Jun 08, 2012
Dear Gracie: How to Tactfully Edit Someone’s Writing
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I’m an editor of a publication that accepts submissions from freelancers. It’s my job to approve or critique the freelancers’ work. Sometimes the submissions are bad (really bad). How do I let them know that without being unnecessarily cruel, while still getting my point across?
Dear Etiquette Editor,
Four ProfNet experts with editing experience provide some advice:
Writers always want to know if their writing is “good,” says Sandra Wendel, owner of Write On, Inc., and instructor of the “How to Write Your Book and Get It Published” course at Metropolitan Community College in Nebraska. “That’s not a fair question because everyone’s writing is good depending on who is judging. My 9-year-old’s book report is good to me and the teacher.”
If someone asks you to edit their work, the first thing you need to do is find out if this is a professional job or not, says Tina Tessina, psychotherapist and author of 13 books, including “Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.”
If the person is paying you, then he or she should be able to handle your critical opinion of their work, she says.
But if the person is a friend or family member and is not hiring you in a professional capacity, then tread lightly with your criticism, Tessina continues. Pick out some aspects of the work you can praise, and then recommend someone more objective for them to consult about the quality of their writing. It’s just not worth it to hurt your friend or family member’s feelings and jeopardize your relationship.
That’s also why you, as a writer, shouldn’t rely on friends or anyone related to you by marriage or DNA to edit your work, says Wendel. They are just not able to be brutally honest.
But if you’re still not sure if a writer wants honest editing or is just fishing for flattery, then it’s best to be upfront, says Joy Huber, Stage 4 cancer survivor, professional speaker and author of “Cancer With Joy.” Say something like: “Usually I don’t sugarcoat, and am rather blunt telling it like it is. I find writers appreciate that very honest assessment. Is that OK with you, or should I soften that a bit?”
Working With Professional Writers
“An editor is like a diamond cutter,” says Carol Meerschaert, director of marketing and communications at Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. Editors take a diamond in the rough and polish it for maximum brilliance.
Writers need to understand that editors have the best interests of their publications at heart, continues Meerschaert. Articles on a website have a different tone than those in a magazine, which are in turn not the same as a business report or an article journal.
Editors know their readers, and can apply lessons learned to the articles they edit, explains Meerschaert. It’s their job to create and apply a consistent style for their medium. They must enforce editorial and style rules. For example, length guidelines are not random, but were developed by industry best practices and analytics.
Therefore, writers shouldn’t be offended or driven insane by any changes that editors make; they shouldn’t be married to each word they wrote, stresses Meerschaert.
Editors are allowed to say they’d prefer this style or that style, or that they’d like more of this or less of that, agrees Tessina. “If you are the editor, and the writer is working for you, there is a contractual understanding that you can edit their writing.”
Hopefully, if an editor has hired a professional and has seen samples of their work, then they know they are capable writers, says Tessina. That being the case, there’s no need for an editor to criticize a writer’s style — they should just have a businesslike discussion of how the writing does or does not meet the publication’s needs.
“Being mean would be to say negative things about the writer’s ability to write,” Tessina explains.
Warm Delivery: Criticize and Praise
If you want to motivate a writer, be sure to give praise and acknowledgement along with criticism, advises Tessina.
Before you edit someone’s writing, figure out what results you want, she says. Determine what the writer has done right and what they’ve done wrong. Then when you communicate with them, point out the good along with the bad.
Providing praise is important because you need to reinforce what you did like about their writing style in order to preserve it, adds Huber.
Try making suggestions instead of prescribing rules, says Wendel. If an author describes a character’s grandfather inadequately, try saying: “How tall was he? Did he smell like cigar smoke?” Don’t dictate.
Also, provide writers with examples to carefully guide them in restructuring, continues Wendel. For instance, you could say: “You might want to consider moving the material in Chapter 3 to become the opening chapter because this is where the fire occurred. Then take the readers back to life before the fire destroyed the farm house.”
“I always find it helpful when people give specifics,” agrees Huber. “Give a specific example of what you didn’t like, and maybe even model the behavior you’d like.” For instance: “I was hoping you’d go HERE next in your organization of the piece vs. going HERE.”
Warm Delivery: Word Choice, Tone and Body Language
Try using the “improve and praise” model vs. the “good BUT bad” model, so that the feedback ends on a good note, says Huber. If you note what’s good about the writing first, and then provide criticism, you’ll end on sour note.
And remember that words like “but” negate whatever you said before, so try to bridge thoughts by using words like “and” instead, Huber continues. For example: “I really like this part BUT you can strengthen this part by doing this instead.” vs. “I really like this part AND you can strength this part by doing this instead.”
But don’t agonize over your word choices when giving feedback as much as HOW you’re conveying that feedback, says Huber.
When communicating face-to-face, only 7 percent of the message is in our word choices, she explains. Voice tone is 38 percent of the message, and body language is over half of the message.
So when you provide a writer with constructive criticism, try to sound genuine, warm and friendly, she suggests. No one likes cold and monotonous!
With some gentle redirection and carefully considered editorial suggestions, most writers will graciously accept your advice, revise their work and thank you profusely afterwards, concludes Wendel.
Wendel also mentions that she places comments in book manuscripts using the “Track Changes” feature in Microsoft Word. This helps begin a dialogue between author and editor, with the end result being a finely tuned manuscript with minimal errors, she says.
Track Changes is the modern equivalent of the red pen, agrees Meerschaert.
Editors: What advice can you add?
Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.