The difference between an editor and one who simply edits is deliberate practice. What is deliberate practice, and how can it make your editing better?

By Joshua Yearsley (@joshuayearsley)


What’s this blog about?

Case in Point is about the craft of writing and editing. Mostly editing, in all likelihood. But writing and editing go hand in hand, right? (Uh oh, starting with a conjunction? Heresy!) Anyway—although I hope to educate and entertain readers, this blog is also designed to be my brain backup. I have a terrible memory for specifics; the only way I can learn something is by bashing the idea into my brain repeatedly. My hope is that as I (re)teach myself, I’ll be doing the same for all you fine folks out there. Enough about me, though; let’s get started. In the vein of foundation posts, I’d like to examine the difference between an editor and one who simply edits. Thankfully, the answer to that question is the same for every career that is also a craft: deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice?

Deliberate practice is the drummer practicing that same pattern over and over again because he knows he can do it better. Deliberate practice is the artist drawing a hand in twenty different ways because she knows it’s hard. Deliberate practice essentially consists of these steps:

  1. Figure out where your craft is lacking, and make it a goal to improve.
  2. Create a practice plan that challenges your skills in pursuit of that goal.
  3. Practice until you aren’t challenged any more.

Deliberate practice is meant to stretch your boundaries; if you feel out of your comfort zone, you’re probably doing it right. Once the practice stops being scary, it will inevitably become somewhat tedious. Do you think the drummer or artist enjoys practicing the same thing after the 16th time? (No.) The key to deliberate practice is knowing why you’re practicing; without that reason, you’re bound to quit before you should.

What skills can an editor deliberately practice?

Starting off in editing, the best way to improve is simply to edit as much as possible. However, just like a bodybuilder reaching a training plateau, there’s only so much that unguided practice can do. Once you reach a plateau, it’s time to take stock of your skills. When I think of editing skills, I like to divide them into three categories:

  • Editing knowledge — Do you know your stuff? This category encompasses everything from “Should I put spaces around my em dash in AP style? (Yes.)” to “How is conglomerate spelled? (Like that.)” Not only will improving this skill-set help you edit as quickly as a Formula 1 racer, but it will also help you spot more errors than the robots living inside your computer can.
  • Editing taste — Can you edit well rather than just correctly? Under this tent are questions like “Would putting a comma or semicolon here better serve the tone of this sentence?” and “Should I split this sentence into two new ones?” Having good taste is what makes your editing stand out to the author. If you can burrow into their head, scoop out the story they want to tell, and mold their words just right, you’ll be sure to impress them.
  • Editing tact — Can you edit in a manner appropriate to the text? If you are writing for an academic audience, the style that they are used to (passive voice = unbiased language!) might be far different than your preferred style (passive voice = booooring). This skill-set is especially useful when your client doesn’t have an established style guide. It’s up to you as the editor to feel out what the audience will consider stylistically correct and then edit to fit those criteria. It’s not your job to rage against the machine—the machine being stylistic norms. You’ll just alienate your client if you do.

How can an editor deliberately practice?

There are so many ways! Here’s only a few:

  • Reading and Studying — Not just any ol’ kind of reading. I’m talkin’ about focused reading. Read literature; read books about writing and editing; read styleguides and handbooks. When you notice an interesting sentence, note it: Analyze why the sentence caught your eye, and whether there are any lessons for your own work. In your own editing if you ever hit a sentence that seems intractable, don’t just fix it and move on. Save that sentence, because it is a diamond waiting to be hewed. Even after the job is done, go back to that sentence and figure out all the ways you could change it to make it better. Try our your new tricks on it! Even more important than studying is applying what you studied to your work. If you recently digested the MLA Style Guide, then seek out MLA jobs. Don’t let your knowledge wither away from disuse. (It will.) Think about how the rules that you studied jive with your personal editing philosophy. (If you don’t have one yet, then that’s a good place to start!) Unless your client requires a specific style guide, you can do whatever you want within the bounds of reason.
  • Getting Feedback  — I was watching the excellent and mouthwatering documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi a couple month ago. There is one particular scene that I can’t stop thinking about: One of the apprentices in Jiro’s shop couldn’t get the sushi rice to clump just right. Jiro saw his struggle, and told him to  simply “press the sushi as if it were a baby chick.” What a queer piece of advice, right? But it worked; the apprentice soon improved! Sometimes a habit or practice becomes so ingrained that we can’t escape it on our own. I was starting at a new editing house around the same time as I watched the doc, and my drafts were coming back with red ink galore from the senior editor. Most of the ink was spilled over one kind of error that I had never noticed before. Why hadn’t I noticed it? It had become a habit. Getting feedback is the only reliable way for you to break these habits.
  • Broadening Your Horizons  Deliberate practice is all about getting out of your comfort zone, right? The easiest way to do just that (and yet, the most difficult) is to work on something completely foreign. Is academic editing your thing? Try fiction editing! Used to editing for individual clients? Go see how a larger firm operates. Editing is the art of clarity, and sometimes the conventions of a particular field don’t work for all texts. Exposing yourself to variety will help guard your editing taste from becoming calcified. It’s like a balanced diet; you probably shouldn’t eat all pasta or soda crackers or peanut butter, as much as the last option sounds amazing. If all you do is edit, consider writing of your own, and make sure to get feedback. Not only will writing help your editing taste, but it will also help you with your interactions with writer clients.

I could go on about this forever, but I won’t subject you to that. I hope this introduction to deliberate practice has been useful. See you again soon!

Flickr image by toastytreat87, CC BY-NC-DD 2.0