Seeing the latest draft of your writing covered in an editor’s graffiti can be a test of your humility. Working your way through their changes, addressing their concerns, and resolving their comments—on a draft you spent hard hours creating—can be an exercise in emotional detachment.
Your editors will be professional and constructive, but hitting “approve” on those little recommendation boxes is literally accepting criticism, so there’s no room for ego.
Stoics like Spock and Yoda may have spent their lives tamping down their emotions for the greater good, but how do we round-eared earthlings get over our pride in our work and our unassailable self-image? And, better yet, how do we use the editing process to slingshot our writing skills to the next level?
A marked-up draft can seem like the distant cousin of heavily corrected school assignments, triggering old memories of book reports tattooed with strike-throughs, squiggles, and carets from a teacher’s red pen.
That similarity is an illusion. So that sinking feeling you may experience should be banished immediately.
You aren’t working for a report card anymore; you’re working for publication, and the editor is working with you, not grading you. It’s their job to help you refine your work. If you’re a professional writer, a red wall of edits means your editor knows what they’re doing, and they cared and took their time.
However, too many edits may signal that you missed the style, tone, or needs of the assignment, or that you could stand to brush up on punctuation and grammar basics.
Writing is a craft, and none of us will run out of room to improve. That means none of us will outgrow the need for an editor. Look at the acknowledgments in your favorite novel and you’ll see that even writers at the apex of their craft still need a hand.
For writers who steadily publish, and see their editors’ marks along the way, the sting that may come with receiving critical notes has hopefully dulled, if not deadened completely. Tough edits should not be taken as a reflection of your ability as a writer. Mechanics and technicals are not the same as talent, and the broader marks are there for your benefit as a writer as well as the good of the work in progress.
Back in my newspaper days, I copy-edited and proofread (there’s a difference) a weekly, 800-word column about the goings-on at a community center. That might seem like a lot of words for what could be a glorified activities calendar, but the person who wrote it consistently turned in a journalistic chimera that was part news, part memoir, and part existential rumination.
It was also, to date, the biggest editing puzzle I’ve encountered. In fact, as far as challenges go, it’s virtually unopposed. Each sentence had to be read, mentally untangled, and then put right.
The writer of this column was standing on a mountain of talent. Virtually every week, she sent me a column that was funny, sad, thoughtful, poignant, and wise. But before it saw print, it went through the wringer.
Someone told me long ago, probably around the time I was editing that column, that the test of a professional writer is their response to an editor. I’ve never seen a column go through that much development between the first draft and publication, and for five years, she took her edits in stride and never looked back.
She knew she needed an editor and thanked me for the work I was about to do every time she submitted an article, but she made the same mistakes over and over again for five years. She didn’t seem much interested in learning, but more on that in a minute.
She was a great writer, but it took working together, writer and editor, to turn out great content week after week. And that relationship can do more than just develop your projects. If you let it, it can transform you as a writer.
A writer’s life is busy, but when you get back a marked-up draft, don’t just fly through and accept all the changes. Instead, wring a free writing lesson out of it by considering each edit individually and taking to heart any comments or notes of direction.
If your editor corrects you when you write out the word “ten” instead of writing it as a numeral, or tweaks a slight misspelling (“convenient store” versus “convenience store”), or takes out the double spaces between your sentences, or deletes the overuse of words like “that” and “of,” remember all those things for next time. Build those pointers into your foundation.
If you have a question about an edit, there’s usually a path for you to communicate with your editor for clarification. Google Docs will let you add a response right on the edit box in the margin. If you’re using Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF, you can add a comment. If you have a physical sheet of paper in front of you with red marks on it, you can walk it over to your editor or call them to discuss it.
Many editors love talking shop, and they’ll be happy to help you better understand their notes on your work, or to talk through obscure grammar or punctuation rules that might apply.
Editors aren’t there to meddle with your voice or make edits based on whims; they’re there to help you polish, organize, develop, tighten, and clarify your own words.
Receiving critiques and responding to edits is a chance to not only elevate the project at hand, but also learn something and get better at your craft. Writers who are interested only in getting past that step and onto the next thing see a page of corrective marks and take offense or get discouraged. A professional looks at it and sees a roadmap to improvement.
Nathan Winfrey graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma with a degree in journalism and a minor in creative writing. After years navigating a colorful succession of reporting and editing jobs, he took the helm of his hometown newspaper before eventually becoming the copy editor for the largest state agency in Oklahoma. Nathan is currently a swing editor for Craft Your Content.