The freelancer and … EMPATHY

I was very interested to read this article: People are people not users (thanks @SfEP for tweeting the link to it). It makes some good points about empathy (in an IT context). It’s highly beneficial for developers and IT folk to think of the people who will actually work with their systems as people, not just ‘users’ in some abstract dehumanised sense. The article struck a chord with me, as I’m sure it did with many others who have struggled and cursed their way through software and systems that seem entirely unsuitable for the mere carbon-based life form.

It also made me ponder the topic of why empathy is increasingly rare these days, and not just in IT. (Don’t get me started on the whole political/social aspect of this – when and why did it become normal to blame and fear, instead of accept and support, the less fortunate and anyone who seems ‘different’?) Anyway, politics isn’t where I was going with this. I would like to think about empathy in editing.

A while ago I was asked to copy-edit a non-fiction book written by a fairly eminent person who apparently has a reputation for being ‘difficult’ with editors. The publisher, having listened to a lecture from this author about the shortcomings of editors, was incredibly anxious to stress the need for me not to over-edit, and to be diplomatic and careful in my notes and queries. The publisher must have pronounced, at various times, twenty variations on the theme of ‘X is very difficult. Do keep that in mind. Have I mentioned how difficult X is? Do remember how difficult X is.’

In fact I’ll ruin any dramatic tension that might have existed in this story by telling you right away that the editing was well received and I got a nice message of thanks from author X. Mission accomplished, ta da.

So what’s the point? Where does empathy come into this? Well, it comes in because CNV00012the episode with X was a good illustration of the fact that an editor should always think not only about how readers will receive and understand and feel about the text, but also about how the author will receive and understand and feel about the editing. It’s easy for editors to feel that they are all alone with the text, but there is another person too, even if they are out of sight over the horizon at the moment. How are they going to feel? The edit may seem light and reasonable to the editor: to the author it may feel as if their precious work of art has been ripped to shreds and reassembled.

And – the central thing – I don’t believe that experienced editors just switch on that mindfulness, or empathy, when they are warned about a ‘difficult’ author. Isn’t it just a normal part of their professional good practice? I understood the publisher’s anxiety about X totally, and when I promised to be mindful of the author’s feelings and reactions I was completely sincere – but the thing is, I would have tried to be mindful anyway. I didn’t open a box marked ‘empathy’ and take it out specially for that one book.

So what does empathy, being ‘mindful’ of the author in that editorial sense, mean? Lots of things, many of them obvious enough. I expect that every editor’s empathy directives would be a little different in content and emphasis. These are the kinds of instructions I give myself:

* Be emotionally intelligent (as well as the other kind)

Be professionally cool and analytical in your approach to the text, certainly, but always remember that a human person, with human feelings, wrote it. And loves it.

* Don’t always do the thing

Don’t make unnecessary changes. Know the difference between a thing that’s wrong and a thing that isn’t done the way you personally prefer. It’s the author’s book, not yours.

* Suggest, don’t dictate

If extensive edits or rewordings are proposed, at least say ‘I suggest …’, rather than simply laying waste to the original.

* Explain

Say why things have been done – in particular why extensive edits or cuts are being proposed. If you can’t, when challenged, give a sound reason for an edit, then why did you do it?

* Be courteous

Be respectful and polite, as well as clear, in editorial comments. Read them through before you submit the text, and remember your tone of voice doesn’t travel. Very concise notes and queries can sound simply brusque and rude (or indeed incomprehensible) to the author.

* Acknowledge that you are not the expert

Query data with the author by all means if it’s necessary. Even if fact-checking is not required in the brief, some double-checks can save an embarrassing error. But only use reliable, appropriate sources for checking; and when querying, explicitly acknowledge the fact that the expert author may have better and more up-to-date sources than you, and be right. Smugly telling an author they’re wrong on the basis of a half-digested Wikipedia article wins no hearts and minds.

* Don’t track wildly

Don’t (unless the publisher or author insists) use tracking for every tiny basic style point (double/single quotes, en dashes/hyphens, wrong word spaces, etc.). All that tracking clutters up the place and gives the author the impression that their text is much more heavily substantively edited than it is. List changes that you have ‘silently’ corrected in the style sheet.

* Trackless wilderness?

Make it easier for the author to review and understand the editing. Seeing heavy tracked changes and numerous inserted queries can bring on a panic attack, and in practical terms it can be hard for authors to follow both the macro and micro issues through the forest of red and blue. In that case they can’t make fair judgements on the editor’s work; they may simply give up and decide that they hate both your editing and you. Is a separate typed list of queries, keyed to the text, more approachable to some authors than inserted comments? Is it helpful to consider supplying a ‘clean’ reading version of the edited text (maybe as a pdf), perhaps with just the comments/queries visible, in addition to, or even in advance of, the tracked Word file?

There are no guarantees. An author may still hate an edit (any edit) and respond badly however sensitively the work has been presented. Such is life. In that unfortunate case, it’s a lot easier for editors to cope with it if they can genuinely say they have done good work and presented it carefully and with respect to that other human in the equation: the author.