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Take Your Writing From Good to Great

Lesson 2 of 7

Good Editing Takes Your Work from Good to Great

Jennie Nash

Take Your Writing From Good to Great

Jennie Nash

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Lesson Info

2. Good Editing Takes Your Work from Good to Great

Lesson Info

Good Editing Takes Your Work from Good to Great

Before we get to the skill building I wanna talk to you about what an editor does, 'cause what an editor does is going to inform what I want you guys to do with your own work as well. So the main thing an editor does is we provide a different perspective. So it's that idea I was talking about that it's so hard to actually get out of your own head. We go through the world in our own head. There's no other way we can go through the world. We see what we see, we know what we know, we've experienced what we experience, and we can't see it another way. So what an editor does is give us that perspective, and the way I always like to talk about this is let's say you're a sculptor and you're working on a piece of marble. You're gonna spend probably three or four months just carving the thumbnail and the thumb on a sculptor, sculpture. I actually have a friend who is a marble sculptor. He went to Italy and learned how to use the ancient tools that Michelangelo used in the quarry where his marbl...

e came from and I just, I love talking to him because it's the work is so laborious and hard and you know you don't know if that marble's gonna crack when you're working on it. You're just down in there chipping away at this one little thing for months and months and months. So then maybe you move on and you're working on the hands. So now you've stepped back a little and you're seeing how does that thumb and that thumbnail fit into the hand that I'm carving. Eventually you're gonna have the whole body and what a sculptor can do that a writer can't really do is walk around the figure in three D and see how it looks. You can walk and look at a different light and the different angles and how the proportions are and that three D view of it, that's what an editor does is that perspective. So, I love this photo of Michelangelo's sculpture because it shows the people looking at it. It shows the context that this sculpture appears in, the other sculptures that are around it, what the roof is like, what the light is like. That's what an editor is gonna do. So a writer starts out just carving the thumb, right? You're just putting a few words together in a sentence or a phrase and then you're looking at the hand and you're hopefully walking around to see how that hand looks with the whole thing but you at some point need to step back and really look at the whole context of what you're writing, and that's the general work of an editor. That's really what we do is we provide that perspective so that we can look at the work and say do you know that you've got this sort of tone? If I were editing the email that I just read I might say to the person do you realize that I have no idea actually what you're talking about? That I don't know what stories you mean? That I don't know what people you're talking about? That I don't know what this is, and I would ask questions so that that person would get it out of their head and onto the page. So that's the work of an editor. So we need this perspective because we have what's called the burden of knowledge. So, there's a fantastic, the burden of knowledge is a term from psychology and there's a fantastic book by Chip and Dan Heath called Made to Stick, and Made to Stick is a book for businesses trying to craft a message that's going to be remembered. But it's a great book for writers because the work is all about how do we make our words clear? How do we get them out of our head and onto the page in a way that people can take in and understand? And in the book Made to Stick Chip and Dan Heath tell this fantastic story about a famous study that is about tapping. It's about tapping a song, and the idea that, okay, I'm gonna do it. So I have a song in my head, and I'm gonna tap it out, and you guys are gonna try to guess what song I'm playing, and it turns out that I'm, so I'm the tapper, and it turns out that the tappers think that the listeners are gonna get what they're saying at a 50% rate. We have a really high belief that you're gonna get the song that I'm tapping out because duh, it's so clear. (audience laughing) So, all right. So here I go. I gotta think of a song. I didn't plan a song so now I gotta think one, and I'm like, I don't, I wanna, I'm trying to psych myself out. I don't want them to guess. Okay, okay, here I go. (tapping on glass table) Any guesses? Somebody guess. All right, I'll do it again. (tapping on glass table) You guys are like, I have no idea. (audience laughing) And I'm like come on, it's so clear. Okay, it was Take Me Out to the Ballgame. ♪ Take me out to the ballgame ♪ Okay, so this is proving the burden of knowledge. I'm like, they're gonna get this. It's so clear. And you guys have no idea, and it turns out that in the studies that they have done of course that's usually what it is, but we all think that they're gonna get it. I actually thought that that pause on the end, ballgame, was such a dead giveaway. (laughing) So it's really, it's just a fascinating thing that we think everybody knows what we know. That's how we go through the world and that's how we go through our writing. So I have, (laughing) I have an example of this from real life which is a little embarrassing but it just happened and I captured it and I wanna share it with you. It's a text chain between me and my husband. All right, so here's the text. So, my husband's walking out of the office. He says walking out, and this, I was preparing for Creative Live, so I was like, okay, we need to order dinner. I still have work to do, I'm not cooking, and he says give