As an editor, my goal is to make writing better and more concrete – and my responsibility is to make those changes in a reasonable, consistent, and justifiable manner.

How appropriate, then, that the seminar I took today was all about explaining editing to professional editors – it helped me clarify some approaches to text that I was already using instinctively, but hadn’t been able to put into words.

Other EAC members will know exactly what I’m talking about: Eight-Step Editing.

Eight-Step Editing doesn’t teach you about grammar. It doesn’t teach you about punctuation. It doesn’t even teach you about spelling. Instead, it teaches you about how to look at a piece of writing, and how to make it clearer by applying a number of steps in sequence, thus streamlining the editing process while keeping the author’s voice in mind. Each step, applied in sequence, progressively shifts the balance of the writing voice away from the author to the editor; the goal is to minimize this shift during each step.

In short, the eight steps are:

  1. Shorten sentences:  break longer, run-on sentences into shorter, more compact sentences. Each sentence should contain one individual idea.
  2. Remove useless words: get rid of verbal filler – text that doesn’t further the point of the writing. The reason to do this is because if you write too many useless words like I am writing about at this point in time, your sentences will sound unnecessary and redundant, and your audience will get bored as they will lose interest in what you are taking so much time to talk about.
  3. Use positives instead of negatives: you should never not try for clarity, because not doing so will not make your writing easy for your audience to read.
  4. Avoid unnecessary complexity: reduce words with lots of prefixes and suffixes down to their root words, and recast the sentence accordingly. Antidisestablishmentarianism, anyone? Alternately, recast sentences containing three or more long, obscuring words in a row. Because it is your job to eschew superfluous obfuscation.
  5. Reduce the use of linking verbs: especially variations on “to be.”
  6. Reduce the use of the passive voice: it is used by too many authors to inflate their word counts.
  7. Start with strength: place your most important or attention-grabbing piece of information first in writing. I can only wonder in the irony of having this step placed seventh in the list.
  8. Structure your paragraphs: make each paragraph start with a strong topic sentence, and give each shift or alteration in the topic at hand its own paragraph. Ideally, each individual topic sentence, read in sequence, should tell the reader all they need to know.

What’s really interesting is that I was doing a lot of the higher-level (parts 4-7) in my own editing projects. Sometimes the big, important steps, like making new sentences out of longer ones, is so obvious you forget to think about it.

(Edit, March 12, 2011: Jim Taylor originally developed the framework of concepts behind Eight-Step Editing in 1971. Many thanks to Elizabeth d’Anjou, the person who ran the seminar I attended, for pointing out that I needed to acknowledge the man behind it all. Thanks, Jim Taylor!)