Blog | Mar 30, 2012 | 2 Comments

[an editor’s dilemma]

Recently, a client asked me to edit a very personal essay written by his wife. Here’s how I tried to rise to the challenge and become a kinder, gentler editor.

This story was about someone’s intimate thoughts and experiences.

I know how to get to the heart of a product or business story, but working with material this personal and emotional was daunting. Correcting grammar would be easy; she made very few mistakes. But style? When someone pours out their heart to you in a conversation, you never say, “Oh, you could have said that better.” Or, “Wait. That thought doesn’t really connect to the previous one.” How would I politely say things like that on paper to an inexperienced writer?

Empathy helps. So does calculated restraint.

I’m an empathetic reader. When reading a first-person narrative, I hear a voice in my head and see that person talking to me. (BTW, I am usually widely off-the-mark in my made-up images of authors and other personalities. It’s so amusing when I finally see a photo of that person.)

I could relate to this writer’s experiences and tried to put that before my editorial instincts. I decided changes had to be absolutely necessary because something was patently incorrect, very unclear, or just unnecessary or not impactful. Of course, the only way to confirm this was to re-read the entire essay out loud. I actually did it like a dramatic reading–and it was enjoyable.

Also, in a stroke of inspiration, I changed the options in MS Word’s Track Changes feature, so that no corrections would appear in red. It seemed a lot friendlier!

This experience made me realize something very important about editing.

The real purpose is not to push the editor’s idea of correct or compelling writing, but to show possible areas of improvement and spur the writer to do her own best work.

Here was the writer’s response, which brought a smile to my face:

I SO appreciate your editing on my essay! As a fledgling writer, it’s such a great help to see how good editing works. Your kind words were such a boost to my resolve to get the essay published.

Writer friends: do you write or edit personal stories? If you’re a writer, how do you like to be edited? If you’re an editor, what are your methods and recommendations?

Image credit: This beautiful drawing is by Morgan LaRue.

Author: Claire Wagner

I'm a seasoned freelance writer/editor and an enthusiastic community manager. I'm passionate about developing and sharing good content.


I’m convinced that good editing is an art. The best editors I’ve had helped me learn to internalize changes to my writing. Yet it’s easy to lose track of that in the ‘get it done quickly’ world. Brava to you for taking the time to do a sensitive edit.


Claire Wagner Reply:

Thanks, Anne. It was a good experience and also an honor to contribute to a beautiful piece of writing.


Anne Janzer


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