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3 Vital Skills That Every Editor Needs (and That Writers Can Learn Too)

Let’s say a writer has been writing all his/her life. He/she isn’t successful. So how is it supposed to happen that a writer, just by writing more and more, will become commercially viable?

It won’t.

In order to be successful, writers need basic editing skills. They either have these themselves, or they seek out someone who has them.

What are these basic editing skills?

1. A good editor has to know the correct fundamentals of what makes fiction work.

This includes knowing what stories are trying to do and what devices they are using to try and do them, including character archetypes, plot vacuums, language styles and so forth.

2. A good editor has to have some skill in spotting them.

It’s not enough to know what these things are in theory - a good editor will need to be able to pick up any story of any length and almost immediately tell which of these things is working within the story and which are absent. This comes with practice and by becoming familiar with the various ways in which the above instruments are used.

By far the quickest way of familiarising oneself with these things is through study of the master authors, those whose works have survived the test of time. That longevity is testimony to the fact that their work contains an expert use, conscious or otherwise, of those things which make stories powerful and effective for readers.

It can quickly be seen that the enormous variety and subtlety of the works of literature and drama over the last two millennia mean that the result of using these basics is not some kind of artificial templated story. Quite the opposite - as with music, the diversity that becomes possible with the same set of ‘notes’ is almost infinite.

3. A good editor has to be able to communicate to writers in such a way that they take on board what needs to be done.

Let’s say you have learned all you can learn about the laws that lie behind successful fiction, and have become well-practised in the spotting of those principles at work behind all kinds of works, short and long, dramatic and comic, dark and light.

All of that knowledge and experience will be next to useless to you if you are unable to communicate it effectively to the writers whose work you will need to critique.

It’s no good giving a 50-point Plan to a prospective writer outlining what he or she needs to do with a given piece of work if you haven’t managed to include him or her in the observations and obtained some trust in conveying the advice.

Funnily enough, the same principles which apply to the writing of fiction also apply to talking about it: you have to find things that you can agree about, things that you hold in common, as writer and editor; you have to establish a ‘bridge’ that will hold firm while you tell them how to improve upon a piece which they may already feel is complete or which they might be holding close to their hearts in its current form.

Once you have gained their trust and demonstrated some expertise - and especially once you have isolated and revealed to them the ‘gold’ that lies in the heart of their stories - you have some chance that they will listen to you and actually apply what you’re advising needs to be done. In fact, if you get this all right, they will immediately begin seeing what you’re saying and applying it for themselves. It won’t be ‘your advice’ but their own revolutionary new vision of the story - you will have acted not as a second writer but as a gatekeeper for the story they always meant to write.

It all begins with the realisation that there is in fact something to learn about fiction other than just writing more and more of it.

See my book How Stories Really Work for those basics.


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