me your Tender Greens order 'cause he's awesome and Tender Greens is great. So we're all set here. So I say salt and pepper chicken, arugula, tomato soup, boom, dinner, and should I ask Tracy, we had a house guest, if she wanted dinner? Okay, so I go through this thing and I say sure, I saw her at the office at four and she was pretty busy. She might be grateful. Want me to ask or can you do it with your voodoo car? (audience laughing) He says, I can text her. What's a voodoo car? That's where he's got the little car icon here, and I'm like, why is he asking what a voodoo car is? Come on. I totally know what I mean. I think for sure he knows what I mean, and he says, I have to explain. It's a car that turns talk into text. So his car you can speak and it'll text somebody. It's kind of really cool. So I'm like, that's a voodoo car. That's voodoo. You can just speak and it turns it into text and he has no idea. He's like, ah. Okay, this is a text chain about dinner you guys and there's a misunderstanding about what's in my head from my husband. This is daily this happens that we miscommunicate with people because we're not, we assume that they know what we're talking about. Who doesn't know what a voodoo car is? That's so clear. We talk about his car all the time. My car doesn't turn talk into text. So clearly, that's a voodoo car. He has no clue. So that's what the burden of knowledge is and it comes into our writing. You can't write anything that it doesn't come into your writing, and so any time somebody comes to me and they're unwilling to listen to what somebody has to say about their work, I immediately know that they're not really wanting to get better, because it's not a judgment about how good you are, or how good your writing is. It's human nature. We need to have another perspective. You need to have outside eyes who are helping you see and if you're totally resistant, we actually have a word for it. It's called feedback resistant. If you're resistant to getting feedback you might as well just hang it up, because feedback again is not about how good you are, it's about the fact that you're recognizing you're human, and when you seek feedback what you're actually asking for is help me see what I have seen. Help me see what I have done. Do you see what I see? Isn't there a song like that? I'm not singing it. (audience laughing) So, that's why we want feedback and it doesn't really matter who you're getting that feedback from, as long as you trust that person, 'cause the kind of feedback that doesn't help is when it's judgmental. It's when it's like, oh, I don't like where you started your story, or, I don't like the way you use the Oxford comma, or I don't like that your character does this or that. That is monumentally unhelpful feedback. What is helpful feedback is when somebody reflects back to you do you know that this is how this is coming across? You know in that email I shared before, do you know that I have no idea actually what you're talking about? You know, what does this mean? Why does this matter? What, what was in your head here? That's the kind of feedback that you need. So if you're seeking feedback from someone who's not a professional, so someone in your writing group, I always say don't actually ask people you live with for feedback, because it's very hard for them to not be judgmental. It's very hard for them to bring a dispassionate eye to the work. I think it's much better to seek feedback from somebody outside of your home unit, and what you wanna do with those people is ask them. Say, tell me, am I being clear? Tell me is this on the page? Tell me what you don't see. You wanna welcome that kind of feedback. So, some of the ways to shake off this burden of knowledge that we all have is to be aware that you have it, for one thing. Be aware that you, you don't know what you know. That's the thing. You don't know what you know, and there's a book that I've been using a lot to describe that particular reality. It's a memoir by a guy named Trevor Noah, the comedian, Trevor Noah, called Born a Crime. Did anybody read this book? Some hands go up. Fantastic memoir about Trevor Noah grew up in Apartheid in South Africa as a mixed race child, which was a technically illegal thing to be, which is what the title of his memoir is, and the reason the book is so compelling and so powerful is that he understands that his reader has no idea what it's like to live in Apartheid South Africa. We don't know what that is like and we don't know what it's like to be in his skin, and he knows that and he gives us the information and the context and the meaning so that we can feel what it was like for him, so we can be in his skin to a certain extent, and that's why it's so powerful. Because he is aware that he knows what that was like to grow up. He doesn't know what it, he couldn't not know that, but he's very aware that we don't know and that's what makes it so powerful. Then be intentional about shaking it off. That's what I was talking about. Ask for help, ask for perspective, ask for people to see. You bring so much to bear on your work and you need to be clear about knowing what that is. Keep your reader in your mind at all times. We're gonna come back to this one because it's so important. There's so much to say about that and seek ways to broaden your perspective. Now I talked about giving the work to somebody else to see. Here's some other ways that I like to suggest you broaden your perspective. So go to a different location to work. I often suggest, I help people with the revision of their manuscripts a lot, and I often suggest that they literally go somewhere different when they're revising from where they wrote. So if you're writing at your desk, go sit on the couch. If you're writing in bed, go sit at your desk. If you write in a library, go to a coffee shop. Literally putting yourself in a different environment can change your perspective on