First impressions are important. But with writing, the second draft is better. It helps to have an editor but sometimes you need to take on that role yourself.

An editor has tightened up Shakespeare's "To be  or not to be" monologue

An editor has tightened up Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” monologue. Illustration by News Decoder

When I was a trainee on the World Desk at Reuters, the newswire service wouldn’t let me go out and report until I had worked a full year as a junior sub-editor, correcting the texts of others.

When I did start reporting and writing stories, I was much more competent at doing so. The training as an editor helped me to see the techniques I needed to develop and the bad habits I needed to avoid.

My stories still needed editing, of course.

Unless you have eyes in the back of your head, you are unlikely to cut your own hair. Most people don’t cut their own hair, do they? So writers, full of inspiration and allowing their texts to flow, need someone else — an editor — to give them a trim before publication.

A second person, with an outsider’s eye, can perfect a text because that person is not as close to the subject and emotionally involved as the author. An editor has the detachment to see what will interest and make sense to the reader and what will not.

In a way, this reliance on an editor to improve one’s writing applies to all kinds of things. Often, we need other people – that outsider’s eye – to show us how we can do things better and to push us to become better versions of ourselves.

All writing can benefit from an editor.

It also applies to all kinds of writing, not just that designed for news sites. Legal briefs might actually be brief if lawyers had them read by editors before submitting them to court. Government reports might be more informative than sleep inducing.

In the editing process, you can compare your overflowing original with the tighter, edited version. You see where you used unnecessary or inexact words and how you could have said things more concisely and with more precision.

The editor shows rather than tells what needs to be improved. Each time your work is edited, you see how you could do better next time and you grow as a writer.

In all serious news organisations, there is a rule that every article or script must be checked for both facts and style by this “second pair of eyes” because no reporter, however good, can produce a perfect text.

For the writer, there is a comfort in knowing the editor will catch any mistakes.

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A good editor respects the author’s individual voice while making the text more easily readable. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The editor must refrain from gratuitous rewriting and only change what is problematic; then the writer will be happy. Indeed, the partnership between a writer and an editor can be a real joy.

A partnership of equals

If you are a reporter, it’s important to try to help your editor. If you have been asked to write 800 words, don’t send 2,000. But don’t send 799, either; send maybe 900 or 1,000. Because like a dressmaker, the editor needs a little bit of extra material to play with. The resulting article will be well cut and a perfect fit.

All this happens in the ideal world. But as we know, many journalists are freelance now and do not have the support of big organisations and great editors. One of my students is in this position, struggling to earn a living. He writes well but admits: “I let my mind flow freely onto the page but I rarely have a second reading of what I have written.”

If you are like this young man, my advice is that you must become your own editor.

That’s easier said than done! Because you must go from the heated excitement of writing to a cooler mood of self-criticism. You must put your head in the fridge, so to speak, in order to come at the text in a wholly different state of mind.

Unless you have a looming deadline, it is not a good idea to try to write and self-edit your article on the same day. Sleep on it, take some distance. You will see it more clearly if you have had a break from it.

Techniques you can apply

Count the words. If you are hundreds of words over the limit you were asked for, this suggests there is too much fat and not enough meat.

Where have you waffled? Where have you used three adjectives when one would have had more punch? Where have you used jargon the general public might not understand? Where have you repeated yourself?

When you think you have finished, read your text out loud to yourself. You’d be surprised how silly some things can sound when spoken aloud and that’s another way to identify flaws and put them right. As you go through the text, throw out the chaff. Like that haircut you pay good money for, your text needs to be combed through and clipped short.

Be your own editor. The more you edit yourself, the better you will write. In time you will become not only an elegant writer but a sensitive editor, capable of improving the work of others.

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questions to consider:

  1. Why do writers usually not edit their own work?
  2. How will becoming your own editor help you?
  3. What improves an article and what might damage it?
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HELEN WOMACK is a specialist on former Communist countries. From 1985-2015, she reported from Moscow for Reuters, The Independent, The Times and the Fairfax newspapers of Australia. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, she has written for the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, about how refugees are settling in Europe. After column writing, Womack went on to write a book about her experiences in Russia: “The Ice Walk – Surviving the Soviet Break-Up and the New Russia.”

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