Writers are always being told by other writers (and editors) about the importance of being edited. But what does it actually feel like to have someone go through your precious words with that dreaded red pen? Only recently, as I’ve struggled with edits in my own book, have I realised how my clients must feel when they receive their poor corrected texts back from me. I hope this new understanding will help me to be a better editor …
On being edited
I’ve been putting together an e-book based on my Libro Full Time blog which has charted my experiences of going full-time self-employed. I pulled all the blog posts together, added some commentary, an introduction, fleshed it out a bit, read it through … but before I went to publish it I did as all good writers (should) do and considered having it edited.
I put a call out for beta readers and a few kind volunteers spoke up. One read it and made some excellent, useful comments, although I was a little thrown even then to see my words through someone else’s eyes. Another friend did EXACTLY as I hoped she would – she went through it line by line, picking out errors, suggesting better ways of writing sentences, AND commented on the structure, the way it hung together, how the experience of reading it could be improved.
This is the Thing: One It was like having ME edit that book. And I know I’m a decent editor
This is the Thing: Two I hated reading those comments the first time round
This is how I make my clients feel!
That was my first thought. No: my first thought was, “My text, my beautiful text! How dare she muck with it??” All defences up, all crests raised, spines bristling, eyes watering …
And I must be at pains to point out here that my friend:
- Did it right – she said exactly what I would have said had the document been written by anybody else
- Did it kindly – no snarkiness, no visible or invisible sighs
- Did a good job – she picked up micro and macro errors
- MADE THE TEXT BETTER – she really, really did
But my knee-jerk reaction, in pretty well this order, was
- Anger – how dare she mess with my text? I write stuff all the time! It can’t be wrong! … oh …
- Horror – how did I not notice THAT?
- Shame – I was going to publish this pile of rubbish?
- Embarrassment – someone has seen this in this state!
- Despair – will I ever get this into shape or should I just give up now? I know, I’ll give up
In the interests of research, I’ve gone back and looked at the text. It’s fine: it can be whipped into shape and it will be a much better book for it.
Once I’d gone through these cycles of shame, horror, despair and … finally … acceptance, the terrible realisation dawned on me …
This is how my clients must feel when they get their work back from me
Is it just me, or is it everyone?
I asked some editor colleagues, writers and people I’ve worked with what being edited feels like to them. We all know it’s a worthwhile process – but I was after the emotional reaction.
My old friend, Annabelle Hitchcock from Yara Consulting reported that she feels quite comfortable about being edited, “but specifically about being edited by you, Liz. I know you and I trust you and I know that you know my writing style and won’t alter it into something that it’s not. I also trust you to give me feedback, and to make sure that I’m actually communicating what I THINK I’m communicating”. So that trust is very important, and makes it easier (although I trusted the ladies who looked at my text, too, of course … )
Trust comes up for Alison Mead of Silicon Bullet, too – “Personally for my blog posts, knowing I am going to be edited means I can type my stream of consciousness without worrying too much about grammar and spelling , so my words can have the flow they would if I was talking them – but I have the confidence that those errors will be picked up and corrected. To be honest I don’t notice the edits – so have no idea how many changes you actually make! It is good to have that trust and confidence about the job being done well!”.
So these two highlight the ideal working relationship between an editor and a writer. It’s worth noting that I have been working on small blog post texts for these two ladies for a few years now, and have known them for significantly longer. But how do you build up that trust instantly? And what if’ you’re an editorial and writing professional yourself?
Here’s someone who actively enjoys it, but do note that he still finds it challenging: “I enjoy being edited. It gives me a chance to see how other editors do things, gets me to think about things I have done unthinkingly, and reminds me that all writers, even if they are also editors, have blind spots sometimes. It is also a little nerve-racking, of course – but then many worthwhile things are!” – Sebastian Manley of Manley Editorial.
And another editor colleague, Katharine O’Moore Klopf of KOK Edit, has a similar emotional pathway to mine: “My initial reaction to being edited—and I’ve been an editor since 1984—is ‘Oh, #@&^!’ And then I start reading through the edits and nodding my head, thinking, ‘You know, that’s a good edit. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.’ And by the time I’ve finished reviewing the edits, I’m thinking, ‘Thank goodness for editors!’ You’d think I’d go straight to the ‘thank goodness’ part by now, but there is always that first little shock.”
And what about fiction authors? I suspect that fiction and memoir writers are the ones most wedded to their words, as they are perhaps most personal to them (I might be wrong there, though!).
Steve Hewson, author of “The Wild Earth” writes,”I asked Linda Bates to edit my first novel. Prior to the process starting, I imagined that the it might be more of a grammatical check (necessary because a) I am very (and unavoidably) careless b) I don’t really know anything about grammar. However, it soon became clear that editing was a whole other level of input. Once I’d decided to put in the effort to properly respond to Linda’s editorial suggestions (I was rather busy and somewhat tired of the whole affair prior to giving it to Linda) I found it really challenging and enjoyable.” So there’s the c-word again – “challenging”. Steve has gone on to kindly describe the whole process for us:
“I remember being aghast that the first page (which I thought was pretty good) had loads of changes suggested. (17, after counting them!). Then on the next pages I saw that Linda had added many comments concerning word definitions, writing styles and so on. I was dismayed at the clear time implications of working on these and also thought that Linda might be overdoing the proofreading job. However, I took the plunge and accepted the changes and realised that the result was more streamlined and clean.
Once I had decided to devote my energies to reworking the book I soon got into the stride and began to welcome the editorial changes rather than dread them. I think that being edited is rather similar to being filmed whilst teaching or lecturing: unconscious habits of pen are unearthed in the same way that the camera reveals unconscious habits of speech (such as saying ‘erm’ very frequently). I realised that I made frequent use of double adverbs. It was really very tough (see what I did there …) to realise that this habit made the text less engaging, but was good to realise this.
The sort of comment that I never got used to were those concerning the ways that the characters spoke or behaved. I love my characters and to be told ‘X wouldn’t say that sort of thing’ was always met defensively. I was particularly distressed to be told that I had (at a key moment) unconsciously reinforced gender stereotypes with Gracie. This was a difficult pill to swallow, especially since I had deliberately attempted to eliminate this sort of thing. Still I emerged a better person for it, and Gracie has a little more action at a key part of the book. I’m sure she’d thank me for it …”
Thanks to Steve for that great description of what it feels like to be edited – I’m sure my fellow editors will read it with great interest!
How do we make it right?
So, as editors, how do we make this process as smooth as possible for our clients? I have realised that they will never just grab the new document with joy, making all the changes immediately and unquestioningly. Well, some of them will, but going by the comments I garnered and discussed above, only people I’ve known for years who just have little bits and bobs for me to work on are likely to do that.
As for the rest of them, well, now I have some inkling of how they feel when they receive my annotated manuscript back, I’m going to make these resolutions:
- Try to build trust first of all – I already send links to my references, and many of my clients come via recommendation – and I have a new procedure whereby I send the style sheet I’ve put together during the editing process to the author at the end, thus proving I know what I’m doing and there are reasons for my choices.
- Remain kind. Sometimes I do get a little exasperated. But I, too, make the same mistakes throughout, repeat myself and am not always consistent. So why should I expect anyone else to be any different?
- Understand that when the client asks a question, sometimes they just need reassurance that they’re not stupid or rubbish at writing. And they are almost never casting doubt on my ability, but either wanting to know why in order to make their writing better, or being anxious generally.
- Make sure I praise as well as criticise. I do try to do this already; I will try to do it more, now. Whether they’ve written a great bibliography or coined a smart turn of phrase, even if they’ve just managed to avoid plagiarising or quoting Wikipedia this time round, there’s always something to praise and I must find it and mention it.
Has this article struck a chord? Are you a writer with something to say about your emotional reaction to being edited? Are you an editor who’s found ways to smooth this emotional path? Do share in the comments!