- Created: Friday, 24 July 2015 17:08
- Written by Elizabeth Danziger
Editing for Others: Don’t Change Just for Change’s Sake
“The strongest compulsion in the world is not love, and it is not hate; it is one person’s desire to edit another person’s copy.” -- H.G. Wells
These are some of the words that people use in my trainings to describe their experience when someone in their organization changes their writing without making the writing any better. Few things are as disempowering as working hard to craft a document, putting time and thought into your presentation, only to have one layer of management after another hack it to pieces and return it, bleeding, to your hands. Why do editors and managers change people’s writing so frequently or so dramatically?
Sometimes, The Original Wasn’t That Good.
Although writers do not like to admit this, sometimes editors change text because the text needed changing. Perhaps it was not purposeful; it was inappropriate to the reader; it did not get to the point; it was not parallel; it was verbose; it disclosed information better left private; it contained long, convoluted sentences. There may be many legitimate reasons why a manager might want to edit someone’s work, perhaps even to edit it severely. In these cases, the editor should do his or her best to explain to the writer the rationale for the changes. If changes are made, there should always be a rationale. The person who was edited needs to take a deep breath, focus on the success of the document rather than his or her personal feelings, and revise the document.
Power, Turf, and Justifying Your Pay Grade
What about the cases when there is no clear rationale for the change? The material is appropriate. The grammar is correct. Yet red marks stream across the page, exchanging one word for another of the same meaning and similar connotation, making grammatical changes that are difficult to justify, switching the order of words in a sentence to no apparent benefit.
What motivates these edits? The recipients of apparently empty edits have opinions. “Power play.” “Marking their turf” “Justifying their salary” Particularly frustrating to these individuals are the cases when their work is hacked up by many levels of management, only to return to something like its original form, after various people have spent dozens of hours on the revisions. This situation is bad for productivity, bad for the organization, and bad for morale.
How can you judge whether to edit?
If you are the editor, how can you know whether your edit is valid? Is it worth the frustration it will cause to the person who drafted the document? Here are some guidelines:
- Does the document have a clear purpose or intention?
- Is the document appropriate to its reader in terms of language, detail, and content?
- Is the main point clear?
If not, edit for these factors.
- Is the grammar wrong? Are you sure it is wrong?
- Is the sentence over 20 words long?
- Does the sentence contain unnecessary noun phrases, clichés, or verbal sludge?
If so, edit to correct.
However, if you are just not sure you like the way it sounds, think seriously before changing it. If the document is going out under your signature and it doesn’t sound like something you’d write, perhaps you need to change it. But if it is an organizational document that many hands will touch, consider Shakespeare’s notion that discretion is the better part of valor. You can show your value to the process by writing “Looks okay” or even, “Looks good”. You are not obligated to change every document you review.
© 2015 Elizabeth Danziger