it. Changing fonts sounds really silly, but it makes a really big difference, 'cause if you're used to seeing the standard publishing font size is Times Roman 12 point font, one inch margins, double spaced lines on a page, and if you've been writing in this format for the entire time you've been developing your work you get used to seeing how those words fall on the page, literally where they break at the end of a line, and if you just change it, if you change it to a Sans Serif font or to 10 point or to 14 point or whatever the thing is, it's amazing how it will hit your brain in a different way and this truth comes out with book writers all the time. There's a stage in book writing where you get a galley. It's what's called a galley. If you're just digital publishing it's gonna be a digital version of that, but in the old days in print when everything was print a galley was literally the first print run. They would do it on cheap paper with cheap brown paper covers and they would just crank out these copies so that you could see how it fell on the page and it never would fail that you would think you turned in a perfect manuscript, you worked with the editor to clean up every single line, and you'd look at it in galley form and you'd say, oh, that's not what I meant, or that's not right, or that's weird, or you know, whatever the thing is that, and people who don't understand the business of writing would say, how could you be seeing things in that? You've looked at that 100 times, and it's because of the way it falls on the page. So change the font when you're reviewing your work. Printing out the work and reading it on paper with an actual pen or pencil or you know a red pen changes something in your brain. It just does, and when I teach, I teach a class on how to revise a novel and I insist that you print the whole thing out and you get red pens and Post It notes and you sit down and you go through the pages and write notes on it. The process of going from the handwritten note back to the computer, so much amazing work gets done in that transition. It's really remarkable where the, sitting there with a pencil in your hand, writing notes on the page, and then having to translate that back onto the computer is very powerful. I always suggest you read your work out loud. People have had the experience often when they publish a book and they've never read their work out loud and they go to a book signing and it's the first time they're in front of an audience and they have a selection they're gonna read and they start to read it and often times they'll change the words while they're reading them out loud because they're like, wait, this is gonna sound really weird if I say what's on the page. Read the, hearing the words out loud is again a way to get that different perspective of how it sounds and how it flows and does it feel right in your mouth really and then finally have someone else read it. So I'm just gonna take a tiny break here and ask are there any questions about any of these tactics? I have a question as far as the perception of your reader versus what you know to be the truth. So if it's a background and an occupation that I used to have but I know that that's not the perception that the public has, how do you deal with that in your writing? Oh, that's a great question. Do you mind sharing what area you're talking about, area of expertise? Yeah, I was actually in ministry. Okay. And so I was a pastor, which the perception of a pastor is very different than what, than what the reality is many times. Right. And so, that, that, I'm just trying to figure out since I've got a character that is a pastor how I deal with him as far as what other people perceive of him. So this is such a good question and the fact that you're asking it tells me that you're probably writing very well about it. So here's the thing about that, is that often times the gap between what we know and what we don't know or what we perceive and don't perceive is where writing becomes really powerful. So, I often, I often will draw the lines to represent those two things. Here's what we know, here's what we don't know, and the gap in between. So for example in dialogue, straight up dialogue if you just, if you just tell me what people said at breakfast this morning, nobody cares. That's flat, that's boring, that has no meaning to it. But usually we don't say what we really think, right? If you went around saying what you really thought we'd all be in really big trouble. (audience laughing) So, usually you're, it's, dialogue is this huge effort to not let people see what you really think actually. That's what dialogue is and so good dialogue and writing is getting that subtext, getting some of that in there, getting a sense of that. If we see a character saying one thing but thinking another, or in your case, so you've got a minister, and you know that people perceive a minister in a certain way, with certain assumptions, with certain prejudices, whatever the word you would wanna use is, you can use that to make your writing really powerful because first of all you would have to know does this character understand those prejudices or assumptions or not? That's one thing. Depending on the character, if you had a very arrogant minister, going through the world thinking, everyone believes what I believe. Everybody should believe what I believe. Everybody, you know, thinks that I'm touched by God, whatever the thought is, that would be very different than if you had a minister going through the world with some sort of sense of hubris or humbleness. So who that character is you're gonna get to play with that with how they make meaning out of their interactions with people. So for instance, let's say your minister walks into a room and he's worried, or I'm assuming it's a man. See, that's an assumption, right? We don't know. I assumed it was a man. So, walks into a room and assumes that people