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  • Writer's pictureJean Shields Fleming

Editing: The Liminal Space of Between Writer & Reader

On editing myself and others, the three ways to read, and the voices I hear in my head.

Editing in a notebook a person stands between columns

I spend a lot of time in the liminal space between writer and reader, a zone known as editing. Whether it’s editing my own work – currently, my current novel-in-progress, The Italian Concerto – or the work of others in my capacity as editor for Certain Age magazine, editing is the yang to the yin of writing, and I love how the two parts of the process work together.

When I’m writing, I’m exploring unknown territory. Nothing thrills me like a well made sentence illuminating a new idea. Bonus if there’s elegance in the language. I love it when the characters in my novels take off in unexpected – and unplanned – directions. Writing is inherently generative, seeking connections between disconnected elements through the power of the imagination.

  The editor’s work is a decidedly left brained response to all this rampant novelty. But its analytical stance comes from deep love, the love of a midwife birthing new life.


  Recently, I shared my thoughts on editing as part of a conversation on how to get published with writers in Sage Cohen’s WE WRITE community. What an engaged group we had – one participant even did a graphical set of notes on the talk!

A drawing of notes from a seminar on editing given by Jean Shields Fleming


As an editor, I want the writer's perspective to shine. I want their fondest vision of what they're creating to come true. At the same time, I try to stand in for the reader and see the piece through their eyes. So as I read, I’m keeping a mental tally of wonderings. What questions will they have that don't get answered? Where does the spell break, and how can we swerve to prevent its rupture?

  I edit by reading a piece three times. First I read as a lover. The piece is flawless, literature’s finest flower. It will win all the prizes. It will become a beloved classic and change countless lives for the better. I’m besotted.

  Next, I read as a harsh critic, with impossible standards that no writer can meet. This reader is quickly irritated by repetitious language or the verbal tics most writers display in their early drafts when they’re still working out their ideas. Out comes the pen.

  Finally, I do a third read that synthesizes these two perspectives. I think of this as a laying on of hands, feeling where there’s heat, feeling where there are blockages that stop the truth from escaping through the words. In this read, I want to find the essential power of the piece, and use that to shape the next draft. Depending on the purpose of the writing, and whether it is my own work or someone else’s, I’ll be very hands on (with my work), or try to steer the rewrite through questions and comments (for another writer's work).


Art and Esther Shields, he was a newspaper reporter and editor

Often I hear past mentors when I edit. Lately it’s my grandfather, Artie, who speaks to me as I read my own work. That's him in the photo, with my grandmother Esther. He was a newspaper reporter who believed in telling stories as simply and directly as possible. He wore a green visor when he wrote at his manual typewriter, and that's how I see him when I'm editing. I had the term “self-abnegation” in the mouth of one of my characters in The Italian Concerto but I heard Artie ask, "Isn’t there a simpler way to say that?"

He was right. There was.

  Or I’ll hear Lynn Freed, a wonderful South African writer with whom I worked early on in my writing career. She detested passages where writers got carried away with the beauty of words at the expense of story. She had a term for it.

  “You’re singing,” she’d say. “You must stop singing.”

  Good reminder, Lynn. Thanks for calling me out on that.

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