by Karin Beery
There are a lot of rules for good writing, and good editors know all of those rules. Editors take writing and editing classes, read books, and go to conferences to help them better understand how to create a good book.
If you want to produce a great book, however, you need a great editor, and great editors know when and why to break the rules. There aren’t a lot of classes that teach you how to do that, though, so exactly how does an editor hone those rule-breaking skills?
Let me tell you a quick story:
Early in my editing career, I prided myself in my ability to identify every writing mistake in every manuscript. I flagged felt, heard, and saw. I crossed out every was. I cut almost every he said from the page. I was ruthless.
Then, between edits, I picked up a book to read for pleasure. It pulled me in, and before I knew it, I finished reading a giant info dump. It didn’t pull me out of the story though. It didn’t slow down the plot. It fit. It served a purpose. It worked.
Jump ahead several years, and I still see writing “mistakes” in published books. Sometimes it’s bad writing that slipped past the editor and it interrupts the story. Other times, however, it’s a seamless part of the story that only stands out to me because I know the rules.
Now that I’ve seen how rules can be broken, I’m more willing to re-cap my red pen for the sake of the story. Sometimes pacing is more important than showing, so you sacrifice one thing for the other. At other times you leave the passive voice in because it emphasizes the more important part of the sentence. Understanding these instances only comes from seeing them used well, and that only comes from reading.
That leads to this question: as an editor, what should you read? Allow me to annoy you with my answers:
- Read the genres you want to edit. There’s no better way to understand what works in your genres than to read excellent examples of them.
- Read outside your genre. By reading outside of your preferred context, it helps you see different ways in which the rules are applied (and broken) well.
- Read good books. “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” (Vince Lombardi) Exposure to books doesn’t help you see what does/doesn’t work. Exposure to good books helps you see what does/doesn’t work.
- Read bad books (occasionally). Every now and then, pick up a bad book or manuscript. Don’t make fun of it, just review it to find the mistakes and see how it interrupts the experience for you. This helps remind us that rules need to be followed for a reason.
Stephen King once said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” The same holds true for editing.
Owner of Write Now Editing, Karin Beery is an active member of American Christian Fiction Writers and the Christian Editor Network, where she teaches several editing classes through the PEN Institute and serves as the coordinator for the Christian Editor Connection. She is the Managing Editor of Guiding Light Women’s Fiction, an imprint of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. Her sophomore novel, Practically Married, is a 2020 INSPY Award semi-finalist.