Good Writing Needs Editing

Inspired by Leigh Butler at, I've been re-reading Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books. This happened to coincide with my recent vicious cold, which is good, because they're great sickbed reading.

Most of my re-reading has been done on my Palm, which miraculously came loaded with electronic copies of all the books. These are of, shall we say, variable quality, and riddled with typos, including one hilarious bit in which Rand is pursued by "Trollops." It's a little like reading the Wheel of Time as written by Matthew Yglesias.

As a result, the re-read is also serving as a nice reminder of just how important the editorial function is. As is reading Matthew Yglesias's blog, for that matter-- Heads in the Sand is really well done, but he can't get through two paragraphs on the blog without at least one really distracting typo, usually of the "take-the-first-option-from-spell-check" variety.

This is why I find comments like this one from Bora so maddening. In response to Chris Mooney's lament over the death of science journalism, Bora writes:

Paper, ink, presses, trucks and truck drivers....those things are expensive. Thus, 'real estate' on the printed page is expensive. Thus, someone has to decide who gets to have words (or images, cartoons, obituaries, ads, horoscope,...) printed on that piece of real estate. People who decide this, the pre-publication filters, are called Editors.

Online, the expense is extremely low. Thus, the filtering happens after publication. There is no need for Editors, as everyone and their grandmother can put stuff online, on that cheap real estate.

This is a constant source of irritation for me when reading "triumph of New Media" pieces on-line. Editing is not some disposable adjunct to the writing process; editing is essential to the writing process.

This is something I run up against all the time, at different levels. The lowest level is with students, the ones who hand in hastily spell-checked first drafts as lab reports. The resulting papers usually have most of the crucial elements of a lab report there, but they're not in any particular order, and there's nothing approaching a coherent flow in the report.

These reports fail at the first and most critical level of editing, which is self-editing. There are people who have enough talent to bang out good work in a single draft, but there aren't many of them. Those of us who are merely mortal need to read and revise before releasing work with our names on it to the wider world. Even if it's something as half-assed as an intro physics lab report, or a blog post.

(This is why I'm constantly on the verge of deleting Yglesias and Ezra Klein from my RSS feeds. They're both smart and I like what they have to say, but they're both prone to jaw-droppingly stupid typos, that never get fixed. I have to avoid them entirely when I've been grading lab reports, otherwise it's just too damn painful.)

The second level of editing is selection. This is mostly what Bora's talking about, and it's a staple of blogger triumphalism (at least that subset of triumphalist blogging that acknowledges a need for some editorial function). In the Happy New Media World, paid editors can be dispensed with, and the selection function will be done by some wisdom-of-crowds social media thing.

I'm not a big user of Digg and the like, but my limited encounters with them make me pretty dubious about this sort of claim. There really doesn't seem to be any relationship between the quality of a piece and its likelihood of getting Digged. Social aggregators like FriendFeed and have their moments, but even with that level of pre-selection, I end up reading the first paragraphs of a lot of gibberish for every great article that I find.

But even if social media is successful, it's still missing a critical piece of the editing function, which is dialogue. Not in the "So, I says to her, I says..." sense, but the dialogue between writers and editors that helps shape and refine arguments.

As I've said before, I found a lot of the editing process for the book-in-production to be maddening, but there's absolutely no question in my mind that the final draft I sent in Sunday is orders of magnitude better than the first draft I sent in a year ago. And that first full draft was vastly better than it would've been without Kate's input in the early stages.

There's really no substitute for talking your ideas out with another person to refine and strengthen arguments. I've never sent a scientific article out without at least one other person reading it through and commenting on it, even when it was essentially a single-author publication. And I've never had a scientific article published without a few tweaks and corrections suggested by outside readers.

I won't even put up a really important blog post without bouncing it off Kate first. (Ironically, this one's going out without her looking at it...) Generally, I do this when I'm writing on a sensitive topic, and want to make sure I'm not inadvertently saying something stupid-- there's just no substitute for having someone else look at your argument when the goal is to get what's in your head across on the page or screen.

