How to Read Like an Editor

The Main Writing Skill You May Be Neglecting

How to Read Like an Editor

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“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Readers may recognize this bit of wisdom from Stephen King’s wonderful book about craft, On Writing. (And if you haven’t read it yet, scurry out to do so. He is a master and it will inspire you.)

Back when the pandemic first started (you guys, that was more than two years ago; can you believe that?), I heard from a startling number of authors that they couldn’t write. The uncertainties and fears and chaos of this new unsettling reality made it impossible for many to focus on trying to create stories of their own.

Most writers I talked to weren’t necessarily panicked that that meant they were no longer writers, or that their creative spark had deserted them and might never come back. They trusted that it would…one day, when the world settled back to “normal” (pause for laughter here).

But when a creative isn’t creating, it can be painful—as if a part of us is numb or has been amputated. As if a constant companion inside us has gone silent or been snuffed out. As if an inner voice is struggling to be heard but can’t make a sound. We lose something intrinsic about ourselves.

Creating is a universal human impulse—I believe that with all my soul—but some have it heartbreakingly stifled early in life and may lose that glorious creative, self-expressive instinct.

Those of us who pursue our creativity come to rely on it, to consider it an essential part of who we are. When it’s gone we lose a part of ourselves.

But go back and read the above quote again. King’s mandate for being a writer lists two requirements—and writing isn’t even the first one. Reading is.

How Reading Affects Your Writing

What were most of us doing during the pandemic (when we weren’t learning to bake sourdough and start gardens)? Many of us plowed through the books that had piled up in our TBR piles. We binge-watched TV shows and movies.

Writers might not have been creating stories amid all those difficulties, but they were consuming them. It’s what we do—what probably seduced most of us into this field in the first place: the desire to create our own stories like the ones we already loved.

But casual pleasure reading (or watching) isn’t the kind of reading I think King is talking about. You can spend a lifetime doing that and still never get any closer to improving or mastering your own skills as a writer. That’s like reading a math textbook and believing we understand calculus without ever working through the equations.

You have learn how to assess and diagnose what makes those works successful (or not) with an objective analytical eye. That’s not just a core skill for editors to learn—it’s the bedrock of every skill a writer must master.

  • It teaches in practical, concrete ways what elements go into creating a successful story. Authors can (and many do) spend a lifetime not just practicing their craft, but studying it. But esoteric knowledge of storytelling elements isn’t as effective as seeing them actually employed in situ, any more than a surgeon can master her skill by simply reading medical textbooks. She has to observe actual surgeries, dissect cadavers, and eventually get her hands inside a living body to truly understand how to perform those procedures herself. Studying the concepts offers a solid foundation, but it doesn’t teach how to use them. Learning how to analyze stories does.
  • It shows not just what craft elements are essential to good story, but how to execute them. Once you learn to see the essential elements of story in action and how they contribute to (or detract from) a story’s effectiveness, learning how to analyze story lets you trace back exactly how the author achieved those ends, or failed to—­to understand granularly and concretely, on the page, just how the sausage was made.
  • It teaches how to assess what’s actually on the page. One of the main challenges for a writer in editing his own work is being able to assess how effectively he is conveying on the page the story that may feel so real and fully developed in his head. When you’re neck-deep in your story it can be almost impossible to accurately gauge how well it may come across to readers: Authors know their stories and characters so well that they may unconsciously “fill in the gaps” between their vision and its execution. The easiest way to learn how to gain that analytical objectivity in your own writing is by learning to do it with other people’s, where it’s already built-in. Mastering that ability—how to take on an editorial mindset—is one of the most important, foundational skills a writer must have. Writing is rewriting—but you can’t effectively do that until you know what may need to be rewritten, and why…and how.

Read more:

“Please Don’t Revise Your Manuscript!”

“How to Not Hate Editing Your Writing”

Reading (and watching) other people’s stories simply for pleasure without also engaging in deliberate, meticulous analysis of them may inspire ideas and motivation, but it’s not going to do a lot to hone your skills as a writer.

