Editing & Developing Manuscripts: Redlines that Get Better Rewrites

Editing and developing manuscripts can be a tricky thing. You’re busy, you’re overworked, and you see writers making the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe it seems that the only way to get a writer’s attention is to “yell” at them, to write vicious comments on their manuscript.

Here are a few arguments for a slightly different approach.

#1. Yelling will drive away some of your authors. There is a fair amount of truth to the idea that an author has to have a thick skin. There will always be people who say negative things about their writing, and they have to be able to deal with that. They also have to be able to deal with you telling them what’s wrong with their work — this is perfectly reasonable. Be careful that you don’t step over the line into unnecessary viciousness, however. People are not generally expected to put up with this kind of behavior in a professional environment; don’t use the “you need a thick skin” truism to excuse unreasonable behavior.

#2. You know how to write; make use of that! You know something about writing or else you presumably wouldn’t be in the editing business. Use your words. Find an effective way to express what you want without wording it as a slur on the writer’s ability. In fact, wording things as simple instructions is usually shorter and faster.

#3. Yelling will make your writers defensive. People are more willing to admit that you have a point when you’re making it in a reasonable manner. Vicious comments tend to spark a defensive reaction, which makes the writer less willing to listen to what you have to say. This also makes him less likely to give you the rewrite that you want.

#4. Vicious redlines make it harder for your writer to do the rewrite. Anyone who isn’t absolutely, perfectly confident will be made uncomfortable by redlines that include vicious jabs at them. Very very few people are that confident. The more uncomfortable you make your writers feel, the less they’re going to want to face that rewrite you’ve given them. This means they’ll spend less time on the rewrite, they’ll put less effort into it, and you won’t get as good a final product as you could have if you’d toned things down a little.

#5. Make good comments as well as negative ones. If you point out where the writer did good things as well as bad things (instead of just marking the problems), you get a couple of useful things out of it. The writer will have a better idea of what makes you happy, for one, which makes him more likely to duplicate the feat. He’ll also have some proof that you don’t hate his writing, and if he’s a bit insecure, this will do wonders for his willingness to sit down and do that rewrite for you. If you think you’re too busy for this, then simply make a habit of putting check-marks next to the material you particularly like. It takes less than a second of time as you’re going along.

#6. Keep a separate set of notes if you’re prone to angry comments. If you’re really frustrated and tempted to take that out on your writer, then keep a separate pad of paper next to the manuscript you’re marking up. Write your vicious comments there. It’ll get them out of your system without the writer ever having to see them.

If the writer really is that bad, then instead of pounding on him, simply don’t hire him again. If he isn’t that bad and does have some talent, then stop trying to convince him that it isn’t worth working for you.

Even if you don’t give a whit whether you’re making your writers uncomfortable, angry, or upset, remember this: you’ll get a better final manuscript if you behave calmly. This makes for a lot less work for you. I’m not suggesting that you coddle writers or fail to tell them about the problems in their writing; I’m suggesting that you be straightforward in your criticism rather than nasty.

Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not trying to imply by this article that all developers are raving madmen or some such. I’ve dealt with some very professional and easy-to-work-with developers and editors in my time. However, I’ve also run into a couple who were very good at driving off writers!

Posted in Writing

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