As editors, we are taught about the importance of communication. University courses and professional development seminars emphasize the need for clarity and sensitivity when making recommendations, and Editors Canada’s own Professional Editorial Standards indicate that “professional editors should communicate clearly and tactfully.”
All of this matters. But even though we think we know what this means, the truth is, sometimes the best way to learn something is from experience. And that can be tricky, since not all editors are writers or creators of their own work.
Last month, I attended a seminar on substantive editing, where veteran instructor Jennifer Latham helped us navigate the thorny topic of how to tell a client or colleague that their text needs more than just the spit and polish that they asked for. The advice, simply put, comes down to diplomacy. We all nodded, because of course that was true, right? Jennifer also recommended that, when possible, a phone call or a face-to-face meeting is often the easiest way to communicate complex thoughts that might present as sarcasm or impatience in written comments.
“Having said that,” said one participant, “I have a good working relationship with several of my colleagues, and I don’t need to be as delicate with them as I do with some others.” Indeed, Jennifer stressed that rapport and trust counts for a lot but there is still value in treading with caution.
As someone who edits and writes (and is therefore edited), I endorse this caution wholeheartedly: never underestimate the value of thoughtful feedback.
I recently updated my business website by adding some testimonials from past clients. One in particular said, “… she was positive and encouraging, while still clearly describing the issues she found and possible approaches to addressing them.” Until I read those words, I had no idea how much my client valued the effort I put into my recommendations. And then I thought about recent experiences that I’ve had being edited, and how much professional respect I have for the people whose feedback was crafted most thoughtfully, even when the feedback was critical.
Diplomacy and tact often take effort—sometimes a lot. I have no doubt that the colleagues I’m thinking of spent a lot of time choosing their words carefully. But as editors, that is part of our job. Even if it takes time, in my opinion, it is time well spent.
While anyone receiving editorial feedback should also practice accepting it graciously, it is worth remembering that giving gracious feedback is about much more than just preventing hurt feelings or out-of-joint noses. Among other things, it is about precision and efficiency. Marginal notes that say, “Really?!” might express your gut reaction, but it does nothing to help the writer understand how to fix the problem, and it doesn’t resolve things any faster.
Just as importantly, it’s about the personal impression you want to leave with the person that you’re giving feedback to. Would you want to be on the receiving end of your words? If not, pause to ask yourself if there’s a better way to convey your advice. As editors committed to high standards of excellence, such as those described in the Professional Editorial Standards, professionalism should always take the place of impatience and sarcasm, no matter who you’re working with—for your client or colleague’s sake, for your own sake, and for the benefit of the editorial profession.