On Being an Editor

blogWant to improve your writing? Become an editor.

Before you balk at this, hear me out.

As an editor, your primary job should be to improve the writer’s work. Regardless of its form, your task is to make it better, whether that means spotting plot holes, catching technical mistakes, or simply correcting typos. Ideally, you’ll do all these things and more. I’ve seen a few instances where I was able to suggest small things that added to the depth of the story, things like the way a character thinks of another, or just an explanation for why that character thinks that way. They’re small things, sure, but the small things add up to big things in the end. It’s a skill I’m still learning, and I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve an author’s story with these little tidbits, all without ruining the original intent or voice.

To be honest, when I first started, I didn’t feel qualified. How was I supposed to point out the weaknesses in another’s story when I had such a hard time finding them in my own? Who would even listen to me, an author with all of one book published, and that one not exactly famous? So, as assistant digital media director for Oghma, I volunteered to do the occasional fantasy, science fiction, or crime fiction, since those were my areas of “expertise.”

But apparently I was gooder better than I thought I was, because people started asking for my editing. I made a somewhat lateral move to assistant editorial director—I found I was much happier there—and then became publishing director. But I’m still an editor.

And it’s helped my writing immensely.

Why? Because as I edited, I became more and more aware of things that needed changing to make the writing better in other’s works. picardThings like passive voice that doesn’t really look like passive voice: The man was standing by the door. That’s kinda lazy. The man stood by the door. See how much more forceful that is? And yet, it’s something we as writers do all the time. I see it in published book after published book.

Another one: He began to walk down the road.

Okay. He began. Did he keep it up?

No, make it: He walked down the road (and even that’s lazy. Tell us how he walked, not just that he walked: He strolled, he marched, something like that).

Of course, there are downsides, too. As publishing director, I’m part of the acquisitions process, so I get to see all the new manuscripts. That means there are times when I read something and want to send back not just a rejection letter, but a cease and desist, telling them to please stay away from keyboards, to stick to writing grocery lists. At least they’ll get some recompense for that.

As a writer, it’s not easy to tell folks you can’t use their work. You know what it is to dream like that, and if you’ve any experience in this field, you know that some writers simply give up after a few rejections. Yes, for some, that’s probably for the best. But you’ll also come across those who have potential, even if you don’t have time to bring it out in them. (Which is why we here at Oghma actually have a Willy-Wonka-bad-writer-memedevelopmental editor. When we see someone that’s not quite up to par but looks like they could be with some coaching, we like to give them that chance. We remember the dream, after all. Heck, we’re still living it.)

But this is more than compensated for by those undiscovered gems you come across, those works that make you wonder how any agent or editor in their right minds could have rejected this. You sit and you stare at the words on the screen (we take only electronic submissions here), and you wonder why this isn’t already on a bestseller list somewhere. But then you sit up and smile, because, hey, we’ve got dibs on this one. Give it an A+ and send it through the rest of the submissions process (I’m just the gatekeeper, not the final arbiter. That belongs to the board.)

No, editing isn’t for everybody. For instance, you need to know how to write first, at least in my opinion. And you need to make sure you’re up on the policies of your publisher (natch). And you know that feeling you get as a writer when you send off your manuscript for submission? I get that when I send one back to the writer with my recommendations in it. Will they understand what I’m trying to do? Will it make sense? Can they see that none of this is meant to denigrate them in any way?

So far I’ve had good responses to my editing, but you never know. There’s always a first time for everything, and I’m dreading getting that author who’s hard to work with, no matter how much his or her writing might need it. We’ve had a few of those here, but I’ve been lucky enough to avoid them so far.

And if you don’t want to do it professionally, you can still join a writing group and/or be a beta reader for someone else.48191213

It’s like the old saying goes: You learn best by teaching.

It’s true of writing. I’ve learned more by editing than I ever did as only a writer.



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