IT’S NOT “ONLY WORDS”: Write with acceptance, edit with compassion

IT’S NOT “ONLY WORDS”: Write with acceptance, edit with compassion.How do we writers feel when something we thought was perfect is changed—even slightly—or commented on, or sometimes deleted? Do we become “all sensitive” and refuse to accept that maybe someone actually liked our work,  wants to make us sound erudite and really wants to get our message across? In fact, someone felt strongly enough about it to want to use it in the first place?

Do we resent any suggestions and rather than accept changes, pull the piece from publishing and silence our voice?

A while ago, I edited a piece written by a woman whose native language was not English and her English, while good, had some paranormal errors. It was a lovely message—full of joy and hope—but it was also scattered and sometimes made no sense. I wrote to her asking if I could use it—spread her joy, so to speak. She agreed. I pulled it together, keeping her obvious excitement with her new project, keeping her voice while tidying her thoughts.

IT’S NOT “ONLY WORDS”: Write with acceptance, edit with compassion.She went ballistic—said her words were to be published exactly as she had written them or they were not to be published. I wrote to her and tried to “talk” to her, saying that in future, if she wanted to be published in English, she would find this happening to her often—all serious writers did—and if she felt her message needed to get out there, she would have to accept being edited. I was told in no uncertain terms that her words were always to be published by anyone exactly as she had written them, or not at all. Harsher language was used…

Hello, Ego my old friend,
you’ve come to cripple me again.
Because an edit gently given,
was rejected without thinking.
And the message that was planted in my brain
still remains
inside my brain… and silenced.

(Thanks, Paul Simon, hope you like it!)

Writer, desensitize thyself!

I know how I felt the first time someone edited my words. It was a poem.

A POEM!!

You NEVER edit a poem!

Poems are inviolate!

Poems are a piece of the poet’s soul!

Souls are untouchable!

At least that’s what I thought. But it had an important message and I had sent it to a journal I respected. The editor came back with some suggestions to do with tenses, explaining her thought process.

Gut-kicked I was and wanted to tell her to “get lost.” But I didn’t. I sat and thought about what I was trying to do here. Getting “precious” and burying the poem in some poetry jewellery box to be gazed at only by the owner or published “in memorium” was wasting words.

I read the comments, looked at the poem again. I realized this editor actually cared enough about what I had written that she wanted to publish it if I could accept some suggestions. Some changes I made, some I balked at and told her why. It was published.

IT’S NOT “ONLY WORDS”: Write with acceptance, edit with compassion.It is difficult to edit your own writing. You’ve put hours of passionate work into the message and it reads fabulously. Right?

Ha! That’s what the mind is telling you anyway. The mind is so powerful it often sees only what was meant to be written and looks past sometimes an abyss in composition.

The other day, after copious research, it took me four hours to write and edit a piece I felt was important. I put it away. I went back to it probably six or seven times and still found things—a comma missing, a letter, a word—that, while not changing the meaning or “grabbiness” would stop the more pedantic readers dead in their tracks, losing them. But, I didn’t see them the first time around, or the third or fourth.

I can be awfully vague sometimes. My head is so busy with the pithy phrase, the poetic line, I can (and do) get lost in words. In my mind it’s as clear as a bell. To the reader, it’s some hazy shade of winter and they don’t get it. That’s not what I want.

I sent it to an editor I have come to trust. He corrected the obvious, made some suggestions, told me what he was not understanding and why. We “argued” back and forth for a few emails until we had reached consensus—and that means, we BOTH understood what BOTH of us were saying and I could put it into the correct words so others could understand them.

We are, more often than not, blind to our own writing errors and, when they’re pointed out to us, we take umbrage. Rather than allow our powerful messages to go out in an acceptable format thus making them even more powerful, we withdraw them… silence them.

Hey, editor! Lose the attitude! Get over yourself.

IT’S NOT “ONLY WORDS”: Write with acceptance, edit with compassion.

Anyone who believes editing is easy, has no heart and should never become an editor. In fact, anyone who hasn’t themselves written and been edited, shouldn’t be an editor.

Strong words? Maybe. And tough.

And that’s what editing with heart is… tough!

“Editors are frustrated writers,” it is so often said. And I have come across some gorilla mechanics who whip out any parts they feel shouldn’t be there, or spray their editorial urine like an alpha male demarcating territory. A bass singing a soprano’s aria.

Delete! Rewrite! Doesn’t make sense! Irrelevant! Waffling!

I’ve seen this done to others many, many times and it makes me want to hurl… the pages back at these butchers.

A writer, who has with great trepidation sent their work to be published, is committing an act of immense bravery and one of trust, and the writing should be treated with not only respect, but compassion.

I received a poem from a first time poet. The tenses were mixed, but the imagery and power were tangible. I read the bio carefully, again read the cover email and again the bio and again the poem—getting into the poet’s head, feeling his soul.

I wrote, telling him the poem was great and asked if he would mind some suggestions to make it even better. He responded that he would love any suggestions, as long as I don’t take away his voice. I sat, absorbing the poem for a bit—feeling his sense of wonder, his confusion, his awe, and his thought processing.

I first corrected the spelling and punctuation, looking up words that I had never seen before. Then I set about using spaces, removing capital letters at the beginning of lines, removing punctuation completely instead using a new line as the punctuation, putting a thought in between two blank spaces as a standalone phrase. I sent it back to him telling him exactly why I had done what I had done, and asked for his comments.

I heard nothing for two weeks and thought I’d offended him. Then I received an email from him saying, he LOVED (his caps) the changes and thank you.

IT’S NOT “ONLY WORDS”: Write with acceptance, edit with compassion.The message should always be more important than the messenger, but this doesn’t mean shooting the messenger, or drowning his voice.

Editors, if you cannot accept that there are others out there who write just as wonderfully or perhaps more so than you do or can or will—don’t edit.

Writers, if you cannot accept that it’s your words that matter—and that it’s the only way you have of getting your message out there, so it needs to be easy to read and understand—don’t write.

Ego. It’s all about letting ego go.

I have written this and edited and re-edited many, many times… cutting, pasting, rewriting, deleting. My “spell-checker” is defunct because I make up words and write in a mixture of all the Englishes (see what I mean?). And then there’s my own, of course. You may still find some small errors, and maybe some glaring ones. It would be good  if you didn’t. But if you did, that’s good too. It means the message was important enough to catch your attention, and the errors didn’t fry your brain.

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Posted by × January 2, 2013 at 11:31 AM

2 Comments

  1. That cartoon made me laugh. I totally used to get annoyed at public spelling mistakes like that until I started living in a country where the first language is not English and now I can’t find a single menu without a spelling mistake!

    You bring up an important topic for writers and editors that can be applied to all artists and people in general. If we write to share our words, why not let them be reworked so that they’re more appropriate for the audience… and an editor will know what works best for their audience. And if we don’t want our words changed, it’s pretty simple… don’t publish it. Just stuff it in a drawer so no one can see.

  2. I loved this! It is all about letting go of ego. I’ve talked to a lot of people lately about how writing with an intention of being understood is not the same as not putting heart into it. If anything, it is far more compassionate and heartfelt to learn how to communicate with the desired audience rather than to just publish words or music without a second thought for how they are perceived.
    Like Breathe said above- there’s always a space for unedited heartfelt works, and that is in a diary in the drawer. When something is written for a reader, it’s wonderful to care!

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