Editing personal essays

This is the second of my posts about editing an essay anthology. In the first post, I looked at the big picture, discussing how I go about commissioning and finding essays for such a collection and then deciding which ones I can accept and which ones I have to decline. In this post, I’d like to look at the, uh, little picture? In other words, I’d like to discuss how I edit individual essays. The usual caveats apply: I’m sure there are better, more efficient ways to go about this; what follows is simply the process that works for me (most of the time).

In thinking about this post, I tried to figure out how many times I read the first draft of an essay. My best guess is that, on average, I read a piece at least four or five times before sitting down to do any editing and provide feedback for the writer.

The first time I read an essay is as soon as I find it in my in-box. This is usually a quick once over to make sure the file is readable and hasn’t been corrupted somewhere in cyberspace and to get a general feel for how it might fit into my plan for the book. A good sign is when an essay draws me in and compels me to read the whole thing, from start to finish, when what I really want to do is just give it a cursory glance and log its arrival.

At the same time, I readily admit that I don’t always get an essay on the first or even second read, which is why I try to read it a few times before sitting down to work on it. Often, my mind is focused on something else (class preparation, marking, wondering if there are leftovers in the fridge for dinner, etc.), so I don’t read the piece as closely as I should. Or, I’m not in the right frame of mind to appreciate an essay’s particular mood or point of view.

Knowing this, I try not to dismiss any essay after a first read; so, if it doesn’t grab me on a first read through, that’s not the end of the story. I leave it for a few days, come back to it when I have time to give it the focus it deserves and go through it again. Oddly, realizing how good a piece is only after a second or third read is every bit as rewarding as recognizing a great piece on sight, if rather humbling.

Once I’ve decided to accept an essay, the real work begins. I always warn writers that it may take us a couple of drafts to get to the point where we’re both happy with the piece. This is because it’s easier to tackle editing in stages; for me, the first stage is editing for content, which editors generally refer to as substantive editing. I try to avoid that term, though, because it is unnecessarily alarming to many writers, as it suggests that massive changes are afoot, which is not always the case. As such, I try to refer to it as content-related editing.

One of the most important things I do at this stage is determine if the essay’s narrative is working. This is very much an intuitive process for me; it’s hard to put into words just what I look for. It’s not like I’m working off a checklist. Essentially, I try to determine if the story has any gaps or confusing sections that need to be addressed. I also try to address any issues relating to the narrative flow: is one section too long? Is another too short? Does the essay overall feel like an easy, engaging read (regardless of its actual length) or are there points at which it feels jarring or dull or repetitive?

In this way, I see myself as a writer’s best possible reader. If I come upon a confusing section or a piece of long description that loses my interest, I’ll continue reading anyway and try to figure out what the problem is, as opposed to most readers who’ll become confused or frustrated and skip to the next essay.

As I go through the draft, I note all of these issues using comment balloons in Microsoft Word. In addition to noting problematic portions of the text, I also note all the portions that I love. So, again, I always try to warn writers that just because it looks like I’ve appended a lot of notes to draft doesn’t mean it’s all bad news: in many cases, I leave more notes that say “Love this!” than “Huh?” Once I’ve completed this narrative diagnosis, I summarize my general feelings and suggestions for the author in a short sort of cover letter that I append to the top of his or her document.

This makes it sound like a quick, straight-forward process—it isn’t. While some issues with an essay jump out at me right away, others are not as clear. So, I might highlight a section that I find confusing or jarring in some way and then come back to it a day or two later to see if, with clearer eyes, I can figure out what needs fixing and how to go about it. Other times, I’ll try to rearrange the text to make the story clearer and then return to it a couple of days later to see if, in fact, it’s actually clearer. So, by the time I send a first edit back to a writer, I’ve probably read through his or her story at least five or six more times.

From there, I work with the writer on successive drafts to get the content of the essay to a point where we’re both happy. After that, I switch from content-related editing to style-related editing, which editors call line editing. This is when I unleash my inner copyeditor to address any and all issues relating to syntax, grammar, punctuation and the like. It’s at this stage I also suggest where writers might find a better word or turn of phrase. It’s endlessly technical and picky, but in the end, it doesn’t usually take more than one or two more drafts before it’s all finished and we’re both happy with the end product.