From the Mailbag: How can you tell when you’re done editing?

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Sharon wrote to ask me how you know when it’s time to quit editing. I responded with the following story from my past.

Jon was the first editor I worked with consistently. One of the first lessons he taught me was that Hemingway was right, “All first drafts are crap.”

I had handed in my very first project to him. He asked me how many times I’d revised it. I lied and said three. I actually had not revised it. I was sure my first draft was worthy of the Nobel Prize. Jon showed me that it wasn’t.

Using a line I would get to know well, he said, “Come around here,” and motioned me to his side of the desk. Then he went through my manuscript with his blue pencil, showing me all the ways things could be better. Since that day, I’ve never believed that my first draft was even good. But maybe I took what he said too much to heart.

He gave me an assignment to write a long-form article for a trade magazine. It should have taken me a week. When I was about two days over deadline, Jon called and asked me what was going on. I told him I needed to edit my article a bit, to make it better. “Okay,” Jon said. “But I expect it tomorrow.”

The sun rose and the sun set and the sun rose and the sun set. Jon called me. I told him I was editing the article. Finally, he said, “Get down here right now with the draft you’re working on and the last full draft of the article.”

I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t know what to do. I guess I figured that if a little editing was a good thing, a lot of editing would be even better. When I got to his office, Jon told me to “Come around here,” and laid the two drafts side-by-side on his desk. He pointed to the first paragraph of my most recent draft. “Tell me,” he said, “how this one is better than that one.” He stabbed his finger into the first paragraph of my earlier draft.

I tried to explain. I really did. But the truth was, it wasn’t any better. It might even have been worse. We repeated the exercise with the next two paragraphs in the article.

Jon was a compassionate soul as well as a heck of an editor. He explained that there are only two kinds of edits that improve a piece. You must make easier to read or more understandable.

“If you’re not making it more understandable or easier to read,” Jon said, “you’re making it different, not better. When you start to do that, it’s time to stop editing.”

That was an important lesson. It’s one of the reasons I owe so much to Jon. But his maxim is good for you, too.

Ask yourself, “Am I making this easier to read?” Ask yourself, “Am I making this more understandable?”

If you can’t answer yes to either of those questions, it’s time to stop editing. You’re not making it better. You’re just making it different.

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