• Cross-Train Your Brain, the Writer’s Edition

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in ABCs of Writing     Comments 6 comments

    Tahoma Literary ReviewThere’s a terrible saying out there: “Those who can’t write, edit.” I’ve never bought this for a minute, and, in fact, I’ve always looked at the one as informing the other, much like the way riding a road bike can make you a better mountain biker, or, in an even broader sense, how weightlifting can make you a better runner. It’s called cross-training, and guess what? You can even cross-train your brain.

    This is what being on the editor’s side of the desk has taught me: Even if you are constantly reading someone else’s work, some part of you is forming your own personal aesthetic. Some part of you is picking up on what you like about this piece; what you don’t like about that one; what’s working and what isn’t in any given story.

    Some of us take that one step further, and we try to either reproduce what we as editors like, or we aim to reproduce the emotion that the work evoked as we vetted it for our own publications. (Of the two, I’ve noticed that the former always comes earlier in a writer’s career; the latter, which is by far the more sophisticated of the two crafts, comes when one has more experience vetting what types of writing one likes to read.)

    We all know that you cannot be a good writer without also being a diligent reader. And we also know that the opposite is not necessarily true: You can be a great reader and still have no desire to write. I know several great editors who live in this space, and that’s just fine…they clarify the sometimes-jumbled thoughts of our most talented writers.

    For me, I find the process goes something like this: When I am writing, and I find myself facing a roadblock, I’m mostly likely to pick up someone else’s writing, or read from the slush pile at the Tahoma Literary Review. And, inevitably, I find that I am inspired by someone else’s work, or that reading the slush pile has triggered a stray thought that previously lay dormant, or was covered up by some kind of flotsam that had everything to do with day-to-day admin and nothing to do with craft.

    In the best case, while I am in the slush pile I may find a submission so striking that I am compelled to create something that I hope will have the same resonance. What I find in the slush pile sometimes inspires me in the best of ways, then: It makes me work towards being a better writer.

    So yeah, maybe it’s true. “Those who can’t write, edit.” Or, rather, more precisely, “Those who can’t write right now, edit.” And then, inevitably, we pick up our pens or go back to our keyboards, having learned a little more about writing from our jobs as editors.


    Yi Shun LaiYi Shun Lai is the nonfiction editor at the Tahoma Literary Review. TLR is open to submissions until September 30. Send in your submission here.

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    Carrie Winters

    Thanks for the post, Yi.

    Regarding “Those who can’t write right now, edit”: sometimes it works the opposite for me. I’ll be editing a piece and suddenly get bogged down, my mind traveling back to my own work. At times that’s due to something I’ve just read from a submission. So I’ll put down the blue pen and pick up the black pen, write whatever it is I need to write, and go right back to the editing/slushing. So, those who can’t write right now, edit, and those who can’t edit right now, write. It’s a good balance.


    Yi Shun

    Hi, Carrie!
    Thanks for the commentary. Yes, that’s a great way of looking at it, too. It does feel a bit like an infinite loop, doesn’t it? How lucky we are, to enjoy both crafts.

    […] All writers know that getting published is torturous, thankless, often humiliating work. But editors know this as well. And more often than not, they sympathize. This is partly because most editors are writers, too. […]


    And those who can’t write or edit? Roller-derby wheelchair? Or maybe just read. “Can’t” is a powerful word. The power of course is in the emotion of giving up or running away. On the other hand, if someone else is saying it, “you can’t,” that’s a whole other thing. That’s a middle finger thing, one we should never tolerate. But then neither should we run away. Unless we’re in the first grade, back eons ago, when they gave us those blue pencils, hardly able to hold for more than a minute without agonizing knuckle pain. Hey! We are all here,… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Thanks for stopping by, lagarto. “stupid sparrows” just about made my day.

    Driving out those negative voices, the can’ts, is a tough thing to do. What are some of your strategies?


    Strategy? Good question. Assuming all things being equal, you’re no longer allowing others to dictate to you, and now you are down to the blank canvas- you start painting the image in your mind, in the brainstorming stage, maybe you dictate it in a dragon software, or whatever, then you march through the writing process. You ‘ve done it before and you’ll do it again. There’s roadblocks ahead, you know and then it happens and you in the hole, the writer’s block and you struggle to keep going. But what if it’s not writer’s block, not the place where self… Read more »

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