Is Editing Just Reading All Day?

It’s a great day to curl up with a book where I’m at in Louisiana today–storming like crazy, the constant rumbling and cracking of thunder. I guess the tornadoes touching down everywhere don’t add to the cozy reading mood for most, but I’m okay with it as long as the roof stays on.

I did curl up with a great book for my twice-weekly early morning insomnia today (Middlesex, 2003’s Pulitzer, if you’re wondering) (and 4:30 AM, if you’re wondering and also are a sadist). Just a little piece of me is wishing for cozy-ready-time back. But it’s really just a little piece. Why? Because–YAY–I read for a living!

“Reading for Pleasure and Reading for Editing Couldn’t Be More Different”: T/F

When I was in school, I was in a series of classes that dealt with various aspects of the school’s press. One day’s lesson was on what it’s like to really be an editor. I had brilliant teacher that I really enjoyed for this class, and since I knew editing was the likely the path I would take with my future, this discussion was of particular interest.

I remember the teacher saying this:

A lot of kids think, ‘Oh, an editor is just someone who sits around with books and reads all day for a living.’ And I’m here to tell you editing is nothing like that. Reading for pleasure and reading for editing couldn’t be more different. The experiences are nothing alike. It’s almost like having two parts of your brain that can’t function at the same time. You have to consciously shift from editing brain to reading brain and back.

At the time, I remember thinking, “Oh, of course.” But you know what? After doing this for a number of years, I respectfully disagree with my teacher on this. In fact, I think that in order to be a good editor, you have to have your reading-for-pleasure hat on. You have to be thinking of what would make what your reading of the piece enjoyable, if you just came across it in the wild. Putting yourself in the position of the audience is the key to all good writing and editing.

That doesn’t mean that editing is always the same as reading for fun. But I do think that you use the exact same parts of your brain*, especially if you’re an analytical reader (which, if you’re an editor, you better be).

Answer: F (If You’re a Certain Type…)

When good editors reads anything, it’s my opinion that they’ll note what sentence constructions go down easy. They’ll notice what turns of phrase tickle them. They’ll notice the words that grab their attention and the tactics that make them want to keep going. And from observing good writing and synthesizing it, they can often see the path to improving areas that aren’t as fun to read.

This leads me to think my teacher is totally wrong, because in order to get to this place of “good editor,” you have to (1) read (a lot!) for pleasure, (2) have much of that pleasure be derived from trying to understand what works.

Reading for pleasure is certainly an inextricable part of my editing. It’s as if I bought myself a book to read for fun, and I also have the amazing superpower of tweaking what didn’t work quite right.

Editing B2B/B2C communications, white papers, and other works of non-fiction are a little different, but not as much as you’d think. It’s a matter of having your priorities right. If you write, it’s because you have something to say. So it always pays to create enjoyable prose. If you want people to receive your message, that first requires that they read it at all. And they won’t if it’s difficult to work through. You want the applicable characteristics of good literature. (Cohesiveness. Maybe an kind of arcing structure. A powerful conclusion.) It will help people follow what you’re trying to say. But you also want easy-to-read sentences that facilitate rather than hinder communication. (Make action-oriented subject/verb pairs. Keep the subject and verb close together. Cut wordiness and excessive prepositional phrases.) You also don’t want to sound like a robot, and that means making things interesting. (No needless listing. Vary sentence length and forms of syntactic dependencies. And for god’s sake, get rid of every instance of “it is of importance to note.”)

And, if you’re the type of person that delights in that, you’ve learned all of that from reading for pleasure.

What Does It Result In?

I love my work! That kid my teacher talked about, who thinks editing is sitting around and reading all day? Well, sure, if you think you’ll be getting paid to read amazing literature all the time, it isn’t quite that. But if you think you’ll be getting paid to read all day and playing an active part in making it something you WANT to read, yes, that’s totally what I do. And it’s just as good as it sounds, for someone who loves the written word.

*The exception to this is proofreading, which, in my experience, is not in the least like reading for pleasure. That’s not to say it isn’t a pleasurable activity to some, but it isn’t like reading. It’s more like doing a PennyPress puzzle book or playing one of those “spot the difference” games. You can’t be in reading mode while proofing, really–you’ll get too big-picture to see that misspelling on the cover or that misnumbered page.

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