5 great quotes about editing and what they mean

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March 15, 2021
5 minute read

There’s an art to good editing. When a good editor finishes working on a piece, the author should reply “did you change anything?”. The heart and soul of editing is making an author’s voice shine. Editors clear away the stuff that hides a story from the reader.

Like writing, editing takes practice, it takes time and practice. But as T.S. Eliot said:

“Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” -T.S. Eliot

Like all creative pursuits there are a lot of sayings and advice about editing. It’s not always clear what they always mean, but these five quotes are some of the best and—if you follow them—will level up your editing skills and probably your own writing too.

Kill your darlings

Most recently attributed to Stephen King from his memoir On Writing (highly recommended for writers, editors, and readers alike) “kill your darlings” was first said by Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1916:

"If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ’Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it-whole-heartedly-and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

Stephen King’s version is shorter, but still strikes to the heart of it:

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” -Stephen King

The point? All writers have their favorite things they like to write. It’s a phrase. Or a side story. Or special characters. Things that sound wonderful, they thrill the writer with how witty and clever they are.

Except the piece doesn’t need it.

Writers should kill their darlings for you when they edit, but if not, it’s your job to make the piece better. The darlings have to go. A writer might balk. They might plead. They might even beg to put a darling back in, but resist. If the piece is better for the lack of darling, that’s what counts.

Cut 10%

This is another Stephen King quote from his memoir. It came from an editor early on in his career:

“In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High—1966, this would have been—I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

If you take each draft and cut 10% each pass through, eventually you’ll get to a point where you can’t cut any more. The piece is tight, clean, and concise. Cutting 10% doesn’t mean cutting out color or description or style. Cutting 10% means cutting out the fluff that distracts. This is relevant whether you're editing books, blogs, websites, or any other written medium.

“When you catch an adjective, kill it.” and “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

The first quote is from Mark Twain the second is from Stephen King, and both point in the same direction. Adverbs and adjectives are the seasoning in writing—a little goes a long way, a lot leaves a bad taste in your mouth. A lot of writing guides—and tools like Hemingway or Grammarly—highlight adverbs for you. As an editor, you need to find alternatives for the adverbs and adjectives.

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft." - H.G. Wells (1866–1946)

No doubt there’s a place for both in the best writing (note the adjective), but you can have too much of a good thing. Look for adjectives and adverbs and cut them out. Show no mercy (which is better than saying mercilessly cut them) and cut, cut, cut.

These are just more darlings that need to be put out of the reader’s misery. It hurts, but it’s okay.

Remove everything that’s not the story

Different versions of this quote are everywhere. Instead of picking one version out in particular, here’s the sentiment:

Writers need to write everything in and about a story. Editors then need to cut everything that isn’t the story. Or as Elmore Leonard says:

“I leave out the parts that people skip."

Editors need to find the parts people are going to skip, and cut them out.

Bonus one: Be brief. Be concise

“Use the smallest word that does the job.“ - E.B. White (1899–1985)

”I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents when I can write ‘city’ and get paid the same." - Mark Twain

Just like above and cutting out the parts people skip, find simpler words.

Bonus two: Write drunk, edit sober

This is misattributed to Ernest Hemingway, and is often construed to mean if you want to write something great, you have to do it drunk. Then once you’ve emerged from the haze, you edit.

That might be true, but look at it this way.

Let writers write and be creative. Give them free rein to go all out in their writing. As an editor you’re the sober second thought who takes what the writer created and brings it to life.

Let Wave take care of the getting paid part

The quotes above can help you take your next steps towards building an editing career. Your next steps after that should be setting up a way to get paid.

Unless you’re editing as a volunteer to help a non-profit you believe in, you’re going to want to get paid. Wave makes it simple to create invoices and get paid faster than editing a run-on sentence. It’s free to send as many invoices as you need and you can set up online payments to accept credit cards or electronic transfers too.

It takes only a few minutes to get started, so what’s stopping you?