” you’ll find a wealth of suggestions. Some of these contradict each other. That’s because no two people are alike.
Some writers swear by getting up before dawn and pounding out 2,000 words. Others will suggest you sit down to write for at least X amount of minutes every day.
I am not a morning person, so I assure you, I would never get my writing done at 5 AM. However, this does work really well for some people. The key is to find the habits that best work for you. What will you sustain, and in turn, what will sustain you as a writer? If you are a 5 AM-er, more power to you!
What habits create the best routine for you? If you are writing regularly, that’s success.
Tip #3: You will end up writing more (sometimes many more) words than you use in the end
This is an irrefutable truth about writing. No first draft ever equals the finished product. Inevitably, through the process of revision, words get added, words get cut—sometimes a lot of words.
I’ve had clients who feel frustrated because they have spent what they feel is a lot of time writing before they came to understand what they were writing about—what their focus was. If this sounds like you, know that this is not only a normal, but beneficial step in the writing process.
We can’t properly see what needs to be cut until we see what exactly we have. Think of it like a traditional sculpture: you start with a block of wood, or stone, and whittle away the pieces to bring out the final work of art.
Tip #4: You will write the end before you write the beginning
This may sound strange to people who haven’t done a lot of writing. The order of writing does not mirror the order of reading.
The easiest way to conceptualize this is to think of a mystery novel. The reader is trying to figure out the mystery. Along the way, the author gives clues—sometimes misleading ones. The whole time, the AUTHOR knows whodunit. Do you think the author wrote the mystery novel in the order in which you are reading it?
In the same way, writers need to write the end of the story or the book in order to know how to properly begin. Don’t let this frighten you from starting to write at what you think is the beginning—know that you will be revisiting what the “beginning” is, after you’ve written the end.
Tip #5: Support is key
Writing, as many more famous, smarter people than I have already said, is a lonely business. It can be easy to feel isolated, and you might be frustrated by the problems you encounter and what you think you don’t know. The most important tip to keep your writing going is simply this: Find someone to talk to.
Your support can be official, such as a mentor, writing teacher, editor, or coach, or communal, such as with a writing workshop or mastermind group. Or your support can be much more informal—a good friend, someone in your family you trust.
Look after yourself while writing. You will benefit immensely from having someone to provide counsel, feedback, and perspective, and to commiserate with.
The bottom line
The more you make writing a habit, and the more you can separate writing and editing your work, the better a writer you will become. Accept that parts of the process feel frustrating and contradictory, such as writing long passages that get cut in the end. And make sure you have someone in your corner who can hold your hand, buy you a beer, or sit back while you rant, wild-eyed, about your frustrations. This is how you succeed.