This morning I wore my editor hat. Which is to say, I did a line-edit and a letter of critique for the first chapter of somebody’s novel.

(No, I won’t say whose. Confidentiality, and all that.)

What do I do when I wear that hat? Well, usually it goes like this:

First I read the text all the way through without making any notes or comments. This is, believe it or not, a precaution against the work being so good that it’s distracting. A really good story or novel has the power to knock the editor hat right off my head and shove the reader hat down in its place, and when I’m wearing the reader hat, I can and will overlook any number of flaws because I’m having too much fun to notice them.

Then I take a break for a few hours, or a day or so, depending upon how big the job is and how much time I’ve allowed myself for finishing it.

After my break-time is over, I go back to the text and read it again from the beginning. (I’m doing all this work with electronic manuscripts, by the way, because manhandling — or womanhandling, as would more properly be the case — five or six hundred sheets of 8.5×11 paper can be a drag, especially when you have cats in the house whose idea of literary criticism is leaving muddy pawprints on the manuscript.) This time through, I make notes on anything and everything I may notice: incorrect or ineffective punctuation, infelicitous word choices, awkward phrasing and sentence structure, continuity glitches, great gaping plot holes, and so on. I use Word’s comment function to place these notes in the margin of the on-screen text — I find Word to be a dreadful tool for generating text (give me WordPerfect any day), but a serviceable and generally acceptable one for commentary. By the time I’m done, there are very few pages in the manuscript that don’t have their margins full of comment flags.

Once the annotation is finished, I write the letter of critique. In it, I sum up problems that may have been revealed by cumulative annotations, and discuss larger issues such as structure, theme, characterization, and plot — the sort of things that can’t be dealt with by a couple of lines in a marginal note. Writing the letter is usually one of the easier bits of the job, because by the time I’ve finished the first read-through and done the annotation, I’ve been thinking intensely about the novel for quite some time, and have inevitably developed opinions.

That’s the other thing — just about everything I say in the letter, or in the margins of the manuscript, is a matter of opinion. I like my opinions; I think they’re by and large pretty good ones; but in the end, nobody owns a text except the writer. Taking advice is always optional, even if you’ve paid for it.