That's what's missing from the "social media will save us" view of crowdsourced editing. You can cobble together some means of picking out the raw materials with the most innate promise, but even at its best, blogdom doesn't allow for the give-and-take that's essential to turn a good idea into a great article. You get the occasional fact-checking comments and response posts, and sometimes there's a good exchange between bloggers or commenters, but that rarely if ever results in a revised version of the original that highlights the strengths and shores up the weaknesses of the first pass.

That's the biggest loss in the death of "old media" writing venues. Blogs can nominally fill a lot of the functions of science journalism, but by their nature, blogs are perpetually in the rough draft stage. There are very few blog posts out there that you could just hit "print" on and put in a magazine, or a book.

Now, you can argue about the degree to which that refining function is really being provided in modern journalism-- the Washington Post certainly isn't doing much to polish up George Will-- but that's one of the things that's being lost in the collapse of science journalism that Chris Mooney writes about in the post that Bora commented on. And that's a real loss, with no obvious way to fill that gap.

More like this

Editors come AFTER. They used to come before, but today there is no time for that. If a piece come up to the top due to various technical or social algorithms, they can then be edited into a final version.

There are two meanings of the word 'editor'. The first, a person who fixes the language and improves the article, will remain, but will be employed after the article has passed the filters. The second, a person who chooses what will be published, is dead.

I have a low tolerance for typos; I find a surprising number of them in presumably edited and proofread printed books.

As you stated, there are some writers who can turn out flawless first or second drafts, and some of these writers are bloggers. As a blog reader I look for the better writers; when I find one I become a regular reader.

As a blogger I make one or two editing passes, correcting typos and improving syntax. Sometimes one of my commenters will notice a flaw which I've overlooked, and I'm grateful for such suggestions. I've never had available the services of a "real editor". but I get by.

As for the "collapse of science journalism", it's just part of the general collapse of periodical print journalism. I prefer science writers such as Carl Zimmer, Bill Schutt, and David Quammen.

I didn't get from Bora's comment the idea that this was a Good Thing. As I used to tell my staff when I worked in publishing, error trapping in printed material evolved over 500 years to the point where egregiously bad typos (or "tyops" as we used to call them I also had "typogarphical") were removed by either the typist, the subeditor/production editor, the compositor, the proof ("proff") reader, the news editor or the layout guy/gal. All this got lost with the introduction of electronic systems where journalists, who everybody knew were usually drunk and always illiterate, typed their stories directly, and was only checked by equally illiterate subs.

But as a statement of fact, Bora is quite right. The cost per word in the interwebs is almost zero. This means that the effort expended in putting them up is directly proportional to the cost of merely writing. Fact checking and proof reading is a thing of the past.

Well hell, Bora, you selected what would be published for one of the Lulu science blogging books, and you did a damn fine job.

Agreed that we're talking about a couple different kinds of editors here, and the one with the most utility to a writer â the kind that mentors and coaches and refines â generally does not find employment at newspapers, even before the crash.

But the kind of editor Bora decries, the gatekeeper, actually has a new role to play that's far more important and helpful to the reader than in its previous incarnation.

Just because the cost of entry to publishers is far lower online doesn't mean we don't have to worry about real estate limitations. It's just that the limitations have moved their base of operations. It used to be that the bottleneck was non-advertising column inches on the newsprint. Now the bottleneck is in reader patience.

If anything, editors are more important to the READER now, because there's so damn much text out there. If someone with a reputation for expertise and artistry compiles a bunch of what she considers good writing in her bailiwick, people who pay attention will flock to her.

This won't keep the dross from seeing the light of day. But it'll be every bit as important a craft as slotting text on the National News page of the Flyover Picayune-Oppress. Whether the pieces get edited and aggregated in book form, or in blog collection form, or in an online journal along the lines of the literary journal qarrtsiluni â which *does* reject submissions, and edits before publication â editing will survive, as will editors.

