During high school, I realised I should not be a teacher.
For one thing, my mind jumps from step one to step three in most subjects, making any sort of linear teaching a struggle.
For another, I lack patience–I like finding a few different ways to explain a thing, but once I’ve used those few different ways, if you still don’t get it, I prefer to give up rather than find one more way.
Also, I dislike mornings, rules, and rooms full of people–especially air-conditioned rooms full of people.
Despite these considerations, I am a consultant in my university’s writing centre–a position requiring me to work with students of varying skill level on pieces ranging from personal creative works to 40-page research papers on topics I didn’t know existed.
I’m also in several classes this semester that involve editing and critiquing. After getting back a few pieces scarred over with the kind of editing that we try to avoid in the writing centre, I feel more or less adequately experienced to expound on some things that will make writers despise you as an editor.
1. Make arbitrary changes.
Imagine ordering a burger, extra pickles, no cheese. You probably ordered that for a reason. Maybe you love pickles and have a dairy allergy. Maybe you just don’t like cheese. Now imagine the server brings you something you didn’t order. Best case scenario, the burger has the normal amount of pickles and a big slice of cheese. Worst case scenario, the thing on your plate isn’t even a burger–you take a big bite, expecting a juicy burger, extra pickles, no cheese–and you taste a fish sandwich complete with relish and tartar sauce. And the server points out that there’s even extra relish–which is sort of like extra pickles–and there’s no cheese, which is, after all, what you asked for.
“But this isn’t what I ordered!” you say.
“No, but it’s better,” the server explains.
Then the server bills you for improving your order.
Making arbitrary changes to someone else’s writing is like bringing someone the wrong sandwich at a restaurant. No matter how much better you think the thing is, it’s not what the author asked for.
This doesn’t mean don’t make changes. It means suggest changes. If the change you’re suggesting isn’t mechanical–“you forgot a comma here” or “this is grammatically incorrect”–instead of just scratching out the author’s words and inking in your version of better phrasing or, heaven forbid, a completely different (but better!) plot, make a suggestion. Say, “I’m confused here. Could you clarify? Perhaps you could…” If you feel really strongly about your change, write it in–but make sure you still write it in as a suggestion, and give your reasoning, because if the author is anything like me, he or she is unlikely to just take your suggestion–but explaining your reasoning ensures that the author can come up with a fix for the problem you see.
2. Expect the author to make every change you suggest.
Imagine ordering another burger. You know every burger place is different, so before finalising your order, you ask the server’s advice. You fancy your burgers with extra pickles and no cheese–does the server think this particular burger would taste better that way, or should you consider trying it with cheese? Which sauce does the server suggest to best complement the signature burger flavour at this establishment? Does the server think the burgers here are any good, or should you scrap the burger idea entirely and try a fish sandwich instead?
The server makes a lot of suggestions, explains that the cheese here is a particularly delicious variety chosen specifically for these burgers, and the standard serving of pickles on burgers here is much larger than the standard serving in other burger joints. However, the truth is that the fish sandwiches in this restaurant are much better than the burgers.
At this point, you decide the server is a truly useful individual, and you consider your options carefully. Although you acknowledge that the server’s experience leads to astute observations on the quality of the food, you do not care for fish and would still like a burger–however, thanks to the server’s suggestions, you agree to try the burger without extra pickles and with the cheese. As long as the server brings you the burger (with normal pickles and cheese) you will be grateful for the server’s advice. However, if the server then calls you a nincompoop for not ordering the recommended fish sandwich, you may become irate. If the server follows that insult by referring to your mother as a hamster and your father as having smelt of elderberries, you will probably file a complaint and refuse to visit this restaurant in the future.
As an editor, you are free to make as many suggestions and recommendations as you would like, and you have the option of making them lightly and vaguely or strongly and specifically. As long as you are useful and polite, the author will probably be quite grateful for your assistance. However, if you try to force the author to take your suggestions, or if you follow up your recommendations by insinuating that the author is a writer on the level of your parakeet if he or she does not adhere to your advice, the author will be extremely annoyed and offended and may retaliate by suggesting that you are an editor on the level of a baboon and refusing to use your services ever again.
The author may do this in a public way, causing other writers to avoid your services.
Unless you’re the one publishing the piece, you don’t have a right to expect your advice to be followed explicitly.
3. Insult the piece.
Imagine you truly love burgers, especially with extra pickles and no cheese. Upon entering yet another restaurant, you order your beloved favourite: a burger with extra pickles and no cheese. The server proceeds to recommend a burger without extra pickles and with cheese, goes so far as to suggest that you switch your order entirely to a fish sandwich, and then leaves off menu suggestions entirely and expresses the opinion that your burger choice displays insipid ignorance and the poorest of perceptive skills. In fact, this audacious server even suggests that with such an egregious lack of taste in food choice, you ought not to be eating at all.
You are mildly surprised at the number of servers who favour fish sandwiches over burgers, but this feeling is secondary to one of offence and outrage. Your taste in burgers is the result of years of dedicated burger tasting, and you never make your food choices lightly. Both wounded and furious, you tear the menu in half and storm out of the restaurant.
When editing, you can say almost anything you want about a piece, as long as you say it in the form of a helpful suggestion. No matter how tempted you are to scribble, “STOP BORING ME TO DEATH I NEED MY BRAIN CELLS FUNCTIONAL!” across entire paragraphs of drivel, you have a responsibility to write criticism only in the context of constructive suggestions. Instead of offensive phrases, try, “This section is a little slow. Some specific action might help.” or “This part is a bit heavy. Could we get some dialogue to break it up?” Not only is this less likely to bring down upon you the wrath of a writer scorned, like whose fury hell hath no–but it also involves actually doing your job, which is to help make a piece better, not simply to haemorrhage red ink over its 12-point Times New Roman bones.
No matter how bad a piece is, you have to remember that you’re communicating with another human being with feelings and a strong attachment to this piece–an attachment rather analogous to that of a mother grizzly bear to her cubs. Be honest. Be tactful. Be useful.
Here’s the thing: if you’re the one ordering the burger, you order your burger for you. If you want extra pickles–great. If you want to smother the thing in horseradish–great. Nobody else has to like it if you like it. Don’t be surprised if all your dinner guests refuse to eat your special wasabi and anchovy burger, but don’t let that stop you eating it yourself.
If you’re the one serving the burger, unless you have to serve it to more than just the person who ordered it, you have to serve what they ordered. Make suggestions all you want, but in the end, the customer is always right. Even when the customer wants extra pickles or whatever else.
There’s a weird balance to editing. You have to realise that you’ve been entrusted with something precious–something created out of another human being’s experiences, interpretations, hopes, and writer’s cramp. You have an opportunity to comment on it, help smooth the rough edges away, offer insights, share your own experience. That’s a pretty awesome opportunity, actually. It’s not quite like being a writer or a reader. You’re not just communicating; you’re helping someone else communicate.
If you think about it, you’re being offered a little piece of a writer’s soul. So recognise its individuality, respect its uniqueness, and, as your mother always told you, return it in better condition than you received it.