This article was originally published in The Writing Cooperative, a Medium.com publication.
Easy reading is damn hard writing.Nathaniel Hawthorne
Different kinds of writing call for different editorial approaches. Elements of one editorial process often work well for entirely different kinds of writing, but that’s not always the case. Today, I’d like to share a powerful process for editing long-form persuasive nonfiction, whether it’s your own piece or another writer’s. I developed this process independently around 2010, but its constituent steps are not my discoveries. Writers far better than I figured most of these things out a long time ago, but I think I’ve managed to integrate them in a largely unique way.
Note that the process I describe here is specifically an editing tool. I strongly advise against editing your own work while you’re writing it. I find this to be especially important when you’re tackling difficult, complex topics. I’ll post a different guide on the process I use to write long-form nonfiction.
Step 1: Get Some Distance
Once you’ve finished your first draft of a challenging piece, it’s tempting to dive right in and start editing while you’re still high on the adrenaline. In my experience, this almost always hurts more than it helps. You’ve just finished drafting a long article that took dozens, perhaps hundreds of hours of research, outlining, and scribbling. Your brain is tired; let it rest. Step away from the draft and ignore it for at least 24 hours.
I will often leave especially long or complex pieces alone for a week or more before I start editing. I find that when I do this, my insight into my own work is much clearer, sharper, and more objective. The same basic rule applies when you’re editing someone else’s work—if it’s a long, complex piece, get some distance from it as often as needed. High-quality, long-form nonfiction takes time, so don’t try to rush it.
Anytime you feel like you’re spinning your wheels in the editing phase, it never hurts to take another break and come back to it later.
Step 2: Edit Out Loud
When it comes to long-form nonfiction, few things are more helpful in the editing process than another pair of eyes. If you know another editor who is willing to try this with you in a joint editing session, that would be ideal, but you can do it alone, too.
When you’re ready to start editing, read the entire piece out loud, slowly. If you wrote the article, have your partner read it, or vice versa. You can read your own work aloud if you’re flying solo, but I find it more helpful to hear your words in someone else’s voice if that’s an option.
Pause briefly after each sentence and analyze it for problems. (We’ll talk more about useful tools for spotting problems in the next section.) Pretend that the piece you’re reading was written by someone you dislike—meaning, pretend you have an extra incentive to look for problems. If you spot a potential issue that can be resolved quickly, such as something to do with grammar or word choice, then fix it now. If it looks like a bigger problem that will take time to fix, make a note or comment in the margins and move on.
I think that, once you’ve read the whole piece out loud or had it read to you, you’ll have a clearer understanding of what’s wrong and why than if you had read it silently to yourself. This is because, when you read your own writing silently, you know exactly what you meant and everything seems perfectly clear to you—you wrote it. Hearing your work read out loud really helps to pull you out of your own head so you can analyze your work from something closer to an unknown reader’s perspective.
Step 3: Apply the MTEC Acronym
I came up with this four-letter acronym as a tool for identifying and fixing the four most common and critical problems in persuasive nonfiction. Again, I’m not the originator of these ideas; others have packaged and shared them in different forms, but sadly, they’re not nearly as widespread as I think they should be.
Throughout this section, I refer to “your work” and “your writing,” but the same principles apply when you’re editing someone else’s work.
M: Does your article matter?
To whom, and why? If your target audience is “everybody,” then your actual audience is “nobody.” Get clear and specific about who you’re writing to and offer something valuable to those readers. Use arguments and examples relevant to their experiences and interests. For example, my target audience in this guide is beginning or intermediate writers/editors who may be struggling to write or edit compelling nonfiction (which is not easy). People who don’t write and don’t care about writing probably won’t find this article interesting. That’s okay; they aren’t my target audience.
T: Are all of your claims true?
This is a bitter pill to swallow for some people. Many writers and editors from all corners of the political compass are guilty of publishing content that simply doesn’t pass the truth test. Even if your claims are true, they need to be proven (or at least supported) on the page. I’ve been writing nonfiction since 2008 and I still regularly catch myself thinking “This may not actually be true” when editing my own work. Staying objective and truth-oriented at all times is not easy, but if we want to be taken seriously as writers, we need to be sure that everything we write passes the truth test before we click the “Publish” button. When editing, any claim that isn’t both true and well-supported within the context of the piece needs to be changed, reinforced, or cut.
E: Is your piece essentialized?
In nonfiction writing, every word, sentence, and paragraph on the page is either necessary or unnecessary toward the end of supporting your theme; it’s a binary decision. When working with new writers, I sometimes find that as much as 50% of an article can be cut without losing anything meaningful. Remember your basic goal in persuasive nonfiction writing: to persuade the reader. Readers are more easily persuaded by articles that are easy to read. Cutting unhelpful words is a good start, but the more difficult and even more worthwhile endeavor is to find ways to say the same thing in fewer words. (For practice, re-read this paragraph slowly and look for ways to cut it down without adding or losing anything; there are at least a few.)
C: Is your writing clear?
This is usually the hardest part of the acronym. Everything you write is clear to you, but your readers aren’t you. You know things that they don’t know, and they know things that you don’t know. The subject of clarity in nonfiction deserves an entire article. I’ll write one soon, but for now, try this simple rule of thumb: If your writing is unclear to your test reader(s) or fellow editors, then it’s unclear. In relatively rare cases, the problem is on the reader, not you—”The cat is black” is unarguably clear—but if there’s any possible ambiguity, eliminate it.
If you’ve never used an editing process like this one before, I encourage you to try it out. Start with a short, simple nonfiction post or article. I’m confident that you’ll see at least some improvement in the quality of the published piece, even if you’ve already been writing and editing for a while. For longer, more complex pieces, this editing process can produce truly outstanding improvements.