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Writers, Love Your Editors; Editors, Respect Your Writers

By Cheryl Scheir

When I’m working on a medical writing projects, I typically hand off my first drafts to an instructional editor (IE) who reviews the content and provides feedback about organization, flow, consistency, and clarity. Later in the process, my work goes through a copy editor (CE), who focusses on punctuation, spelling, and other technical aspects.

In the beginning of my career, I struggled with the idea of being edited. Like a lot of writers, I suppose, I looked at my first drafts as carefully polished, flawless gems. Early on, I expected glowing reviews on every editing pass. Even now, 14 years down the line, I am surprised that editors don’t instantly fall in love with my work; the only feedback I’m ever expecting is “Well done, Cheryl, as usual! No corrections needed. Take the rest of the day off!”

As I have repeatedly had to swallow the sometimes hard pill of editorial feedback, I have come to recognize the editor’s role as key to my writing process. The truth is, I can never stand back from my own work the way an editor can. Editors’ fresh, objective eyes catch things I don’t, and their suggestions are often quite valuable.

The key, I think, is for a writer and editor to perceive their roles and relationship as collaborative rather than competitive. As I work together with editors to create the best possible finished product, neither of us should be in the “gotcha” business; that is, we shouldn’t be sitting poised with our red pens ready to bleed on whatever mistakes the other has made. Rather, we should, with humility and gentleness, make insightful observations, provide possible readers’ perspectives, identify opportunities for improving the clarity of a message, and bounce around ideas for improvement.

I have taken on the IE role on some recent projects, so I have had a chance to reflect: how can I do unto writers as I would have editors do unto me? I have landed on an approach that embodies constructive rather than destructive criticism; namely, I strive to:

  • Deliver feedback in a respectful way using requesting words like “Please…” and “Consider…” rather than ordering words like “Change…” and “Delete…”

  • Provide specific feedback balanced with offering freedom to the writer to change or improve upon whatever I have suggested

  • Avoid using phrases like “all wrong” or requesting a complete rewrite; that kind of non-specific feedback is frustrating and, honestly, insulting to the writer’s original effort

  • Suggest edits that preserves the good work that a writer has already done

  • Avoid questioning a writer’s spelling, grammar, or factual content that without first checking out whether I am right; if the issue is one of complexity, I make sure to provide a reference with the correct information that they can review

If you’re a writer, and you’re not getting this kind of treatment from an editor, do what you can to press on (see my blog entry No Drama Obama for tips on how to do that). In the meantime, do your best to mine the gold of the editor’s feedback, get realistic about your capacity for mistakes and areas of improvement, then practice taking any advice that is actually good. Destructive feedback can be difficult—and nobody deserves it—but as painful as it is, use it for what it’s worth and try not to take it personally.

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