That’s not to say you have to completely master the skills of a professional editor—but you can and should learn how an editor approaches story with that objective, analytical eye as one of the foundational skills of being a writer. I would venture that it’s the most important skill a writer can develop. As Stephen King also says in the same book, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Those tools are what you gain by knowing how to analyze story like an editor. When the pandemic first hit and I heard so many writers struggling, I created a course to “train their editor brain,” and I offered it for free to every writers’ organization, group, and conference I knew of.

Here are the basic components of my approach:

  • “Feel” the story: This is the equivalent of a good editor’s first cold read of a manuscript, the one that orients us to the overall story. On my initial read I’m not trying to pick out anything specific; I’m just immersing myself in the author’s vision as it comes across on the page. Then I simply sit with my general impressions of it, with a series of overview questions I ask myself about how I reacted in various places and how effective the story felt to me overall and in key areas. (I list a lot of these questions in Intuitive Editing, in the “Approaching the Edit” chapter.)
  • Identify the key components that make it effective (or not): Once you know how you felt about the story, you use that information to track back to exactly where in the manuscript those reactions and impressions were elicited, and why—what made you feel a certain way in a certain area of the story? (I talk more about this in this recent article on Jane Friedman’s blog.)
  • Analyze how the author achieved those ends (or failed to): Now you keep dissecting, parsing out specifically, concretely what in a scene, a line, an action, a word yielded your reaction. In other words, how did the author create a certain impression or response or effect in the reader? How did they convey a specific story element—like character or stakes, tension and suspense, etc.?

This is a version of the techniques I use as an editor with every single manuscript I work on—and it’s readily adaptable for writers even if you don’t have years of editorial education and apprenticeship behind you. You use yourself, as a reader, as the best barometer for the story’s effectiveness, and follow your own reactions back to the writer’s technique that engendered them.

And once you learn to see that, friends, on that foundational, granular level, it becomes a part of you and your own writing. All those esoteric storytelling concepts you’ve probably, if you’re like most authors, spent years studying become part of the fabric of your psyche, and tools in your toolbox readily available to you.

That means you can let go of any writing “rules” or dogma or prescribed writing systems and just write when you’re writing, knowing that you’ve been honing your skills and instincts with all that training. And when the time comes to edit and revise your work, you’ll also have the skill and experience of slipping into those objective perspectives to make your self-editing most effective.

Read more:

“The Three Perspectives of Effective Storytelling”

“Write Like a Writer; Edit Like an Editor”

If you want to dive deeper into how to learn to analyze story with these techniques, with plenty of specific examples, check out my online course “Analyze Story Like an Editor”.

It’s your turn, authors. Tell me—do you already read and watch stories this analytically, or are you taking in stories more as a lay reader or casual reviewer? Have you tried dissecting someone else’s story in this way? Did it show you more than you generally can see in your own writing? Have you analyzed other authors’ work as part of a crit group, and how does that reflect on your own self-editing?

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23 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks for the reminder!

  • Thank you for reminding us about the importance of reading. Can you recommend some excellent novels to analyze that were published in the last 3-5 years?

    • Not just reading–but learning to read analytically. It’s a gold mine for improving an author’s own writing and self-editing.

      The beauty of this is that you can analyze literally anything–everything is story. It doesn’t have to be some masterwork. I analyze every book I read, every single show and movie I watch, songs, journalism profiles, documentaries, commercials (I kid you not)–I even recently found myself analyzing a slogan on the side of a landscape truck and why it was effective. If we get into the habit of parsing out story, wherever we find it, and how its author created whatever effect it has on us, we are constantly improving our own craft skills and knowledge.

      And it’s entirely subjective–which I also love. What I find effective may not be what you do, so while I could recommend useful stories to dissect, they may not be as helpful to you as they are to me, because they elicited strong reactions in me that they might not in you. Does that make sense?

      That said, I will offer one recommendation. 🙂 The podcast “Dead Eyes” (See? I analyze everything) is a master class in how to spool out a story–from episode to episode, across all the episodes, and beat by beat within each episode. That’s my latest obsession. But ask me again another time and I will give you another answer. Good luck, and have fun! It’s a blast, actually–the most fun you’ll ever have learning.

