It’s been quite a long time coming, but here is part 2 of the answer to the question “why do people get so upset and defensive when their work is edited?” Part 1 discussed the fact that people have invested so much in their writing they feel it’s part of them or they feel that the editor is criticizing them as a person. Perhaps the red ink or electronic markup brings back memories of school days when a particular teacher made the writer feel small, stupid, or labelled him or her as “a bad speller”, “not good enough”, or asked “why can’t you just be like so-and-so?”. These comments can have serious damaging effects on self-esteem and memories of them can cause the writer to experience these negative feelings all over again and make them feel that they need to “prove” themselves. Editors need to be sensitive to these issues, while writers need to remember that the editors are working to make the piece the best it can possibly be. We’re all on the same team and we share a common goal: to make the message of the writing effective.
But there’s another type of person who might be upset and defensive at seeing editorial markup: the person who carries a chip on his or her shoulder. These types of coworkers or clients simply believe that their work is the best, that they have it perfect, and that they don’t need any help from anyone—especially from someone so lowly as an editor. Having worked in the world of medical editing, I’ve come across this attitude often in working with doctors and specialists. These content experts have completed much schooling to get to where they are today and truly are knowledge experts. They often have earned several honours and awards and have gained the respect of their peers. They’re not used to having their work criticized; they are leaders, not followers, in their field. But herein lies the problem: with such accolades and high achievement, many content experts—in whatever field—forget the adage ” The more we learn, we less we know.” They forget to check their egos at the door.
Case in point
I once worked on a large PowerPoint presentation in which my focus was on consistency. I deleted extra spaces, standardized hyphenation, focussed on spelling and grammar, and adjusted basic formatting to make the content look visually appealing. The author, a content-specialist in his field, was livid. “If didn’t want the extra space there, I wouldn’t have put it there,” was his reply. The project manager and account manager had to step in to negotiate each little change. It turned out to be much more work than simply doing a complete edit and in the end, his presentation was run with inconsistent spelling, grammar and formatting errors, and visual distractions to the reader. The presenter got a bad review from participants and to my knowledge, the client never worked with him again.
Now, I have also had the privilege of working with exceptional doctors, specialists, and recognized leaders in their field who were the most humble and gracious individuals I’ve worked with and I must say, these were the leaders who were also most liked and respected by their peers. These experts recognize that while they know the content, the editor knows the language and grammar to make the message ring clear to the reader. It has been a pleasure to work with these individuals and I look forward to continuing to do so. They approach the work as a team effort; they supply the stellar content and message, and the other members of the team apply their expertise to make it shine. These people don’t have to prove anything because their work and achievements already have; they’ve checked their egos at the door.
Turning the tables: Self-reflection
Working with ego-centric individuals—and you will likely have to one day, no matter whether you work in a factory, warehouse, retail store, or office setting—takes understanding and patience. Remember all the hard work these people have put in to be recognized as leaders in their field, and remember part 1 to this whole question: don’t take it personally. While these individuals should check their ego at the door, you should, too. No one is perfect—not even exceptional editors—so be sure to check your ego at the door, too. Are you ready to learn new things? Are you humble enough to recognize and admit when you’re wrong? The beauty of the answer to why people take offense or get defensive about having their work edited is that it can be a learning experience for both the creator and the editor, and while we can’t control how others respond, we can always control how we respond. Don’t take it personally and checking your ego at the door is as much for the difficult coworker as it is for you.