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How to Train Your Editor Brain

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Please welcome developmental editor Tiffany Yates Martin to Writer Unboxed today! Tiffany reached out recently with an offer to write a piece for us on developing a stronger editorial sensibility, and we were immediately intrigued. She wrote:

Editing is something so many authors dread, but to me it’s where the magic happens. Like any other part of learning this craft it’s a skill that improves with practice–but it can be really hard to practice it objectively in our own work. I’ve found that authors don’t always realize how much value there is in editing others’ work and seeing it edited.

More about Tiffany from her bio:

Developmental editor Tiffany Yates Martin is privileged to help authors tell their stories as effectively, compellingly, and truthfully as possible. In more than 25 years in the publishing industry she’s worked both with major publishing houses and directly with authors (through her company FoxPrint Editorial [2]), on titles by New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestsellers and award winners as well as newer authors. She presents editing and writing workshops for writers’ groups, organizations, and conferences and writes for numerous writers’ sites and publications. 

Connect with Tiffany on her website [3], and on Facebook [4] and Twitter [5].

How to Train Your Editor Brain

One of the hardest skills for a writer to master is editing her own writing. Assessing your work objectively when you are so deeply familiar with it can feel like trying to do your own brain surgery—but it’s a skill you can learn.

The best way I know of to switch on “editor brain” is to see others’ work edited. This is because you automatically come to others’ work with the mental and emotional distance it can be so hard to achieve with your own writing. With someone else’s story, you see—and evaluate—only what’s there, a crucial skill to develop in editing your own writing, spotting the things you’re often blind to in your own work.

Here are some of my best tips for how to do that:

Find a crit group—and home in on its hidden value

Participating in a critique group with other writers offers a regular opportunity to learn to analyze and assess effective writing (with a number of caveats, primarily that you find one that’s supportive and constructive, among lots of other baseline requirements; a bad crit group can do more damage to writers than almost anything else. Here’s [6] a great article on red flags for unhelpful crit groups).

Yes, you’ll get the chance to receive feedback on your own work—revealing potential flaws you may never have considered—and gain direct experience critiquing others’ work. But the hidden value of a critique group is the opportunity to listen to critiques of others’ work. Observing multiple critiques of the same submission is an invaluable way to see not only what objectively works and doesn’t in a piece of writing, but to notice subjective differences as well—one reader’s Romeo and Juliet is another’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

Learning to edit your own writing is also about knowing when to stick with your vision even if it doesn’t work for every beta reader, and those variations of opinion are a great way to see that firsthand.

Attend R&Cs at writers conferences—and be a voyeur

At writers conferences, sit in on as many R&Cs (read-and-critiques) as you can. Watching an experienced editor, agent, or accomplished author go over in detail what’s not working in a story excerpt as well as what is—equally important!—is a fantastic way to learn to see what they see. (You can see an example of one of mine here [7].)

Pay attention to what jumps out at these industry pros as they evaluate out loud. Often these R&Cs focus on the “macroedit” areas—the foundations of good storytelling. Notice, for instance, that the first thing many will point out is whether anything is actually happening, and if it is, whether they are invested enough in your characters to care. Notice how frequently they may point out that the story needs more suspense or momentum or higher stakes (or beautifully creates them). Those are the basic building blocks for effective writing, and you’ll be surprised how readily you spot where these elements are and aren’t working as you listen to other people’s work read aloud. It’s a great way to learn to apply these insights to your own work.

Sharpen your red pencil—for an editing class

Writing classes and workshops geared toward editing are a great way to not only see other authors’ writing analyzed and revised by a professional, but to practice editing those works yourself and receive feedback meant to help develop a more critical mind.

If time or financial commitments don’t allow for that, you can find great examples of hands-on, granular editorial feedback in action online. Editor Margie Lawson offers specific prose examples, before and after editing, in her blog posts [8], along with detailed analyses. WU’s own Dave King, in his “All the King’s Editors/Editor’s Clinic [9]” columns, presents a page or more of a WIP with his editorial markup, and then specifies the reasoning behind all his suggestions; and in the “Flog a Pro [10]” feature, editor Ray Rhamey presents the first page of a bestselling novel and analyzes why he would or wouldn’t turn the page, inviting reader feedback as well (make sure you read the comments!).

[Admin Note: For those attending the Writer Unboxed UnConference in November, Ray will lead a workshop on this very subject. Don’t miss it!]

These types of editorial critique can be invaluable for learning to spot weaknesses in and “microedit” areas—those important supporting players of craft that set your work apart, like show versus tell, point of view, tension, voice, etc.

Often they also parse the prose itself—not for whether it’s “pretty,” though that can be part of it, but whether it says what the author means it to say in a way that is effective and efficient. You’ll learn to spot how flabby or inexact or redundant language can yank a reader right out of the fictive dream, and how to take that same kind of microscope to your own prose.

Binge-watch and binge-read—with a critical eye

This is an editorial training technique you can do every day, from the comfort of your sofa or mattress, to learn to analyze what you watch and read.

Are you staying up late to keep turning pages of a book, or binge-watching something, unable to look away? Take five minutes to jot down—quickly, without thinking too hard about it—why you didn’t want to stop reading or watching. Be specific and granular:

Extra credit: Go back and rewatch or reread with an objective, assessing eye, ruthlessly analyzing how the author/screenwriter elicits reaction and engages you. That’s editing gold—figuring out with your analytical left-brain editor self what techniques to use when your right-brain writer self comes back into the room.

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Experts always tell you writing doesn’t just happen at your desk, but all the time, when you’re showering or exercising or—annoyingly—sleeping. Editing is the same. If you learn to watch and read everything with an analytical eye, I promise you’ll see your writing improve even more than the best book or workshop or webinar could ever offer. There’s no substitute for training yourself “on the job” to see and think like an editor.

WU’ers, how have you trained your editor brain? What was the most illuminating discovery for you?

Be sure to check out Tiffany’s free 13-page guide here [3] on finding, vetting, and working with the right editor for your story.

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