A Certain Head on Your Shoulders

Zadie Smith, a novelist and essayist, says in “That Crafty Feeling,” her essay on writing, that to be a good editor, you need to get away from your work for as long as possible before tackling this task. She adds:

“You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel [and I would add, to edit anything], and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger, who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.”

I agree with Smith that you want to approach your editing assignment as a stranger if you are going to bring an added spark of creativity to the task and are going to raise the end product to the next level.

But in our work because we’re rushed for time, many of us write that executive speech or that article for the employee newsletter and then immediately begin editing it.

That’s a mistake.

Clearly, it’s got to be done NOW. But whenever possible, it’s best to have someone else edit your work, someone who doesn’t know the material as well as you do.

Many years ago, as a young PR manager and primary writer for the department, I reported to a vice president who edited my documents. Sometimes she made enough good changes to improve my copy, without making enough bad ones to destroy it.

But rather than use a standard ballpoint pen or even an editor’s typical red or blue pencil, she edited my work with a broad, black-inked felt-tipped pen. She always did her editing in the evening after I had left the office—I think so I would not see her making the changes, since our glass-walled offices were right next to each other. And she never failed to make big marks on the page, not gentle strokes inserted between my words or above the type, but bold deletes and lines leading to the margins where she occasionally suggested a word or sentence or two, but where she mostly wrote as boldly as I thought she could in the space available, “What?” or “Really?” or most intimidating and least helpful of all, simply, “No!”

I really enjoyed working for this boss but, to be sure, coming to work some mornings was not pleasant—especially because she always left the edited documents in the middle of my desk, and I could see her big, black scribbles long before I got anywhere near my office.

Nevertheless, having her edit my copy was the right thing to do.

But if no one else can edit what you write, you should do yourself a great favor: Let the material sit overnight, so you can come back to it as at least a partial stranger, an objective observer who by having a little distance from the writing can see its flaws that can be corrected, its good sentences that can be improved by what one client refers to as “enhanced writing,” and its excellent passages that give it real melody and rhythm.

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