As for the best rising to the top due to social algorithms without deliberate interference, count me as skeptical. I've seen, since starting blogging in 2003, which pieces of mine got the most attention. Of the top dozen, I can't think of a single one I'd try to sell somewhere, and I recently pulled my most popular post ever from the site because I was embarrassed to have it up there. Popularity doesn't equal merit, especially in the snark-driven blog world.

As a professional proofreader/copyeditor, and former editor (mainly of fiction), I have to say, that what you say is both true and not true. The standard for publication in the commercial book world is pretty low. Money trumps all other concerns. For a book like one of Robert Jordan's, it'll get squeezed out as fast as humanly possible when the manuscript arrives, because it has to be in the bookstore before the end of the fiscal year, no matter what. What's the incentive for the publisher? They know you'll buy the new WoT book no matter how crappy it is. If people don't understand the value of editing, publishers have not done much to help.

On the other hand, sometimes when someone says "why wasn't that book edited?" I say, "you didn't see what it looked like in manuscript!"

I will not bore you with stories of authors who do not want to be edited, editors who can't be bothered to actually read manuscripts before sending them down to production, rushed schedules. The bad spell-check thing? I see it in most of the proofs I work on; it almost always gets by the copyeditors. Seeing continuity errors in proofs bugs me; wasn't anyone paying attention? No, not really. Also annoying is nonfiction books with errors of fact that the author doesn't want to fix (aka, lies).

On the other hand, I have done my time shoveling the slush (I once calculated that I personally rejected 6000 manuscripts), so I know what's out there in people's trunks. Only the faint dream of someday getting a "real" publisher (and money) keeps it from overwhelming the Internet--I'm sure there's some out there. I'm not going to look.

As a professional proofreader when I was twelve (Chemical Abstracts, adult cut-out due to child labor laws) I make plenty of errors (always harder to catch your own).

May I make a friendly amendment, or two?

Good Writing Needs Good Editing.

Bad Writing Needs Good Editing, but doesn't deserve it.

I agree that there are two different kinds of editors: the ones that improve writing, and the ones that act as gatekeepers. Nothing about transitioning to blogs makes the first kind superfluous. The second kind, as others have pointed out above, now must come after the fact and not before, but are no less necessary.

The problem with old media editors of the second kind, especially at newspapers, is that there is an inherent conflict of interest in the position. The newspaper editor must satisfy his bosses in order to remain employed, and at the same time he has a duty to the readers to ensure that they get the most relevant information. The problem is that these two goals come into conflict on a regular basis, and what usually happens is that (unsurprisingly) the editor tends to favor his employer over his readers. Thus "All the News That's Fit to Print" morphs into "All the News That Fits, We Print." This problem predates the existence of blogs, and indeed one reason for the rise of blogs is that they fill the void that newspapers left.

I often find myself editing my writing on the fly, either to correct some typo or because I look at the words on the screen and say to myself, "That doesn't say it right." It doesn't save the need to look at hard copy for more serious editing, but it's something that more people should do.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

Editors come AFTER. They used to come before, but today there is no time for that. If a piece come up to the top due to various technical or social algorithms, they can then be edited into a final version.

Except they're not, at least not the way blogs usually operate.

What you end up getting is a post that is essentially a first draft of an article, followed by a comment thread in which ideas get batted around, but you almost never get the revised version of the original. It's generally considered poor form to substantially revise posts in place, and it's very rare to see anybody posting a re-written version of some argument that responds to the comments and criticisms raised by commenters and other blogs.

What you end up with is something like the first draft of a manuscript, plus the editor's comments and the author's responses. While this is sort of interesting from a process standpoint, it's not the same as a fully worked out final draft.

