What does John Wick have in common with great writing?

He’s like a covert editor sent in to clean up a writer’s dirty work

Words sometimes sit awkwardly on paper and screen, more like a blood stain than a clean shot.

Sentences can linger a little too long and require a professional ‘hit’.

Commas appear, from nowhere like targets on a SWAT range.

A smart writer will do the right thing: Call in a professional, The EDITOR!

Silent and focused—the Editor will usually have tips and tricks as reliable as a John Wick reload manoeuvre.

These are my five favourites that Keanu Reeves would be proud of:

1 Great editors look at the room before entering

Every writer sweats on the editor’s first read. ‘Was it any good? Did it work? Did the bit about the dog dying early work?’

In truth, a good editor calmly observes before reaching for the backpack of techniques.

My method is to make three passes through articles, chapters and books.

a) First consume the work as a reader.

b) Then grab for the tactical kit and enter the room—correcting, cutting, fixing, throwing whole words out with ‘extreme prejudice’.

Helpful direction from ‘The Civilian’ character early in the film, Apocalypse Now!, uploaded by Joe Woods on 2015-02-17.

c) Third: Bring in the ‘Cleaner’ part of your editing brain. Reassess the room before leaving and ask yourself some questions about your handiwork: ‘Are my edits any good? Did they work? Did the bit about the dog improve with my changes?’

2 Speak, don’t read

Good editors will deploy their vocal cords to everything written. In other words, read the article or book out loud.

There are two important reasons for this. Firstly, it will identify work a little easier than quiet observation reveals. Secondly, reading out loud narrows your focus to the work in front of you. In a world constantly interrupted by distracting notifications, the act of reading out loud maintains focus.

John Wick is always focused, as an editor and writer should be.

3 Prefer clean hits over long encounters

I’m a fan of shorter sentences and phrases. It’s the journalist in me, preferring brevity. That is not to say long sentences are banned. Some of the greatest writers have sentences topping 200 words.

My editing style is to be clear over clever.

If a long sentence must be, let the writer prove it by brilliant story-telling.

4 Don’t assume you are the best mind in the room

It’s a dangerous thing being an editor. If you enter the role as a published author yourself, be careful. Your best selling work may nurture a bias towards superiority.

You can fall into the trap of thinking you are better than the writer, changing words that were working just fine.

One of the ways to avoid such a landmine is to remain a reader in the first consumption of the work. By leaving your red pen untouched during the initial read, you are less likely to be impulsive and cut something that may turn out to be smart in the long run.

Recalling a favourite scene from Quo Vadis might help keep you grounded:

Memento homo’ (‘Remember, thou art only a man’).

5 Don’t be persuaded by the writer’s reputation or past work

It’s important to judge a work on its own, neither elevating nor undermining your expectations of the content.

A best selling author will always need an editor, and potentially more so the greater the writer’s success. The writer must respect your role as a professional, embracing the cuts as much as the warnings contained in a heavier-than-expected edit.

Failing to listen to the Editor’s truth-telling is as dangerous as flattery is to enduring talent.

It is also fatal to commence editing a manuscript as a mere fan of the creator. Enjoy the opportunity to edit a professional writer, but don’t allow fandom to overwhelm your professionalism.


In summary:

  1. Analyse covertly

  2. Speak out the situation

  3. Be clean and ruthless

  4. Editors should remain covert

  5. Writers have history but that shouldn’t affect your mission


Main photo by Hello I'm Nik 🇬🇧 on Unsplash. Second photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.