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Organic Editing: The Poetry and The Math

I practice, and teach, a technique I call Organic Editing, in which the writer or editor analyzes their written drafts to find what the story wants to be, or what the report is trying to say. If we understand the point of the piece, we can work on structure and organization, to find the best ways to express that point. Once these elements are set, we can turn to paragraph-level and sentence-level issues like transitions, phrasing, explanations, background, and story elements like scenes and dialogue. I use this same technique on fiction and nonfiction, on both creative and technical writing. Creative writers are often surprised to find out how much logical and analytical thinking is necessary in the editing stage. Meanwhile, journalists and business and technical writers can be amazed at how much intuitive and creative thinking is required, and how they don't always have to know exactly what they want to say before they start writing. My philosophy, and my approach to writing, editing, teaching, and coaching, is that the writing process contains both art and math, that things need to add up as well as astonish.​​

What kind of editing do you need?

Editors argue (politely) all the time about how to describe and categorize the various types and stages of editing. Here's my take.

Developmental Editing

Also called substantive or structural editing, this is big-picture editing, focusing on content and organization. It should be the first step in the editing process. What are you saying--or trying to say--and how are you saying it? What is the main point of this essay or report, and what are the sub-points? Where is the story in this story? Does the structure serve the content? Have you presented the information or told the story in the best order for maximum clarity and/or impact?

At this stage we work on:

  • Developing and deepening story line and narrative arc

  • Strengthening characters, settings, running themes, and other story elements

  • Clarifying key points, take-aways, and conclusions

  • Finding, condensing, and deleting redundant sections

  • Examining structure and moving sections, scenes, and paragraphs to increase clarity or heighten drama

  • Balancing scene and summary, showing and telling, examples and conclusions, evidence and interpretation

Line editing

After you've nailed down the big-picture issues, it's time to go through the manuscript line-by-line, focusing on sentence-level issues to clarify meaning, polish language and rhythm, and develop tone.

At this stage, we work on:

  • Bolstering details and descriptions

  • Increasing precision in word choice and phrasing

  • Varying sentence structure and length

  • Developing voice and tone

  • Tightening prose and eliminating unnecessary filler

  • Improving transitions and flow

  • Creating compelling openings and closings

Copy editing
(also spelled copyediting)

This is nitty-gritty, word-by-word editing for grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, and style, using standard style guides ( such as Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook), and in-house corporate or publication guidelines or style sheets. We're talking hyphens, capitalization, commas, and italics. Copyediting can overlap with line editing, and might include tightening language and reducing wordiness. This is the last stage in the editing process, and at a book or magazine publisher, a professional copyeditor takes over from the developmental editor at this point. In less formal settings, the copyedit can be combined with the line edit and might be done by the same person. I don't do true copyediting, though I will mark or fix basic errors as I line edit.


For writers who want to improve their skills as well as their manuscripts, coaching combines editing, teaching, and advising. Rather than just commenting on the manuscript, a coach generally meets with the writer (usually online) to discuss the writer's work, offer suggestions, guidance, even assignments.  I have worked with writers before they've written a word, to help them discover, clarify, and outline their ideas; plan an approach; and create a schedule--with  deadlines. It can be more fruitful, however, if the writer comes to me with a draft of their writing, so we have something concrete to analyze, assess, and plan. 

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