Editing With Kindness


Most editors grow accustomed to the look of the nervous, sensitive writer: The half-hearted smile, shaking hands and lack of eye contact as they submit a draft. It mostly cannot be helped; this is the natural state of many writers.

I had been one of those writers at an advertising agency years ago, wondering what errors the high-esteemed editrix would uncover, and what shortcomings in my writing abilities and grammatical knowledge she would expose for all to point at and laugh.

“This sucks,” I imagined in her comments. “Make this better, or else...” I knew I would read in red pen.

Yet when she returned my work, marked up in green (more on that below), she didn’t berate me for screwing up a sentence. She didn’t scoff at my missed commas. She didn’t run to my creative director to tattle that I wasn’t a real writer.

She explained her marks to me clearly, patient and willing to answer any of my questions. And when I insecurely said I couldn’t believe I put two spaces between a sentence instead of one, she answered along the lines of, “Seeing our own errors is nearly impossible. That’s why editors exist!”

It was to my luck I ended up with this editor as my mentor and, eventually, as my team leader when I joined her as a copyeditor. The editing philosophy I practice today is 100 percent the product of her generosity.

I believe every writer deserves the kindness and respect my editing mentor practiced — and that I have learned to practice. Below are the key approaches she has gifted me to best serve the nervous writer, and others, through editing with kindness.

Illustration by Nathan T. Wright. See more of his work at  https://www.nathantwright.com/ .

Illustration by Nathan T. Wright. See more of his work at https://www.nathantwright.com/.

Editors Beware The Red Pen Effect

The red pen mark is a sign of failure, missed points, a bad grade. These piercing marks are irredeemable errors — we goofed and now it will forever impact our work, at the very least our reputations. The negative association with red pens extends well beyond academia. Some research studies have suggested that making edits in red pen has a negative effect on how the writer feels about the editor as well as his or her edits. Red pen seems to come in the same flavor as “Grammar Nazi” (which is awful for so many reasons), “Grammar Police,” et cetera — all of which I would love to see disappear from tchotchkes aimed toward word lovers.  

My editing mentor marked up content with a green pen for this very reason. And when I joined the team, I was able to choose my own color editing pen (purple, in case you were wondering). This simple yet effective editing strategy can even be applied electronically by modifying the color of tracked changes in your Word processor.  

Editors Should Respect Their Writers and Make Their Work Shine

Writers feed the editor, with words and sometimes with cookies to push through a rush project. A writer keeps an editor in a job. And it is for this fact that we editors must do all we can with our magic resources to make a writer’s work sparkle as brightly as a unicorn horn. How can one respect a writer?

  • Make edits based in rules, client-preferred style, industry best practices and readability. Writers have reasons for their word and sentence choices. Just because it would not be the editor’s choice does not mean it should be changed. All edits should be justified with a legitimate reason. Unless you are a creative director or client.

  • Avoid “you” statements in comments and focus on the content instead. This also applies to marriage and relationships.

  • Give the writer their edited piece before you give it to the publishing powers, so they have their final say and don’t have mini heart attacks and “I will kill my editor to avenge my work” moments when they see the final product.

Editors Should Educate Their Writers

Editors often see the same error crop up again and again, and these errors start to seem like cruel jokes repeated with each writing project — but upon requesting your writer give up the joke, you learn they don’t entirely know how to use things like em dashes. Don’t start a gossip campaign behind your writer’s back. Explain the edit.

And consider taking these grammar lessons to the public at a monthly midday presentation or a weekly email blast tip. Our written language is full of strange and sometimes arbitrary-seeming rules. But most make sense when you start explaining how they come about and why they are still in practice today (hint, hint: to make communication clearer!).  

Editors Should Always Be Learning Too

An editor’s job is difficult: To achieve perfection. Yet, as humans, we err as often as we get purple pen on our hands. We editors must stay sharp and updated on changing rules and style guides, and past rules we learned incorrectly or never learned at all.

When writers come up to us with their hands full of the things we had missed in their pieces, we thank them for showing us and pledge to do better next time (despite how smug said writers can be). In the end, no matter how much we do know, we should never become a know-it-all, unapproachable smarty-pants who is immune to our own errors. Rather we should try to be the best at our jobs — so we can help our writers be the best at theirs. And that means being open to our own mistakes and taking the time to seek out new information and opportunities to learn (for any editors reading, check out ACES).

While some of these editing steps may seem extra or unnecessary in a business environment, they are not. Kindness is a sign of respect and a currency more of us should make a point to spread. And let’s face it: Writing is hard. It’s almost akin to tracking down a unicorn and tearing off its horn to wield for magic prose and copy. But for those of us compelled to chase our unicorns, we have to keep learning and growing — and supporting others with grace and respect.

Have a grammar topic you'd like covered? See an error these unicorn eyes missed (hey, even unicorns can be human sometimes)? Write me.