Right-brain editing. Wait. What?

© CanStock Peshkova

That your left brain does not know what the right is doing is not news. If the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing (observe the workplace of your choice) then it’s not rocket science that your left brain must not know what the right brain is doing, either! This truism recently came to my attention anew, in the context of editing.

I was at a gathering of professional editors — the “Far North” contingent of the Northwest Editors Guild https://edsguild.org/, to be exact. (Editors like to be exact.) These are people who get paid to be nit-picky, who delight in swapping horror stories featuring the Oxford comma and the dangling participle. As you can imagine, it was one wild-and-crazy group.

You shoulda seen us: correcting the whiteboard in front of the restaurant, marking up our napkins with red ink, playing drinking games with the menu (every time someone finds a typo, everyone takes a shot — of tea, of course. We are editors, after all.)

Amidst all this revelry, I plucked up my courage to share an experience I’ve long puzzled over, with regards to the Editorial Mind.

Now, first let me confess that I have been doing this editing gig, in one form or another, for more than two decades. I also am a writer, and quite familiar—in that context—with the mysterious workings of the intuitive side of the mind: the dream journals and window-gazing.

But I’d initially thought editing was about as “left brain” as you could get: spelling, grammar, apply the rules, think analytically about the text, check this, check that, run a macro to find format errors, and so on.

Yes. Of course.

But . . . not entirely.

The editor’s desk

I noticed years ago that something very odd would happen while my “editor brain” was happily listing all the character names and noting trademarks. Some funny OTHER little part of my brain was doing its own “edit.” I’d sweep a page, making my lists and adding Oxford commas, and I’d get a funny feeling there was an error on the page. A swift glance generally would not reveal it, but I learned over time to jot a check mark in the left margin — a little flag to myself to come back and look again. Invariably, when I did so, I would find the mistake that my conscious mind did not initially see.

This seemed so odd — so improbable — that I never mentioned it to anyone.

Well, I asked this group of about a dozen editors (okay, not a statistically valid sample) if any of them had experienced anything like this. At least a quarter immediately said yes. I noticed that most of them were editors with more than ten years of experience. (I’m not proposing that this doesn’t happen with people newer to the job, but I do think maybe it takes time to notice that it’s happening!)


That’s when I started thinking about the times I tried to play squash left-handed. (I am extremely right-handed.) And it went exactly as I expected. Except for one detail.

I expected my left hand would be clumsy and lame at hitting the ball. It was.

What I didn’t expect was that my right hand also was clumsy and was absolutely impossible at balance, follow-through, and all those things my left hand was accustomed to doing without me paying it the slightest conscious attention. My right hand, instead of being helpful and supportive like my left had always been (unbeknownst to me or my right hand), my dominant hand was just that: pushy, interfering, trying to reach over and grab the racket away from my left hand. It did not like playing second fiddle!

And it was really, really bad at it.


Just like my left hand in squash, my right brain happily and skillfully plays second fiddle in the editing world. While my analytical, list-making side was learning all the gadzillion rules of editing, my right brain was quietly absorbing the fact that, hmmm, there can be errors in the way words are put together, and aha! we feel satisfaction when we find one! Hurray! What fun. So it learned to “look out for them,” in its own, fuzzy, emotive, intuitive kind of way.

The writer’s desk

My right brain is even more helpful when I am doing more substantive editing. All my knowledge of language, story, elements of plot, etc., are fine and well. But after I read through a manuscript, if I had to immediately sit down and write up an analysis, it would not be nearly as insightful as what I do instead. (Which will be familiar to the writers among you.)

After doing a first read, I put the manuscript aside. I do the dishes, walk the dog, or do a little gardening. And while I’m doing those things, my right brain — my creative, intuitive intellect — is happily buzzing away there in the background, doing whatever the heck it does — how would I know? It’s the left brain that’s good at explaining things!

Then when I sit down to edit again, it’s all there. The whole scope, the themes, the character arcs, the literary devices, the places that are unclear . . . and also the sense of continuity, the ineffable quality of story, the intuitive sense of the author’s intention.

More anecdotal evidence: My sister, more mathematically inclined than I, with considerable years of experience in civil engineering, tells me the same thing happens to her with math. If there’s an error somewhere on the page, she’ll “just know” it’s there, long before she finds it.

Of course the different aspects of intelligence — the “right brain” and “left brain” — are not really separate. It is the connection between them that brought this whole subject to my attention in the first place. Your left brain may not know exactly what the right is doing — but it benefits continually from that undetected wisdom.


  1. What a fun, and funny, piece, Virginia! One of your best. I suspect one half of your brain was calling B.S. on the other and having a good laugh. (Periods or not in “B.S.”? Hmm …)

    • Thanks, WriteStuff! Chicago has no opinion, except to refer us to Webster’s 11, which opines BS, but offers the option of lowercase letters. At which point, Chicago weighs in, specifying that if you use lowercase letters, you need periods: b.s. And if that’s not a lot of it, I don’t know what is! 😉

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