Reading as an editor

One of the toughest things I have to do with students is tell them that, had I been reading as an editor, I wouldn't have got past the third paragraph of their story.

It's a horrible thing to say, isn't it? But without knowing how an editor works and thinks, too many writers don't make the small improvements in their work that could mean the difference between success and failure. And actually, as an editor, I read everything to the bitter end - even if it's dire -that's what I'm paid for, after all.

But if I'm reading online, I insert an asterisk where, if I'd been reading for pleasure, I would have flipped to another site, and if I'm reading on paper, I draw a red line across the page where I would have put down the manuscript and gone off to do something more interesting. Then, if they are a student, I tell them where I would have given up if I'd had the choice.

Yes, it's harsh. But unlike editors and tutors, readers are not compelled to read to the end. They flip. They wander off. And an editor's job is to choose and polish work that stops them doing that.

Here are some ways to make sure your editor reads past the first three paragraphs:

  1. Most first paragraphs can be removed from most stories - I'm as guilty of this as anybody else, and my critiquers in workshops often point out what I should have known for myself; that my opening para is just padding.
  2. Weather is a turn off, and starting a story with weather suggests the writer lacks confidence, dramatic ability or both.
  3. Events don't start (usually) when people wake up, so nor should stories, unless they are erotica and the characters are about to get erotic.

Of course there are exceptions to all these rules. But you have to be a damn fine writer to be an exception, and if you are, I'd probably not have stopped reading in the first place, so the point is moot.

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