Editing: The Hard Emotional Work of Accepting When You’re Wrong

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For me, editing is the hardest part of writing.

I mean sure, it looks like less work than the writing itself. You don’t need to invent the plot or craft whole chapters from scratch. The material’s there on the page and someone else has given you feedback on what to do with it. This should be easy, right?


For two reasons.

The first, and probably the smaller point, is that there’s no flow. When you’re first writing a story, you get into the rhythm of it. One thing naturally leads to another, one piece of action or emotion to the next. Sure, there are scene and chapter breaks, but as long as the ideas keep coming, you can keep going.

Not so with editing. It’s a stop-start process where you keep having to start again on a new comment, a new change, and different piece of the text. It’s bitty work in which you constantly have to will yourself to tackle the next new thing. That’s emotionally draining and it exaggerates the impact of the second issue – the acceptance of criticism.

Editing is about accepting that you were wrong. Every little mark the editor leaves is a sign that they think there’s a better way to do what you’ve done. Every time you change something, you’re conceding what a corner of your mind feels as an error.

That’s hard to do. Our first reaction to any disagreement is to get defensive. It’s the most natural human reaction. Whether it’s in politics or relationship or just opinions on books, we’ll tend to double down and justify ourselves when challenged. Conceding the point to somebody else is tough.

It’s especially tough when it’s about something you’ve created. Even when I’m working collaboratively, ghostwriting somebody else’s plot, I’ll get defensive. My brain sees criticism of me when the editor’s intent is constructive comments to make a story better. I’m not saying it’s healthy. I’m not saying it’s right. But it’s what the brain tends to do. Somebody is attacking your precious creation and by extension you!

Except that they aren’t. It’s not an attack, even though you feel it that way. And so, after the emotional battering of reading the comments there comes the emotional work of changing your perspective, seeing how their way might be better than yours, undoing your own work.

If that doesn’t make some small corner of your mind scream in horror, then you’re a better person than me.

I cope with it all by giving in to that scream before I do anything else. I read through the notes. I yell at the screen about how they’re wrong. I run through my defense of what was there before. I let the defensiveness out.

And then I let it go. Because an editor has a perspective on my writing that I don’t. 99% of the time they’re going to be right. So once I’ve got my raging out of the way, I take a deep breath, come back with a cleansed emotional pallet, and try to see why they might be right. It’s still not easy, but at least I’m no longer fighting myself every step of the way.

Editing, especially responding to the editorial comments of others, is damn hard work. But at least when we acknowledge that we can make it a little easier.