I figured out pretty early on that one of the best ways to pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses in my own writing was to find readers. And, using the principle of "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine," I decided that one way to acquire readers would be to sharpen my own skills as a reader. My first inclination, as it must be for a lot of people, was to pull out my red pen and get busy with the line edits. Target grammatical errors like a heat-sensing missile. Circle awkward word choices. Flag lazy sentences and ruthlessly ex out adverbs (ruthlessly, get it? Har har...).
The first thing to change my perspective? I'd handed an early draft of The Orphan Pearl to a reader whose first comment was, "I didn't like your heroine." Totally blew my mind. She could have gone through and made dozens of little biddy corrections and she wouldn't have done me half as much good as she did by telling me how she felt.
I've had a few people compare my heroine, Lydia, to Scarlett O'Hara - and she is that type of character, a survivor, which isn't always pretty. I like her hardness, but I needed to bring out her softness and vulnerability more. I needed to get readers on her side, rooting for her. The novel changed a lot as a result of that one little comment.
Meanwhile, I began to realize that all my red pen activity wasn't helping the work I critiqued.
During Jacques Barzun's days as a literary advisor at Scribner, he coined the phrase "creeping creativity" to describe what happens when an editor applies a too-heavy hand to the book he or she is working on. The editor stops editing and starts acting like a co-creator. He thought this was a grave error, and I agree.
My line edits weren't improving my critique partner's writing because they fell into the category of creeping creativity. I wasn't working with my partner's style, I was working against it.
For a while, I stopped with the line edits entirely. I tried to offer, and refine, the kind of feedback I'd found most useful myself: I started telling my reader how I felt. I tried to analyze my feelings, to give more useful responses. I asked questions instead of offering answers.
The results were a lot better.
A couple of days ago, at a critique meeting, discussion about the most recent chapters I'd submitted got sidetracked on a discussion about whether or not my character would have been drinking water. A couple of people pointed out that before the days of reliable water filtration systems, it could be dangerous to drink water and so people tended to prefer other types of drinks - beer, wine, etc.
I knew this, and had given some consideration to whether or not my character would drink water. I had a couple of reasons for preferring water to other fluids - one of them being that water can stand in for other fluids metonymically (this is my ten cent word entry!) better than other drinks - and also, a general irritation with what I like to think of as the reification of history. We like to simplify, so the idea that people avoided water sometimes becomes a hard and fast rule: no water, ever. I don't buy it, but we all have to pick our battles.
The point? We spent so long talking about whether or not my character would drink water that we ended up spending none on the scene itself. Of course I'd like to conclude that the scene was so very perfect that there were no other flaws to discuss, but, honestly, I know better. We're all easily distracted by little things.
Which is another danger of line edits. It's very easy, as a reader, to be penny wise and pound foolish. Go for the big ticket items.