Editing Epiphanies


1990s.  Floppy disks. Software sales. A communication explosion….and an exploding red pen that changed my life forever.

Writing has always been a love of mine. I love writing stories. I love writing poetry. I love writing a piece of informative prose that is so tight an atom couldn’t slip through it.

And the key to all good writing? Editing. I learned this lesson at 21 when I was hired for my first job out of college at a startup medical software company. I was blessed with a mentor who taught me more in three years about editing then I knew existed.  You see, I thought editing was all about making sure everything was spelled right, the sentences sounded good, the transitions were sharp, the ideas were well supported, and it was formatted correctly. Turns out, that is not editing. That, my friends, is proofreading.

And, I discovered I was (still am) a terrible proofreader. Thankfully, after years of retraining my red pen, I discovered I was a great editor.

So, if editing isn’t all those things above, what is it? Editing boils down to this–stepping back and asking questions. Editing is strategic. Editing is confidence. Editing is questioning everything that is said, why it is said, and who you are saying it to.

I remember the first piece of work I edited at my first company.  I thought it was pretty golden. I sent it to my managing editor and it came back a bloody red mess. I loathed that red pen. I remember feeling like a loser. How could I have thought my work was good?

Looking closer at her comments, I discovered she had done just a little proofreading, but the majority of her edits fixed much deeper problems. That’s because she had asked: Why are we saying this? What’s missing that the audience would want to know? She even questioned the science and the details provided by doctors – fancy pants doctors! ( I told you editing was about confidence.) Whole paragraphs that I had carefully crafted were removed with one swipe of her red pen. It was information that was simply unnecessary.

I was amazed by the comments. These were unlike comments I’d ever received from any English teacher. I was used to setting the curve in English classes. Who was this crazy lady with the evil red pen?

I set out to learn how to edit my own work in the same way. I tried to approach each piece of patient advice I reviewed by putting myself in the reader’s shoes.

  • Does the information make sense to me/parent/patient?
  • Do I know how to take care of my sick child based on this? Is it helpful?
  • What is missing?
  • Is the science still correct when I simplified the language?
  • Is the science wrong in the first place?

Then came an even more important lesson. I got back comments from my mentor like, “Consider breaking this into two documents on….” or “Maybe we should also write a document on  …..”  Now that was really big picture editing. There was a drive to continually consider and reconsider if what we were producing was the right thing at all. Wow! Who was I to be able to change everything? Turns out that is exactly who I was.

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