Earlier this week, I met with some local writers in a monthly event that I organize. While we were talking, the topic of editing work came out, as well as the need for every writer to have someone with a “mean pen”.
A mean pen simply means that the person critiquing your work takes a no-holds-barred approach to finding problems in your work. This will sometimes involve challenging the content (*GASP*, could there be a problem with an argument I’m using?). Other times this will mean identifying areas that made the reader pause, reread, or question the writer’s meaning (or sanity).
In the conversation above, we were talking about why there remains a negative connotation with self-published works. We decided the biggest problem with most self-pubbed pieces simply haven’t experienced a mean enough pen yet. If more people had their work professionally edited, then self-publishing would become a much greater power in the world today.
As a freelance editor, I take a mean pen to every piece that crosses my desk. I cross out anything I feel is unnecessary, often cutting out hundreds or thousands of words. I’ll point out ill-conceived and unconvincing arguments, or mistakes that a writer seems to make consistently (such as “then” and “than” confusion).
Other times, I’ll find that there are some gaps in the work. Often this is because the writer assumed the reader had some knowledge. It’s often a simple matter for the writer to fill the hole. However, without someone with a mean pen that can identify these leaps, the writer may be embarrassed by a barrage of criticism after releasing work to the world before it was ready.
My goal as an editor is not only to improve a work, but to improve the writer as well. It gets boring to correct the same old mistakes–I’d rather a writer was always making new ones!
Editing with a mean pen cannot guarantee that you’ll find every error. The author ultimately has to choose whether he or she is going to act on the criticism. There’s also no guarantee that someone editing with a mean pen will find every error.
What editing with a mean pen can do, however, uncover some of the larger problems within a work, and give the writer a hint of what needs more work. That’s how a writer grows.
What do you think? How do you find problems in your work? What can writers do to help themselves develop a “mean pen”?
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