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Editing for Others: Don't Change for the Sake of Change

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

Elizabeth Danziger is a business writing trainer, editor, and writer. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Avoiding “Amphibious Pitcher” Errors

If you don’t know what it means, LOOK IT UPThe Internet was alive recently with people mocking the headline in the Eastern Oregonian, which touted the debut of an "amphibious pitcher." Of course, the headline writer did not mean that he can pitch both in water and on land; he or she meant that he pitches with both hands.

In other words, that he is ambidextrous.

In fairness, both words have the same prefix. Amphi- is Classical Greek for both; ambi- is Latin with the same meaning. But the roots are entirely different. Amphibious comes from amphi and bios, or life. In other words, living in both ways. Ambidextrous comes from ambi and dexter, or right. Meaning that both hands act like the right hand. But let's face it, the words are entirely different.

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A Common Grammar Gaffe: Don't Let This Undermine You

Grammar! The word itself makes some people’s eyes glaze over. Shades of elementary school make eyelids droop. But think about it: When you receive an email or document that contains grammar and punctuation errors, how does it affect your opinion of the sender? When I ask this question in the Worktalk writing trainings, people use words like, “incompetent, unprofessional, uneducated, careless…” The list goes on and on. When we disregard basic grammar, we risk undermining the good impression we have worked so hard to build.One grammar error that has cropped up in recent writing trainings is a lack of singular-plural agreement. Wait — don’t go to sleep yet. Disregarding this point can make you look ignorant. So take a look.

What is wrong with these sentences?

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Perils of Tiny Typing: Typos

I received an email recently that contained the signature line: “Expect typos.”

Why should I expect typos? I expect people to avoid them, especially in business correspondence.

Cell phones breed typos. Granted, when one is typing with thumbs on a tiny screen, errors are more likely to creep in. But this does not mean that we should simply give up without a murmur and say, “Oh, well, my writing will be full of typos and my readers will just have to deal with it.”

Cell phones have had many effects on our communication, including these: They have blurred the boundary between business and personal communications and they have made us less sensitive to typographical errors.
In personal, informal cell phone dialogues, readers usually overlook  errors, as long as the meaning is comprehensible. The question is, however, whether any important messages or emails should be sent from a phone when you are too rushed to correct mistakes.

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Why choose WorkTalk trainings?

  • Taught by a professional writer. +

    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
  • Customized. +

    Every Worktalk training is customized to the client's needs. We meet with you, analyze writing samples from your organization, and customize our training to target the specific challenges that employees in your organization face.
  • Energetic and entertaining. +

    With plenty of exercises and opportunities for interaction, the Worktalk trainings move quickly. Subjects that were terrifying in grammar school become fun and interesting in these outstanding programs.
  • Proven results. +

    In trainings all over the country, Ms. Danziger has enabled participants to streamline their organizing process, eliminate persistent errors, and drastically cut their revision time. Clients spend less time on key communications while producing better relationships and results. Sales people get more positive responses from prospects.
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