I've talked a lot about editing lately, and received a few questions about just how to be an editor. In particular, some people have questioned how they can be a good editor if they are not very good at writing in the first place. This is a very important discussion, so I thought it'd be worth exploring a little. In particular, I want to offer the difference between being an editor, being a writer, and being a critic - a good critic.
Each writer needs a special kind of editor to address their particular needs. The kind of editor someone needs for a manuscript is often different than what people need in a workshop, so before we decide what kind of editor we can or can't be, we need to decide what our writing audience needs. Some need editors, others need critics, and some just need help. Addressing that last need is the most important in a workshop, and it doesn't take an old-school, hard-core editor to fill that role.
In workshops, people are trying to become writers, so the most important part is helping them write what they want to say. Anyone reviewing the work of a person trying to figure out how to tell a story should be the editor from the 30,000-foot view - someone who looks at the big picture: Is the story clearly written? Is the structure solid, or can it be improved? Are there distractions? What is the conclusion? If the spelling, punctuation, and grammar are horrible, the high-level edit might note to run a spell-check, but that's not the point right now. It's all about structure, flow, and storytelling. People who want to become writers don't need to know the proper application of the subjunctive or how to spell occurrence; they need to get things together and communicate ideas.
As a writer starts developing the craft, the best editor will be someone who can be a critic. (Note: "Critic" can be a good thing if it is constructive.) In this case, the critical editor will come down from the 30,000-foot view, zooming in much closer, approaching works while considering things like structuring paragraphs or style techniques. Any critique from this level will be full of comments and questions, pointing out where techniques work, where they don't, and ideas about getting it back on track. The critical editor should offer recommendations for any problem they highlight, and promote the writer's personal growth. These are the most important editors for the writers in a workshop who want to shift their writing game into high gear.
Conversely, the least-helpful editors in a workshop are the deep, intense, close-view critics who spend their time parsing every comma and semicolon, picking every nit they can find. These editors are mandatory for anyone who wants to create a polished copy ready for publication or contest submission. However, this intensity is not a good fit in a workshop, or at least not when that style of editing is the top priority. It took me a while to put away that style of editing at workshops and focus on style, structure, and helping writers grow.
Yes, I still mark spelling errors and fix punctuation at workshops. However, the part I focus on now, and what everyone can participate in, comes from talking about the broader picture, and what we notice not as editors, but as readers. You don't need to be a great writer to have an opinion as a reader. Your opinion in that regard is what will make you an important contributor to any writing workshop.
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