For as long as I can remember, I’ve done all the things my fourth grade teacher told me not to do. I skim. I skip over boring parts. I speed up, rather than slow down, when I’m confused. And when I see a word I don’t understand, I most definitely don’t stop to look it up in the dictionary. In short, I’m a fourth-grade failure.
So how did I wind up here, editing novels and memoirs for a living? The truth is quite simple. Over the years, I’ve learned that my bad reading behaviors are actually some of the same attributes that make me a good editor.
Below are three rules of thumb for editing fiction—whether your own, or a friend’s. You might just be surprised.
1. Be impatient
If you read a manuscript too slowly, you can actually fool yourself into thinking it’s good. The real test is whether it will hold up in the face of a quick-read, which is how potential literary agents and editors (and their assistants and interns) will approach it, given the sheer volume of material they consider every day.
So when you read a manuscript for the first time, don’t stop to analyze every sentence. Don’t pause to parse each densely packed paragraph. Don’t pore over the imagery, waiting for hidden symbolism to manifest itself. Instead, read hungrily, like you’re devouring a slice of chocolate cake. The inedible pieces will quickly become apparent.
2. Be unforgiving
Inevitably, you will stumble upon something in the manuscript that doesn’t make sense. Let’s call this a “huh?” moment. In the face of a “huh?” moment, you might be tempted to re-read the confusing passage multiple times until you experience an “ah-ha!” moment. Once you have that “ah-ha!” moment, you might think, “OK, it makes sense after all. I was just being stupid.”
But, no! You weren’t. It was the manuscript that was confusing. And if you were confused, chances are someone else will be, too. In order to be a good editor, you must be unforgiving. You must not tolerate even a single ounce of confusion.
3. Be stupid
Authors are tricky people. I know because I am one. We sometimes try to sneak in clever metaphors, literary allusions, witty analogies, and other little nuggets that don’t quite fit with the story but are simply too brilliant not to use.
When you take off your writer’s hat and put on your editor’s hat, you can go ahead and forget about all that so-called brilliance. Instead, be as stupid as you can allow yourself to be. Do you still follow the metaphor? Still get the joke? Then it can stay.