The craft of editing is a skill every one of us can hone
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
By Abbie Nordhagen Cziok
My mom is an exceptional editor. She’s a court reporter, so she’s obviously good at grammar and proof reading. (Unlike me, she believes in two spaces after a period). My mom is also a phenomenal writer, so I was lucky to have her editing guidance for every single written assignment growing up. We’d read my papers line-by-line, discussing how sentence length creates interest and routinely cracking open a thesaurus to find new, interesting words. Her editorial help was priceless.
What makes a good editor? People often say “good writers are good editors.” But that’s disheartening when my writing skills feel stale. People also emphasize the importance of reading for fun outside the office. Again, this is undoubtedly sage advice, but it’s frustrating to many juggling responsibilities who at day’s end just want wine and an episode of the “Great British Baking Show.” Instead, I want to offer something more tangible that we can use tomorrow.
For answers, I again turned to my favorite legal writing book, “Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing,” by Stephen V. Armstrong and Timothy P. Terrell. Armstrong and Terrell are steadfast in their approach that briefs (or other documents) should be edited at various conceptual levels: full brief, section, paragraph, sentence, and word. At the brief level, quickly check for the presence of a road map and consistent use of roadmap buzzwords throughout the relevant sections’ introductions. The road map should also be accurate, though that probably goes without saying for anyone who’s lived in Montana longer than iPhones have been around. At the section level, check that transitions between paragraphs are logical. Read the last sentence of one paragraph and the first of the next to ensure that you have given the reader a bridge, perhaps a common word, from one paragraph to the next. At the paragraph level, check that paragraphs aren’t merely boxes for information. Rather they ought to have a topic sentence, a middle that adds detail to the topic, and a conclusion. At the sentence level, check the distance between the subject and verb. Also check that the chosen subject conveys the sentence’s meaning. Finally, if time permits, get rid of legalese and other unnecessary words.
I also crowdsourced the question, and people have suggested various techniques. A law school classmate reminded me that our legal writing teacher suggested reading a brief back to front or the pages out of order. In reading the sentences out of context, the editor must think about the brief’s structure with more attention to concepts and sentence structure. A co-clerk always used the most interesting syntax and as a result wrote clear, engaging documents. She writes some sentences five ways, without judgment, just to exercise editorial flexibility. Another friend in public relations says she encourages editors to read the product out loud. Some sentences are fine on paper but sound bizarre when spoken.
Effective editing is not an amorphous skill granted at birth. Rather, with these techniques, and maybe the help of our parents, we can all improve our editing.
Abbie Nordhagen Cziok is an associate with Browning, Kaleczyc, Berry & Hoven in the Helena office. She likes rock climbing, skiing, and one space after a period.