How to edit constructively? -Reply

Subject: How to edit constructively? -Reply
From: Bill Sullivan <bsullivan -at- SMTPLINK -dot- DELTECPOWER -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 4 Mar 1996 14:44:14 -0800

Dear Glenda: Please forgive me a lengthy post here.

You asked: Can anyone post some suggestions on how to edit a
writer's work so that you help the writer to improve? That is, what
is the best way to supply constructive criticism?

My reaction: I think I hear two different people talking. One
sounds like a tough, hard boss ("I am managing three writers," you
also said), the other sounds a little softer, kinder, more like a
mentor. I suggest you try to proceed more as a mentor, convincing
your employee that you want to help him or her grow.

Basically, the way to learn to write is to read and to write. It's
so simple, but so often overlooked. I would encourage a study of
other manuals. Then, if your creative problem is to describe a
procedure, and you think the writer misses the mark, you can at least
refer him or her to a certain model.

The other thing is to practice writing. I was interested to see that
the STC's Seattle Conference includes a Wednesday afternoon forum on
"The Stories We Tell Ourselves." Why should technical writing be
different from playing football, or the violin?

An approach might be to devote some time to critique and perhaps
rewriting after you release a job. People think of things in such
sessions that refused to enter their minds previously. Yes, it would
be too late to change what is gone, but it could improve your attitude
for next time.

You talk about first drafts. I wonder if they aren't starting their
first drafts too soon. Before first drafts, they could be doing
practice drafts (that didn't count against their final grades and
that were practice and fun to do), with the pressure off for both of

Edit as copiously as you can. A writer's best friend is a reader who
takes him seriously. Be sure they understand you are trying to be
their friend (mentor) and not adversary (manager). But what makes me
uneasy is the following.

You say: If I'm seeing bad sentence structure in a first draft, I'm
inclined to point it out so that the writers know they are off on the
wrong track from the beginning. Is this bad?

I say: Discussions of good and bad, and black and white, make me
queasy. Can you learn to be more responsible? Can you say: If I'm
seeing sentence structure I don't like? There is a difference
between hitting a writer with "This is bad" and "This is something I
don't like." Just about anything you tag as "bad" in writing,
somebody else will pass off as acceptable or OK. I don't want to get
into a rap on high psychology here, but I think you do better with a
person if you ask him to fix it for you and not because you think
it's bad.

Your final question: Am I better off rewriting a sentence or
parapraph to
"show them how it's done," or should I just say, "this section is
unclear, awkward, whatever; please rewrite it."?

My answer: I don't like the options you give yourself. One is to
rewrite, the other is to carp at them and have them rewrite.

In rewriting, you are talking about taking the pen out of the
person's hand. I would only do that when desperate. But, if I had
an inspiration, I might obey my inspiration and write it as I thought
it should be, but I would hand it gently to the writer and ask his
opinion and let him decide what to do with it, giving him time to see
the wisdom of my ways.

In carping at them by means of tough and angry notes on their pages,
you may win a battle. I am not sure about the war. This is tricky
because I also think it is true that anyone who wants to write must
learn to absorb criticism. I would try underlining or circling any
words or passages that offended me, and then sitting down with the
writer in a face-to-face discussion. The best way to teach writing
is one-on-one.

Finally, I would suggest you look at Jacques Barzun's essay English
As She's Not Taught for a refreshing perspective on what works and
what doesn't work in writing English.

Bill Sullivan
bsullivan -at- deltecpower -dot- com
San Diego, California

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