Editing is all about improving your written work, but do you really know what you’re doing when you sit down to edit? So take some tips from a past winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, because you might as well learn not only how to edit like a pro, but how to edit like a big fat prize-winning pro.
So Who’s This Nobel Prize-Winning Editing Guru?
The stamp above is a bit of a clue: it’s former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1953 for,
“…his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.
If you’re surprised to hear of this achievement, you’re not alone. Apparently the man himself found it galling not to have bagged the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as pre-eminent World War II statesman.
Before I read any of Churchill’s writing I was sceptical, imagining the award to be a political decision rather than one based on merit. But then I got hold of the set of his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples pictured below (thank you, Oxfam bookshop), and I was won over.
Usually I’m indifferent to history books, but these works were put together with an exceptional flair for storytelling. They’re richly and enjoyably expressed and the standard of prose is impeccable. How ever did Mr Churchill manage it, I asked myself, especially with all the other commitments and significant mental health issues he had to shoulder?
Productivity: The Main Benefit of Viewing Writing As a Process
My feeling is that Churchill’s extraordinary productivity was the result of his writing process. Yes, it’s well known that Churchill took an extremely process-oriented and pragmatic view of his creative work. Above all he needed to make money from writing, and make money he did, reliably cranking out a highly respectable 2,000 words a day.
As I learned from a visit to this exhibition last month, Churchill employed a number of research staff whom he called his “word factory”. They would either take dictation from him on a particular subject and transcribe it, or write some text themselves. These rough first drafts would then be passed to their boss for him to “Churchillise” the writing.
Once For Readability, Once For Beauty
Given the high quality of the finished work, Churchill’s editing process was surprisingly brief. Ever driven by commercial concerns he mostly confined himself to two edits: one for readability and one for beauty. Restricting his editing to these two efficient passes over his rough early words enabled him to fit numerous books, not to mention countless essays, short stories and poems, into an already busy life.
How to Edit Like Churchill…
We can all take home some useful tips from Winston Churchill’s approach to editing. Specifically these:
- Do what you must to write quickly and fluently. Then improve upon what you’ve written later.
- Don’t be a perfectionist. Aim to get your work into reasonable shape within a realistic time span, even if you have the luxury of a purely self-imposed deadline.
- Give each edit a specific purpose. Don’t just noodle your way through your draft looking for mistakes and ugly phrases at the same time. This is not a good use of your brainpower.
…And How to Edit More Effectively Still
Churchill’s maxim of editing, “Once for readability and once for beauty” was effective for him, probably because he already had a clear idea of what to do to achieve readability and beauty in his writing. But these are actually non-specific ideas, and their vagueness makes it tricky to use them to guide your editing. Instead, I’d suggest that you build up your own repertoire of more specific purposes for your edits. It’s worth noting that these will vary depending on the kind of writing you’re engaged in.
Here are some of my more universal editing objectives and questions, roughly in the order in which I implement them:
The Basics (these correspond to Churchill’s ‘readability’ criterion)
- Look for spelling errors (I hate spellcheck software and never trust it).
- Search for dodgy punctuation.
- Look for words or phrases which don’t make sense and shouldn’t be there.
- Are any of my sentences too long? I read them out loud to check this.
- Do my paragraphs begin and end in the right place?
- Is my argument logical?
More Advanced Considerations (which might fall under Churchill’s heading of ‘beauty’)
- Is the work well laid out on the page, with the right amount of white space for the medium and message?
- Could my word choice be more precise or more commonplace, or maybe even less commonplace?
- Have I used the same word too many times on the same page or in the same section?
- Are the transitions between paragraphs logical and pleasing?
- Have I used too many or too few figures of speech?
These lists aren’t exhaustive, but my aim here is to get you thinking about your own editing objectives. With any luck you’ll now feel inspired to try some of mine, or better still, reject them and create your own. And if you’re ever asked how to edit like a Nobel Prize winner, you can now reply, “With purpose”.
For an inspiring portrait of Winston Churchill’s intimate relationship with the written word, I highly recommend you check out Churchill: The Power of Words.