Writing and editing- two very different activities, yet both deal with the same material: the written word. These two are the reasons why there are great novels like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other such classics, plus the tons of engaging articles and essays that you can dig up online.
Of course, one can argue that a good writer should also be a good editor (or possess, at least, a modicum of editing ability). “Omit needless words” said William J. Strunk in his Elements of Style, so a good writer is someone who knows when to cut words out, even if it means taking out sentences and paragraphs that were the result of hours of thinking. Alternatively, a good editor is one who can also write well, one who recognises all the tenets and tropes of good writing, and who knows how to transform sentences so that they can flow better on the page.
What is Writing?
Before delving into the differences between writing and editing, it’s fitting to provide a definition for each.
Writing, simply put, is the act of putting pen (or any other writing implement for that matter) to paper. It is the act of recording one’s thoughts and transferring it into a medium that can also be understood by other people.
Despite what most people would think, the act of writing isn’t a “language” or an “art.” It’s actually a form of technology, one that was borne millenias past through man’s everyday practical needs- such as the exchange of information or the recording of data.
So yes, the grocery list you wrote on a paper napkin and your 30000-word Phd thesis are both forms of writing, all things considered. The thought behind each is the same: to record information so that you or someone else can retrieve or read it later. The only difference here is that one was written for utility (i.e. to list down stuff that you need to buy at the grocery store), while the other is to educate readers and communicate thoughts.
What is Editing?
If writing is the creation of text, much like how a potter creates pottery or an artist a painting, then editing is the polishing that comes after the finished product is done.
Or in more formal terms: Editing is the process by which an editor (which can also be the writer their selves) clears up and improves a draft to prepare it for publication. This can be done by correcting grammatical or spelling errors if any are found in the text, rewriting awkward phrases, deleting unnecessary words and sentences, and any such alteration that the editor seems fit. All of these are done to make the text more precise and more effective at conveying its message to readers.
Or in simpler terms, editing is the act of making a text more readable. Without editing, the public would have to make do with newspaper headlines filled with grammatical errors, or articles that are just one big block of unreadable text. Editing ensures that readers won’t get a headache when they’re perusing textual content.
A Look at the Similarities
Since both deal with the written word, we can expect that there is a partial overlap with regards to the major aspects involved in writing and editing.
Imagine being a cook, making a meal out of simple ingredients, and churning out an excellent dish that can make your taste buds dance for joy. The problem is, there are rarely excellent cooks that can whip up a perfect meal in short notice. You need to have an extra set of hands to make sure that everything’s in order. This other cook will ensure that you’re putting the right amount of spices, and you’re not overcooking the meat or any other ingredient. They will make sure that the dish that you will churn out will be palatable.
So, these two cooks have the same skillsets- cooking and tasting- yet they perform two different functions. This is also how writers and editors go: one is in charge of writing text, while the other oversees the overall presentation of the text. Yet both can recognise the qualities of good writing, and both can write.
Writing Versus Editing
But of course, writing and editing are vastly different from each other. Beginner writers are often told to let other people edit their writings (or at least, let a bit of time pass before they can edit or revise their own work), because it’s easy enough for one to fall in love with their words and not want to change any of them. “Kill your darlings, even if it breaks your egocentric scribbler’s heart” Stephen King once said. As a lot of editors and writers would attest, editing is a vicious and cruel job.
Celebrated thinker and writer Ayn Rand provides a quick overview of the differences between writing and editing(3). Writing is a proactive process wherein you must rely solely on your unconscious mind to guide you. It requires you to be personal, emotional, and irrational if need be.
Editing, on the other hand, requires you to be objective and far removed from your writing as possible. It is a reactive process. You already have a written piece of text in your hand, and you just need to look it over and tweak whatever it is that needs to be tweaked. Rand suggests that in editing, a writer must look at their work as if someone else has written it. This removes all the biases that comes with editing one’s own work. She recommends doing the editing business in layers, so that you can see your work from many different aspects.
A Good Writer = A Good Editor, and Vice Versa
There are good writers and there are good editors. The same can also be said true for the opposite. But the fact remains that if one wants to be published in this day and age, they should know how to distance themselves from their own work, and see everything with an objective eye, no matter how hard it can be.