      • Thanks, Tiffany. Intellectually I know this, but it’s so hard! Yesterday we tried to analyze a British TV series we were watching. We think the writing is great, but are trying to figure out how the writer accomplished this…we are still thinking about this. Maybe one day we’ll be analyzing landscape truck slogans too!

        • Even just reviewing what you liked and didn’t and why is valuable for your own writing.

          And truly there’s a practice effect. You know how when you’re hearing a foreign language while you’re still learning it, and it’s all running together and hard to understand any of it…and then suddenly one day after long enough, it’s like your ear gets used to it and all the words just suddenly jell, as if a switch went off? I think this is like that. It’s hard at first and takes a lot of deliberate analysis and focus, but if you just keep doing it every time you’ve read/watched something, one day you realize you don’t even consciously have to analyze each storytelling element or be so deliberate about it–it all just jumps out at you if you let it “percolate” in the back of your mind. That’s exactly how I work while editing–I just trust now that my subconscious mind is hard at work on the analysis, after all these years of practice at it, and when I go back in for the deep-dive pass it’s just right there in front of me.

          It works that way with your own writing too–that’s why I love this approach. After a while all these craft techniques just become a part of you, and when you write you’re no longer consciously mindful of “doing” them in your writing–they just happen.

    • I had been used to analysing content. So structure, plot, characters and their context was part and parcel. But editing is another aspect. Screeds dumped and assessing the levels, developmental and copy editing and proof reading ( the easy bit for me) was the hard part. But it was finished. Cold Peace as a kindle book took a whole year. Let’s be more efficient with the next…

      • Some take longer than others–but I do find it’s often a curve: The more conversant you get with this kind of objective analysis, the easier editing your own work can be.

        But it’s never easy. I’ve done this for thirty years and I still can’t see my own work as clearly as I can another author’s. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, Alec–and congrats on Cold Peace! Finishing is always an accomplishment, no matter how long it takes.

  • Sharon Wagner
    June 30, 2022 2:34 pm

    I listened to S.K. Now, I read several books at a time, enjoying and analyzing. Silvia Moreno Garcia writes beautiful sentences that I savor and reread, hoping to glean better word arrangements. Maybe I have harvested a full crop of great sentences by now! I just read Where the Crawdad’s Sing, and loved it just like everyone else. I found masterful and vivid sentences in that book. I didn’t, however, like that the author head jumped. But the rest was sublime.

    • Oh, yes, I love beautiful language too, and find myself reveling in it as you describe.

      I often think writers mostly focus on that element when they are analyzing another author’s work, though–and to me that’s just the frosting, the last step in the system I advocate in my course. Perfecting the language is the “sexy” part of writing, I always say, but I find it must more foundationally instructive and useful to analyze the storytelling elements–how the author builds and develops the story, the characters, the plot, etc., and puts it on the page to elicit a response in the reader. All the pretty prose in the world won’t keep readers engaged without rock–solid storytelling.

      And yes, head hopping DRIVES ME CRAZY as well. It’s why I couldn’t even finish reading Crazy Rich Asians. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  • Maryann Kovalski
    June 30, 2022 4:52 pm

    You (and Stephen King) are so right about the power of reading. And so right to say it’s a subjective business. I discovered Chekhov’s short stories, not as a student, but as a pleasure reader when I was still a visual artist.

    I devoured the stories. The spines are in tatters from re-reading.

    When I admitted my longing for writing adult fiction and that I couldn’t do it alone, I signed up for a writing course. There, I learned that a writer shows, does not tell, that repeating words too closely together is a to be avoided, never head hop, to decide on a POV and stay in it, at least within chapters.

    Most important: endings must be clear, inevitable, yet surprising.

    I returned to the master, Chekhov’s Ariadne.

    I wanted to whine like a brat, “Ma!! How come Anton gets to do all that and I can’t? No fair!”

