Editing as an Outsider

Recently a client asked me to edit a 100-page RFP response. The initial draft had been written by a team of experts who knew what they wanted to say. Unfortunately, not all of their knowledge came across in the writing, and some of it was rather muddled. As a result, the draft needed work.

The client had the right idea, not only to bring in an expert writer/editor but one who was not living the details of the proposal every day and who had not become so blinded by this closeness that he couldn’t see the parts that had too much information (including jargon and insider facts and figures) and those that didn’t have enough information (because the writers assumed that since they knew something, the readers would know it, too).

Bringing in someone unfamiliar with the work is one of the solutions to what Jonah Lehrer, in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, calls the “outsider problem.” He says that while we usually consider those who work day-to-day at a specific job to be the ones who will come up with the really creative solutions, often it’s the outsider—because he or she is an outsider—who brings the needed creativity to the problem at hand.

“To struggle at anything is to become too familiar with it, memorizing details and internalizing flaws,” he says, adding:

 This is one of the central challenges of writing. A writer has to read his sentences again and again. (Such are the inefficiencies of editing.) The problem with this process is that he very quickly loses the ability to see his prose as a reader and not as a writer. He knows exactly what he’s trying to say, but that’s because he’s the one saying it. In order to construct a clear sentence or a coherent narrative, he needs to edit as if he knows nothing, as if he’s never seen these words before.

As those of us in corporate communications know, editing as if we know nothing about something we’ve written is not easy. Doing so requires putting on the third of our choice of hats—that of an editor—a hat that few of us have as an option on our rack of haberdashery apparel. It’s hard enough to switch from our expert’s top hat to a writer’s baseball cap, let alone to the eyeshade headgear of an editor.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks that help me comfortably switch roles from being a writer to being an editor, but even today it’s not a move I make suddenly. It takes some mental readjustment, some reading of different kinds of material, perhaps listening to a few songs, and maybe even taking a long walk. But most of all, it takes a little time (minutes, hours, over night?) away from the tasks of writing and editing.

When I’m refreshed, I can tackle the editing with a fresh eye, as if the words were put down by someone else, as if I’m an outsider from my own work.

Or if it’s writing done by someone else, like the proposal the client wanted edited, I truly am an outsider, one who has adjusted his editor’s hat and sees the work as paragraphs, sentences, and individual words that are struggling to reshuffle themselves into a clear, compelling message.

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