It’s easy, as a writer, to think of your craft as a one-way street. You write words, send them bleeping and whirring through the wiry innards of the internet to a reader, who then reads them. It’s all very binary. Writers are 0, readers are 1.
But when you start getting up and out, into the writing world, into the community of like-minded crazy people and neurotics and geniuses, you’ll start to notice that the writer-reader relationship is just the final product of a massive word factory, an interconnected automaton that clunks and steams as writers feed it raw materials through their laptops and tablets and notepads.
This factory is where all the drafts between 0 and 1 happen, where those oft-spoken-about but rarely seen editors do their editing things. While there are some wonderful and talented professional editors holding senior positions in the factory, the majority of the day-to-day editing is handled by the writers pulling bad words off of never-ending conveyor belts and turning big red valves on proofreading machines. This factory is the thumping mechanical heart of planet writing, the place where little baby mewling essays turn into triumphant opinionated masterpieces and sad, confused stories grow up to play in the literary NFL.
Good news: they’re hiring.
Editing another writer’s work will improve your writing. It gives you a chance to read all kinds of stuff you might not see otherwise, but also gives you a chance to see what mistakes other writers are making. Editing gives you the chance to learn from other people’s lessons, dissect how a writer created an image or a theme or a tone. It’s also one of the few ways you can truly give back to the writing community short of becoming Rowling-famous and giving away money because you’re feeling particularly philanthropic.
Seems easy, right? Go join a workshop group, grab some stuff, and edit! I like that attitude, that energy. You’ll need that. But not all edits are created equal. Prior proper preparation leads to efficient, effective editing.
How to Peer Edit
Things You’ll Need:
- Something to edit (preferably something that needs to be edited)
- A word processor with a “track changes” feature (MS Word, although I don’t like to admit it, works great. GoogleDocs ain’t bad in a pinch either)
- A printer and a red pen (in case your computer explodes or the hamster-wheels powering the internet suddenly fail)
- Your brain (that thing you routinely confound with whiskey and words)
Step 1: Take it for what it is
Before you take your crimson, inken scalpel to the page, bent on excising the grammatical tumors of the piece, take some time to just read it. Enjoy the story. Let the language court your brain and take it out to a fancy dinner, listen to the nuance of the word choices as they dance their elaborate syntactical ballet. Make friends with the characters, take a mental vacation to the setting, and really just let the narrative wash over your brain like a beautiful word wave.
Don’t try to fix mistakes, even if they’re obvious. Don’t try to analyze the voice or theme.
And when you’re done, put it away for a little bit.
It’s important to appreciate the art of the piece you’re revising before actually offering any feedback. You need to understand what the author was going for, what message they hid deep in the emotional soul of the writing. If you don’t “get” the story, or haven’t taken time to just read it as a non-writer would, your final feedback won’t be as helpful, and might even, at times, be hurtful.
Step 2: Fix the easy stuff
Once you and the story are BFFs, you can start your actual review.
I find typos, misspellings, grammatical mistakes, and punctuation faux pas the most distracting things on the page. Before I can look at theme or metaphor or fancy things like sentence structure and variation, I have to go through and (try to) clean up as many eye-luring boo-boos as possible. It’s OK though; I’ve got a big supply of backspace band-aids.
There are many ways to do this, some really effective, some not so effective.
My favorite technique is to read the story backwards, starting with the last sentence working towards the start. This lets you view the sentence as a whole and fish out any little inconsistencies without your brain automatically filling in the gaps of what it already knows and expects to come next. By going backwards, you can focus on the sentence in a vacuum of itself, all without damaging its relationship to the rest of the paragraph.
Some people might argue that this isn’t a good use of editing time, but I disagree. The writing will have to be proofread eventually, and training your eyes to spot inconsistencies will make your own drafting stronger.
Step 3: Look for writing tics
As you read, try to notice if the writer repeats certain ideas or constructs or words. It’s possible that something (an idea, a memory, an ancient evil) has wormed its way into their processes, influencing every single sentence they type without their knowledge or express written consent.
This can be as simple as a person using the same kind of transition (say a terminal simile) or as complicated as a person creating the exact same kind of metaphors with very little variation. For example, I know I have a problem with creating too many magic/wizard/fantasy/medieval metaphors, like a hardened warrior whose sword and steel soul is tainted by blood and battle.
It is your responsibility as an editor to point this stuff out for the writer. This kind of feedback is the most revered and praised, as it often brings into focus topics and issues that would have been near impossible for the writer to discover on her own. Read carefully and note anywhere things seem to sound or feel the same. Highlight similarities in the same color (say bright orange), so the writer has a stark visual of just how often a tic is sneaking into her writing.
Step 4: Ponder the mysteries of theme
Theme in a piece of writing (especially a short piece of writing) can be an elusive gremlin that pops his head out of a hole for a second and then disappears, only to pop up again in some impossibly distant place a few seconds later. Sometimes it’s blatant, like dozens of thick slices of chopped jalapeno on the top of a pizza when you specifically wrote “no jalapenos” in the “additional notes” field on the pizza ordering website. Sometimes it’s so subtle that you can barely pick it out, like the addition of a tablespoon of dry Amontillado sherry to a traditional enchilada sauce.
But it’s gotta be there if the piece is going to succeed. Try to find examples of a writer carrying the theme that you like and specifically call them out with colors or comments. In a recent story (it’s short, I promise) I used a lot of Christian allusions and references to support the theme of a lapsed Catholic being unsure of her place at a funeral. Some were intentional, others weren’t. I had an editor friend point out some that I, caught in the energy of the writing itself, didn’t even know I’d written. It was pretty cool and taught me a lot about the piece.
When you’re editing, point out every example you can find, even if they seem loose or under-formed. These help the writer see if his theme is strong, or if it needs to be bolstered in certain places. It also helps you develop closer reading skills, which will benefit you when you’re self editing early drafts of your own work.
Step 5: Write pointed, specific feedback
There is nothing worse than getting all pants-peeing excited to digest someone’s comments on your work, only to find things like, “this is good,” “I don’t like this,” or “I don’t get this at all.” Comments like that are worse than not reviewing the piece at all.
Fight your baser instincts to immediately point out what you like and don’t like. In the grand scheme, your subjective tastes don’t matter. Just because you didn’t like it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just because you did like it doesn’t mean it’s good.
A writer needs objective feedback about how it is written.
If you can’t, you just don’t possess the fortitude to not voice your opinions, then make sure you accompany any vague comments with a clear and specific why. Did you like it because it was beautiful to read or because it established the tone? Did you not like it because it was confusing or distracted you from something more important?
The more specific your feedback, the more the writer learns about his own craft from your edits, and the more you learn about the writing process as a whole. This is one of those, “you’re only cheating yourself” situations, like lying about how hard you worked out to impress your coworkers who really don’t care either way. If you take short cuts in your editing, you’ll be missing great examples to learn about bigger issues at work in all writing, and you’re just being a dick to the person whose work you’re reviewing.
Step 6: Do it again, and again, ad infinitum
Yea, nothing fancy to say here. Do 10 sets of 30 edits three times a week for maximum results. Apply ice to any finger injuries. Apply beer to any brain ones.