My two modes of editing others’ work – basic and ugly

(I’m procrastinating.  A friend from college has asked me to swap critiques and, well…I thought I’d write a blog post instead.)

In my job that pays the bills, I frequently have to review reports. Sometimes the report I’m reviewing is one I was heavily involved with from day one.  Sometimes I get pulled into the process at the last minute.  (That second is not a good sign.  It means something is wrong and someone felt the need to go outside the core team to get another opinion.)

I have learned, after years of painful experience, that there are multiple ways to reach the same goal.  So, I try very hard to remember this when I’m reading anyone else’s work.  I think to myself, “I wouldn’t say it this way, but does it get the point across in a clear manner?  Will someone reading it understand?”

When I’m in that basic edit mode, I reserve my comments to point out clear errors – missing periods, faulty formatting, sentences that don’t convey the information correctly, incorrect citations, etc.

The problem is that sometimes I’ll read a report and there are too many basic errors and I find myself making comments in every single sentence or paragraph.  There’s no logical order to what’s presented or it’s clear that whoever wrote the report doesn’t grasp the nuance of what they’re writing about.

And that’s when it gets ugly.  Because that’s when I really start to edit a report.  I’ve even been known to pull out a fresh sheet of paper and start from scratch in those situations.  It’s never fun to do, but sometimes it takes me less time to start from scratch than to try to wrestle the existing report into shape.

And sometimes that’s necessary if we’re going to deliver a useful product.  But it’s never fun.

People don’t like writing something and having it shredded to little bits.  They don’t care that it’s better than it was.  (And sometimes don’t see why the changes were necessary or make it better – if they understood they probably wouldn’t have made the errors in the first place.)  (You’d think, at least.  Of course, some of these people don’t even care enough to run basic spellcheck on a report before circulating it to ten people for review.  We’re not talking once or twice – I think we all forget sometimes – but Every Single Time.)

I try really hard to stay out of that second edit mode.  Especially when I’m dealing with really nice people who care what others think about them.  (Or contentious assholes who are going to take every single edit as a personal attack on their power.)  But it’s really hard to do sometimes.  Really hard.

My boss likes to talk about at least helping them improve.  Getting them closer to where you want them to go, because it’s better than where they were.  And I try to hold back and just inch them along, but if I’m going to put in my time and effort I can’t stand the thought of giving 50% when I could give 100% without any additional effort.

I am not perfect, trust me.  My reports get edited, too.  (And often in my career I’ve wished they would get edited more than they do.  I’d rather my report was torn to shreds in private so that the final report was amazing than that someone decided it was “good enough” and sent it back without comments and we then issued something that isn’t clear or has errors.)

So, to bring this back to writing…If I’m going to critique for others, I want to stay in the first mode.  It’s not my place to rewrite something or tell someone their writing is “wrong.”  (That’s a purely subjective judgement anyway.)  But I suspect it will be very hard for me to do at times.  I’m going to try, because there’s a lot I can learn from critiquing someone else’s work.  And I would rather help someone to reach the next step on their writer’s journey than discourage them to the point that they quit writing.  (I would feel horrible if that happened…)  But I think it will be a struggle for me.

So, here’s hoping I can stay nice…

(And because this was a post that could have used some editing itself, I include a photo from New Zealand as recompense.  Sigh…love that place.)

(And one final note: If you pull photos for your blog instead of using your own you should read this: Blogging Authors Beware!  You Can Get Sued)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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