One of the biggest problems with being a writer is being a writer, and I don’t mean that in the sense of our average income. Being a writer requires one to nurture and hone a certain frame of mind capable of rendering the raw potential of story into words, crafting a complex weave of verbal and temporal art. Being a writer requires one to have a writer’s mind. The problem is that being a writer also requires one to be a bit of an editor as well. Every writer has heard the adage that writing is rewriting (even though there are certainly wrong ways to rewrite; Dean Wesley Smith talks about that topic a lot [http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=4398], so I won’t bore you with it). As such, all of us as writers need to be able to look at our own work from time to time with an editor’s eye and an editor’s mind. And that’s the point at which the writer’s mind will do its best to do us in.
I’m a writer, and I’m an editor. I do both jobs on a part-time basis that, taken together, creates my full-time vocation. And I know that doesn’t make me unique in the business, but it’s given me a lot of years to think about the differences between the writer’s mind and the editor’s mind, and about a couple of tricks that writers can use to make the editing process easier.
Being a dedicated editor involves a very different set of creative muscles than being a dedicated writer, and it’s certainly not the case that all writers need to be as good at editing as a dedicated editor. A lot of writers find editing about as exciting as warm yogurt, and if that’s the camp you’re in, that’s totally fine. Here’s the thing, though. The writer’s mind is really, really good about hiding the mistakes that the editor’s mind needs to catch.
If you’ve spent more than ten minutes on the Internet, you’ve probably seen some variation of the misspelled text meme [http://www.positscience.com/games-teasers/brain-teasers/teasers/scrambled-text], where a paragraph is written with scrambled letters but you can read it anyway. This ability of our brains to compensate for and route around errors is what makes great editors and (especially) great proofreaders worth their weight in gold — their ability to turn off the automatic make-it-look-good circuits in the writer’s mind.
The writer’s mind knows exactly what you wanted to say in your story. And so when it reads the work, it fills in all the bits that didn’t quite make the proper transition from the mind to the page. The writer’s mind ignores transposed words, and dropped prepositions, and your use of “alternately” when you meant “alternatively,” and that time you accidentally typed “pubic” instead of “public.” The writer’s mind is largely incapable of seeing the mistakes and the inconsistencies and the bits that are missing. And so learning to read like an editor, even just a little bit, involves learning how to trick the writer’s mind.
Over a lot of years of writing and editing, here are the two best tricks I’ve learned.
Proof on Paper. If you’re like most writers, you spend a lot of time working on the computer as you deftly compose the Next Great Novel. The word processor has been a godsend for the creativity of a lot of writers (me included; I write in a kind of fractured and disjoint style that I honestly don’t think would be possible except on computer). However, working exclusively on screen can very quickly forge a kind of creative tunnel vision that makes it harder to see the differences between the story in your head and the story as it’s written.
At some point, when you’re ready to read the work with your editor’s mind, print out a copy of the book and grab a red pen. Because the experience of reading your book on paper will show you things that you can easily gloss over for months while working on screen. I don’t know enough about psychology or the biology of brain and vision systems to explain why this works, but it does work — and not just for me. Talk to most professionals working in newspaper and magazine publishing and they’ll tell you the same thing. No matter how good the word processing and desktop publishing systems they have in place, the last proof should always be done on paper, because the eye and the inner voice and the editor’s mind react differently to reading words on paper than they do to reading words on screen.
Text to Speech. Alongside proofing on paper, one of the best ways to change up the experience of interacting with your work is to have your computer read the work to you. Most newer versions of Windows and Mac OS allow the computer to easily read the text of a word processor document out loud. And though the experience of having a computer read your book is never going to be mistaken for the eventual audiobook adaptation read with elegance and gravitas by Alan Rickman, it serves the necessary purpose of changing up the way your writer’s mind interacts with your words. The writer’s mind looks at what you put down on the page and reads what you wanted to say instead. But when you go through paragraph by paragraph and have the computer read the story back to you, the editor’s mind gets a chance to go to work.
As you edit your work using either of these techniques, you’re likely to feel a strange kind of disconnect in your head as you pick up on transposed words, awkward phrasing, and other errors that your writer’s mind has previously glossed over. If you’re anything like me, you’ll get to an even more interesting place where you’ll go through a passage in the editing that looks or sounds okay, but which you freeze up on anyway. That’s your editor’s mind making you aware that on some level, what you’re reading has a problem — even though you can’t see the problem straight away.
The objectivity of the editor’s mind is what a good editor brings to the table for a writer. A different perspective; the ability to see the things in the work that the writer can’t. And it’s totally true that not every writer needs to be an editor. You don’t need to be a drop-dead pedantic master of grammar and usage who can quote “The Chicago Manual of Style” chapter and verse. Even those of us who like to edit understand the gospel truth that every book needs an outside editor when we’re done with it. But learning how to turn off the writer’s mind when we need to is an important part of being able to read our work with fresh eyes — and in so doing, of making our writing as good as it can be.
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Scott Fitzgerald Gray has been flogging his imagination professionally since deciding he wanted to be a writer and abandoning any hope of a real career in about the fourth grade. That was the year that speculative fiction and fantasy kindled his voracious appetite for literary escapism and a love of roleplaying gaming that still drives his questionable creativity. In addition to his fantasy and speculative fiction writing, Scott has dabbled in feature film and television, was a finalist for the Jim Burt Screenwriting Prize from the Writers’ Guild of Canada, and currently consults and story edits on projects ranging from overly obscure indie-Canadian fare to Neill Blomkamp’s somewhat less-obscure “District 9” and the upcoming “Elysium”.
Scott’s latest works are the high-school coming-of-age techno-thriller “We Can Be Heroes” [http://insaneangel.com/insaneangel/Fiction/Books/WeCanBeHeroes.html], and the anthology “A Prayer for Dead Kings and Other Tales” [http://insaneangel.com/insaneangel/Fiction/Books/PrayerForDeadKings.html].