Editing for better

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When we try to refine something, whether it’s a story, an essay, or a recipe for chilli, we tend to look for what doesn’t work. An attitude of ‘if it’s not broke don’t fix it’ prevails. But while this is fine for avoiding producing rubbish, it doesn’t help us step up our game from good to awesome. So this week, I’ve been trying a different approach to editing, one inspired by my old job.

I used to work in continuous improvement. It’s an area full of meaningless buzz-words and over-extended job titles, but where we actually did some good. My job was to help people improve their working processes, and to keep improving them. Not just to respond to the broken bits, but to keep refining, on the basis that you can always do better.

Unfortunately, some people had trouble getting their heads around this. If I suggested changing something, they would often tell me it worked well enough, so why bother? Of course, the answer was that it could work even better, but that was a surprisingly hard sell. If something is good enough, if it has no troublesome errors, most of us are pre-disposed to leave it as it is, to say ‘that’ll do’. As someone whose job was to take us beyond ‘that’ll do’, it drove me nuts.

Fast forward to this Tuesday, and I realised I was taking that exact attitude to my own writing, at least where reading for edits was concerned. When I read a first draft of a story I was looking for what was wrong, with the intention of fixing it. That needs doing, of course, but that mentality meant I was reading for ‘good enough’.

Yesterday I picked up a chapter and started reading with a different approach. For every single paragraph, I was going to find a way that it could be improved. Whether it was fixing an error, making a description more poetic, adding character, foreshadowing a later development, whatever seemed most appropriate. I wasn’t going to settle for fixing it. I was going to improve everything.

It’s a slower process. It’s a more tiring process. But ultimately, I think it’ll yield better results.

Those of you who write, how do you read for edits? Do you look for errors? Do you focus on particular aspects of your writing? Are you already doing what I’ve just worked out? Let me know. I’m interested to learn from others’ methods.

And all of you, whatever you’re doing, don’t just settle for good enough – find something you’re working on and aim for awesome.

Here endeth the preaching.