Show and Tell

 Put yourself out there. Give it freely and make it worth their while. Take it graciously, gratefully, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. No, not that! Get your head out of the gutter. I’m talking about editing! 

Grinning horse

This blog post has had three different iterations. I struggled. I struggled because, unbeknownst to me, I have more opinions on editing than anything I’ve written about in years. The first two versions of this post were messy, verbose Rorschach tests on my laptop screen and they had to go. So forgive this more conversational style, but it wasn’t working the other way. 

Taking It

Over the years, people editing my work have helped me become intimately acquainted with most, if not all, of my shortcomings as a writer. There were many weaknesses, and there still are—though not nearly so many as there used to be. I’m getting better and better at writing, and having my weaknesses pointed out to me on a regular basis has been the reason for this. So my first piece of advice to every developing writer (and we should all be developing no matter how far we come) is thus: become intimately acquainted with your weaknesses.  

For this to occur, you will require editors that do not pander to you. You will need sharp, intelligent, insightful people who are generous with their time. This is what I found in my friend Joma West.  Joma is a friend and writer who started writing in earnest around the same time that I did. She is a good writer. She is a great editor. I remember when she sent me back a first draft of my first novel-length project. It was scribbled with thousands of words in green ink. The green was fitting as I was as green as a writer could be.  And the green helped soften the blow, for I hadn’t been at the writing business long at that point and I don’t think I could have taken everything she’d said if it had been in red.

I remember reading eagerly through her comments, looking for all of the praise. As I got through the first few pages my face became warm and it felt as though the room had begun to spin. All of the comments were insightful, constructive and very useful—but they had one clear message: this work isn’t very good. (Though Joma’s kind tone in the background said, “But it will be good. It has a lot of promise” but I’ll get to positivity in a minute.)

That was the first utterly disappointing edit my work has ever received, and it wasn’t the last. It was, however, the most important for me, because as I read through the suggestions I found myself agreeing with them. As I read the comments I was struck with another sensation other than embarrassment: appreciation. I realised that Joma must have spent days and days on my manuscript. She’d actually read it once, without making notes, then again, with her trusty, green pen with the everlasting ink cartridge. Once my face cooled down, I emailed to thank her. Occasionally, as I worked through the entire manuscript, I emailed her again and again to thank her. She eventually scolded me for my incessant gratitude (It must have been annoying as hell). When I think back to that moment, it’s obvious that it was the turning point for me. It’s when I started to improve and move towards becoming the writer I am today. Most importantly: it’s when I realised how wonderful it is to give so much of one’s time to editing someone else’s work. Which leads neatly to the next section…

Giving It

It is a universal rule that you must give as much as you hope to take. Though this always means the same thing, it is given very different names by different people: i) the golden rule, ii) equivalent exchange,  iii) not being a dickhead… Whatever you call it, the truth of this rule is clear to most people. If you get a lot out of notes and feedback on your work, then you must give at least the same back to other writers. It is a testament to your character, and you can’t be writer without character. That’s my view, anyway, and it’s one of the only prescriptive rules I have for other writers: return the favour—edit conscientiously and constructively. By all means pull the strength of your biggest punches, but throw every one of them. They are necessary and they will help. Joma threw every punch, and every punch connected.

It is important, however, not to punch the work you’re editing until it dies. There are various ways you can kill a piece of writing (and its author), but the three main ones are as follows:

i) Forcing your own writing style on someone else’s piece. In my opinion, this becomes a bigger problem as people get better and better at writing and editing. They become full of exciting ideas and opinions about writing and they don’t really have a filter for them. They often mistake a writer’s differing style or approach as a sort of flaw in their work. As a result, writers will enforce too much of their own voice on the work they’re editing. By all means make suggestions to improve flow, but don’t ask a writer to write just like you. It’s draconian, arrogant and not very useful at all. I don’t enjoy Dickens. Never have. I find him verbose and tiring to read. I do not write how he wrote. Am I a better writer than Dickens? No. Absolutely not. If, by some magic, I find myself in Victorian England editing Dickens’s work, should I apply my Strunkian, omit-omit-omit logic to his manuscripts? No. No way. He had a distinct style and he was (and is) appreciated for it. Not liking a piece of writing is not the same as the piece of writing being bad. Although sometimes it is. It’s your job to tell the difference.

ii) Not being positive enough. Perhaps there is nothing positive to say about the work you’re editing, but I doubt it. There is almost always something good to say. Look for the good bits and make a big deal of them. I know I sang the praises of Joma’s honest, no-nonsense editing style, but she kept me afloat at points by telling me how wonderful something was. She would spend a little more green ink on the positive comments and they made me smile and believe in myself again. Do not chop through someone’s story without telling them what’s good about it. It’s cruel and harmful. As tough as writers become over years of brutal edits and draft after draft after draft, we still feel that little flicker of nerves when we begin to read feedback from other writers. Positive comments can build confidence and make people happy. This gives writers energy and the willpower to keep on working on their projects. This is a wonderful thing to be able to give anyone. Remember to compliment freely and generously, even if there is much more bad than good. You don’t need to tell them that the whole thing is good, but make a big deal of the parts that are.

iii) Asserting your superior ability as a writer. When you’re editing, brush your ego aside. Don’t try to show off how much better you are than the person you’re editing. Perhaps you are, but showing off makes you a dickhead and it is discouraging for the other writer. Yes, be constructive, useful and throw every punch that you ought to throw, but whatever you do don’t be patronizing. If nothing else, it’ll make it harder for the writer to take your advice because it’s hard to take criticism or advice from someone you don’t like and all the time and effort you might have put into your edit could come to naught if you end up being ignored. You can always avoid patronizing another writer. So please do.

Occasionally, if you have a close enough relationship with someone, you can cut out all of the pleasantries, the egos and diplomacies, and just say exactly what you think. It makes for fast, effective editing and it’s a beautiful thing. However, if you don’t know if you’re there yet with a fellow writer, then you’re probably not, so don’t risk it.


Writing is not a lonely task

There are many quotes from famous authors who talk about writing as a lonely, difficult task. And it is. But it doesn’t have to be lonely all of the time. And for me, it is regularly the opposite of lonely. It’s often a co-dependent, sociable activity where I talk to and support other writers—and they support me.

Ultimately, no one else is going to write your poems, plays or prose for you, but they can certainly help you get there. Put yourself out there and court other writers. When I find out someone is a writer I ask them to send me something to edit for them—though I always ask them if they want me to edit it first. Sometimes they just want me to read it, and that’s okay. Sometimes writers feel protective and secretive of their writing, so I offer some of my own writing to them, as a kind of exchange of hostages. I find if they read my work as I read theirs then they aren’t quite so naked. Well, maybe they are naked, but so am I, so it’s a shared embarrassment. But most of the time, when two writers share and edit each other’s work, there is definite sense of partnership and shared investment in each other’s work. This is a wonderful feeling and it’s hugely beneficial.



I haven’t said everything I could say about editing. But I’ve said enough. And the version you read on this website will be the version Joma has edited for me. Remember that I am not issuing commandments – I am showing you how editing and being edited has helped me develop as a writer and I am showing you what has worked for me. I hope I have inspired at least a couple of readers to put more effort into their editing, and to ask more from it in others. I also believe that this system of reciprocal feedback would benefit most other creative endeavours. Whatever you make or do, show someone and ask them what they think of it. I promise it’ll make you better at it. And if that thing you do is important to you, getting better will make you happy—which is often the best reason to do anything. Even if it doesn’t make you happier, you’ll at least be a better writer. Which is kind of the whole point.


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