Editing and Ego

A week ago, I was listening to the Freakonomics Radio Show on NPR and caught a segment where they interviewed Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. The interview was all about why we are poor judges of ourselves. For example we might think we’re wearing a mind-blowing wardrobe, but no one else notices. Or, maybe a professor thinks they’ve given the most poignant lecture ever, only to put the class to sleep. The interview was actually a rebroadcast, so the transcript of the interview is available online here or you can listen to it here. It occurred to me that Epley’s research gives a lot of insight into both the dangers of self-editing and the care one needs to take when editing others.

In the interview, Dr. Epley makes the point that human beings aren’t especially good at knowing what others think of them. The root of this problem is egocentrism. Epley doesn’t use “egocentrism” in a negative context. Rather, he means that we’re the people most expert in ourselves. So, when we change our hairstyle, we know we’ve made a change and understand immediately why we did it. When we say something, we say it from the context of our life experiences. The problem for us as writers is that our readers may not know everything we know, or even understand it the same way we understand it. Readers simply haven’t lived a life with the same experiences we have.

This is actually why editors are so vital to writing. A good editor has a good understanding of the audience you’re trying to speak to and can tell you where you haven’t been clear, or where they won’t understand what you’re trying to say, or where you may imply something you don’t mean at all.

The challenge of editing oneself is that you come to your writing knowing yourself better than anyone else. You know exactly what you meant to say when you wrote it. One way to defeat this is to give yourself time. I’m currently editing The Pirates of Sufiro, which I first wrote twenty-five years ago. I have twenty-five more years of life experience and I don’t see everything the same way I did before, so it’s much easier for me to see places where people could misunderstand what I meant or where I had pictures in my mind I didn’t fully communicate on the page. Now, you may not want to wait twenty-five years to edit your manuscript. If you don’t have a publisher who is covering the costs of editing, and you can’t cover them yourself, you really need a beta reader or two. It’s best if they have somewhat different life experiences than you do and are willing to give you honest feedback.

This actually goes a long way to explaining why its dangerous for family to edit your work. We’re often told its because family will spare your feelings. Those people don’t have my family! However, what family do have are many of the same life experiences. What’s more, they hear you every day and have learned what you mean, even if you may not be clear to someone else. So, utilize your family with caution.

I see an important caution for professional editors in Dr. Epley’s remarks as well. Early in my editing career, I sometimes gave in to the temptation to rewrite a sentence or a paragraph. In this case I’m not talking about replacing a misspelled word or adding a punctuation mark. I’m talking about changing the sentence in an effort to make it more clear. I’ve known other editors who do this as well. The problem is that the editor is now silencing the author and overwriting the author with their words. An editor’s job is not to rewrite. Instead, it’s better for an editor to point out how something can be more effective, or perhaps how they understood a paragraph or a sentence to confirm that’s what the author meant. The editor’s job is to point out how a character did something that doesn’t feel true to that character and let the author fix it. Now, I have some authors I work with and we have developed a rapport. In that case, I may take a crack at rephrasing something, but I endeavor to point out that it’s a suggestion and that the author should feel free to change it or even revert the suggestion if I’ve added unintended words.

The bottom line is that we need editors because our egos sometimes get in the way of expressing ourselves as clearly as we could. However, editors need to beware not to let their egos take over the manuscript. Their job is to make sure the author is communicating clearly and effectively.

8 comments on “Editing and Ego

  1. Jeff says:

    This was a really great post/summary. It reminds me, too, that I need to listen to this podcast. I really liked the original book, but always thought that it was too… episodic to be a GREAT book — just good individual chapters. Great reminder that as a podcast it is probably excellent!

  2. I agree; in fiction, the editor should almost always suggest changes if they’re major, not make them. With non-fiction in print and online news services, there’s generally not time to do this and it’s often not necessary because a journalist writing news follows a standard format designed to present the most important information first and then move down. But with fiction, if the editor rewrites you can end up with an editor who essentially then becomes a judge of themselves as they’re looking at their own writing. And it’s not likely to make the author happy.

    When I was in college, I had a friend and fellow student I did theatre with (he was later nominated for a Daytime Emmy for writing.). He had directed my first one-act play at the college. One day I showed him another one act I had written. His first comments to me were something like, “It’s OK, but it’s not funny enough and the ending sucks.” Not every author would want an editor who spoke to them that way, but I did–it cut out a lot of unnecessary time.

    • Thanks, Alden. All great points. Yes, not everything an editor says is something we’re going to like to hear, but the best editors help us find the best and strongest words to take the audience where we want them to go!

  3. Very interesting read, and a lot of this resonated with me. My memoir has evolved over 25 or so years. At first, editing was fairly easy – the first draft was full of anger with finger pointing and name calling, but eventually I realized everyone in the story was a person with a POV and rewrote it with that in mind leaving it up to the audience to conclude so and so was an a-hole without me telling them so. Along the way I discovered sometimes the a-hole was me. 😉

    This post was a blessing – I often write with sparse detail because I know the story and forget no one else does. As an example, a long time ago I gave the first chapter to a neighbor to read, and their first comment was, “Who is Roger?” My mouth fell open – I knew he is my brother but neglected to inform the audience.

    And I agree – I definitely don’t see everything the same way I did before, but I want to point out it’s a double-edged sword, at least for me, as I’m now second-guessing myself because some of what I wrote is not “acceptable” today, leaving me all knotted up.

    • Thanks, Richard, and I’m glad this proved a helpful post. I think your last point really goes to my point of why editors and beta readers are so important. They can help you with the second guessing and tell you where you’re maybe being too self-critical. Sometimes you just need to write it down from the heart and let someone else have a look.

  4. Mark Horning says:

    I am reminded of The Mote in God’s Eye when an editor changed “The children should have been spaced” to “the children should have been spared”. Jerry Pournelle knew where that line was in every single published version, and insisted on fixing it (with initials) before he would sign your book.

    • That’s a particularly famous example. Of course nowadays, I could see this kind of error creeping in from autocorrect and no one catching it, but that’s a whole different lesson in editorial care!

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