I still have left-over moments of intimidation that I recall from childhood when an authority figure centred me out. I suppose the biggest reminder occurs when a patrol car pulls up beside me and an officer happens to glance my way. My immediate reaction is to wonder if I’ll be pulled over. Now, never mind that I’ve never committed a serious crime, and this usually happens at a stop light where there is no chance I’m travelling over the speed limit, it’s a simple knee-jerk reaction.
Imagine my surprise when someone had that same reaction to me. Aware that I work as an editor, a friend asked me to look over a letter that was critical to her career. Before she parted with the papers she gave me a litany of excuses and explanations for possible errors. She had laboured for days writing this letter, and it occurred to me that what she really wanted was for me to hand it back and say that it was perfect.
As I was reading, I made comments about the strength of her argument, but then I came to a sentence that needed tweaking; it was awkward and a change in punctuation would clarify the intent of her meaning. Her face fell the moment I picked up a pen.
I remembered being told, ‘the policeman is your friend.’ And so too is an editor. An editor can often take a good story and hoist it to a position of excellence. It’s not just a question of literacy—Spell-check took a lot of retired school teachers out of the editing business—a good editor sees a story as a sum of all of its parts. She can offer valuable suggestions for a different writing perspective or uncover inconsistencies in the plot line and even point out when a character flounders—saying or doing something that doesn’t ring true.
A writer can hire an editor and it’s often worth the expense, but if that is not a viable option, find someone who shares your enthusiasm for writing and ask for their honest opinion of your story. That’s not to say that you have to agree with their assessment and make the changes, but a fresh pair of eyes can often spot things you’ve missed.
Even an editor needs an editor. We are so intimate with the work we create that we skip over errors repeatedly—no matter how many times we re-read our stories. An editor reads the story without the preamble of thoughts and plots that have been rumbling around a writer’s head before they commit them to paper. Each of us begins to read expecting to be entertained and impressed.
To keep that eagerness intact, take care of obvious errors ahead of time. Generally known as SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar), these mistakes interrupt the enjoyment of a story. They jar the reader out of the mood the writer has created and they affect the editor's overall perception of your work. Don't overtax your editor with obvious mistakes, and she'll do a better job for you in the end.
Without a strong ego, none of us would ever submit a story for publishing, but you need to set that ego aside when asking for and receiving guidance. Remember: the editor is your ally. Often the most important lesson an author needs to learn is how to listen to good advice.
♦ Essayist, commercial copywriter and published short story writer Jade regularly demonstrates her ability to accurately assess writing talent as Page & Spine's Senior Story Editor. Her compassion for new writers is counterbalanced by her direct, often cryptic responses to submissions she does not favor.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.