On Teaching Substantive Editing

correcting-1870721_1920I have a small writing team of three that I am responsible for. These three are all fairly fresh out of school, and while they learned all of the basics while they were there, they are now coming to grips with the fact that theory and practice are two very different things.

I spend a lot of my time editing their work. Three full-time writers producing content means about half my time is spent using Track Changes. This year, we made it a goal to cut down on my time spent editing by having them learn to edit each other’s work, both through copy and substantive editing.

They have copy editing under control. It’s straightforward. Look for misspelled words, incorrect grammar, do a little fact checking, etc. It’s the kind of copy editing that virtually every writer should practice and that virtually every writing program teaches.

It’s the substantive (or developmental) editing that’s giving me a challenge. While it is my preferred type of editing, and I do it well, teaching it is a whole different sack of potatoes.

When I sit down with a piece to evaluate it based on how well I think it was written for the intended audience, and whether the elements of it fit together smoothly, I do it through feeling. If you’ve done any substantive editing before, you probably understand that this type of editing isn’t based on rules or black and white dos and don’ts.

In all likelihood, you could give an unedited piece to three different professional substantive editors and have them all point out different things.

And that’s what has been so difficult. I need my writers to edit for the same types of things that I do so that the content we create is similar in style, tone, and quality when it goes live. If millions of people are going to be reading our work, I need it to be, at the very least, consistent.

But how do you teach three different people to apply developmental edits in the same way? I still have no idea, but I can tell you how we have started.

Although my job calls strictly for nonfiction content, I find substantive edits much easier to apply to fiction, at least when you are first getting started. Issues with plot, setting, vocabulary, transitions, and organization can be more apparent when you’re reading something that you haven’t written and that is outside of your normal content stream.

Therefore, I set to looking for a good piece for us to practice on. It couldn’t be too long, but it couldn’t be too short, either. It had to be appropriate for work, and it had to be in fairly desperate need of an edit.

Eventually, I happened upon Penny in the Dust by Ernest Buckler. At first glance, the story seemed relatively clean. Upon second glance, the issues started to make their way to the surface. Upon the third glance, I had about 30 comments in Track Changes suggesting rewrites, asking questions about vocabulary, and pointing out setting issues.

It was perfect. I gave it to my writers and told them to get to work. Each edited the story, as did I, and then we met to go over it. I was a little worried that we would all find different issues with it and that it was going to be hard to find common editing ground, but for the most part, we seemed to call out most of the same problems.

They, in their editing infancy, found fewer edits than I did, but they also pointed out some things that I had missed and helped to clarify some of the questions I’d had through their alternate impressions of the story.

I think they still have more to learn as editors, just as I still have to figure out how to be better at teaching subjective skills like substantive editing. But, through a good old fashioned workshop exercise, and a lot of discussion, we’re all starting to find common editing ground, and that’s what’s important.

If you are looking for a piece to practice your substantive editing skills on, I highly suggest Penny in the Dust. The main theme of the story is quite solid and works well as a strong premise, but the execution of the setting, plot, and dialogue is, well, you’ll see.

If you have questions about what edits we made, let me know and I may publish them in a separate post.

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The Right Way to Write

diary-968592_1920There seems to be a “right” way to do just about everything. But the thing with writing is that there really isn’t one, except to write. Sure, there is a right way to spell words, and a right way to use punctuation, but even those have loose and malleable rules.

Though it makes absolutely no sense to impose writing rules on anyone, people like to do it anyway; don’t use adverbs, never use the word “very”, always write every day, and so on and so forth until you are ready to rip your hair out and become a mime instead.

The beauty, and also the art, of writing lie in its complete and utter individuality. Every famous writer (for the most part) has created a masterpiece because they forged their own path, and did what worked for them. They discovered their own unique process and stayed true to it.

Do you think every single one of them wrote every single day? No. Do you think that all of them wrote their books in a year or less? No. Do you think that none of them ever used an adverb? Doubtful. Yet we, as writers, hear these things all the time, and they are supposedly meant to be helpful.

Really, all they do is place us in a box and seal it with packing tape. If we all followed the same rules all of the time, our writing would be terribly similar. No one ever became a famous writer after writing the exact same manuscript as someone else. They did well because they broke free of the mold.

If you want to write well, you need to find your style. And in your style you need to find your voice and your tone. And of all of the difficulties that writing brings with it, I would say that this is the biggest obstacle that most writers face. It’s the difference between writing like everybody, and writing like yourself, which can go a lot deeper than just a story.

Your style is what draws people to your content. I didn’t enjoy GoT because it was just like Harry Potter. I liked it because it was different. I liked it because I didn’t need to ask whether it was by a different author.

As another example, I’m not a big fan of poetry, but sometimes the style of a poem will hook me and it won’t let go (Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas).

Writing rules, whether created by famous authors and editors, or by fellow bloggers, are, unfortunately, often useless. The only writing rules that you should follow are your own, and you should never avoid writing in your preferred style because someone else told you it was wrong.

Once you find your voice, which can take a lot of effort, mind you, embrace it. The best writing comes when you are inspired, and sometimes nothing can inspire you more than your own mind. If you don’t feel comfortable listening to it, then how can you ever expect to make something of quality?


 

Just as you are your own person, you should be your own writer. Let yourself show in your work and you’ll find it comes much more easily than trying to follow all of the contradictory and suffocating rules that are floating around.

Have you found your style yet, or are you still testing the waters? What writing advice would you give to other writers?

I’ll be on Facebook until next time.