are going to react negatively. Let's say they're wearing, did you wear a collar? No, no. So, but that idea that somebody would recognize who you are and react to you in a certain way. If you walk in a room knowing that, and having the character actually share that with us. I knew people would think this thing of me and so I had to act this other way, or I wanted first to say this thing, so that they wouldn't think that I knew that, or you know, whatever, whatever the assumption is. But putting those assumptions on the page is what makes the writing rich and meaningful, and if you don't have that that's gonna be flat and all that life in your head that you've got, you've got this whole body of knowledge from your work as a minister. That's what we wanna read. I don't even know what you're writing, but that's what we wanna read. What's the genre? It's a thriller. See, so that's just awesome. So, so, I don't know that I've ever seen a thriller with a minister character, maybe. That's so cool. So yeah, you wanna play with that and you wanna use that. Does he use that to his advantage? Is he nefarious around what people think about a minister, you know? All those things are what is gonna make it really fun. So I would say take that gap of what people perceive and what your character is and use it. Milk it all the time. So one thing that I'm always telling people is don't hold back. You wanna way over compensate for this getting it on the page 'cause it's much easier to pare something back. If I get a page from somebody and in your case, let's say I get a page from you, and there's a thriller. Let's say there's a chase scene and there's a minister and there's nothing on the page that indicates who he is or what he does or what he thinks or how he's using his place in the world. If there's nothing in that chase scene it's just a chase scene. It doesn't have anything to do with your story or with your point or your argument. It's just sitting there. It's just flat. It's no better than that email that I read to you. It's just sort of like, okay, it's a chase scene. That's cool. There's a cool car that flips over. That's awesome. You know what I mean? So what I want is always, always a drumbeat, what does a minister see? What does a minister know? What does a minister, how does he use what people think of him? Does that make sense? It does, thank you very much. Does that help? It does. This sounds like a great story, I love it. Thanks. How cool. Yeah, we have one more question. We have time for that. So I love the idea of changing your perspective. Yeah. I'm wondering though to what degree might you wanna go. Is there a point where you're broadening excessively? For example, I've heard about books being written by communities of contributors and authors, largely for non fiction. So I'm considering that potentially for what I'm working on which is also non fiction specific to a more of a business or academic application. Do you mind sharing the specific topic? It's called Empathy Driven, and that's the working title, and it's a framework for innovation and problem solving, creating a dialogue between teens and their adult parents. Oh that's really cool. Okay, so, so the question was about can you go too far? Can you bring in too many perspectives? So, my answer to that would be just by your working title and your concept you're making an argument. You're taking a stance. You're making a point. You have a point of view. You wanna teach people something, people, a certain particular audience, of teens and their parents, and you're coming at it from this particular view point. So you already have narrowed it. If you were, so a famous example of this is Chicken Soup for the Soul, right? So Chicken Soup for the Soul was a bunch of, I actually contributed to a Chicken Soup for the Soul book on breast cancer survivors, and it was really fun, and it's an amazing juggernaut of a book series, but they're kind of like, you know, you get these books and it's, you know they're gonna be feel good pieces about breast cancer, and it's, you know you're gonna cry and you're gonna laugh, 'cause they curate it for that, and it, but it all feels somewhat in the arena that it's supposed to be in if you know what I mean. That format, that's an extreme example, is different from doing something like this that doesn't have a, so that doesn't really have a point of view. It has a topical point of view but it doesn't have an argument at its heart if that makes sense. What you're doing has an argument, and it sounds like everybody that's contributing is going to be believing in some way with this stance you're taking. Is that fair to say? Yes, I'd say that's a fair assessment. So I think that the, if you put the parameters around it, about what, you know, you putting a stake in the ground about what you wanna teach and what you want people to know and what you want these specific people to know that's good because then within that context you're gonna have your writers writing. So are the contributors teens and their parents? In some cases they would be teens, but largely others that have educated or developed curricula along similar lines. Yeah, I think that's fabulous. So the, you don't have a danger of going too broad because you've already got your point of view based on what it is. I had a friend Barbara Abercrombie who is a writer. I teach with her in another institution and she curated a book of stories about pet grief, people who had lost pets and felt grief over them and it was beautiful because it was all different kinds of pets. It was everything from a hamster to a horse and different people and different times of life and different kinds of death, but it was this idea that we don't actually look at grief over pets very often. Let's do that. And her, that was her argument. Her point of view made that all of a piece and it made it very powerful. So I think you're totally on the right track.

