What’s the Difference Between Writing and Editing?

By Mark Nichol

Editing has always been a fundamental component of writing as well as a separate function, but as self-publishing, online and in print, has become ubiquitous, it’s important for writers to realize the distinction. A discussion of the differences may also help you confirm where your strength lies.

It is common for people to double up as editors and writers; I am among the many who do it. But most people feel more adept in one role or the other. I’ve written news and feature articles and opinion pieces and other content for newspapers and other media, as well as these posts — I’ll have written nearly a thousand of them by the end of this year — but although I enjoy writing, I actually prefer editing.

Writing is a proactive process: Whether one is given a topic or comes up with one, writing is an act of creation in which the writer calls forth the idea, the scope, the tone, and the structure of the work. It is also a challenge, in that it is the writer’s responsibility to produce a complete piece of content. Editing, by contrast, is reactive: One is assigned a piece of content, and one’s task is to refine the writer’s effort, helping him or her achieve the goal he or she was reaching for. This assistance may be minimal, or it may amount to intermittent or wholesale rewriting, but it is a response to the initial product. The challenge, too, lies not in completing the creative act but in carefully, consistently, and thoroughly evaluating and amending the piece.

Writing is, or should be, a smoothly flowing process; it’s tempting to frequently circle back and polish one’s prose, but the most efficient procedure is to produce the whole and then review it, replacing flat words with more vivid ones, reshaping descriptions, and rebuilding phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs.

How does this review differ from editing? It doesn’t, except for an advantage the editor has that is key to the success of the content: The writer is generally emotionally invested in the work. It is his or her idea, or an expression of or a response to another’s idea, and it often is marked with the writer’s name. It belongs to the writer. The editor, on the other hand, is dispassionate — more or less interested in, perhaps even enthusiastic about, the topic, but not possessive. The manuscript is a puzzle to work out. The editor has professional pride and a desire to enhance the writer’s efforts and make the piece the best that it can be, but this is done at an intellectual remove.

Writers should be dedicated to careful crafting of the content, following rules and conventions ranging in complexity from comma placement to narrative organization. Editors must be dedicated to this task, because although their name may never appear, they have been entrusted with the care of the manuscript. Whether one is a copy editor, attending to the mechanics and the form, or a developmental editor, shaping and finessing the whole, the writer’s brainchild is in one’s hands, and that is a responsibility as grave as the writer’s charge to produce his or her best possible work.

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3 Responses to “What’s the Difference Between Writing and Editing?”

  • Sally Bahner

    I really love this piece. I’ve always said a writer doesn’t have to be a good editor, but a good editor must be a good writer. However, in this day of instant online postings and blogs, I see too many “writers” who desperately need editing; they obviously never learned basic grammar and writing skills.
    I’ve worked as a writer and editor — and, yes, I prefer editing. My inner editor slows down my writing, but I’m usually satisfied with the end product.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I had an English Composition textbook during my senior year of high school that emphasized two equally-important concepts in writing:
    1. Unity
    2. Coherence

    The unity part is how the various parts of the writing – its paragraphs, sections, etc., support the central theme of the work, whether that is nonfiction or fiction. (I am a man of nonfiction writing, myself.)
    Coherence is how the various sentences and paragraphs “stick together” to be readable on the small scale. (It doesn’t have anything to do with the word “incoherent” as in crazy.)

    Therefore, unity is concerned with “the big picture”, and coherence is concerned with “the little picture”. Remember that the author of the textbook was a profesor of English, but this approach to writing is connected with the concepts of engineering, science, and mathematics, too.
    Another way of saying it is that everything needs to be mitered together carefully.
    Another way of saying it is that a building project needs a good architect, a good general contrctor, and good subcontractors, too.

    I know that lots of people find this to be incomprehensible concerning writing. That’s a shame.

  • Oog Kang

    Now, I am an author as I have my first book published recently in English. I am in the process of seocnd one. One major porblem is finding a right or good editor. I have hired two editors for the book but I had to edit again and again. The English is my second language but still I could find some inadequate spots after the work of ediuting done by the eidtors. It is frustrating. If I feel not so easy with the editing by an editor, it is hard to dimiss it simply. It shakes my confidence too. On the other hand, how can I find good editors who could do both copy eidting and content editing. Is it only my dilemma? Or is it a common problem?

    I see the role of editor is like the the English teacher who checks English compositions of sutdents. I accept that I will have to be an eternal student but where is good teacher?

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