Editing for Different Stages of Ability

It’s important for editors to recognize that authors have different stages of ability:

  • At Stage 1, they make mistakes but can’t see them—we call this unconscious incompetence. (This is where the Dunning-Kruger effect is most dominant—where individuals vastly overestimate their ability.)
  • At Stage 2, they see the mistakes they make but don’t know how to fix them—we call this conscious incompetence. (They’re starting to see that what they’re doing isn’t as easy as they thought.)
  • At Stage 3, they can identify and fix their mistakes, though their solutions aren’t always as effective or elegant as possible—we call this conscious competence.
  • At Stage 4, they make fewer mistakes and know how to deal with them with greater skill—we call this unconscious competence.

Most of our author clients are at Stage 1, 2, or 3, and how we shape the edit will depend on which it is. If we expect an author at Stage 1 to be able to spot their own errors, we aren’t serving them well. This often crops up when editors say things like, “I’ve noticed a head-hop in this scene. Consider revising to keep the perspective from Melanie’s viewpoint.”

For an author at Stage 1 or 2, this is an impossible task and the resulting revision will be unsuccessful. At Stage 1, they don’t even know how to see the head-hopping. At Stage 2, they may be able to see it but they won’t be able to do anything to fix it. If they could, they would have fixed it already.

So, for an author like this, you will need to identify the specific words, sentences, and paragraphs that constitute the head-hopping and make specific recommendations about each piece: “Delete the mention of Jeremey’s racing heart since Melanie can’t know that his heart is racing” or “Revise the sentence to read something like EXAMPLE.”

At Stage 3 or 4, you can highlight the slip and say, “I spotted a head-hop here; reconcile?” and that’s enough. If you’re not sure which stage your author is at, it’s better to assume 1 or 2 than 3 or 4.

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