Tag Archives: writing

What Good Editors Do

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There isn’t a writer in the world who hasn’t felt the pang of poorly edited work.

Whether it is a student paper declaring nebulously in red ink, “Be Clearer” (big help, thanks), or an essay that reads like someone else wrote it entirely, all writers endure unhelpful feedback from time to time.

The irony is that most writers are also guilty of dishing out unhelpful feedback. When we edit someone else’s work, the temptation is to see it through the lens of how we would do it, and this creates a hindrance to editing well. This is not to say that the writers are not talented; they might be able to turn a phrase prettier than a pansy, but that means very little when tasked with editing someone else’s product. It comes down to this:

WRITER MINDSETS ≠ EDITOR MINDSETS

Obviously, there is overlap between writers and editors. Many writers can be great editors and editors can be great because they understand the experience of writing. But we are talking about a Venn diagram here–two separate categories of thinkers who only occasionally overlap.

Why so little overlap? Let’s turn back time to two courses I took in college, the worst and the best. The worst class was taught by a professional writer-in-residence. I had read her books and they were awesome, so I arrived to the first class eager to learn. Twenty minutes in it was obvious she had no idea why she was an accomplished writer. She had very little to say about style, technique, research strategies, or successfully engaging an audience. What she achieved had been through blind instinct, and she therefore had little instruction to endow in spite of her considerable experience.

By contrast, the best course began its first day by illustrating how readers and writers think differently. Writers set out to organize ideas and get them down on paper in pretty arrangements. The difficulty is that ideas are nouns…things…stuff. Readers read for meaning; they want to know what’s happening, what’s moving, what’s changing. Readers watch for verbs. Given this, we were told that the key to great writing lies in the writer’s ability to write the way readers read best, i.e. through action and change.

Extrapolating from both of these experiences, I see two pillars of great editing: first, great editors understand why a piece of writing works or doesn’t work, and second, they successfully bridge the gap between how writers write and readers read.

For this first pillar, editors need to be aware simultaneously of the big picture points, the minutia, and the relationship between the two. It is this balance that allows them to make wise decisions about any changes they make to someone else’s work. It serves no purpose to change something at the sentence level unless it serves the paragraph’s aims. It makes no sense to delete or move a paragraph unless there are demonstrable reasons to do so. Good editing points to concrete reasons for why changes A, B, and C achieve the writer’s goals.

Notice: the writer’s goals. The writer most likely had good purpose in setting out to write, whether or not he executed his goals well. This brings me to the second pillar of good editing: the editor is the writer’s advocate, not his competitor. The editor stewards the writer’s voice. She is an ambassador of the writer’s words, making sure they resonate with the audience. Ambassadors say things their country’s president would say, not what they would say if they were president. They only tailor the message if and only if the audience will struggle to understand.

So how to become a good editor? There are several practical steps to take.

  1. When sitting down to edit someone else’s work, remember that you are not rewriting it, you are editing it. This is an entirely separate skill from writing, a completely different hat to wear. You will be using many of the similar tools of a writer, but you will NOT apply your own voice and you will NOT change things just because that is how you would do it. Instead, you will focus on strategy, reason, and resonance with the audience on the writers’ behalf. Make sure you know the reasons behind everything you change. If you don’t have a reason, don’t change it. 
  2. When you get a new piece to edit, refrain from making any changes until you’ve read the entire piece. Sit on your hands if you need to. But don’t touch it until you’ve read it as a reader would read it. Imagine it were already published, in a newspaper or magazine or book. Imagine you were simply consuming it…how would you take it? What confuses you? What made you slow down? Keep a mental–or physical–note of difficulties you experienced as a reader. Then on your second go through, return to these areas and ask yourself, “What might make it smoother or more persuasive?” Stick to Occam’s Razor as much as you can, as often times a simple move like cutting a word or rearranging some sentences will solve the problem much better than trying to rewrite it without the writer’s notes in front of you. 
  3. Ask the writer questions. Don’t think you need to solve his problems blindly. If you are having difficulty divining the writer’s intention with a sentence or concept, just ask him about it. You are partners, after all. Ask him to rephrase things, or to explain it as if to a novice. Often both you and the writer will stumble across simpler ways of communicating ideas than either of you thought of in the first place. 

 

To sum up, editing is not about passing the torch to another writer. It is an entirely different skillset. If you have a good editor in your life, go and give them a hug. And a cookie.

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How NOT to Write an Author Bio (Friday Fun)

author-clipart-img_0699I just finished the final edit on an article for the new CT Women publication. Hooray!

I was asked to write a 2-3 sentence bio to accompany the article. Anti-hooray.

It’s really not a big deal, but when I get asked this I start wondering…

…How do I avoid screwing this up?
…How do I avoid sounding pretentious, presumptuous, or pompous? 
…Simultaneously, how do I avoid undermining the authority of my argument or the value of my broader body of work?
…What would be helpful for people to know? 

Problem was that last night I had just finished a whole day sitting in a conference and my brain was too fried to answer these questions, or at least answer them with any modicum of seriousness. So I let my creativity flow, and thought you might enjoy seeing some first drafts.

Emily Capo Sauerman is a person. Sometimes she does stuff.

Emily Capo Sauerman is a writer, editor, photographer, videographer, designer, globe trekker, amateur chef, pumpkin carver, TV binger, tea snob, and a wannabe success story.

