Editing Attitudes to Live By

In our last blog, we offered a 10-step process for revision if you were a writer.

In this blog, we’re going to take a look at it from the other side – if you’re an editor or providing feedback in a workshop group.

Now many of the last blog’s rules can still apply if you’re editing or providing feedback. What’s distinctly different here are the attitudes you need to keep in mind.

1. Recognise What the Author’s Trying to Accomplish
It’s amazing the amount of authors and feedbackers who try to take a piece in the direction they think it needs to go. Sure, sometimes an author might be unclear on what their story’s about. A manuscript that was initially about adultery might twist into a story about a character’s emotional and intellectual growth.

It’s times like this when the editor needs to gently challenge the author with a simple question: What do you think your story is about? This can be enlightening for authors – a question they’ve never asked themselves because they’ve been too immersed in the material to see objectively.

Once they understand (or realise) what the story’s actually about, the editor or feedbacker should help them try to get to that destination, rather than take them somewhere they don’t want to go, are unwilling to go, or never intended to go.

What an editor/feedbacker should never, ever do is make an assumption, or conclude what a piece is (or should be) about because that is going to prejudice their feedback, and possibly take the author further and further from their vision. It’s also going to cause friction between the editor/feedbacker and the author.

What often ultimately happens is that instead of getting an author’s vision, or even the editor’s vision, you get this murky neither here nor there vision.

2. Do Not Edit by Committee
This applies particularly to workshopping groups. Five people might’ve read a piece, and then a few of them might start commenting on what they believe the piece needs. Their comments stimulate other conversation. Somebody who’s been silent to this point might feel they need to agree. Somebody else might think they need to say something for the sake of saying something. If you have somebody particularly dominant and/or influential providing feedback, others might unwittingly support them to curry favour, or so they’re seen to be contributing, even if they don’t particularly believe in what they’re saying.

Often, as a group they begin brainstorming as if this was their idea. This process works in a television writer’s room where a group of writers try to map out a television series and every possibility has to be exhausted, but in this situation the showrunner (the writer in charge) still has the overarching vision. Everybody is working towards that vision. When they stray, the showrunnner will herd them back into line.

The collective often doesn’t work for stories or books. Instead of trying to fulfill the author’s vision, or even their own individual vision (which they shouldn’t be doing – see the previous point), they create this bastardised hodgepodge vision that doesn’t belong to anybody.

3. Honour the Writer’s Voice
Lots of editors and feedbackers are writers themselves. Unfortunately, this means that too many editors and feedbackers go into an author’s piece as if it were their own, and begin revising and commenting according to what they would do had this been a piece they’d written.

The author might use short, punchy sentences, whereas the editor/feedbacker might prefer if the sentences were longer. They might create unnecessary linkages. Etc. They rewrite passages. Or make suggestions in accordance with what they would do, rather than what the author would do.

This isn’t editing. This isn’t providing feedback. This is ghostwriting.

Honour the writer’s voice. Honour their style. Obviously, there are grammatical and punctuation rules that need to be observed but it’s imperative to find the author’s wavelength and keep their work sounding uniquely like them.

4. Do Not Be Afraid of White Space
Way too many editors and feedbackers panic if they’ve gone some distance – like a page – and haven’t made a comment. That unblemished margin intimidates them. They feel they need to comment just to prove they’re doing their job.

It might simply be that the content doesn’t need commenting. Yes, this happens! Something can be just fine.

Don’t fear white space in a margin.

5. Don’t Let Your Reputation Get to Your Head
Some editors and feedbackers may have a reputation they feel they need to live up to, e.g. from my own experience, I had a reputation for slashing verbosity, and for a little period there felt I needed to slash – whether the text deserved it or not – to justify my reputation. But then I learned – just as with the white space – it’s okay to not do anything.

This is an extremely difficult thing for lots of editors and feedbackers. They’re not reading a piece for recreation. They’re going into it with the intent of editing and commenting, so feel they need to regardless.

Remember – and not just in relation to this point, but editing and providing feedback overall – sometimes, things are fine just as they are.

These are the attitudes to keep in mind while editing or feedbacking. They’re attitudes you should live by.

An author’s work – even if that work is ridiculously flawed – is sacred. The work not only represents the author, it is the author.

Be respectful, if not reverential, and help the author get to where they want to go.

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