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15 December 2022

The four golden rules of rewriting and substantive editing

There are certain things that everyone who rewrites for a living, or who calls themselves a substantive editor (I’m not sure that anyone does, mind you), does so instinctively that they can’t see the need to tell anyone about them. As somebody who runs the PTC’s Rewriting and Substantive Editing course, there are four that stand out for me. (I’ve conflated writing and rewriting here, but I think these four apply to both.)

1. If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough

The first is Albert Einstein’s famous saying: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ This should be written in bold outside every university or all those other establishments that routinely produce documents in which the simplicity of the idea has been buried under the complexity of the utterance. If you’re an editor asked to work on any text written by someone who’s not absorbed Einstein’s doctrine, the correct riposte to any attempt on their part to intimidate you with their intellectual sophistication should be ‘It’s not big and it’s not clever’.

2. Don’t put anything on your screen until your thoughts are clear

The second is, for anyone who’s producing the writing rather than working on it, think about how long you spend preparing to write, and then treble, quadruple that time. Writing – and editing too, in fact pretty much anything else – is unaccountably better the more time you spend thinking about what you want to write before you actually put finger to keyboard. You don’t want anything on your screen before your thoughts are clear; even the tritest sentence, when there on your screen, becomes the starting point for the rest of your writing – and sorting that out can be a nightmare.

3. Focus on your reader, not your knowledge

The third is, what you want to say about something is neither here nor there. The important thing is what your reader needs or wants to know about it. So forget about parading all your voluminous knowledge on a subject; just think about what the person who’s picking up your document/paper/book wants to know. As with any relationship, the more you think about what the other person wants to get out of it, the richer the relationship will be for both of you.

4. Take a break, then review your writing

And the fourth is twofold. You need to review your writing. But you need to review it in a way that is not just rubber-stamping. You need to be as critical of your own writing as you would be of any other writer whose work you’re editing. What are you actually saying here? Does the reader really need to know that? Is that the clearest way to express what you’re on about? Is that the order in which they need to receive the information? These can’t be idle questions: they bring the possibility that you tear up everything you’ve written to that point and start again.

That’s the first part of the twofold. And the second is, don’t ever hope to get any sensible idea of how good your rewriting or writing has been by looking at it immediately after you’ve completed it. If you do, guess what? It’ll look just brilliant – because all the thought processes that led you to write it in that way are still present in your mind, and all they’re doing is standing up and applauding what you’ve done.

Look at it the next day, however, or after you’ve gone for a walk or skived off to watch a bit of tele, and you will suddenly notice things that acutely embarrass you. Did I really write that? I can’t honestly have thought that was an improvement on the original, can I? We all rail against time, but time, as in the sense of time elapsed, is a brilliant editor in its own right, shyly pointing its finger at embarrassing repetitions, really unfortunate choices of phrase, constructions that are laboured and heavy-handed.

Yes, of course, your manager’s looking over your shoulder and saying, ‘Well? Well? When will this be ready?’ But you just need to have the courage to say to them, ‘Well, you can have it now, if you’re so keen to – but it won’t be anything like as good as it will be if I give it to you tomorrow midday when I’ll have had the chance to look at it after a good night’s sleep. Your choice.’

Okay, that last advice about responding to your manager? Maybe hold fire a bit. You might need to be sure of your ground before you take it to that level. I don’t want anyone to be shown the door as a result of following this advice . . .

Andrew Steeds

Andrew Steeds is Director of Simply Put Ltd and Founder of The Writing Clinic. He runs the PTC course Rewriting and Substantive Editing (Non-Fiction). Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.