Editing for Others in Business
"The strongest passion in human beings is not love and is not hate; it is one person's desire to change another's copy."
-- H.G. Wells
Bad feelings often arise in organizations when one person edits another’s work. Subordinates feel disrespected and disempowered when their managers chop up their carefully crafted words and turn them into a document that the writer may find inferior. Managers waste untold hours revising the work of employees who were often not clear on the assignment to begin with. In our business writing trainings we offer suggestions for assigning writing projects as well as editing them; assigning properly avoids many subsequent editing issues. However, editing tactfully is still crucial.
Here are a few principles to keep in mind when you are wielding the editing pen.
· Don’t change someone’s work just for the sake of changing.
Why do we always think that we can say something better than the other person can? Sometimes it is because we really can, and sometimes it’s because we’ve succumbed to the overwhelming urge to change another person’s wording just because we didn’t write it ourselves. Before you request a change, ask yourself if the change will create a substantial improvement. If not, leave it alone.
· Be polite. Use many words when giving feedback.
Why should you pad your criticism with extra words? The additional words blunt your impact and therefore make the message easier to accept. If you want a person to absorb your criticism and learn from it, allow him to retain his dignity and self-respect. Soften the blow with kind, courteous language. Use the passive voice. Say, "I think this could be written a bit more clearly” rather than "Take this back and fix it."
Don’t worry that you’ll turn into a cream-puff: Your kindness will help you generate a productive result. You will have a colleague or employee who will probably, over time, require less of your editorial time and energy.
· Be constructive.
Offer specific suggestions with each criticism. If you can’t think of something to fix the problem you’re noting, say so, and spend a few minutes with the writer trying to come up with several alternative solutions.
· Edit according to mutually accepted rules.
In order to avoid the “he said/she said,” “my way/your way” dialogue that plagues the editing process in many organizations, agree on a set of guidelines that the whole organization will abide by. In our business writing trainings, we teach core principles on which to base the editing process. Having a style guide is also a helpful tool; we can help you with that, too.
· Don’t get personal.
You can’t annihilate a person’s self-esteem and then expect him to bounce back like a jolly little clown to do your bidding. If your goal is to have the other person become a more effective writer, focus on the writing, not on the writer. Remember the Chinese proverb: "Deal with the faults of others as gently as with your own."
Business writing is often a group enterprise. Learning to offer constructive suggestions to colleagues or subordinates will enable your whole organization to communicate more effectively.
© 2010 Elizabeth Danziger
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