    In Ariadne, the reader (or this reader anyway!) is captivated by the narrator’s telling of a couple’s extremely complicated relationship. Words are repeated. No matter, it’s a translation anyway. The reader is at the edge of her seat.

    It ends like this:

    “The day after this meeting I left Yalta, and how Shamokhin’s love affair ended I don’t know.”

    The moral of my observation? Like Chekhov, I don’t know!

    But still, as you say, Tiffany, I am certain that reading closely and constantly, and re-reading stories that captivate you, do soak in on the granular level and improve one’s writing.

    • Ha! One reason I always put “rules” in quotes with writing is because for every hard-and-fast “rule” a writer learns, there’s something like this, with Chekhov, where someone has broken it spectacularly. I love that you’re pondering why this story affected you, despite that–I do that a lot. I’m reading one right now–a huge bestseller, really strong plot, good writing…and yet I keep putting it down and forgetting about it for long stretches. Why? I don’t know yet, but I like pondering it till I find an answer. It’s one of the things I love most about my job as an editor–I feel as if stories are puzzles to solve: What’s keeping a story from being as effective as it could, from fully achieving the author’s vision? How can I circle in on that, find out why, offer suggestions for addressing it to make the story on the page as close to the one in the author’s head as we can make it? It’s the best brain game ever, for me. I really geek out over teaching this stuff too–especially the analysis part. Once authors see how to analyze a story this way, I love watching the lightbulbs go off.

      And I can’t agree more that all that insight and deep understanding of craft becomes a part of the fabric of a writer if they make a habit of that kind of analysis of other people’s stories–and then when they write their own work it finds its way naturally, intuitively into it, without an author having to hamstring her creativity by trying to remember or consciously execute all the craft knowledge she’s studied. It just absorbs and becomes part of her.

      Thanks for an intriguing comment, Maryann–always nice to see you here.

  • Charlotte French
    July 1, 2022 8:16 am

    Yes, I feel the same way. Story is everywhere, and I’m completely obsessed with anything story. I have boxes and boxes of books on writing. Stephen King on Writing was for me the big surprise. I don’t read horror. Of his, I have only read The Shining many decades ago, and recently Mr Mercedes, but S. K. on Writing—total gem. I didn’t know he’s so funny too. If I borrow a book at the library I treat it well. If I buy a book, I read it with highlighter in my hand. It can be anything at all that speaks to me. That stark yellow makes it easy to find later, and I do go back through my books. Listening to audio is great in a different way. I just bought Intuitive Editing, two days ago, Tiffany. I’m half way through and loving it. (Will of course, post review when done.) And I bought the NaturalReader app. After doing my own recording for years, this is better again, so thank you for that idea. And thank you for all your good advice.

    • Thanks, Charlotte! I’m happy to hear the book and suggestions are helpful.

      I’m story-obsessed too…and like you I analyze everything. My husband thinks it takes the fun out of it. I liken it to the way he likes to take apart mechanical things to see how they work. The Steven King is among my favorite craft books–I’ve always loved his voice and yes, his humor. (If you’ve never read The Stand, it’s an absolute favorite–and not really horror at all.) Thanks for your note!

  • Maryann Kovalski
    July 2, 2022 3:07 pm

    How I love these conversations!

    Like you, Charlotte, I prefer paper I can mark up. And yes, story. It’s everywhere. I also love used books embedded with the previous owner’s notes.

    In my used copy of Anna Karenina, owned when phone numbers began with two letters (in this case 914 TE 4-6921), the previous owner wrote on the title page: You forgot to pin the red rose in it. How am I to know you?

    The writing is perpendicular to the title, so I imagined a student with the book opened in class, writing this to the girl next to him. (I know the owner was a male because his name was in it.)

    Maybe the mystery of why we put some perfectly well-written books down is that they may lack heart, honesty. Perhaps they hit all the right notes technically, but lack the author’s soul. I once heard someone speak about Frank Sinatra, saying that he was technically brilliant, but his genius lay in that Sinatra never left a shred of doubt that he really felt the ache in each lyric he sang.

