Editing as conversation

This is a joint post from Steve Heard and Carly Ziter.

A few weeks ago, Carly contributed a guest post on editing* as an  act of caring.  This got the two of us thinking and talking about editing – and actually doing it too, because Steve couldn’t resist taking his red pen to Carly’s draft.  Carly made the point that while editing may look like a wall-of-Track-Changes-red act of correction, it’s  also an important act of caring – and this isn’t always immediately obvious, especially to early-career folk.  But there’s something else editing is too, and it’s perhaps equally unobvious to some.  Editing, when done and received well, is a conversation.

One reason it’s easy to feel crushed by the wall-of-Track-Changes-red is that it can feel like rejection of everything you wrote – and like a series of non-negotiable edicts.**  Change this.  Write it this way.  Don’t say that.  One irascible tweeter even proclaimed that editing is an act of censorship, of senior researchers forcing their way on more junior ones.  There are, we assume, “mentors” and “editors” (note the irony quotes) like that out there… but they’re doing it wrong.

Things work best when both parties – editors and those who are edited; or if you prefer, editors and revisers – understand that editing is a conversation.  If one of us red-pencils a bit of text, what we’re saying is this:  “I don’t think this bit is correct/effective/appropriate.  I think this alternative would be better.  What do you think?”  But that’s a bit long-winded, and neither party wants it typed out over and over again – so after saying it once, we settle for just striking out X and inserting Y.  This can be reminiscent of our school-day memories of being corrected rather than edited, especially if we fail to keep in mind that it’s just a shorthand for the longer discussion we’d prefer not to type out over and over again.  (It really is important to communicate the longer version at least once, and clearly.  An experienced editor can forget that those less experienced may not know, or may easily forget, that it’s implicit in the strike-out-X-and-insert-Y shorthand. We suggest that especially with new students/mentees, it’s worth having a conversation about this early in the relationship – and a reminder now and again is worthwhile too.)

If you’re the one being edited, think of each change to your work as opening the conversation we keep talking about.  That conversation may take the form of a next draft (if you’re working with a mentor) or a resubmission and Response to Reviews (if you’re working with peer reviewers and a journal editor).  It’s not normally a literal conversation, although it can be.  It’s not inappropriate to ask an editor, or the author of a signed review, to elaborate on a point, as long as you do so sparingly.  With a mentor, both parties may appreciate a literal in-person conversation as an investment in easing the job with the next draft.

So if the edit is a conversational opening, what’s the rhetorical response?  If the editor suggests “Do X”, as the one being edited, you always have three options.  You can in fact do X (and if you’re writing a Response to Reviews, express thanks for the suggestion).  Or, you can defend your original choice – not out of stubbornness, mind you, but if you really can defend its merits.***  Finally, you can neither keep your original nor do X, instead using the editor’s suggestion as a spur to take the third path Y.  This should be common, we think.  An editor will often make a suggestion that doesn’t work because they’ve missed the point – and they’ve often missed the point because they were lead astray by something unclear in the writing.  If that’s the case, a fix is needed, and that fix won’t be complying with the editor’s suggested X but rather a different change to whatever led the editor to think X would be a good idea.

What about when you’re on the editor’s side of the interaction?  It’s equally important then to remember the conversation you’re engaged in with the writer.  There’s something particularly irritating about taking time to comment on a manuscript, and then receiving a resubmission that doesn’t make the changes you’ve suggested.  And if you’ve simply been ignored, your irritation is on solid ground.  But perhaps the author disagrees for good reason; or perhaps they’ve made that other change.  If you’re reviewing or editing during the journal submission process, you’ll likely have a Response to Reviews document that will tell you what’s gone on.  If you’re editing as a mentor, you might consider asking for a similar document (or a face-to-face discussion), explaining each change and especially each not-change.  It’s a little extra work for the writer who’s revising, but it help underline the expectation that what’s happening is a conversation, and it can save effort by both parties in the longer term.

Good editing isn’t correction.  Good editing is conversation.

© Stephen Heard and Carly Ziter March 31, 2020

 Image: Conversation, by Burst CC0 via pexels.com


*^Thoughout that post and this one, “editing” is to be interpreted broadly – any time one person is reading and either altering or commenting on a document written by another.  That could be a coauthor, a mentor, a peer reviewer, or someone whose actual job title is “editor”.

**^There’s actually a strong pedagogical argument for not using red.  The psychological association we have with the colour can push recipients to think of it as harsh judgment.  Carly and I used red in illustrating her post to make a point – but when you edit, consider changing the Track Changes setting (or your pen) to blue or green instead.

***^Keep in mind that your mentor, or peer reviewer, or journal editor, isn’t always right; but they probably do have significant knowledge and experience.  After all, that’s how they came to be editing you in the first place.  So think carefully about your disagreement.  You don’t get to insist that “dog” really is spelled with a silent Q, or that cf. really does mean “see also”.  (Humpty Dumpty was wrong about this one.)  But if you can marshal an argument that you’re right, go for it.

4 thoughts on “Editing as conversation

  1. Jan Murie

    Indeed this is a good perspective. Especially when editing as mentor, I make use (some might say excessive use) of the Comment tool rather than just use track changes. That starts the conversation if you explain why you are suggesting a change–if no reason for a change is given, the writer is less likely to accept a possible improvement. Admittedlly this process increases editing time but perhaps saves time in the long run.

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  2. Ambika Kamath

    Love this and its companion post! The only place I differ is that I think it takes a lot longer than one round of editing to get to the point where one doesn’t need to explain why the editor has made a suggestion for change–that trust and goodwill takes a lot longer to develop, IMO, and so I almost always make the choice of explaining why I’ve suggested a specific change, spelling out the problem/lack of clarity I see.

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