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How to Think Like an Editor

The importance of editing to good writing is clear, but how to become a good self-editor is not. Few colleges offer ‘editing’ courses. Writer’s groups are everywhere, but I’ve never encountered a self-editor’s group. There are a number of helpful books on self-editing, but they typically break down the editing process into task-oriented strategies that guide you in word selection, plot structure, character development, and literary themes.  In my experience, however, good editing is not just a product of piecemeal strategies, but of a particular mindset. Editors think differently about writing than do writers.

Here are a few critical features of the “mental space” necessary to thinking like an editor.

Check Your Ego at the Office Door

Writing is inherently an act born of hubris; editing is an act born of humility. In order to write a book, you have to throw caution to the winds and believe that you can somehow capture the perfect magic of the story that is in your head. In order to self-edit a book, you have to acknowledge that what is written is imperfect and needs fixing—large scale and small scale fixing—and that it will take work, lots and lots of work. Training yourself to see your work’s flaws rather than its beauty is a constant challenge. I can’t tell anyone how to be humble, but I can provide a few guidelines for how to train yourself to think like an editor.

Trust Your Reader’s Instincts and Train Yourself to Act on Them.

Most writers are sophisticated readers who can feel and sense ‘wrongness’ in someone else’s writing. It’s a gut feeling, almost an instinct, that something is just not right. Most writers can also sense that ‘wrongness’ in their own work, but then don’t manage to make themselves do something about it. It’s too easy to get caught in the flow of words and far too hard to stop and figure out what needs fixing and then fix it.

Self-editing requires you, as a writer, to train yourself to pay attention to your reader’s instincts, and to act on them.  For example:

Justifications Are a Sign It Needs Editing

Any time you sense a passage is just not working but you end up justifying your inaction, it means you need to wake up your editor.  My most-common justifications include:

“It’s not working, but I’m tired; it will make sense to my readers.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s better than a lot of published writing.”

“It’s not making total sense but that’s because I haven’t gotten into the flow yet.”

The editorial answer to all of these justifications: “You’re not the problem—the writing is.” Fix it.

 Keeping Your Entire Book in Your Head

Trusting your reader’s instincts works for individual passages, but what about large-scale editing? That requires a complex but clear understanding of what the work is about, at its deepest, strongest, most resonant level. That understanding is the only guide available for what to keep and what to cut; what to move and what to leave. Good editors internalize this understanding—they keep the whole book in their head—from details to big picture. While they are working on a manuscript, they assess every passage, setting, character, event, dialogue, and exposition in the work against its contribution to (or detraction from) the book’s main point.

To self-edit, you have to develop this deep, multi-layered understanding of your own work, and you have to keep it in your head and keep true to it.  You have to get outside of the story and into the larger picture. This is difficult, because writing requires delving into the details—the plot, characters, story, scenes, dialogue, etc.—while editing requires discerning the (often hidden) deep theme against which the plot, characters, and story crash. A writer is in the forest, describing the trees; an editor is in a high vantage point, simultaneously seeing the dirt, the trees, the forest, the paths and patterns manifesting in the forest, and the relation of the forest to the surrounding landscape.

What voodoo, regimen, or work schedule can train an author to get this kind of view of their work? If I could answer that, I’d be sitting at a much nicer desk in a much nicer office. For some, it’s a matter of meditation and self-examination. For others, it’s a matter of working through the details (often via charts, timelines, post-its, index cards, journaling, etc.).

For me, it’s a matter of total immersion, and exercise. I re-read the work until my brain is full of its details and themes. Then, with all the details jangling around as a constant chaos in my thoughts, I make an offering to the muses and go for long walks. Somehow the walking frees my mind and I can think about the book more clearly. (Barbara Samuel blogged about that here [1].) Eventually, a burst of editorial inspiration strikes and it all becomes clear. You know what needs to be changed. When that happens, you know you’re thinking like an editor about your own work.

Five Good Books on Editing and Self-Editing Strategies (all are pictured in the lefthand sidebar under Craft Corner):

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

Flogging the Quill by Ray Rhamey

Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner


Image from Rojish [2]

About Jeanne Kisacky [3]

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She is the author of the recently published book, Rise of the Modern Hospital: An Architectural History of Health and Healing, 1870-1940 [4]. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.