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Should Editors Write?

April 18, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 18, 2014

I recently spoke with a woman who expressed an interest in editing. Since it was an opportunity to talk about writing and editing, I got excited, as I always do, encouraging her and making suggestions for ways she could get started.

One topic we mentioned was writing, actually working on a novel. I love the idea of editors taking on the task of writing a novel, of putting a full-length story together with all the challenges that entails.

I think every fiction editor should write.

Not write to necessarily to sell the fiction, but for the practice, for learning new skills, and for creating a shared experience with writers.

Those who edit short fiction should write a number of short stories or novellas, and those who edit long fiction should write at least one novel. This doesn’t mean an editor has to seek publication, although she could. And it certainly doesn’t mean an editor is a failure if she remains unpublished.

Writing a novel is simply great in-depth training for becoming adept at using the elements of fiction and the building blocks of writing.

No, you don’t have to write a novel to be an editor—writing and editing are ultimately two different tasks. Yet writing, putting together a novel from beginning to end, can help editors. The practice would certainly give an editor experience she couldn’t gain by other means.

The act of writing a novel can also give editors insights that can be learned no other way. Why wouldn’t an editor want to learn about writing a novel from the inside? Why wouldn’t an editor want to sharpen her skills and broaden her knowledge base, even learn to communicate with novelists using a shared language based on going through the same challenges under the same conditions?

Some knowledge comes only through experience.

I’m not saying that writing a novel wouldn’t take a lot of time, that working on it wouldn’t preclude taking on other tasks or jobs, but there is so much to be gained from facing story and structure problems from the inside that I can’t see how any editor would argue against the practice.

My recommendation today is for editors, and it’s simple advice—start writing. If you edit long fiction, start a novel. If you edit short fiction, try your hand at a few short stories, maybe of different styles. Put yourself in the writer’s shoes and work through story problems using different approaches. Learn new approaches to problem solving. Use what you already know about fiction writing to create a strong story and then use the problems that come up to learn new fixes and additional problem-solving techniques.

Add skills and experience to your repertoire. Look for new ways of helping writers by expanding your own knowledge and experience base.

Try something different, maybe something highly unusual, to remind yourself that there are multiple ways to solve story problems.

Come at story from a new direction, as the creator building it from the inside. And see if doing so doesn’t give you additional tools and insight that you can then share with your authors.

The idea isn’t an earth-shattering one, but maybe you’ve never considered actually writing a novel from beginning to end. So consider it. And if you considered it in the past but never followed through, consider the project again. Look at it as advanced training.

If you’ve already written a piece of long fiction but it was so long ago that you can’t remember either the joys or the frustrations of plotting a novel and bringing all the story elements together, tackle the task again. Choose a different genre or try a different point of view. Challenge yourself and give yourself some training at the same time.

Look at fiction from a different vantage point and give yourself something new to bring to your authors and their stories. Freshen your skill set and your approach. Freshen your outlook.

Increase your value as an editor by familiarizing yourself with fiction from the inside out.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: For Editors, Recommendations

6 Responses to “Should Editors Write?”

  1. Jeri says:

    My background in writing has proved essential in helping me become a good editor. If I hadn’t toiled away writing short stories, creative nonfiction, and now a novel, I would run the risk of being an outsider to the process. There is no better teacher than the undertaking of the endeavor itself.

  2. Tanja says:

    It makes perfect sense that an editor would write. I would rather work with an editor who loves to write just as much as she loves to edit. There’s an energy that passes between writer and editor. A writer can always sense (at least I can) when an editor is simply doing his/her job, as opposed to an editor who is passionate, while focusing on clarity, pacing, logic, arc, and polishing up prose. It is not just about the laws of syntax.
    The best editors wear many hats; why not include writing a novel?

  3. Great post, Beth! This is something I think about often. Editing comes so naturally for me, but when I’ve tried my hand at writing, I’ve always felt overwhelmed and suffered from writer’s block. So although I’ve never made it past three chapters, that very experience of frustration gave me more sympathy and admiration for the creative powers of writers! Perhaps it’s time I try again; who knows what I might learn if I can flush out five whole chapters this time. :)

    • Rachel, it will get easier. And I’m sure you’ll learn some marvelous insights that you’ll be able to share with writers. I’ll encourage you to not only get through five chapters, but to write at least ten and then ultimately finish a novel-length manuscript. The best of success to you.

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