How I edit, and the 4 editing mistakes to avoid

Why self-editing doesn’t work and the 4 common editing mistakes writers should avoid if they want to get published.


This week I’m going to stop my yammering for a whole five minutes and let Jarrett have center stage. If you’re new around here (hi!), Jarrett is my husband, and he’s a reformed attorney turned writer and thinker at a Washington D.C. based think tank.

Here’s us getting married; here’s us fighting over the best seat in the house; here’s a few cocktails he’s made over the years that have kept me very happy.

Jarrett helps with a few things behind the scenes here at c&b but mostly spends his time fending off the overbearing editor he lives with who routinely harangues him about headlines and fluffy words.

So today, we’re sharing the real-life story of how he sold a piece to NPR’s James Beard Award-winning blog The Salt, how we edited it together, and how revising anything can kick your butt up and down the page so hard you’ll turn to the bottle mason jar of moonshine.

But I’ll let Jarrett tell the story.

common editing mistakes

Here’s Jarrett, who only hates me a smidge after we went through this editing process:

I do a lot of writing in my job. Nearly every week I have to write something: a blog post, an op-ed, or a longer policy report. A substantial portion of my job also includes pitching freelance articles to outside publications.

This requires, uh, patience? Yes, lots of patience. And hard work. And humility.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to write a piece for NPR’s James Beard Award-winning food blog, The Salt. (It’s also one of Alton Brown’s favorite food blogs, which makes us excited.) It was a cultural piece on the modern moonshine boom. You know all those mason jars of booze you’ve started seeing in liquor stores? Yeah, those contain modern day moonshine.

Moonshine traditionally meant illicitly made alcohol, but nowadays moonshine is any unaged whiskey made by licensed distillers. Since Maria and I live in Virginia–ground zero for much of the moonshining of yesteryear–I decided to write specifically about the rise and fall (and rise again!) of Virginia ‘shine.

So that’s the fun part. The part that the world sees. The finished product. (Click here, if you wanna read the piece!). But it took a long journey to get there. Like, really long.

Here are 5 things I had to do before I could even type a word of the article:

  1. I had to come up with a unique idea (no easy task since there are so many wonderful food and drink publications out there that are covering every angle of the drinks world).
  2. I had to draft a 1-2 paragraph pitch, which went through several rounds of editing from myself and Maria.
  3. I had to send the pitch around to see if any publications were interested. (I’m planning a follow-up post about the pitching process, for any writers looking to break into freelance short-form writing.)
  4. After the pitch was accepted, I had to do the research. That meant many interviews, both in person and over the phone.
  5. Finally, I had to organize and cull the material I gathered.

After all that, I could finally sit down to start writing. I wrote an initial draft, which writing greats like John McPhee have described as the hardest draft to complete. Then I re-wrote and self-edited my way through, oh, probably another 10 drafts. Next was self-editing for stylistic issues. Then, finally, I sent it to Maria.

That’s when things got real, yo. A significant portion of Maria’s job involves writing and editing about food. She also writes this blog, of course, and studied English and Journalism in college. (And she’s a bonafide food writer herself, as you all know from her work for The Kitchn and other publications. #wifebrag)

So, yeah, she was the perfect person to read and edit my piece. And Maria is a ruthless editor. Which is amazing! Every writer needs a great editor if they want to produce great work. After Maria edited a hard copy of the article, we talked about it after dinner one night and bounced ideas and revisions off each other. Then I added more edits to her edits.

Here’s what that edited hardcopy looked like:

NPR editsNPR edit 2

As you can see, we savaged the piece. And thank goodness we did, because it needed it.

The draft Maria edited wasn’t worthless–we both thought it had good bones. But it needed re-working in certain sections, some condensing in others, and some polishing everywhere. And the edits above were only a fraction of the edits this piece went through. The hardcopy was already draft #10 of the article, and after I incorporated Maria’s edits, I edited it again several more times. Then, I ran it by the in-house editor at my job, who edits all my pieces, for yet another round of revisions. After all that, I finally–finally–sent it off to NPR.

What did we learn from this? For one, self-editing isn’t enough. No matter what techniques, tips, or guides you use, a writer cannot self-edit and get the best possible result.

Here are 4 more common editing mistakes to avoid, which we’ve learned the hard way:

4 common editing mistakes to avoid

  1. Writing only one draft. Too often I see self-described good writers (“I’m a fantastic writer!,” said no good writer ever) who think the first thing they throw on the page is solid gold. Instead, what you should want at the first draft stage is a work-in-progress. If your first drafts seem like they’re ready to go, you’re either not looking hard enough or you’re not relaxing into drafting and letting loose on that first go. In fact, as Maria always likes to point out, the writer Anne Lamott has said that “almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” (Click here for an Anne Lamott art print Maria made!)
  2. Relying on self-editing alone. It’s not just about skill–it’s about fresh eyes. It’s extremely valuable to have an experienced editor hack their way through the weeds of your work, and part of their value is that they are not you. Having fresh eyes on a piece, even if they are not highly trained, will improve your work immeasurably and save you from the blind spots and pitfalls you can’t ever see from the ground level of your piece.
  3. Calling it done before four drafts. I know, it sounds extreme. But if John McPhee, easily one of the most respected writers alive today, needs four drafts, the rest of us probably need closer to 10. My piece for NPR went through 15+ drafts, and even so, I’m sure it wouldn’t take much poking to find flabby spots. Remember: the first draft is the shell; the other drafts are the filling that bring the piece to life.
  4. Thinking that if it’s hard then you’re not a born writer. As humans, we tend to focus so much on the end product–what Maria calls “reaping day”–that we neglect what came first. Writing is not a skill bestowed upon certain people by nature and God; it’s the result of raw effort, determination, and patience. As Maria says, talent is a myth, and hard work and stubbornness is the truth.
  5. Maria should take a handwriting class. Seriously. Who can actually read those edits?

We hope this helps bring some sanity and perspective into your editing–and remember, it’s all a little easier if you have a great editor to lean on. Preferably one who can write legibly and is legally bound not to leave you over a cheesy headline.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

We’re between Ann Arbor and Long Branch, NJ this week to spend Thanksgiving with our families, but publishing links and dinner plans will be back next week.

Wishing you and your families a few days of warmth, gratitude, and lots of pie. 🙂

common editing mistakes to avoid

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