Editing is a strange skill to learn. A lot of writers conflate the jobs of writing and editing, either through rewriting what they have just written before moving on, or by treating both writing and editing as the same thing. That is the biggest mistake that a writer can make. Editing is not writing—it is a completely different job—and it needs to be treated as a separate task.
It’s important to understand that editing is more than just spotting typos or grammar mistakes. Editing is looking for consistency—or lack thereof—in everything: writing style, voice, characters, motivations, dialogue, plot, pacing; all aspects of the written piece. A good editor spots inconsistencies and consistencies alike, and can identify when each is present, but also when one or the other is missing. Editing is not stylistic alteration, and it should not be done to satisfy the ego of the editor; editing is purely for the benefit of the piece itself.
To learn the skill of editing—and it is very much a skill—I would recommend practicing on another writer’s writing. To do that, you need to find some other writers. If you know a writer who you trust, that’s great. If not, don’t worry. You’ll be able to find them fairly easily.
Look up some local writers’ groups and see when they meet, and then go along to one and try it out. How does it work? I have been to several, and usually—unless it is a prompt-based group where writing happens during the session—writers bring their writing for feedback and critique. Most groups employ some kind of word or page limit, and often have a set process or list of rules to follow. Some ask you to read your writing aloud as the others read along, others don’t. Some will write on copies of your work, others will give verbal feedback. Try a few out if you can, and see what the feedback is like. Don’t be afraid to give feedback, either. You only get better at critiquing by critiquing, so get critiquing.
From a writers’ group, or perhaps an online writers’ community or social media group, you should be able to find a couple of local writers who might be interested in swapping pieces for mutual critique. You could even scour social media for writers near to where you live and ask them, too. Try and find people who are roughly at the same level as you, meaning they have been writing for around the same amount of time and have a similar list of publication credits, and so forth. Then, arrange to swap writing.
Send out something you like, but don’t love, and ideally something you know needs work. If possible, send out something that isn’t the most important thing you have ever written, as criticism can be difficult to cope with at first. You will get something in return, and that is what you practice editing on. Look for any inconsistencies you can find, note each one and why, and then send it back. Once you get your criticism, read it and thank the other writer, whether you agree with it or not. Just as you have moved on from their piece after offering your thoughts, so too they have moved on from your piece. They will not need responses to their critique, nor will they care for any. You will simply look petty. Instead, put the feedback aside, wait a few days, then go through it again once you have got over the initial shock.
The more you do this, the better you will be at taking criticism, but also the better you will get at editing. Unpick what the other writer says about your work and consider why they have said the things they have, and then consider whether they are good editing practices that you could adopt. Submit your writing to publications and take note of what editors say if they get back to you. Learn as much as you can in practice, but also do as much editing as possible. Attend writers’ groups, keep swapping writing for feedback, and offer to critique or edit as many things as you can.
The more you learn about editing, the better you will be able to edit. I have written this Editing Alone class to help you better understand how to edit, but specifically how to apply the skills of editing to your own writing, as on top of editing ability, to edit alone you also need to separate from your work, anticipate where to focus, and extricate your words. You will need a notepad and a pen to complete this class.
Once you feel confident as an editor, and people are seeking out your opinion on their writing because they know they can trust it, you will be ready to tackle editing your own writing.
Leslie Stephen, The Evolution of Editors, Studies of a Biographer, 1898
Susan L. Greenberg, A Poetics of Editing