Freeing the inner editor

Wow! Editing is hard! I promised myself I wouldn’t start any new projects until I went back an edited a previous manuscript. Not just a copy edit, mind you, a real, bone fide, honest-to-gosh edit! And I’m really trying! I’ve made one pass through to reacquaint myself with the work, and I’m making a second pass through as we speak. There’s only one problem.

I have no clue what I’m doing!

Every time I work on editing, regardless of my intentions, I keep slipping back into copy editing. I know I should be doing more, but I don’t know what that is! I suspect it requires skills I haven’t yet built up. But I suspect if I did know what the skills I lack might be, they’d look something like this:

  1. Picking out what’s missing. Ever find yourself looking at magnificent scenery and think to yourself something like, “You know, what this landscape is missing is a cluster of deer, with one majestic stag standing alertly behind the does.”? You do? Wow, you must be an editor! I read through my novel and I think to myself, “Hey, this isn’t bad! I think there’s something I could do to improve it, but doggone it, I don’t know what it is!” It’s a real skill to be able to take something you’ve written and figure out how you could make it better.
  2. Identifying what’s broken. This is like doing those “Identify 8 differences between these pictures” brain teasers, except they only give you one picture, and you’ve got to figure out what’s not supposed to be like that. If I’m lucky I can at least tell there’s something wrong in a particular spot, something that just sucks all the life out of the scene. Knowing what it is and what to do about it? Not so easy.
  3. Spot character problems. This should be a little easier. It’s not like we’re presenting ourselves a bunch of total strangers and trying to figure out which one of them isn’t behaving like themselves. Unfortunately, just because they’re behaving like themselves doesn’t mean they’re interesting. And not all of them need to be interesting. Figuring out which ones need to be more exciting and which ones can be merely “set dressing” is a definite skill.
  4. Recognizing “clunky” sentences. This one could be a little easier. I’ve found that reading my work aloud or to my kids helps. If, a couple months later, I can’t even tell what I was trying to say, that’s a good hint that my sentence needs work. But to identify ways to make sentences more efficient, more evocative, or do more with less is an art form in itself.

I suspect these skills can be learned. But not everyone has the patience or time to do so. Peer groups, beta readers, or professional editors can help. But I have to admit my own ego gets in the way. I’d rather my work was as good as possible before I let someone else read it. Is that “Catch-22” thinking? Perhaps. Who ever said writers were sensible, logical people?

Which of these skills have you been able to learn? How did you develop it? What skills do you still struggle with? Anyone have ideas on how to develop editorial skills? Comment below!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.