April 6, 2011

A self-directed syllabus for improving your craft

Or: How do you stay in a working frame of mind when you have no work? 

One of the benefits of being a freelance editor is the ability to make your own schedule, arranging projects in a way that works for your particular life. However, in every freelancer’s career there will be times when the work is slow and, for one reason or another, you’ve exhausted your comfort level for downtime.

I challenged myself to turn some recent downtime into time that contributes to my understanding of the craft of developmental editing. The result was a list of learning activities that form a kind of “continuing ed” for the freelance editor. Classes and online seminars are great options, but sometimes scheduling or finances don’t permit you to do something that formal. What follows is my version of a self-directed syllabus for improving your craft.

Read. Read well. Read mostly good books. After you finish a book, write a brief note about aspects of the narrative you thought the author handled well, innovatively, or poorly. These notes become useful, real-world examples to reference in your editorial letters with clients.

If you suffer, like me, from kid-in-a-candy-shop paralysis at the bookstore or library, reading lists can give you a thematic path through the shelves. Some reading lists to explore:
  • James Wood, a literary critic on staff at The New Yorker and Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard, proposed the Best Books Since 1945 (originally printed in the Guardian, Oct. 7, 1994).
  • Donald Barthelme, a writer and professor who championed a postmodern style of short-short fiction, created a reading syllabus for students that continues to inspire writers.
  • Harold Bloom’s Western Canon was controversial almost as soon as it was published.
  • Backlash to Bloom’s Western Canon resulted in alternative reading lists, like the Non-Western Reading List and feminist reading lists: try Wikipedia’s List of Feminist Literature or A Celebration of Women Writers, maintained by librarian Mary Mark, which is searchable by author name, time period, geography, and ethnicity.
  • The American Library Association creates an extraordinary number of reading lists, including their Notable Books Reading List (2011) and the (growing) list of banned and challenged books, which gives a unique historical perspective on what is considered tasteful and appropriate for the time. For editors of YA, this might provide an interesting foundation for conversations with writers.

Expand your understanding of story laterally by reading screenplays, stage plays, and poetry. Poetry can invigorate your feel for language, tone, and voice. Scripts highlight aspects of structure, scene, dialog, plot, and pacing. Go classic with Shakespeare, modern with Ibsen, mythologic with Kushner, or minimalist with Mamet.

Branch out to subgenres in your genre(s). Sometimes you run across a manuscript that becomes a completely different animal by shifting the genre slantwise—a dry biography about the writer’s grandmother emerging more confidently as a folksy cookbook. So if you’ve done most of your work in memoir, investigate travelogues or foodie novels. If you usually work on sci-fi, read some horror and fantasy. You may be able to see a different book peeking out of the manuscript you’re working on, and give the writer some much-needed energy and focus.

Read the foundations of your genre(s). Wikipedia’s List of Genres has detail on the beginnings and prominent works of many genres. Reading pioneering books and novels can add depth and context to your analysis that you won’t get from simply critiquing more manuscripts.

Read the bestsellers in your genre(s). Whether you like the books or not, it will keep your conversations with writers fresh.

Teach a class locally or online. Many towns and cities have adult education centers with enthusiastic local teachers. Online venues include the Editorial Freelancers Association and Media Bistro. If you’re up for a challenge, consider creating your own topic-driven video for a blog or YouTube. Check out WORDplay as an example.

Volunteer to field questions about the editing process for a local writers group. This will give you firsthand information about what writers want and will help you refine your services. To find a writers group, look for postings at bookstores, libraries, coffee shops, colleges, and on craigslist.

Work on your own stories, memoir, or novel. The challenges you face working out a thorny bit of dialogue or delivering just the right amount of setting will inform both your critical eye and your compassionate voice as an editor.            

Critique story excerpts or become a beta reader in an online writers forum. A few to check out are Backspace, Literature and Latte, Poets & Writers, WritersNet, Absolute Write, and Zoetrope’s Virtual Studio.

Critique yourself. Re-read your marked-up manuscripts and previous letters to authors. What stayed with you from a particular manuscript? Did that aspect make it into your analysis? Has time tempered any of your feedback? Are there areas you habitually disregard because you’re not confident about your analysis? (For me, POV is always a challenge and I sometimes don’t go as deep as I could.)

I certainly haven’t checked all of these off my list, and many of them represent a real stretch for me. (Teach? Eek!!) But in the often-haphazard times between manuscripts, my syllabus offers me a sense of progress and direction. Some of the items imply “marketing” my skills, but at a more basic level they offer a connection to a larger community, something I struggle with as a freelancer even as I appreciate my autonomy. I’d love to hear how you handle time between projects, whether it’s focused on learning or simply staying engaged with like-minded people. 

—Beth Stokes


  1. Beth, your recommendations all seem spot on. I especially admired your calling out so many different ways to learn by reading. Yours is a nicely structured approach.

  2. Beth,

    I like this: "Some of the items imply “marketing” my skills, but at a more basic level they offer a connection to a larger community, something I struggle with as a freelancer even as I appreciate my autonomy."

    Editing can be a job but it's also a vocation, as is writing and reading and loving literature. So much of what you talk about in your post acknowledges being part of literary community and seeing that as important. Good practical tips too.

    Barbara Sjoholm,

  3. Thank you, Beth! For the first time in my life, it's my duty to my craft to read the best-selling science fiction and fantasy novels as well as return to the foundational books that made me love the genre.

    I also really appreciate your "structured approach," as Marta put it. Very helpful. The thing I know I should do, yet never seem to have time for, is re-read my own critique letters and mark-up. Obviously, that should be next on my list