Editing is an essential part of the overall writing process. It’s also the toughest part on the writer. Submitting your work to a third party to be scrutinized, analyzed, and occasionally even torn apart can be, even for a non-fiction writer, soul decimating. The simultaneously great and frustrating thing about being a writer is that writing itself defies mastery. The way words are assembled on a page can always be improved. That applies to any sort of writing: technical, sales/marketing, fiction, you name it. Editing is what makes good writing brilliant.
My first real exposure to editing nearly scared the bejesus out of me. In 1998 I was hired as a Proposal Writer for Merck-Medco Managed Care, acquired by Express Scripts, Inc. in 2012.
Proposal Development is actually an overall strategic sales and project management process that includes writing. A completed proposal is a document that demonstrates, in words and graphics, why a client should choose a specific company’s products and/or services over another. Proposals can not only result in sales but also pave the way for future sales. As such, the end-to-end content, including the writing, has to be perfect.
After I wrote each proposal, I would submit a hard copy draft to my manager, John, for editing. The first time John handed me a draft back, I panicked. I had never seen so many red marks on a sheaf of paper in my life. I promptly walked into John’s office, closed the door, and said, “What did I do wrong? Is it something wrong with my writing?”
“You’re doing great,” John replied firmly. “Everyone gets edits.”
I refused to believe John. I thought there was a way to create a flawless first draft of something. I made it my mission to write proposals so solid they never needed editing. By the time I left Merck-Medco 4 years later, I had developed, researched, and written over 100 proposals. Not one ever came back to me without revisions.
In 2010, I joined the Proposal Development Group at SimplexGrinnell, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tyco International**. The first draft I submitted there went exactly the way my first Merck-Medco draft had, except instead of hard copy, the draft I submitted, and the edits I received, were electronic.
My boss didn’t give me time to panic.
“Of course I’m going to edit your work,” he said, stopping me dead in my tracks as I approached him. “I suggest you focus on the proposals and find some Kevlar.”
In other words, I needed to develop a thick skin, or the self-esteem equivalent of 3/8″ thick bulletproof synthetic body armor.
He was right.
All writing requires editing. You can write something that is mechanically solid, and it will still need at least minor changes. You can labor for hours over a keyboard assembling the perfect contract language, the best technical write up for a particular piece of software, an airtight description of how your company distinguishes itself from the competition, or even the best possible character description in a fictional piece. Invariably, what you’ve written will require some level of revision. Sometimes it takes multiple rounds of revisions to make a piece ready for publication.
All writers struggle with the editing process. Successful writers eagerly dive into the sea of red-line changes, comments, and revisions as many times as it takes. They refuse to let anything stop them from getting their message, in its best possible form, onto the page and out to its intended audience.
These days I use the editing process as a tool to constantly improve my writing. Heavy revisions are not so common in my professional work these days. However, this year I started writing fiction for the first time.
Fortunately, Kevlar folds neatly and can be stacked easily in a large desk drawer.
** In 2016, Tyco International merged with Johnson Controls. SimplexGrinnell is now Johnson Controls Fire Protection, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Johnson Controls International, plc.