It might well be possible to "crowdsource" editing of a manuscript by posting successive drafts, but in the brave new world of Digg et al., I suspect that nobody would actually read the second pass. Novelty is everything in blogdom.

(This isn't necessarily a Bad Thing, by the way. It's just that blogs and "old media" publications are doing very different things, and it's a mistake to think that they're interchangeable.)

Sure, in the current blogosphere, nobody edits after the fact. But as we are talking about the future on Mooney's blog and envision more professionalized online journalism, then something like the ArsTechnica model comes to mind - the "blog posts" are really news articles that have gone through the hands of an editor.

I am not familiar with how Ars Technica works, but this sounds like the exact opposite of what you said earlier. That is, if posts are really edited articles, then there is actual editing being done, not editing-after-the-fact as described above.

Blog may be evolving faster than did the use of typewriters. But note that Harlan Ellison still uses a manual typewriter exclusively...

The Typing Life
How writers used to write.
by Joan Acocella April 9, 2007
The New Yorker

Many of the early inventors of the typewriter thought
that what they were inventing was a prosthetic device
for the blind. Why would ordinary writers need a
writing machine? They had pens. Eventually, it became
clear that such a mechanism could benefit the seeing,
too, but, as we find out in âThe Iron Whim: A
Fragmented History of Typewritingâ (Cornell; $29.95),
by Darren Wershler-Henry, a professor of communication
studies in Ontario, almost two centuries, roughly the
eighteenth and the nineteenth, passed before that hope
was realized....

Having spent considerable time on Ars, I can confirm that it's not unusual for a commenter to note an error (typographical or factual) and for the author to edit the post as a result. I know this happens because the author generally acknowledges the error in a comment of his own. I hesitate to call it editing. I've never seen a re-write extend to more than a sentence or two.

This is a constant source of irritation for me when reading "triumph of New Media" pieces on-line. Editing is not some disposable adjunct to the writing process; editing is essential to the writing process.

Which is why my mantra, in the composition classroom, is "writing is re-writing." That said, there's a corollary to the Yglesias/Klein phenomenon--the increased attention to self-editing. I know that I'm a much, much more careful writer the first time through now than I was before I started blogging. This is because I know the majority of what I'll post falls in the range of week or week after it's written; that is, during the period in which I still remember the act of composition, so I don't edit what I'm reading so much as what I remember writing. The more care I take the first time through, the less likely it is that I'll drop words during my first (and likely only) substantial edit. (I wonder whether you this?) Not that I won't, mind you, but I expend quite a bit more energy than I once did trying to avoid avoidable mistakes. What bothers me, to be honest, is that Yglesias and Klein have accepted error-prone prose as the cost of writing online.

Actually given comment #1 I would say the opposite is true for me. In fact an editor is now what I would PAY for. That is, writing volume is so vast as to be overwhelming as it has little marginal cost. What I want often as a reader is editing in the second sense. That is someone who chooses, not what is published, but what I see. I only have so many more minutes in my life. I'll gladly pay for a trusted filter.

Coturnix what have you been doing on your blog these many years with huge posts of links on a subject? Look at all the other bloggers (including here) putting out lists of interesting links. Isn't that almost exactly editing as you described? With the difference being not choosing what is published, but what is visible! What I would pay for in a "newspaper" or magazine is a coherent and studied selection of the material out there. If current copyright weren't so limiting, I would like actual copy-editing to be done also.

Not that I won't, mind you, but I expend quite a bit more energy than I once did trying to avoid avoidable mistakes. What bothers me, to be honest, is that Yglesias and Klein have accepted error-prone prose as the cost of writing online.

I'm the same way. I now obsessively revise even short little blog posts and comments, to make sure the wording is just right. There's no way I could maintain the posting volume of somebody like Yglesias or Klein (let alone Bora), because it takes me too long to write anything to the standards I try to maintain.

This is one of the many, many reasons I don't have a hundred times the traffic that I do. Also, it often takes me more than twelve hours to get around to replying to comments.