If your experience of editing is having a teacher put a red line through your composition, know that it is a lot more complicated than that.
It’s a perilous thing, being an editor.
People pay you to be right. To correct their mistakes and infelicities and phrasing.
In the best of editors, that leads to a lot of second-guessing yourself: the writer said this, I am about to change it, am I right to do that?
Once you’ve been at it a while, your hands and your brain recognise most things instinctively – you correct spelling and grammar and lack of clarity without a doubt in your heart.
But there are days when the doubts in the heart need to be listened to, considered – and perhaps acted on.
One such moment happened to me recently.
Just another day at my desk
I was editing a newsletter for one of my clients, and as I went I was aware of a nagging and mounting sense of unease as I read it.
Politics were involved, and I started to feel as though only one side of a particular issue was being represented.
So what is an editor to do? I knew that there wasn’t a lot of time to make changes to the text, and other pressures were at play. So any doubts I raised would be an impractical spanner in the works.
But the other half of my feeling of unease was a deep reluctance to enter into political debate.
Living beyond black and white
That reluctance comes from various places. I long ago acknowledged that there are many issues that I just don’t know enough about. In general, my policy is to say nothing and listen rather than offer muddled opinions.
Also, many people I know have such clear – and often angry – thoughts on a range of topics. My general policy is not to engage. It’s rare that anything fruitful happens when talking to people who have firm opinions about things. My general policy is to live in the places expressed by Rumi:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.
And I’m on that field for reasons expressed (as always) masterfully by Bruce Springsteen in his song Blood Brothers:
Now the hardness of this world slowly grinds your dreams away
Makin’ a fool’s joke out of the promises we make
And what once seemed black and white turns to so many shades of gray
So, reading the newsletter, I self-censored. I didn’t raise my unease, and said I was done editing. I allowed a personal set of ideas to overcome my inner editor’s voice.
And I was wrong to do that.
Sometimes editing is not just about making the right decisions about language. It is about being self-aware, about listening to oneself, and stepping out of a comfort zone. In the end, my duty is to the work I am editing, and to the person I am working for. I forgot that for a moment – but I won’t do it again.
Main picture: Khürt Williams, Unsplash
How to reach me
Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media).
I write a post every week, some about my professional life and work, and some about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here.