first draft

Be Skeptical When You Read Your First Draft

By Michael Kandel

At the core of what an editor does lies a skeptical frame of mind. An editor should question everything, big and small. If a therefore goes between clause 1 and clause 2, the editor might think, “Hm, is there really an if-then relation between these clauses?” Or, “The if-then relation is perfectly obvious, so why do we need therefore?” If the writer uses a highfalutin Latinate word like adumbrate or subtend, the editor might wonder, “Hm. What exactly does that mean here? What does the dictionary say? What does another dictionary say? Wouldn’t a more down-to-earth word be clearer? Will some readers be put off by this academic flourish and think it’s preening?” These examples of skepticism are a mere two out of millions.

Imagine now that you are a writer whose article will be submitted tomorrow for publication and that the publisher, short of staff and time, is not about to inflict on you a lot of editorial suggestions and quibbles. Your prose will be proofread only, most likely in a mechanical, perfunctory way. Imagine, in other words, that you will have no editor to examine closely and question every line you’ve written and that your first draft will go out into the world as it is, unprocessed, ungroomed.

So if you are going to be edited, you will have to do it yourself.

Step back and take a fresh look at your article on the page or computer screen. In the role of editor, with that big step back, separate yourself from your author’s ego, and be skeptical—about the concepts, the organization, the commas. Wrinkle your nose, go, “Hm,” and take the time that’s needed to turn your prose into something better dressed for its important appearance in public.

Published 1 April 2020

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