If you’ve ever done any editing or proofreading, you already know that the experience is quite different from just reading. But how exactly is it different, and how can you deliberately engage in that mindset that is unique to editing text? That’s what this article seeks to determine.
It’s hard to describe a mindset in words, almost impossible to articulate what your brain should feel like when you engage in the careful consideration of language use known as editing. I might as well be trying to explain which mental or spiritual muscles you should clench to access the Force. I mean, no wonder Obi-wan Kenobi resorted to vague, nearly meaningless platitudes like “Stretch out with your feelings” when trying to teach Luke Skywalker.
Still, one must try. Maybe the best way to proceed is with a metaphor. Here’s goes:
Editing is a lot like birdwatching.°
I’m sure you're familiar with the basic idea of birdwatching, but I don't want to make assumptions, so just to be clear: Birdwatching is when you go out in nature and look for birds. You spot them with your eyes or, more often, a pair of binoculars, and you try to identify the species you see (among other things).
Whoa, you've already found and identified a red-bellied woodpecker?! You're a natural!
Photo by Mark Olsen on Unsplash
Now, let’s tease out this metaphor bit by bit and see what it can teach us.
Birdwatching Is Not a Walk in the Park
First, let’s take our metaphor and turn it into an analogy:
As birdwatching is not the same as walking, so is editing not the same as reading.
The first way that birdwatching is different from walking is that it requires a lot more focus to do well. To take a walk through a park is, for most people, a largely unconscious effort. Assuming a level path of some kind, you likely don’t need to pay nearly any attention at all to your feet or even your direction; your body just naturally follows the path you’re on until it reaches a fork or a dead end, and you are free to focus on enjoying a conversation with your walking partner. It’s not uncommon to suddenly come to your senses and realize you have walked much farther than you intended—your feet just took you there.
This is very similar to reading. For a practiced reader consuming an unchallenging text—say, a cheap thriller novel or an Agatha Christie—the act of reading itself (the moving your eyes along the page and translating the marks into words in your head) is often largely unconscious. Once you’re into the story, you don’t pay attention to the page at all but instead enter that reverie state where the words seem to disappear entirely and pictures fill your mind and consciousness, like you’re inside the story. Only when you encounter a distraction—the end of a chapter, say, or your phone ringing—do the words reappear and does time seem to begin ticking by again.
Contrast this to birdwatching and, by extension, to editing. With birdwatching, the whole point is to remain conscious of your surroundings and actions at all times, to be as deliberate and perceptive as possible. You actively work against the tendency to just take in the scenery as an undifferentiated whole because you are looking to one tiny, often well-camouflaged part of that whole: a bird.
It’s similar with editing, of course. As opposed to reading, where getting swept up in the narrative is the objective, with editing the point is to remain vigilant, to consider and question each word, phrase, clause, paragraph, page, and punctuation mark in order to correct or improve them.
Birdwatchers Know and Work Within Their Limits
A personal anecdote: The first time my wife and I ever went birdwatching, we were way out of our depth. Allow me to quote from an essay I wrote on the experience:
We started out on a path at random, me holding the book, trying to skim the introduction, Emily with the binoculars. I’d watch the bushes, but then wonder if I should be looking at the trees, and if so, how high? Every shadow, every twist of branch, every curling leaf suddenly looked like a potential sighting. There was so much to focus on that I couldn’t really focus at all; every few seconds I would find myself looking through the trees into that vague middle distance, that same place just behind the page my eyes go when I read and reread a paragraph without ever really reading it at all.
Then I’d realize I’d been hearing chirps and tweets but had been concentrating so hard on seeing that I’d neglected to hear properly—I honestly couldn’t tell whether the sounds had been made by birds or by bike wheels or by the cooing couples and very fat ducks. The sounds would be hanging there in my memory of the last few seconds, but when I replayed them looking for birds, I couldn’t even be sure I’d heard squeaks at all; it could’ve just been the general static of my cluttered mind, the echoing blips of iTunes tracks and bits of Seinfeld reruns that habitually stick in my head. I’d resolve then to listen more actively, to catch any birdsong in the moment instead of after the fact.
But in a minute I’d realize that in listening so closely, I’d forgotten to look around—try as I might, I couldn’t seem to do both at once. I was a baby again, concentrating hard on clapping my hands but succeeding only in wiggling my toes.
As I discovered, maintaining a continuous state of hyperawareness—of the foreground, middle ground, and distant horizon; of the grass, bushes, boughs, and skies; of both movement and stillness; of color, shape, and sound—is quite difficult. In fact, it’s impossible.
But over the next few weeks and then years of birdwatching, two things happened. One, my ability to focus grew more robust; in other words, I could focus my attention for longer periods. Two, I developed techniques to modulate my focus, that is, to block out many of the inputs and concentrate on only a few key stimuli at a time.