    A quote I often say and hope is true: A story told from the heart will reach other hearts.

    When my own work falls flat, I believe it’s because, more than clumsiness, (that can be cured pretty easily), it’s because I think a character should feel a certain way, should speak a certain way and worse, I have him do something because I think people will like him or her better.

    Or just as bad, I will have my protagonist do something because I think the plot needs jazzing up. The impetus is coming from without, not within.

    • I LOVE THIS STORY! It’s a story in itself–it almost begs for a novel about it. 🙂

      I love what you say about heart in writing, Maryann. I so agree. This was brought home to me when I was an entertainment reviewer in Florida for a while, and I saw viscerally how the performers who were up there totally in it, just really committed and wholeheartedly enjoying their craft, were the ones who were riveting to watch–even if they weren’t technically the best performers. I remind myself of that a lot in my writing–and it’s the whole basis of Intuitive Editing–that the most compelling, engaging art does exactly as you said, grows from the inside out, not the other way around.

      Thanks for stopping by–I always enjoy your comments.

  • Maryann Kovalski
    July 3, 2022 12:52 pm

    I hope this isn’t closed. I just re-read Charlotte’s post where she mentions Natural Reader app. I’ve tried the voices on Microsoft Word which offers various robotic accents. It does help, but the voices are clipped, odd and well, just too robotic. And only does one paragraph at a time.

    Is Natural Reader more… natural? Is it user friendly for techno goofs?

  • Claudia Lynch
    July 4, 2022 5:41 pm

    Yes! I find that I do this intuitively, so it doesn’t even feel like work. I’m a very critical person; sometimes being so analytical is not a good thing but in this case it’s perfect. To learn to take reading dissection even further, I highly recommend George Saunders’ “A Swim in a Pond Near the Rain”. He analyzes short stories one page at a time (literally!), asking questions like — What do we know after reading this page that we didn’t know before? Why is this character appearing now, and does he seem like he’ll figure heavily into the story or is he just passing through? What assumptions can we make based on the descriptions chosen or left out? I find that having gotten used to noticing how other writers use their skills makes me able to use my own tools more intuitively, too. More writing, less panicking!

    • Ha, you’ve described me as well. 🙂 I’ve never heard of that Saunders book, but already I am fascinated by it. This is exactly the kind of analysis that I think is invaluable for writers, and I didn’t know anyone had written something like it. I’ll check it out–thanks.

      And you describe one of the biggest benefits of it–once you internalize these storytelling tenets, what works and why, then it begins to find its way into your work more and more as you write without your having to bear down consciously on craft techniques that can make your writing feel constrained and strip away your unique voice.

      Thanks for sharing this, Claudia–off to find the Saunders book.

  • Maryann Kovalski
    July 4, 2022 8:05 pm

    I also recommend joining George Saunders’ Story Club. It’s open to all, costs $50 a year and is, it seems, a condensed version of his master class, without members posting their own writing, just commenting on the classic short stories he posts. Each Sunday he posts a classic, or little known short story. He asks the group to ponder and opens up for comments on Thursday.

    I was late joining, but enjoyed the dissection of Tilly Olsen’s ‘I Stand Here Ironing’. Very moving. I admit, I did not know Tilly Olsen. This week it’s Katherine Mansfield.

    He calls it ‘looking under the hood to see what’s going on in a story, to see how it works.’

    He also sometimes posts an interesting question posed by a member and offers an in depth, anecdotal answer.

    I don’t know why he does it, maybe it’s an egalitarian impulse? I’ve been told that Saunders said a person who doesn’t graduate from an MFA program has little chance of getting published. Don’t know if he actually said it. He does talk about the chances of publishing being small, true, and of making a living if published also small, that he still has to hustle himself, but that it’s all worth it.

    I think you would like it Tiffany. He often says what you say!

    • Okay, I’m intrigued. This is such a cool idea–I’ve been actually wanting to do something like this with authors’ WIPs and with published works–it’s such a wonderful way to learn. Thanks for the heads-up on this, Claudia and Maryann.

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