A colleague recently asked me “Why do people get so upset and defensive when their work is edited?” That’s a question that has perplexed editors for years. Why wouldn’t anyone want their message to be clear, eloquent, direct, consistent, free of mistakes, and just, well, better? Whether you’re the writer, content expert, or editor, you have probably been on one side of this question. I’ll address the answer in two parts.
Don’t take it personally
The first thing to remember is not to take the edits personally. Editors don’t edit people; they edit language. While writers, content experts, and departments within your organization may best know the content, editors equally best know how to express that content effectively. As a writer and an editor, I’ve had the benefit of experiencing what it’s like to have my own work edited, and I can tell you that it can be quite difficult because there’s an emotional element to it. Writers and content experts, like artists, may feel their work is an expression of themselves. They likely are passionate about the content and have probably put a great deal of time, effort, and thought into the piece. It often takes great courage just to “put your work out there” as a writer, knowing that your “baby” is now vulnerable to criticism. For writers who have thrown themselves into creating a document, the devastation can be immense when it is slashed by the scathing blade of a red pen. Viewing edits as a personal attack are often the cause of a defensive or resistant reaction.
How to handle it: For editors and reviewers
A mindful editor will be able to win over his or her “clients” by being aware of this tendency to internalize edits. If you’re an editor or even if you’re reviewing and making changes to a document, be sure to offer some compliments about the work and explain that your changes will help make the piece more effective. Think about how you would feel if your work were being edited. If the writing was good, say so. If you learned something from the information, let the content expert know. Sending a document wrought with markup and no explanation can seem downright cold. And making enemies within your own organization will only start a civil war, lead to decreased quality and productivity, and threaten your organization’s reputation. A little understanding, diplomacy, and patience can go a long way.
How to handle it: For writers and content creators
If it’s your work that’s being edited, try to distance yourself from the piece. Don’t think of it as your baby. It’s a living message that’s as good as dead if it’s not effective. Editors, writers, content experts, and members of your organization all have the same objective: to make the message as effective as possible. You’re all on the same team; you just bring different skills to the table.
Stay tuned for part 2: checking your ego at the door.