Unless you have a young child who is learning to read, you probably don’t give much thought to your ability to read . . . but that skill took years of training and practice to develop. Writing requires another set of skills that took years to perfect—first printing, then learning cursive, and finally for most of us, learning to type.
I also find that many skill sets I use in my work as an editor are skills I have honed over many years of writing and working not just publishing, but in every career I’ve had. I’d like to talk about three of those skills in relation to the editing I do for authors, and I think you’ll agree they are basic skills for every writer, too.
Confession time: I still miss library card catalogs. (I know you’re laughing at me, but I really do!) There was something so satisfying about flipping through those cards, finding just the right connection to the information you were looking for, and zeroing in on the book or encyclopedia or microfiche that promised to hold the secret treasure.
But research has come a long way, baby, and the Internet (a concept that would have made a great sci-fi novel not that many years ago) has opened a world of research opportunities for readers and writers. Today, my computer, not a card catalog, is one of my best research tools. Whether I’m editing fiction or nonfiction, I find myself researching something for almost every project—and I feel like a detective as I search for clues and answers to things that affect the professionalism and quality of my client’s manuscript. The research skills I learned in grade school and sharpened in college have been invaluable to my writing as well as to my work as an editor and writing coach.
Before I begin any writing or editing project, I open several pages on my computer in preparation: Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, and Google are the first three. I also have a number of reference books on my desk at all times: the print version of Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern American Usage, and numerous copyediting manuals to which I can refer for specific questions that always pop up.
Research should probably be every writer’s middle name. Those basic researching skills you learned in grade school and perfected in high school, college, and the workplace are so important when writing. Knowing how to find information relevant to the subject you’re writing about and how to properly cite your sources are required skills if you’re a nonfiction author. Even for fiction writers, the availability of information at your fingertips through search engines alone is almost limitless if you know how to conduct online research: for example, how much fun would it be to create a language for your imaginary society that is based on the structure of Esperanto?
So much of what a writer puts on paper begins with his or her observation of the world. As a writing coach and editor, I come into the picture after those observations have been committed to memory or to paper.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet several times with one of my clients to brainstorm ideas and discuss concepts when she’s unsure if she’s heading in the right direction, and I cue off her body language and questions as we discuss her options. But how does observation work when I’m all alone with a manuscript?
You might be surprised to know how much of yourself you reveal in your writing. I often know next to nothing about a client when I begin editing a manuscript, but there are always telltale signs in those words—and I don’t mean just in memoirs. Even fiction contains clues if you know how to recognize them, and I enjoy getting to know my clients through their writing as much as I do through phone conversations and emails. Of course there is nothing like a face-to-face meeting to speed up that process of discovery, but I continue to learn so much through observing what is between the lines of the words I edit.
Judging by the length of these answers, you’re probably assuming this is a word lacking in my vocabulary, right? I’m a lover of words, and I’ve always been fascinated with the ways we string words together to communicate, choosing just the right ones and placing them in just the right order to clearly express ideas. Words are my bread and butter, so I delight in every opportunity to learn something about them or from them.
A holdover from college writing that I often see in new writers’ work is the idea that more description is better; I suspect it’s a throwback to writing to a word count. When I’m editing, I embrace the concept of brevity. I love reading clear, concise text that uses just the right words to convey the writer’s meaning, so I work hard to help writers achieve that in their own writing. Less often is more, and the idea of using only enough (and the correct) words is something I watch for as I edit. When I have the pleasure of editing a second or third manuscript for the same author, I’m always gratified when I see fewer extraneous words and phrases than I did in the first manuscript.
When I share ideas with clients about their writing, I need to clearly explain my thoughts without burdening them with pages of explanation, so I’ve developed a type of communication shorthand, and I always include a description of that in my editorial letter when I finish editing a manuscript. I’m still perfecting my technique, but I do try to follow my own advice: never use ten words to say something when five will do.
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Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.
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