Editorial | Editing 101: “How to… Avoid Pissing off the Writer”

As an editor, one of the scariest things I have to do is… edit someone else’s work.  It may sound odd, because it is my job, but it is the truth.  As an editor, I’m responsible for taking the brain child of another human being, and making just enough changes so that readers can understand it, while making sure the author’s voice is never lost.

A large part of the fear comes from the fact that telling another person that their work needs improvement is never easy for either party.  It is important that I as an editor point out the flaws in writing as gently as possible.  At the same time, it is always hard for anyone to accept criticism without taking it too personally.

First of all, it is important that an editor and a writer have a good working relationship.  It is a bonus if they have a solid friendship.  Often when two stubborn people bump heads over the correct word to use in a sentence—and believe me, both writers and editors are inherently stubborn; it’s in their genetics—only a healthy relationship will allow them to back away from the situation.  This relationship also allows them to see each other as humans, and not just the faceless creator or modifier of words on a page.  Often, this relationship (and sometimes a significant distance between them) is all that will keep an editor from killing her blog writer.  Not that I speak from personal experience, of course.

Secondly, as an editor, it is important to have respect for the person whose work is being edited.  I have found that when I personally respect the person whose writing I am editing, I am much more likely to be cautious in how I approach changes.

I never tell a writer that their ideas are stupid.  As far as I am concerned, every idea is excellent—it is sometimes merely a diamond in the rough.  It may require a little cut and polish to truly shine.  Instead I find ways to point out how their ideas can be improved, or that their particular audience may not be the most appreciative of a piece of writing.

I keep my words respectful as well.  Sometimes just the choice of language in discussing someone’s work is the difference between making them angry, and actually getting a fantastic final piece of writing.

Lastly, and I have mentioned this before, it is incredibly important to retain the author’s voice in his piece.  If I think that a sentence or paragraph is awkward or unclear, I usually will just say as much to the author, and allow him or her to rewrite it in the way that seems best.  If they prefer that I give them suggestions, then I do so, but in a style as close to theirs as I can write.  This is much easier if I do have a good working relationship or a friendship with the person.

Being a good editor comes down to the attitude with which I handle the person writing the piece.  To make sure that I don’t piss off the writer, I try to establish a good relationship with him, hold him and his work in regard, and I do my best to preserve his voice within his work.

Have you ever worked with someone that you pissed off too badly to continue working together?  Let us know in the comments.

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Filed under Editing 101, Editorial, Tracy Gronewold

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