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The art and craft of editing

Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

Editing generates almost visceral anxiety, particularly in doctoral students. The very word ‘editing’ conjures unwelcome notions of self-criticism, critique from supervisors or peer reviewers, and endless rewriting.


Editing also exacerbates feelings of inadequacy — ‘I must be a terrible writer if I have to do so much editing!’ Fundamental to my Art and Craft of Editing workshop, as to all my writing workshops, is Dweck’s insight on fixed and growth mindset (2006, updated 2017). Whatever we believe about our ability, Dweck argues, ‘effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment’ (2017, p. 25). If we open our minds, believe we can improve, and practise techniques to help us do so, we will progress.

Buttressed by this insight, this three-hour online workshop encourages focussed, task-specific editing that augments participants’ writing skills. It not only helps them polish and improve their theses but also turns editing into a valuable accomplishment, transferable into broader writing life. My editing workshops attract both researchers who dread editing and try to avoid it and those who endlessly edit at the expense of moving forward.


Editing isn’t just practical. It also takes an emotional toll, and the workshop opens with a discussion on strategies to cope with that ‘kick in the stomach’ when feedback feels negative and the volume of editing overwhelming. As we share experiences, feelings and tactics, even online you can see researchers visibly relax. The realisation that they’re not alone inspires the trust that enriches later discussions (Nolan, 2015). If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that researchers learn as much from each other as from any facilitator.

Getting to grips

Emotional impacts acknowledged, coping strategies discussed, and trust inspired, we’re ready to tackle the intended learning outcomes of the session, enhancing participants’ abilities to:

  • differentiate between the purpose, process and practice of different types of editing
  • apply editing frameworks to a whole work, a section, a paragraph, a sentence
  • with an editor’s eye, identify and address the main problems in their text
  • apply editing techniques to others’ work
  • compile editing tips and techniques to share with others.


Why start with the purpose of editing? Because this may never have been spelled out, and for editing workshops to be effective, we all need to agree the direction of travel. So, what is the purpose of editing? I’d say that there are two broad purposes, both equally important: to refine your writing, making certain it has done justice to your ideas and discoveries; and to ensure that your reader can, with ease and enjoyment, follow your argument from the start of the text to the end. In other words, editing your doctoral thesis is as much about your reader as it is about you.


Once we’ve agreed the purpose of editing, we move on to the process — how we actually go about it. Here, courtesy of Dr Morag Joss, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University, I introduce a dual-identity image, that of the author James Joyce and his friend Frank Budgen sitting opposite each other in a pub: Joyce the creator, Budgen the critic, each with their different roles.

From this image, we think about how writing and editing require different perspectives and how, whether you’re self-editing or negotiating the editorial remarks of others, a physical move from your writing chair into a different editorial chair might be just the move you need.

The editor’s chair

Once in the editor’s chair, you must decide what type of editing you are doing. You may be embarking on a large-scale structural edit, refining the logical order of information (what the reader must know at each stage) and the balance of ideas and critical evaluation. Alternatively, you might be line-editing, a finer-scale checking of how the sentences flow, whether your examples are effective, and if your meaning is plain, your sentences uncluttered and your work attractive to read.

To illustrate what I mean by ‘uncluttered and attractive’, I often present participants with this sentence:

‘The feline adopted a recumbent position on the moveable floor-covering.’

It’s surprising how much courage is required for academics, from undergraduate to professor, to suggest editing it down to ‘the cat sat on the mat’. But if that’s what you want to say, say it!

Focussed activity

I offer activities to illustrate and practise each type of editing. After giving participants a piece of text, I group them in breakout rooms and give each group a different editing task: one group might look at order of information; another at evidence of critical evaluation; another at word choice.

For the word-choice task, prepositional phrases combined with abstract nouns offer fertile territory for participants to practise their editorial skills:

‘After centuries in which the objectification of women in fiction by the patriarchy through the facilitation of male dominance has been rife, there is still no change.’

Participants work together to edit the sentence to read something like this:

‘Men have always used fiction to objectify women, and still do, for example . . .’

Practising transforming a clunky and abstract sentence into a smooth, authoritative and concrete version helps researchers to build their editing confidence.

There is an end!

Asked what was most beneficial about the workshop, one group of researchers focused on three aspects: identifying writing and editing as separate activities; differentiating between the various aspects of editing; and clarifying the purpose of each editing session. If each session has a purpose, once you’ve achieved the purpose, you can tick it off. Thus editing morphs from a fuzzy, rather random and depressing process into a proactive, task-based operation with clear goals, clear criteria and a very clear and welcome end.


Biggs, J. and Tang, C. (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Maidenhead: Open University Press

Dweck, C. S. (2017) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books

Nolan, M., in Conklin Akbari, S. ed (2015) How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page, Chapter 3. New York: Dead Letter Office, BABEL Working Group

12 November 2020

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