Insecurity and editing (was: Proposal Writing for Large Corporati ons)

Subject: Insecurity and editing (was: Proposal Writing for Large Corporati ons)
From: Jim Purcell <jimpur -at- MICROSOFT -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 16 Apr 1997 15:55:35 -0700

Steve Jong writes:

> Based on my own and others' reaction to editing, I think it's safe to
> say
> it's not pleasant even for native English speakers to be told their
> work is
> grammatically flawed. If I may generalize, I'm guessing that these
> people
> would feel insecure about their grasp of English, and wouldn't want to
> be
> corrected (thus rubbing their noses in their mistakes). <snip>
>
> We might extend this theory to non-writers in general. Perhaps the
> root
> motivation of people who argue grammar with writers is insecurity
> (assuming
> the writers are right in the first place, of course!).
>
Editing should never communicate to a writer that his work is
"grammatically flawed," nor should it rub the writer's nose in his
mistakes. My experience as an editor of both engineers and professional
writers, native English speakers and otherwise, is that they don't care
much about having their grammar and spelling fixed, as long as the
meaning isn't changed materially. Nobody likes to be wrong, but
editorial correction doesn't have to precipitate a crisis. In general,
the writer's insecurity becomes a factor only when editing becomes about
the writer. Writers will push editors back when they think they are
right, but that is part of the process, not a flaw in the writer's
personality.

That writers have to be able to accept criticism and correction is a
given. The key for the editor is to keep the focus on the reader and to
be able to defend individual edits on some basis other than personal
preference. Questions of grammar are not open to discussion: the
language is what it is. Where style is concerned, the editor can appeal
to the company's style guide, the conventions of a particular type of
writing, the need for consistency across a writing team, or the
appropriateness to a particular situation. When the writer pushes back,
the editor has to be able either to defend a decision on some such
ground or to recognize that it's a question of taste, in which case the
writer prevails.

Even larger editorial issues don't have to turn into major arguments.
Some years ago, I was working as an editor at a research institute in
the Middle East. The authors were Arab scientists and engineers writing
in English. In that job, I found that fixing the prose, while not
trivial, was the easy part. Most of the authors, while capable in their
fields, hadn't the least idea about report formats. To my surprise, I
encountered very little resistance even to complete reorganizations.
(Well, there was one guy who wanted me fired, but one out of six hundred
isn't bad.)

I could get away with this because I could describe the conventional
organization of whatever kind of report it was, show examples from the
institute's library, explain why the conventional organization was more
successful, and then show how the current report would look in that
organization. I explained that by writing within the conventions of
genre, they would enhance their credibility and stature among their
reading public. In making their reports look good, I was making them
look good, and they could see the benefit of that. If I had just told
them that I knew more about report writing than they did, the results
would have been a lot less happy.

Jim Purcell
jimpur -at- microsoft -dot- com
My opinions, not Microsoft's

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