Class Description

For most professionals, writing is a major part of their work. Every day they write emails, cover letters, presentations, proposals, speeches and memos—all of which are needed to accomplish a specific goal. But if the writing is flat, fuzzy and unfocused, chances are the piece won’t have the desired impact.

What makes writing truly effective? It’s not about the grammar, word choices or sentence structure. It’s about being able to step back from the work and think like an editor. In this class, book and writing coach Jennie Nash will teach you the five key self-editing skills you need to take any piece of writing from good to great.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Figure out why your writing is falling flat.
  • Build revision into your writing process.
  • Take off your writer’s hat to assess the big picture.
  • Get into your reader’s head.
  • Test the logic of your argument.
  • Consider issues of voice, pacing and authority.
  • Listen to your words as if they were a song on the radio.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

How to Get Perspective Handout

Words Are a Renewable Resource

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


Tomas Verver

Thanks Jennie for the great online course. It helped me improved my communcation and writing skills. It's helps make the proces of writing also more fun. I also read the books Made to Stick and some other referenced material. I agree we need to write from the perspective of the reader. I liked that your discussed different text purposes.


Great class! Jennie gave helpful, specific tips to elevate your writing. She showed several examples of weak writing and how to make them shine. I loved how she said, "Let yourself be a practicer." This idea that good writing takes tons of practice and we have to be okay throwing words out. I also loved the tips of getting into the reader's head as well as our character's head. We have to always be thinking and asking did we get our point onto the page? How can we make it clear to the reader.

Irina Aristarkhova

Jennie Nash is a great speaker, and I really liked the Q&A part of this class. I wish even more time could be left for questions, because the audience members seemed as a very advanced group of writers and their questions were helping to clarify the lessons. This class would be very helpful to those who have arguments and points to make and not just write for the sake of writing (for themselves and their narrow community of writer-friends). There was also a moment when Nash mentioned her dislike of "writing groups." I would love to hear more about that. I wish this training would be given to students of writing BEFORE they are asked to write anything as these are "higher order" type of lessons that the professional writing community often shuns to raise because they are actually very hard to address.