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Writing is innately personal. Even if the topic is entirely unrelated to you as a person, such as when you’re writing an op-ed or a report or journal article, the act of writing requires a level of vulnerability that is uncomfortable for many of us. You’re tasked with attempting to pin down thoughts swirling around your brain—which, truly, we can never quite do—in an articulate way with an original angle that appeals to a broad audience. You spend time and energy to craft something and then, at the end, you must open yourself up to feedback and critique.
Writing is very personal; editing is not.
As director of thought leadership for a higher education communications and leadership agency, much of my workday is spent reviewing written pieces from faculty members and senior administrators. It’s challenging, even for people who write and go through the editing process regularly, to be objective and open-minded to feedback on something that feels so personal. Opening a draft that you were initially confident about to find it filled with tracked changes and comments can make you feel inadequate, overwhelmed and frustrated—and ultimately lead you to close the document without even looking closely at the changes. But shifting how you approach feedback can lessen the sting to the ego and truly improve your writing.
While I was an undergraduate, I spent quite a few semesters sitting through creative writing workshops, and those courses forever altered how I view feedback. Every person in the class had to share a draft to be reviewed by everyone else and then silently endure the dissection of the piece. Each time was a lesson in humility and vulnerability, and those critiques taught me how to accept and use feedback in a productive manner.
Certainly, not all the feedback was helpful. And I didn’t accept all the suggestions about my work. But I was open to them. A willingness to consider suggestions from others can make you a stronger writer. And even excellent writers can benefit from editing, because there is always room for improvement.
I’m typically editing for people who have far more letters after their name and more diplomas on their wall than I do. The level of intelligence and expertise and skillful writing I see in the pieces that I review is unquestionably high. But when I’m working through edits for a piece, my goal is to make it the best version of itself and give it the strongest chance that a media outlet will find it of interest to its readers and worth publishing.
I’m looking closely for mistakes and typos, offering suggestions for data or links where I think editors will want to see evidence, cutting swaths to make it fit within whatever word-count limit the particular media outlet allows. I’m breaking up confusing or run-on sentences, rearranging paragraphs for flow, flagging language that may be repetitive or unclear to readers. Every edit and suggestion I make is geared toward the end goal of placing a piece; my changes have nothing to do with what I think of a writer’s intelligence or skill.
I consider all the rounds of edits and revisions the leaders, experts and scholars I work with must have undergone in their academic and professional careers and note how many still feel overwhelmed by feedback. Getting defensive about your work speaks to the personal nature of writing. Initially, I thought it was super awkward to sit through a peer-review session without being allowed to defend my work. But I ultimately realized it was to allow the feedback to come through without that natural inclination for defense. You need to give yourself the space for that emotional gut reaction—be mad or frustrated or upset if you must—and then move on and get to work.
And if you still feel your shoulders creep up or your nostrils flare when you turn to the task at hand, switch up how you look at edits. If your editor has tracked changes, switch to no markup or simple markup for a first read. That way, you’re neither distracted by comparing the changes to the original text nor overwhelmed by all the edits. And hopefully that also gives you the opportunity to read the piece as a whole and recognize that it’s stronger, clearer, more succinct and ultimately closer to the goal of placement.
All writers need readers, and whoever you’ve partnered with to help you shape your work is likely your closest one. Of course, any reader brings a certain amount of subjectivity, but that person reading your work isn’t as close to it as you are, and they look at it with some outside perspective. Having an editor who is removed from the personal level of writing gives them a different vantage point and the ability to see the piece as a whole. Think of an athlete getting advice from a coach: the player is mostly focused on their individual role and what’s immediately in front of them for a task, while the coach is looking at how this task fits into a bigger-picture outcome. Their advice isn’t personal—it is geared toward reaching a specific goal.
And since your editor has read your work so closely, you should actually read through their edits and comments. Especially early in a working relationship, I spend about as much time justifying or explaining my edits as I do making those edits. I use comments to frame why I’m making the changes and offer suggested language to build trust. Honest, clear feedback in the comments can also make you a better writer in the long run, because you may start to notice patterns in what gets flagged and take action on your future drafts. If you’re consistently seeing notes about making passive voice active or perhaps that your sentences are unwieldy and need to be broken up or condensed, it’s something you can check over before sharing your next draft.
While you can always improve a piece of writing, you should also remember that nothing will ever be perfect. You don’t want to miss a timely news hook or a deadline from an outlet because you were still bogged down in revisions. It’s important to know when to stop tinkering with something good and move on.