Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Blog Editing Tip: How Much Editing Advice Is Too Much?

Originally published at, July 15, 2013.

Whether you’re talking about writing, editing, or trimming your nose hairs, advice on how to do it well (and how to do it right) is abundant. Every bit of advice you get, though, is really just an opinion. Some opinions come from years of experience and study, some come from adherence to received dogma, and some come from pure personal taste. Some opinions are shared by large numbers of people, and others are hoarded like canned meat in a bomb shelter.

Regardless of what the opinion is or where it comes from, you must remember this:
Every opinion — and therefore all advice — is biased. (That includes yours. Mine, too.)

So you should mind whose advice you take and look for the bias inherent in that advice. That isn’t to say that those with the most experience always offer the best advice, though. In some areas, that may be the case, but in other areas, people who have been doing the same thing for a long time may have fallen into a routine and forgotten how they got to that routine. Their advice may be based on and biased by their personal traditions.

Traditions can be good, but they aren’t everything.

On writing advice

When it comes to blogging — and to writing in general — advice is often contradictory, and there sure is a lot of it out there. But ultimately, how you write and edit is up to you. Good writing cannot be reduced to a formula, but that’s all this advice really is: different formulas for finding the “right” words and symbols and putting them in the “right” order. They might be perfectly good formulas for specific situations, but sometimes they overlap or contradict, and you have to figure out for yourself what’s best. You have to make creative choices.

You could try to follow all the writing and editing advice you receive, but that will lead to one of two outcomes:
  1. You’ll drive yourself crazy scrutinizing every word through three or four drafts and never want to write again.
  2. You’ll completely lose your voice in your writing.
Eventually, you have to stop editing your blog posts and publish them. If you latch on to too much advice and get stuck in copious rounds of editing, agonizing over every word and every bit of writing advice, you could end up with a thousand perfect trees but a sterile, uninteresting, and unenjoyable forest.

You can ignore, bend, or rewrite the so-called rules of grammar and style and still create some wonderful writing. Want to see it done? Flip through the works of James Joyce, David Foster Wallace, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy.

Heck, McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Road didn’t use a single set of quotation marks, though the text is thick with dialogue.

How to successfully break the rules

What allowed these authors to succeed while breaking the "rules" is that they did it deliberately. That’s a very important word. For writing to be great, every word of it must be placed deliberately.

And that’s why editing is so important. When you edit, whether it’s a 500-word blog post or a 120,000-word novel, your job is to make sure that every word and phrase is considered and either accepted or corrected, taking into account not only what you want to say, but how you want to say it.

When you edit, you continually make choices. (And, to quote the band Rush, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”) Some people will disagree with your choices — and a few of them will let you know about it — but if you know that you have considered your options and made a choice, you can safely ignore the naysayers.

Your style is your own, and no amount of advice should take your voice away. If, while you’re editing, you find yourself thinking, “I would never say something like that,” you might be over-editing. That’s when it’s time to take a step back from the trees and look at the forest.