Episode 5: Think Like an Editor


In many ways writing is the art of ordering words, images, paragraphs, and chapters in a way that conveys a particular message. Yes, creativity is key—but creativity alone does not always equal publication or effective writing. Words can be spontaneous, but published words take much more work to make them seem effortless. This is the great paradox: crafting your poetry and prose so much that the reader doesn’t think about them.

Being on both sides of the writer/editor divide, I find that I am most efficient and successful when I think like an editor before I submit the work. This allows me to be a bit more—well—callous in my self-assessments of what I’ve produced. I can slice and dice with less regret and more satisfaction.

So, how does and editor think? Let’s take a look.

Rule 1: An editor doesn’t care what your favorite scene/line is.

We all have them: that sentence or paragraph that “perfectly” captures what we mean; that poetic line that will forever be immortalized in literary history. And if you’ve dealt with editors before, you might have been horrified to find that they slashed right through that little bit of perfection without a second thought. Can they not see the amazing cleverness and creativity your cunning quote conveys?

Truth be told, our favorite lines or paragraphs are rarely as great as we think they are—and often, in fact, are interlopers into the flow or stilted. I think you will find that those gems you favor are often overworked and over polished. Some may make the cut, but my advice as an editor is to avoid “favorites” if possible. Editors look at the overall picture—a nice sentence can make your writing stand out, but put your energy into making the whole work great.

Rule 2: An editor hates to see the same problems over and over.

Editors know the writers they often work with. Over time, they learn what to expect from certain writers before they even begin editing. Is it bad to pre-judge? Yes, but editors (like anyone) usually have limited time—and knowing a writer’s strengths and weaknesses can speed up the process.

But some writers surprise, and they do this by looking at editorial suggestions from earlier drafts and trying to catch their habitual problems before they submit their work. This might include grammatical problems, but many word processors can catch the glaring issues. The biggest culprits here are word choice, logic and flow, and stylistic concerns. We all have certain things that we do over and over; knowing yours can benefit you a great deal.

Rule 3: An editor wants to be engaged.

Editors are human (though some would dispute this, I think), and as humans, they like to read works that engage, captivate, inspire, and intrigue them. One of the first questions I ask when editing a work is this: so what? This may sound cynical, but the reason I ask this is because I want to know what the writer is doing. Obviously, this is much more important in news, Internet, and journal articles, but fiction and poetry can also benefit from being clear in intent. Read over what you’ve written and imagine that the person reading it wants to know the reason they should read it.

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5 thoughts on “Episode 5: Think Like an Editor

  1. Re: the second rule: exactly! From my perspective as an editor, any prospective writer guilty of committing habitual mistakes quickly marks himself as an amateur who needs remedial work before making it to the big leagues (unless his story stands out in numerous other ways). Editors absolutely prejudge!

  2. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  3. Pingback: Episode Nine: A Tough Habit to . . . Start « More Novel by the Week

  4. Pingback: Write Like an Editor Redux « More Novel by the Week

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