By Lu Ann Staheli
One of our readers recently asked for more insight as to how to improve the editing quality of a critique group whose members she described as “middling writers.” Well, the answer is easier than you think. Here are ten suggestions you might apply to improve your own skills and to help you guide the other members of your group into being better trained as editors.
1. Be a voracious reader. The more you read, the more you will recognize what works and what doesn’t work in your chosen genre. Read the best, and read a few of the worst. Learn to recognize the difference between the two.
2. Know that good writing is more than good grammar. As you read, consider how the author uses ideas, organization, sentence fluency, voice, and word choice to hook the reader. Read your writing aloud as your group critiques, and mark those spots where you notice word repetition or awkward construction. Also point out those places where the writer was successful.
3. Know your grammar basics. For many writers it may have been a long time since they studied the rules. I’m not suggesting you bring back bad memories of parsing sentences, but do locate a good handbook that covers punctuation and grammar rules. I use Writer’s Inc. (Great Source Publishers) at school. This book not only has easy-to-follow instructions about the rules, but it also includes maps, conversion charts, and other supplementary materials that can be an asset to writers as they research.
4. Teach a skill. If you notice that someone in your group continues to make the same mistake time and again, take a few minutes to teach the correct writing principle to them while giving your critique. For example, say one of your group members is confused about the use of dialogue tags. They often end one paragraph with the tag (said, asked) that actually belongs to the speaker in the next paragraph which leaves you, the reader, confused about who is actually saying what. Instead of becoming frustrated and marking the same error each week, show the writer how the tag needs to be tied to the quotation.
5. Read books about writing. Everyone from Stephen King to Janet Evanovich has written about themselves as writers it seems, and many of them had great tips to share with you. Keep a log of errors you know you personally need to work on improving. Make a list of words you sometimes overuse. (See The Ten Percent Solution by Ken Rand. http://www.sfwa.org/members/Rand/Solution.html)
Use what you learn for your own writing, but also share it with the members of your group as appropriate.
6. Read magazines such as Writer’s Digest. For a long time, this magazine included a feature where aspiring authors sent in their first page for an edit by a professional. Carefully reading articles such as these and others in each issue show you exactly what an editor wants.
7. Understand genres. Although it is important that your ideas be unique to you, it is also important that the writing you do will actually fit into a niche in the market. Novels can often include two genres if one of those genres is either romance or adventure. For instance a historical romance works, as does a science fiction adventure. But historical science fiction is a little hard to fathom.
8. Talk about books. Be knowledgeable about what is being published. Follow the trades, local bookstores, or online marketplaces such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com. Use books as a place to gather new ideas (see the earlier blog entry: “Your First Chapter” by Heather Moore), but also use them as a textbook for becoming a better writer. Study those opening paragraphs. Listen to the character’s voice. Know why you love, or perhaps hate, the main character. Then talk about your ideas with the other members of your group. Consider their opinions because all of you make up the buying audience you someday want for you own writing.
9. While all group members are learning to improve their skills, use a few meetings to practice on the writing of others. Choose a short story or the first chapter of a published novel and read it for an evaluation. You’ll be surprised to learn that even published authors who have been through the editing process experience the same slow spots, occasional typographical errors, or word repetition problems your groups members find in their work. Even if this exercise doesn’t improve the writing you are currently working on, it will at least let you know you are not alone when it comes to the problems associated with writing, and it may even give you a good laugh if you find a book that’s a real clinker.
10. Believe that your editing skills will grow, as will your writing skills. I’ve been a member of a critique group now for nearly ten years, and I can promise you that I catch many more spots that need edits now than I did back then, and it’s not because the members of my group are untalented writers. That would be far from the truth. Learning to edit has a rhythm of its own, and like any task we undertake, we tend to become more proficient as we practice that skill.
Good luck, and know that the time it takes to improve your group members editing skills will be well worth it once you see those magazine articles and books being accepted for publication.