Chiseling Stone

The Ax vs. the Chisel: What Is Good Editing?

Molly McCowan The Art of Editing Leave a Comment

Battle Axe vs. Chisel

Which would you rather have in your hand after a particularly painful day of writing: an ax or a chisel? Probably the ax. It’s fun to destroy things that make us angry—like that wandering, inconclusive paragraph you just wrote. But hold that thought, because the ax has no place in the editing or writing world.

Writing is like sculpting. Ideally, you sit down and write for as long as you can on your given topic, without stopping to self-edit or allow doubt to creep in (“Does this sentence work?” “That lead-in was terrible.” “I’ll never be able to finish this fan-fiction story in time for the Harry Potter party at the library.”).

Don’t look back; just write. Write off into the sunset, for pun’s sake. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

The rough draft of your writing then becomes the block of stone or clay that the editing process patiently chisels down into a finished work of art. But watch out: there’s good editing, and then there’s bad editing. (And then there’s really bad editing.)

The Ax of Bad Editing

Baruman with Battle Axe

(Illustration by Kit Rae.)

Bad editing takes an ax to the writing: it isn’t in tune with the words, it makes arbitrary changes, and it cuts too much.

Bad editing is characterized by a need to change, rather than edit. The editor gets so caught up in what she wants to “fix” that she starts messing with things that aren’t broken. This is because the editor hasn’t removed herself from the equation: her personal preferences and idiosyncrasies should never outweigh the desired outcomes for the text as a whole, or her judgment of what’s best for the reader.

You would never take an ax to a piece of fine marble or clay—it’s just not the right tool for the work.

The Chisel of Good Editing

Chiseling Marble

Good editing takes a chisel to the writing—gently sculpting and fine-tuning the text and gracefully removing errors and redundancies without disturbing the author’s voice and intentions.

Now keep in mind that there are many different sizes and types of chisels. The writer starts out with the largest chisel, breaking off bigger chunks as she works toward a rough shape of the finished piece. Eventually, the writer will work all the way down to the smallest chisel, and this is where copyeditor comes in. The copyeditor uses that tiny chisel to hone, smooth, and polish until the piece is complete.

  • Good editing snares all the typos and grammatical mix-ups, gently puts incongruous sentences back in order, and softly nudges the writing to be its absolute best.
  • Good editing is, in essence, problem-solving: finding and creatively reworking hundreds of tiny dilemmas that are holding the writing back.
  • And, most importantly, good editing is invisible: the reader should never even know the editor was there.

Copyeditors are the willing ghosts of the publishing world. We’re a tenacious bunch, determined to find the absolute best solutions to problems that sometimes consist of only one word, or that aren’t easily defined in style manuals. We pay attention to the fine details, but we also know how they fit into the master plan. We use the smallest chisel in the set. And some of us collect toy robots, play in rock bands, and listen to way too much stand-up comedy.

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Are you guilty of taking a battle axe to your writing (or someone else’s)? What do you think of as bad editing, versus good editing? Tell me in the comments!

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.