Emily Capo Sauerman is a writer and designer who lives in Nashville, TN and does not know why.

Emily Capo Sauerman saved her family from the wreckage of a sinking battleship. (Royal Tenenbaum, anyone?)

Emily Capo Sauerman is a work in progress. It’s bad form to judge works in progress.

Emily Capo Sauerman does not know who she is so stop asking.

Emily Capo Sauerman spends her time avoiding bananas, looking for freelance gigs, and planning world domination.

Emily Capo Sauerman hopes one day to feel comfortable in her own skin.

Emily Capo Sauerman would like to know who let the dogs out woof woof woof woof

Emily Capo Sauerman has written the definitive work on…oh wait, that’s the future and I’m not allowed to tell you.

 

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Why No One Understands You: an epiphany in good communication.

“No one cares about your feelings,” the professors told us on the first day of class. “If you have come to write about your feelings you can get out now. We are not kidding.” This class, unofficially dubbed the Fascist School of Writing, was the most wonderful class I ever took in my life and, incidentally, this jarring banishment of emotional baggage led to the most valuable lesson of communication I ever heard.

Whether you are a writer, filmmaker, politician, nonprofit guru, or entrepreneur, if you’ve ever tried to ‘improve your impact’ or ‘extend your reach,’ I expect you regularly hear platitudes like

  • “Produce audience-driven communication”
  • “Always answer the question, ‘Why should I care?'”
  • and “Start with Why.”

Each of these true directives points to two implications: first, that we tend to be terrible communicators, and second, that good communication has something to do with understanding our audience.

As to the first dour implication, I recently read on the blog The Creativity Post this passage about our communication handicap:

“Schools don’t teach communication. They teach math, (not very well), some science, history and give rote instructions about rigid grammatical rules, but give very little guidance on how to express ideas clearly. When we enter professional life, we immerse ourselves in the jargon and principles of our chosen field and obediently follow precepts laid out by our respective priesthoods. Yet we rarely put serious effort toward expressing ourselves in a language that can be understood by those outside our tribe. Then we wonder why our ideas never get very far.”

 As the post describes, our dysfunctional communication skills inhibit our ability to connect with others and realize our potential for innovation. It’s one thing to have ideas to share, but if no one can understand us, we limit the value of our ideas. Therefore, we have a deep incentive to pay attention not just to what we communicate, but how we communicate.

This passage also points to the second implication, the idea that communicators need to pay more attention to those with whom they communicate. Who are they? What is their context? What matters to them? Is it similar or different to the communicator’s context? Good communication demands that these questions be addressed.

Even if the communicator asks these questions, though, it does not guarantee that the answers will be applied. This is where the Fascist School of Writing drops its epiphanic bomb. The reason our feelings were not wanted in that classroom was because feelings were not going to persuade anybody. Feelings are one-directional and un-directable; they come out from us and land wherever they land. When we share our feelings, we are getting something off our chest. In other words, it is all about us. When we share ideas, by contrast, we want those ideas to germinate in the minds of others. If we seek to disperse our ideas well, we need to take control over how they get disseminated and understand more about where they take root.

On the first day of my writing course the professors explained that readers think differently from writers. Writers are obsessed with things–stuff that needs to be organized into a logical flow. Stuff is made of nouns. Writers love to arrange sentences around nouns. The problem is that readers look for actions. They want to know what’s happening, where things are going, the movement from A to B. They look for the verbs. Acknowledging this distinction confronts the writer with a critical decision: Will she depend on the readers to figure out her noun sequence and risk losing their interest and/or comprehension? Or will she adjust her approach to make it more reader-friendly, i.e. action-oriented? The answer is obvious in terms of what she should do, but as many readers know, few writers reorient themselves enough to make it easier for the reader to read, let alone more pleasant.

The big takeaway from this lesson is not only that readers and writers think differently, but that the burden of communication (i.e. getting ideas across successfully and comprehensively) lies on the writers, NOT the readers. Communicators need to reorient their whole message to begin from the audiences’ context and communicate in ways our audiences think. Why? Because we can’t afford to delude ourselves that our audience will stick around if we bore or confuse them. We also shouldn’t fall prey to the temptation of thinking they are too stupid to understand us. They are not stupid, but neither are they patient. The responsibility lies with us to escort them through our argument, beginning with something that our audience believes to be important. If we want to move someone’s point of view from point A to Point B, then we have to start at Point A. This might sound simplistic, but reflect for a moment on how many times you’ve read an article or watched a presentation in which the writer or the speaker assumed you agreed with him from the beginning, or used jargon without defining it, or spent your valuable time in the weeds of irrelevant details. Annoying, isn’t it? Learn from such instances. After all, no one is useless; as the saying goes, everyone can serve as a bad example. Do what these communicators failed to do: respect your audience.

Good communication, therefore, is about taking responsibility for your message and stewarding/manipulating/reshaping it in ways your audience can appreciate. This means making it easier for your audience to receive and comprehend your ideas, instead of making them do backflips. This involves starting where they are starting. It involves getting out of your own head and into theirs’. It is about carrying them along step by step. Oh, and heaven forbid you make the path enjoyable for them.

Communicators, take to heart the words of Lady Galadriel: This task was appointed to you. If you do not find a way, no one will.

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