I was exchanging replies to a post on Facebook with a reader and he asked about my editing process, because I am currently struggling with a tough revision. I have been tearing chunks out and rewriting to a tight deadline and the process is frustratingly ugly—it always feels like two steps back to take one forward, even if that isn’t the truth of it. The reader asked if that was my usual process and I had to say, “yes and no” essentially. That may be my process as a writer, but as a fiction editor, it isn’t. (And yes, editing fiction is not like editing non-fiction—they’re related, but different beasts.)
As a fiction editor—and as a crit partner, writing coach, or workshop instructor—my job is not to put my stamp on someone else’s work, but to help the writer realize their own goal for that work. So I have to approach with respect and care. I make suggestions and observations more often than changes. I point out places where an opportunity was missed or where voice or a structure could be strengthened, where information was missing, muddy, or heavy-handed, where pieces might be swapped, characters or arcs adjusted, inconsistencies, “clangers,” and so on. I also make sure that the writer is aware of the things that they did well—because it’s easy to forget to say “Oh, did you know this is Damned Fine Writing?” I never take someone else’s piece apart and rebuild it. That’s the writer’s job and it’s a necessary process in improving as writer.
But when I start revising or editing my own material, I’m both writer and editor at the same time and I have to listen to advice, weigh it, and analyze both the advice and my own work, as well as revising, cleaning, fixing, and re-building. I’m a lot more brutal on my own work, because no one else can be. The other aspect of editing my own work is using what I learn from reading, analyzing, and editing the work of others. So critiquing or editing my peers is part of my process of becoming a better writer, and after that a better crit partner, better editor, better workshop leader, better coach, and a better writer... And back full circle, endlessly.
Writing and editing (or critiquing) are cooperative processes, not adversarial. I learn from each to do the others better and I treat each writer I crit or edit as I would like to be treated by my crit partners or editor.