Doing the Other Guy’s Job

- by Elaine Isaak

One of the best ways to improve your skills as a writer is to try sitting on the other side of the desk for a while.  To improve your writing skills, edit the work of others.  To make a better first impression, be a slush reader.  To consider your market, help a friend define hers.  If you are a member of an active critique group of authors on a level similar to or higher than your own, you may be taking steps in this direction already! But you may be thinking too much about the critique you are receiving for your own work–or worse, trying to be nice to people you know.

Editing is a somewhat different thing than critiquing.  Hopefully, your critique group has a clear-cut set of guidelines for how you approach each other’s work.  I think that’s necessary to keep things both productive and civil.  Oftentimes, these guidelines inhibit your thinking through the manuscript’s problems.When you approach someone else’s work with an editor’s eye, you need to not only notice trouble spots, but to be able to articulate them:  what aspect of that character didn’t work, which word choices were confusing, or what information was missing for clarity.  You may even need to go a step further and consider solutions.  In fact, if you are wearing your editor hat, you might develop radical solutions that require significant effort, but will result in a stronger work.  That can be a hard thing to propose if you read only a chapter or two at a time in your crit group.  However, thinking through this process–from pinpointing trouble to articulating reasons, to proposing solutions can help you understand how to work it through in your own book.

Slush reading begins with an educated gut reaction.  At the magazine office or publishing house, the busy (often intern or assistant) editor doesn’t have time to read pages of a short story or several chapters of a book in order to get a sense of whether it’s a contender for a limited number of publishing slots.  Instead, they focus on the opening.  Does the author know how to compose a paragraph?  Is there immediately a spark of interest, whether an innovative voice, sense of conflict or mystery, or believable character? Will the work fit the genre or style of that publisher?  And perhaps most important, does the reader feel that he can trust the writer to deliver a great read?  It doesn’t seem fair that our manuscripts may be rejected in pages or even paragraphs–but it’s one of the realities of the business.  Get in touch with a small press or anthlogy editor who could use an eduated eye & volunteer to read.  Then go home and think about your own work in that pile of submissions.  How would *you* have rated it?  Worth passing along to the Senior Editor?

If someone in your critique group is ready to submit, help to brainstorm market approaches.  Where would you see this book on the shelves? Which authors are similar?  Whose readers do you think would love it?  This is helpful not only for submitting the book initially, but also for filling out marketing surveys for books in the process of publication, and also for preparing to promote the book when it’s out.  The better you can define the market of readers who will love the book, the easier it will be for you to get it in their hands, from agent or editor all the way to the corner bookstore shelf.


  1. Teaching a workshop or judging a manuscript contest always help me revisit the basics and strengthen my own craft.

  2. Often it’s easier to see another writer’s mistakes and offer ways to correct them than to see those same weaknesses in our own work. I, too, revisit the basics when critiquing or judging contests.

  3. Thanks for reminding me about contests! Judging a contest is a great equivalent for slush-pile reading, with the added consideration of providing scores or feedback that will accurately reflect the manuscript’s standing.