Writing is a perilous thing. Thoughts flit to and fro, speech vanishes in a half-remembered haze, but written words are here to stay. Fixed. Scrutinised long after the fact. If we choose them poorly, we can destroy our relationships, our sales and our reputations.
Intricacies aside, my goal is to develop the best possible version of your text. That takes teamwork. We’re a partnership, *you and I. We each have thoughts, feelings and professional needs which must be accounted for if we’re to work successfully together – and the secret to that is…
That’s an easy thing to say, but it’s not always easy to define.
Let’s try breaking it down to the A, B, C’s.
A – Accuracy – ensure what you are saying is correct.
B – Brevity – be succinct and then move on.
C – Clarity – your meaning should be unambiguous.
Now, that kind of diligence is great, but we’re all people here, not machines. It’s important to remember the so-called ‘soft’ skills as well:
D – Demeanour – think about How you sound.
E – Emotion – show your Humanity (in positive ways).
F – Frankness – Honesty is imperative (but don’t be unkind).
Tip: if the D, E, F words slip your mind, you might find it easier to think of the three H’s I’ve underlined.
Every point of contact has the potential to deepen or damage the relationship between the writer and the **editor. That runs right the way down from our e-mails and direct messages to the comments and responses we make on the manuscript itself. In the wonderful world of the written word, it’s all the same: mind meeting mind without the aid of visible social cues. That means we need to be clear, concise, and able to demonstrate our points wherever necessary. It also requires honesty, openness, consideration.
Let’s take a look at an example of how this works in practice, then we’ll consider the alternative.
Say you’ve sent me a manuscript. It doesn’t matter if it’s fact or fiction. I’ll go through it, following the brief, making alterations and suggestions in a way you can view. This is what we call an ‘editorial pass.’
We use two features to do this: the ***Tracked Changes function, which highlights everything added to or deleted from the manuscript, and the Comment function, which allows us to write explanatory text in boxes down the side like this:
A – Accuracy – correcting ‘wolves’ and ‘need’, and adding the full-stop.
B – Brevity – don’t have to explain every last detail e.g. deleting the duplicate ‘the’.
C – Clarity – suggested phrasing change to ‘use that thing’, with reason clearly given.
D – Demeanour – tone is considerate and conversational, not dictatorial.
E – Emotion – ‘brain fart’ and sucking of teeth express humanity of the editor.
F – Frankness – expressing concern over ‘awful lot of’ name variants throughout.
Conversely, there will be times when you need to push back, to counter my reasoning or clarify your intent, so it’s just as vital that I hear – and fully understand – your rationale.
In the above example, it’s unlikely that you would get upset by my comments but – for instance – you may feel that you don’t want there to be a frisson between the two characters, or that it’s perfectly obvious what’s going on with Rourke’s pee in the breeze. That’s fine. Your work is your own; I’m just being paid for my editorial insight. Working together, in harmony, we can smooth our way through these things.
Now, let’s imagine we toss out the advice. Who has time to be cautious, right? The editor has snapped. Uh-oh.
I’ve slept poorly, say, so my mood is not great. Perhaps I’ve been getting wound up as I edit, say, irked by an attitude that pervades your piece – one which continually denigrates Rourke, the sole black character. Or perhaps I’m feeling sensitive and I take exception to the ‘Not like in Men’ line, feeling it a nasty dig against my gender. Let’s say I get snarky and take you to task with a great long screed. I may be showing my emotions, I may be being frank, but how am I coming across?
Would I sound like a helpful partner or an opponent?
Or let’s say I’m impatient to be finished, and I’ve just been rewriting things left, right and centre without ever bothering to explain why. I may be doing so entirely accurately and to good purpose, I may be keeping things brief and to the point, but how do you feel if you don’t understand why I’ve done it?
Will you feel that you’re in the hands of an expert, or will you feel undermined, as though your writing is being stripped from you?
We are all human. We feel frustrated when we’re not understood; we feel sensitive or defensive about things that we’ve put time and effort into, or when we feel attacked; we can lose patience when deadlines are approaching; things that happen in our personal lives that throw us into a spin. We cannot help how we feel from day to day, but we can control how we react—and in this kind of situation, the written word is very much our friend.
We have the time to process our thoughts and feelings and then we can decide how best to proceed.
Phrased with purpose, clarity, and mutual respect, the words we use can become an engine – generating trust, building up steam on the project, creating constructive change and elevating the quality of your work.
They are the tools of our trade, so let’s use them well.
*Or we could be
**And indeed, once your product is out in the world, between the writer and the customers – so keep that in mind if an editor cautions you about how your writing comes across. They are the last people you want to upset. You don’t even get a chance to discuss it with them; they’re just out there in the world badmouthing you. By that time, the situation is pretty much irreparable.
***Sometimes known as Record Changes.
So what do we do if it does go wrong? Can we ever fix things?
I’ll delve into this subject in Seeking Resolution, the week after next.
This week’s Featured Image is fan art by Jamie Burns for the Captain of the Lost Waves song, Mr Many Men. (I’ve added my own Mr Men names, obviously.) You can find the Captain’s music on YouTube and Spotify, and you can buy his wonderful music direct from his website.
If you want to read more about the practical side of editing, why not start with Thinking about Purpose and follow the #ParsingJudgement hashtag.
If you’d rather be entertained, you can check out my performed readings. My next one is due to drop next week: The Cardiac Ordeal, by Andrew Freudenberg.
Perhaps you’re more interested in my thoughts about story-telling? If so, why not read some of the reviews I’ve been pulling together?
And announcing my new column on Ginger Nuts Of Horror, looking at horror-themed comics: ‘Splashes of Darkness’ (coming soon).