Do not edit until you’ve read it

Do not edit until you’ve read it
June 30, 2017 Beth Nyland

Lucky you. People want your opinion on what they write.

Maybe you’re a subject matter expert. Or a good editor. Or, quite simply, you’re the boss.

No matter how you’ve come to this moment, you’re likely to handle it wrong.

Here’s how:

Face-to-page with someone else’s writing, you’ll start reading.

Before long (possibly in the first sentence), you’ll find an awkward phrase, useless jargon, or misplaced comma.

You’ll stop reading.

You’ll start editing.

Wah, wah, waaahhh.

Your mistake? “Fixing” a message before you’ve read it.

Without knowing how the thing will end, you dive into the details: replacing words, moving (or removing) sentences, and reorganizing paragraphs.

Editing before reading a message is like washing a car that doesn’t have a starter. You change the way it looks, but that vehicle is still going nowhere.

And that, my friend, is wasting time.

(Not to mention energy. Working your way through line after messy line, you churn a toxic mix of self-righteous pride in your superior editing skills and utter fury over the writer’s carelessness or ineptitude.)

You cannot repair a message unless and until you know what it says.

Before you become an editor, be a reader.

Adjust your process, whatever it takes.

View the message in “read-only” mode.
Move to a room with no red pens.
Sit on your hands—or cuff them to the arm of your chair.

Just read. Consume the whole message, top to bottom, without making a single revision mark. Then read it again.

And before you make a single comment or correction, answer these questions*:

  • What’s the point of what I just read?
  • What will stick with me from this message?
  • How do I feel?
  • What will I do next?

* Infinite bonus points if you answer from the target audience’s point of view.

If your answers to those questions make sense—and you’re convinced they gibe with the author’s intentions for the message—proceed to fix-it mode. Mark that sucker up. Give it all your wordly wisdom.

Wash that car, because you know it’s going to run.

But if your answers raise more doubt than confidence, then stop yourself again.

Instead of starting to edit, start a conversation.

Go back to the author. Report your answers to those four questions. You might say:

“I read your draft, and what it said to me was ________. The part that sticks with me most is ________, which makes me feel ________. If I were your target audience, I would ________. I suspect that’s not what you had in mind. Am I right?”

The writer will respond:

“Uh, no. That’s not at all what I was after. What should I do?”

And you will answer with a question:

“What are you trying to say?”

This simple question is like truth serum. Given the chance to explain the intentions behind our convoluted, written words, most of us can reframe an idea in remarkably clear, conversational terms. As a reviewer, you’ll reach rock-star status if you can hear that spontaneous explanation, repeat back the best of it, and help the writer capture the message on the page.

Then, when you and the author are convinced that the message says what it should, you can set to work on revisions: tinkering with words, messing with punctuation, futzing with structure.

And when you are finished, that message will be more than clean.
It will be tuned, turbo-charged, and ready to roll.


Photo credit: Alex Iby on Unsplash

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