Writing is naturally personal. Even if the topic has nothing to do with you as a person, such as when you’re writing an article, report, or magazine article, the act of writing requires a level of vulnerability that many of us are uncomfortable with. You are tasked with trying to articulate the thoughts swirling around in your brain – which, indeed, can never be completely done – in a clear form with an original perspective that appeals to a wide audience. You spend time and energy to create something, and then, eventually, you have to open yourself up to feedback and criticism.
Writing is very personal; editing is not.
As the director of thought leadership at a higher education leadership and communications agency, I spend most of my work day reviewing the writing of faculty and senior administrators. Even for people who write and regularly go through the editing process, it’s hard to be objective and unbiased about feedback about something that feels so personal. Opening a draft that you initially believed would be filled with tracked changes and comments can leave you feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, and frustrated—and ultimately cause you to close the document without even looking closely at the changes. But changing your approach to feedback can reduce ego irritation and actually improve your writing.
When I was an undergraduate, I spent quite a few semesters sitting in creative writing seminars, and those courses changed the way I thought about feedback forever. Each person in the class had to share a draft for everyone else to look at and then silently endure the debriefing of the piece. Each time was a lesson in humility and vulnerability, and this criticism taught me to accept and use feedback productively.
Of course, not all feedback was helpful. And I didn’t accept all the offers regarding my work. But I was open to them. Being willing to consider others’ suggestions can make you a stronger writer. And even great writers can benefit from editing because there’s always room for improvement.
I usually edit for people who have way more letters after their name and more degrees on their wall than I do. The level of intelligence, experience, and skillful writing I see in the pieces I review is undeniably high. But when I work on editing a piece, my goal is to make it the best version of itself and give it the best chance that the media will find it interesting to their readers and worthy of publication.
I look carefully for errors and typos, offer data or references where I think editors will want to see evidence, trim sections to fit the word limit allowed by a particular media outlet. I break up confusing or drawn-out sentences, rearrange paragraphs for flow, and flag language that may be repetitive or confusing to readers. Every edit and every suggestion I make is aimed at achieving the ultimate goal of placing the piece; my edits have nothing to do with what i think of the writer’s intelligence or skill.
I believe that the managers, experts, and scholars I work with have had to go through all the rounds of editing and revision in their academic and professional careers, and note how many still feel overwhelmed by feedback. Defending one’s work shows the personal nature of the writing. Initially, I thought it was very awkward to go through a review session without being allowed to defend my work. But eventually I realized it was to allow the feedback to pass without that natural tendency to be defensive. You have to give yourself space for that emotional gut reaction – to get angry, frustrated or upset if you need to – and then move on and get to work.
And if you still feel your shoulders heaving or your nostrils flaring when you move on to an assignment, change the way you look at editing. If your editor has been tracking changes, switch to unmarked or simple markup mode for the first read. In this way, you will neither be distracted by comparing the changes with the original text, nor overwhelmed by all the edits. And hopefully it will also enable you to read the piece as a whole and recognize that it is stronger, clearer, more concise, and ultimately closer to the purpose of the placement.
All writers need readers, and the person you’ve collaborated with to help shape your work is most likely your closest. Of course, any reader brings a certain degree of subjectivity, but this person reading your work is not as close to it as you are, and they are looking at it from a somewhat outsider’s perspective. Having an editor who is removed from the personal level of writing gives them a different perspective and a chance to see the piece as a whole. Imagine an athlete receiving advice from a coach: the player is mostly focused on their individual role and the immediate task at hand, while the coach looks at how that task fits into the bigger picture of the outcome. Their advice is not personal – it is aimed at achieving a specific goal.
And since your editor has read your work so carefully, you should read their edits and comments. Especially at the beginning of a working relationship, I spend about as much time justifying or explaining my edits as I do making those edits. I use comments to articulate why I’m making changes and offer suggested wording to build trust. Honest, clear feedback in comments can also make you a better writer in the long run, because you can start to notice patterns in what’s being flagged and take action on your future drafts. If you keep seeing comments about making the passive voice active, or maybe your sentences are unwieldy and need to be broken up or condensed, that’s something you can check before sharing your next draft.
While you can always improve your written work, you must also remember that nothing will ever be perfect. You don’t want to miss a timely news item or deadline from the outlet because you’re still mired in revisions. It’s important to know when to stop tinkering with something good and move on.