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Everything Your English Teacher Taught You About Editing Is Wrong.

Years ago, before Inkling Creative Strategies was even a blip of an idea in my brain, I taught freshman composition at several different universities. Whether you’ve been a student in a freshman comp class or in my position as the instructor, you know that it isn’t exactly a place where great writers are born. While there may be a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of freshman comp students are there under a mandate from the admission’s office. One of the particular horrors of freshman comp, mutually so for both instructors and students, is Peer Review. The horror unfolds as follows: the students bring copies of their (hopefully finished) first drafts to class, then assemble in small groups to trade papers and comment on them. I don’t want to go too far into college composition pedagogy because it’s literally the reason none of us are here, but suffice it to say that peer review is the blind leading the blind. No college freshman knows how to provide relevant, helpful feedback, and even the best instruction from expert professors can still leave them lost. Inevitably, though—like, in seriously every session of peer review I observed in seven years of teaching college—the students traded papers and immediately started doing the one thing they had no business doing. They started correcting each other’s spelling and grammar.

Of course, given that they were working with first drafts of essays that they probably wrote at 2:00 AM, possibly while they were hungover, this feedback is pointless, especially since most of the essays didn’t even have a thesis statement (remember those?).

But the truth still remained: most of them were laboring under the delusion that all you had to do to revise a piece of writing was correct the comma placement. Come on, writers. I don’t care if you’ve got five published books or just started writing yesterday—we know revision is way more complicated than that.

And the truth is…correcting comma placement isn’t even revision. It’s editing. I don’t want to be too hard on freshman compers, though. That’s because most writers don’t know that revision and editing are not interchangeable. They’re two separate things in the process. I’ve talked about this in past blog posts, including just last week, but as we leave National Poetry Month behind and enter new territory with a focus on editing for May, I want to make sure this distinction is crystal clear. So, let’s get right to it. What’s Revision?

Revision is the process of working out the larger structural issues of your piece. I wish this weren’t true…but no piece of writing ever comes out perfectly formed. Usually, in the immortal words of Papa Hemingway, “The first draft of anything is shit.” That’s why we need revision. It helps us uncover plot holes, unbelievable character actions and inconsistencies, character development, and places where the reader might feel taken out of the story. It helps us nail down the foundation so that whatever we built after the first draft will be solid. I find that until I actually get something down, I very rarely know precisely what I’m writing about, even if the idea seems clear to me before I get started. Other writers confirm this process, even finding that once the initial idea develops into something bigger, they realize how limited it was to begin with. The original idea is but a shadow of what you’re eventually going to create, but you have to take the time through revision to get there, prying the entire thing up and dismantling it until you figure out what’s actually there.

This isn’t an easy process. I told a story awhile back about writing a piece for The Goodbye-Love Generation that required 12 drafts, and eventually, only one line from it survived. It gets pretty ridiculous sometimes, but the growth happens there. Not when you’re writing the first draft, and certainly not when you’re correcting spelling errors and commas. On that note, let’s talk about… Editing

Editing is the last step in the process. It’s where you focus on things like style, sentence structure, and by extension, punctuation and spelling. It’s the icing on the cake.

Need an illustration? Picture this. You go to a Broadway show. You know, the home of some of the best theatre in the world? You go to the theatre with your tickets, super pumped for the production. You take your seats, the lights go down, the show begins… …and it totally sucks.

The actors don’t know their lines. They’re wandering all over the stage. One of them looks like he’s drunk. As a result, you have no idea who their characters are and you can’t follow the story.

However, it’s not all bad. The lighting and special effects are some of the best you’ve ever seen. The costumes are fantastic. There’s some musical accompaniment, and even though the actors clearly don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing while the music is playing, you can tell the orchestra is first rate.

You follow me?

Because when you skip the revision process and skip straight to editing, this horrific show is your book.

Perfect grammar, impeccable spelling, and flawless punctuation are important…but they will never overcome a bad story.

Now imagine that you showed up at the theatre and there were no flashy special effects. The orchestra was just okay. The costumes were just enough to show you who the characters are. But everyone knew their lines and had mastered their parts, and you could easily follow and be emotionally impacted by the story. Which experience would be better?

Don’t hear what I’m not saying here—I don’t mean that punctuation, grammar, style, and spelling aren’t important. Obviously, they are. But you do need to make sure you don’t skip the crucial step of fleshing out the elements of the story that are most important to the foundation. Editing: The Source of Writing Anxiety

While writers generally aren’t big fans of revision, from my perspective, it seems that most of them like editing even less. Writers are generally big picture people, which means that we like looking at the holistic, big concerns in a story, not the technicalities. Because of this, it becomes easy for us to miss things, especially if grammar and punctuation aren’t really our strong suit. True confession: I didn’t really understand grammar until I taught a basic writing class for career college students who had been out of school for many years. I was pretty freaked out by this at first…but the more I studied it and then came up with creative ways to explain it, the more it made sense. It’s not fun to study…but if you want to become a better editor, it’s worth doing. It’s another tool in your belt that will make you even more versatile in your craft.

I’ll be giving you some more tools over the next few weeks…but if you’re still not totally sure about this whole revision vs. editing thing, here’s one to get you started before we really start diving into this editing stuff.

It’s called The Revision Scorecard. It will help you pinpoint the precise areas where your current work in progress needs extra help so you can stop wasting time, stop being overwhelmed, and start creating a more powerful story.

Click here to check it out!

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