“Write Drunk; Edit Sober”

Ernest Hemingway is credited with saying, “write drunk, edit sober,” or words along those lines.

Whether the source is accurate or not, this expression captures the tremendous difference between writing and editing. Writing is a rapturous activity where ideas and feelings are flowing into a river of expression. In their excitement to tell their stories, writers may accidentally overlook some details that are necessary for understanding. In their eagerness to meet deadlines, writers may repeat in chapter eight an anecdote that was related back in chapter five. They may explain things in ways that are not logical. Hearing stories in their heads, they may write “site” when they mean “sight.”

Often when a client is considering hiring an editor, a request is made for an editing sample or test. So, I was a little surprised when one potential client said she wanted me to make a presentation to her writers’ group about why writers need editors. A few thoughts came quickly to mind:

  • Editors can help authors make the quality of their expression as good as the quality of their ideas.
  • Editors can inspire and guide writers as they organize their thoughts. They can help writers sort out whether an idea is appropriate for a book or an article or how to make it into one or the other.
  • Editors can tell writers what they will sound like to their audiences and provide guidance or fixes to help them tell their stories well.
  • Editors can discern what writers are trying to say even amid flaws in organization and grammar. They can then untangle sentences and rearrange paragraphs so readers will easily understand messages without having to do any interpretation on their own.
  • Editors can help spot opportunities for improvement and errors that were overlooked, especially when working with proficient writers.

Types of editing

Editing can be integrated into the creative process at various stages and levels. Some sources talk about eight or more types of editing, which correspond to various stages, but I’ll limit myself to three: developmental editing, line editing and proofreading.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editors help writers move from dreaming to planning. They help writers determine whether an audience exists for their ideas and establish the appropriate length, tone and organization for the project at hand. These editors usually know a lot about the topics in their domains. They are, at least to some extent, subject matter experts.

On newspapers and magazines, managing editors fill the roles of developmental editors. 

I think of Ian Thompson, who was the managing editor at The Durango Herald, when I was a cub reporter on the city beat. I could report on meetings, but he knew–and could guide my writing about–everybody in local government and all the issues that mattered to the community. 

It’s almost always helpful for writers to bounce ideas off of someone, but beyond that some writers don’t need developmental editors because they’re experts on their topics and have strong ideas about their audiences and their messages or stories (though they’ll still need a different kind of editor down the road).

Some experts in their fields have little time or interest in writing. They may just do a brain dump while the developmental editor provides a detailed outline that serves as a roadmap for the first draft.

Line editing

Line editing takes place after the rapture of writing has resulted in–ta-da–a draft manuscript. 

Besides correcting errors, line editors can often see opportunities to strengthen narratives. For example, changing the order of paragraphs or tightening the writing may improve the manuscript. Line editors may notice an overuse of certain words–especially unnecessary ones–or certain sentence structures. While line editors may not be subject matter experts the way developmental editors are, they can often spot something that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t ring true. They take a rational approach to manuscripts, though they appreciate the passion within. 

A light edit at this stage could consist only of correcting undisputed errors. With a heavier edit, the editor can correct or point out such matters as a lack of parallel construction or an overuse of empty words and passive voice, and they can eliminate clichés and overly flowery descriptions. 

Nearly all manuscripts can benefit from at least a little light line editing.


Proofreading involves a nit-picky final check of a manuscript to make certain that it is grammatical and consistent and that it contains no spelling or punctuation errors. 

The proofreader makes sure that the manuscript adheres to prescribed editorial preferences. The Chicago Manual of Styleis a popular resource for books and academic writing, while The Associated Press Stylebookis the standard for newspaper writing, and often an organization will have its own style rules. 

In case the line editor missed it, the proofreader changes the author’s “whooping couch” into a “whooping cough.” In editing a work, I often look out for some of my pet peeves. One is expressing a range by saying something is “between five to 10” when that should be “between five and 10” or “from five to 10” (and if Chicago’sstyle is followed, that will be “between five and ten.”). Another is that April 15, 2019, and Lafayette, Louisiana, require pairs of commas–not singles.

The various stages and levels of editing often overlap, but generally it’s best to have someone who has never read the manuscript previously do the proofreading. Otherwise, the proofreader may see what he or she thinksis on the page instead of what is actually there. 

Authors as their own editors

Proficient writers often produce well-organized manuscripts that require little editing. They may find the following tips helpful:

  • At the initial draft, find the right balance between free writing with wild abandon, on the one hand, and, on the other, turning control over to the internal editor and allowing passion of expression to be lost amid rules of grammar.
  • Put the manuscript aside and come back when it’s possible to read it from a new perspective, specifically that of an editor.
  • Work with a coauthor or reciprocate editing with a colleague.

In summary

Writers have thoughts and feelings to express. They want to persuade, tell a story, inform, entertain, maybe even shock readers–possibly all in a single breath. Whatever a writer is trying to do, an editor can almost always help in doing it better.

If you need any sort of editing, please let me know. I’d love to talk with you about your project.

Following my own advice, I asked a colleague, Joan Sherman, to edit this blog post for me.