Writing Rambles: Editing

Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book.  If you enjoy this post, you can also check out Creating Description and Writing Fantasy Dialogue.

Most of us will at some point in our lives be requested to edit something—maybe not a book manuscript, but at least an essay, either as a peer-editing assignment for class or a simple favor asked by a friend.  Many people, however, are unaware of the time commitment that good editing takes (you know them, the ones who, at 10 p.m., send you their 15-page essay that’s due at midnight).   These people assume that “editing” simply means “proofreading.”  After all, in two hours, they have no time to fix anything more major than grammar.  Yet thorough editing requires so much more—multiple readings of the text, an understanding of its main themes, good writing ability on the part of the editor and the ability to respectfully balance criticism and praise.  After the role of the editor is completed, the process needs the willingness of the author to take constructive criticism in stride and put time and effort into making more than superficial changes to their work.

Below I outline a few basic steps for good editing. They’re guidelines, rather than rules, and can be rearranged or repeated as necessary for specific circumstances, but should give a good starting place for those looking to improve their informal editing skills.

First Read-Through

The first read-through is usually just that—a read-through.  The editor should move through the text to get a general impression of what it is trying to do.  If grammar mistakes are minor, this could be the time to correct them, as long as it doesn’t interrupt the flow of reading.  If there are many, proofreading should be saved for later.

After the first reading, the editor should jot down notes.  Consider these questions:

  • Overall impressions.  What things stood out immediately during reading—either things that worked for the text or things that need to be improved?
  • What was the main point of the work?  If it is an essay, what is the thesis?  If a book, what is the plotline and where is the emphasis?  Is the story mostly about plot or mostly about a character’s personal development?
  • What is the intended audience of the work?
  • What is the voice?
  • For fiction: What is the ratio of action to character development? For nonfiction: What is the ratio of original thoughts to quotations or citations of others’ research?
  • What are some first impressions about how the work can better reach its goal?

Second Read-Through

If the grammar is so inaccurate that understanding the text is actually difficult, this could be the time for proofreading. Depending on how responsible the editor is for proofreading, he or she could send the essay or manuscript back with a simple note to the effect of, “The text should be proofread carefully,” or he or she can do the job him or herself.

If proofreading is unnecessary at this point, the second read-through should be a more in-depth reading than the first.  The editor looks for the major issues he or she noticed in the first reading and takes more detailed notes, including practical ways these issues could be improved.  He or she notices new things in the text and gets a better understanding of the work in general.  Jotting down pages numbers is helpful.


Here the editor either offers informal comments (for school essay) or writes a more formal editorial letter (for manuscripts).

Commentary should always open with the positives aspects of the work because 1) there probably are some and 2) it can help prevent authors from feeling crushed.

The body of the commentary outlines the major parts of the text than can be improved and, importantly, suggests ways the author can fix them.  Anyone can make a statement like, “The romance in the book is boring and sounds fake.”  It takes a good editor, one with good writing skills him or herself, to suggest ways the author might fix this.  More scenes with the two characters alone, perhaps?  More time of them getting to know each other before they fall in love?  An even better might be more detailed in these suggestions: Perhaps the characters can get to know each in the second chapter of the book.  Consider adding a scene in when everyone else leaves the restaurant and they’re left alone at the table.  Right now, they awkwardly leave in order to avoid each other, but what would happen if they stayed and talked?  Of course, authors are free to disregard editorial suggestions, but it helps to give them some concrete ideas to ponder.

The conclusion of the commentary highlights more positives of the text.  If something works, the editor wants the author to know so he or she keeps doing it.  An editor, depending on his or her relationship with the author, might also through in some encouraging words: I know I’ve given you a lot to think about, but I think your book is shaping up beautifully so far, and I know you’re up to the challenge of improving it!  Ending on a high note keeps people happy and is a reminder that the commentary is supposed to be helpful, not just poor criticism.

Third Read-Through

This is for line edits. After an author has edited the main points discussed above, it’s time to get detailed.  An editor can suggest the rewording of specific sentences, better transition sentences between paragraphs or chapters, etc.  This is also a good time for proofreading.  Even if the text was proofread before, the author deleted text and added new text, and these changes need to be proofread as well.


The text is awesome now, so it’s time for the author and editor to celebrate the results of their hard work!

Many thanks to the editors I met during my internship last summer (company still unnamed!) for giving me insight into the process and ideas of what to look for in a text while editing!

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