My experience with editing was almost exactly the same. When I scored my first job as an editor, I had no real experience, just a good instinct for clear, correct writing. When I sat in the office with my first manuscript to review—a scholarly article for publication in an academic journal—I tried to do everything at once, all in one read. Grammar, punctuation, fact-checking, source documentation, organization: I tried to fix them all in one go and ended up, predictably, doing a bad job and feeling like an imposter at my job.
But I stuck with it and, after a few weeks, I found my attention span lengthening. I learned (with some generous help from my boss) to strategically focus on just one or two things at a time.
Wide Focus, Tight Focus
Birders split their attention between the big picture—scanning the entire landscape in search of sound and movement—and the little one—tracking along a branch with one’s binoculars to spot an individual bird. They even go tighter than that, zeroing in to distinguish the colors and patterns of feathers on different parts of a bird’s body in order to make a positive identification. As a birder develops their talents, they learn exactly when to use a wider or narrower focus to maximize their chances of seeing interesting things.
Forget editing—Grover's English is now a birding blog.
Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash
This strategic shifting of focus is very like an editor’s use of the levels of edit to direct their attention appropriately given the text in front of them. It wouldn’t do to concentrate for an hour on the punctuation in a paragraph that is likely to later be cut from a disorganized essay, for example, so an experienced editor knows that the first step when encountering a new text is usually to get the lay of the land with a quick read of the entire thing. Scanning the horizon, they can then prioritize the work so as to focus first on the most urgent or impactful changes before pulling out the binoculars and considering the commas, as it were.
Okay, I think we’ve reached the end of the metaphor’s usefulness, and I still haven’t nailed down that feeling I have when I’m editing, the specific set of neurons that seem to activate when I’m in editing mode. Maybe it’s a thing you have to experience for yourself? How else can I describe it?
It feels akin to waiting for my opponent to serve the ball in a game of ping pong when they are one point from winning, that ever-ready mental and physical stance that is ready for anything and determined to react quickly and accurately. No wait—that’s how my proofreading mind feels, but my substantive editing mind, when I’m reading the entirety of a piece to figure out if it needs restructuring, feels more like planning out where all the furniture will go when I’m moving to a new house. The top of my head opens up, and all the future rooms hang in the air above me as I place and replace, one by one, all the furniture I have and all the furniture I might potentially buy. Nothing is ever set in stone; instead, the entire exercise is one of possibilities, a mental chess game of trying out a move and thinking through all of its consequences.
Oh great, now I’m mixing my metaphors—mental chess and interior design in the same paragraph? Besides, neither ping pong for proofreading or interior design for substantive editing quite capture the feeling I have when I’m copyediting. That feeling is more like having lunch with an old friend who is in the middle of telling me a juicy story. I’m super into the story but I don’t actually know all the people in it or much of the context since our lives have diverged over the years, so I’m constantly interrupting to clarify, like “Wait, is Dan the guy that she dumped or the guy she started dating right after?” and “But I thought you always super liked Taylor Swift—what happened to change your mind and how did that lead to Dan ghosting you on Facebook?” When I’m just reading, that’s like small talk—when I’m copyediting, I’m lapping up spilled tea like I’ve just returned from three weeks in the desert.
I’m mixing my metaphors again. Sigh.
Tips for Developing an Editorial Mindset
Rather than try to find the perfect description for the editorial mindset, let me instead leave you with some tips on how you can more quickly cultivate it for yourself by benefitting from my past mistakes.
Tip #1: Switch Tasks Often
Good editors know their limits and work within them. For example, I know from experience (and from tracking my hours so I could bill clients) that I can only proofread effectively for a limited time before I am unable to maintain that ping pong championship focus—I know I’m done when I find myself daydreaming. The proper response is not to get down on yourself for not having a longer attention span; it’s to switch tasks to something less energy-intensive.
Back at my first editing job, I would proofread until I couldn’t do it anymore, then switch to an easy task like checking quotes against the originals or confirming sources were accurately cited. When that busy work got boring, I would switch again to a copyediting task that employed the part of my brain concerned with clarity and conciseness, and when that part got tired, I’d move back to proofreading.
And when none of those tasks seemed possible, I didn’t fret. Instead, I clocked out walked to the university bookstore across campus to pick up some chocolate-covered cinnamon bears for my coworkers. The sunshine and sugar did wonders for restoring my focus.
Listen, I know the analogy is over, but just look at this incredible blue kingfisher.
Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash
Tip #2: One Thing at a Time
The levels of edit concept is nice and all, but in practice, I find it isn’t enough for me. See, it’s one thing to know I’m going to proofread a document—that tells me where my focus is generally going to be—but there are still so many things to focus on within that level of edit. Sure, there’s proofreading the main text to eliminate errors, but also there might be checking all the headings in a long document to see that they are all formatted correctly—maybe level-1 headings are all bolded and centered, while level-2 headings are left-aligned and all caps or whatever. Or there’s confirming that the numbering of the figures and tables is all in order and consistent, or that the call-outs to the figures and tables within the main text always appear before the actual figures and tables do and that the language among the call-outs is consistent. Or there might be a specific usage issue from the style sheet—say, that the first mention of the company president in each new section should give his or her complete name and all subsequent mentions should shorten it to a title only.
As an early editor, I was tempted to try to do all these discrete tasks at once, making one proofreading pass through a document that caught all the problems. But this proved problematic. I would realize that I’d spent the last ten minutes focusing only on proofreading the main text, having forgotten to notice and consider the call-outs, and now I didn’t know how far back I needed to go to find any call-outs I missed.
See, I’m not great on focusing on more than one thing at a time, so instead of regretting my weak brain, I just started focusing on one thing at a time. Instead of one super-pass for proofreading, I made half a dozen or more tiny passes, looking for only one thing each time and thus ensuring I didn’t accidentally miss that Table 4.4 came before Table 4.3.°
Tip #3: Empty Your Mind, Repeatedly If Necessary
You can imagine me sitting there, proofreading, scanning a document specifically looking for exactly one type of error: “New section, where is the company president first mentioned? Company president…company president…company—Got it!”
This approach works well, but my meditative state can easily be shattered by the appearance of any random thought out of the blue. And since editing is generally a quiet, solitary, meditative experience, it creates a prime environment for random thoughts to appear.
For me, the most common random thoughts are, “Oh, don’t forget to pick up some milk on the way home from work!” or “Don’t forget to call the doctor to make an appointment for a check-up!” or “I wonder what’s going to happen this week on NBC’s hit drama This Is Us?” As soon as one of these thoughts appears, I forget what I was scanning for. Or, if I try to focus again on the company president’s name, some small percentage of my brain continues to be worried that I’ll forget to remember not to forget to pick up milk later.
It’s the tyranny of anxiety.
My solution? I empty out my brain whenever such stray thoughts occur to me. In other words, I always have a sticky note or something handy, and when I remember that I need to pick up milk, instead of devoting precious mental bandwidth to remembering and more bandwidth to worrying about forgetting to remember, I just write down the thought, effectively exporting it from my mind and erasing the need to worry about forgetting, since now it’s written down.
I do this with errands and daydreams, but I also do it with editing tasks. For example, if I’m checking headings but I suddenly notice that an image’s caption is indented, and now I’m going to need to check all the image captions for consistency, I don’t let that new task distract me from the current one. I write it down to do on a future proofreading pass, and that’s that.
My favorite birds are waxwings, known for their cooperative nature. Feel free to see this as another metaphor for editing—as for me, I just like the way they look.
Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash
Tip #4: Trust Your Instincts
To the outsider or the beginner, so much of editing seems to be about enforcing one’s boundless knowledge of the rules of grammar and punctuation. And while that may be true for some types or levels of editing, lots of editing is more intangible and is more about the feeling of words and sentences.
For example, with copyediting, a big concern is improving clarity. It’s not about making the words correct but making the meaning clear, about preventing misreading if possible. So how do you know what to do if it’s not about right versus wrong but is instead about good versus better? How do you read a sentence that is technically not breaking any rules and know whether it needs changing?
My advice here is to trust your gut. If you’re practicing the editorial mindset and remaining acutely aware as you read—birdwatching instead of just walking through the park—you should notice when some part of you resists a sentence it reads. Something will feel off about it, signaling to you to stop and reread, to consider how a reader might encounter the sentence, how it might be misread.
The more you practice listening to the soft tug of your editorial conscience, the easier it will be to feel it and the more you’ll develop your confidence as an editor.°
Tip #5: Don’t Overdo It
Above, I noted the danger of losing focus and dropping from a higher-energy activity, like editing, into its easier counterpart, in this case, reading. It’s just like the tendency to accidentally turn a birdwatching expedition into just a nice walk in the park.
But a danger exists on the other side of the equation as well. Just as it’s easy to lose focus, it’s also easy to be overzealous when editing, to be so vigilant in improving the text that you slip out of editing and into rewriting, usurping the author’s place. The editor becomes the unsolicited ghostwriter.°
Ultimately, you'll find out for yourself what your brain feels like when you're in that editing mode and how it is different from reading mode. And probably, like me, you'll struggle to find words to describe it to anyone else, and you'll come up with your own analogies to try to make it make sense.
Until then, however, I hope my analogy of birdwatching helps just a little bit.
"Owls about we go get started editing?"°
Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash