Tips on editing others…

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post on editing others by Miss Manners, also known as Judith Martin….

I taught several workshops this week and, in one of them, a participant asked for advice about editing others. “How do I handle it?” she asked. “The other person sometimes becomes upset.”

Because I started editing when I was a teenager, I’m plenty accustomed with people becoming upset. Imagine having a 16-year-old tell you that your writing could be better! I blush to think of how insensitive I must have been when I was young.

Over the years, however, I’ve learned some techniques that help make the job easier (for me) and less painful for the person being edited.

  • I always use “track changes.” This method, a system available in MS Word, allows you to frame your edits as suggestions (rather than directions), and gives the writer the chance to accept or reject all of them. When making comments, I highlight them (in yellow or green) in the box at the side of the page, so that the comments are easy to spot.
  • I seldom rewrite. I think this habit is why editors sometimes get a bad rep. I generally find it disrespectful to rewrite, and, instead, I describe the problem I had with the sentence or paragraph (or entire piece) and ask the author to rewrite it themselves. Most writers appreciate this opportunity.
  • I always use blue or green for editing. Never red. Too many people have been traumatized by the red pens of their high school teachers.
  • I explain to writers that ‘good’ writing is a matter of taste, and I am sharing my judgment, which will be different from that of other people.

In turn, when I am being edited myself, I work to accept the comments graciously, even if I disagree with the editor. I understand that every publication has its own standards, which may be different from my own.

On the same subject, a friend recently forwarded to me a delightful Miss Manners column on the topic of how to handle grammatical errors in the work of others. I was pleased to see Miss Manners’ amusing and no-nonsense response:

Miss Manners recognizes, without accepting, that an ability to write clearly and grammatically is considered either elitist or beneath contempt. (Could we at least decide which?) She therefore makes no objection if you return the edited document with a disclaimer that you’re sorry about the grammar changes and hope they will be useful — you just couldn’t help yourself.

As an important P.S., let me add that I particularly appreciate hearing from readers who spot typos in this blog.  I never see anyone who writes to report such an error as “too picky.”

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Dec. 17/18.

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