peer review · writing

Learning to Love Being Edited

 

I had this professor in graduate school who was notorious for being a brutal grader. You would submit a paper for her class, and know that you would get it back with nearly every word marked up, plus a page of razor-sharp, painful comments at the end. We all dreaded the day we knew she was returning our work. We all learned to get our papers back, quickly check our final grade (they were often quite good, despite the reams of criticism), and then tuck the paper away until we could come back to the edits with the ability to actually process them, not just with tears and adrenaline.

Later in graduate school, I had a supervisor who didn’t want to see work until it was as close to polish perfect as I could get it. I was stuck on the first big section of my research project, and would have loved to share the draft work I had in hand so that we would work together to figure out why I was stuck and where to go next. But that wasn’t an option, because I was expected to figure it out on my own, and so I stayed stuck for a long time. It was a moment when I really could have used a generous editor to move things along.

My PhD supervisor gives her graduate students an article she’s submitted for publication, along with the peer review reports, and has them read and summarize the most useful feedback for her. It means that she doesn’t have to read the more scathing (and infuriating–we all hate the reviewer whose point is just “you didn’t do it how I would”) reviews, and her students learn how peer review works and how to respond to requests for revision. It also means that she never has to cry over reviewer reports so critical and uncollegial that their writers would never say those things in person.

Given my experience, it’s no wonder that I hated getting feedback and being edited when I was still in academia. As teaching assistants and professors, so many of us aren’t trained in anything like the way that substantive and copyeditors are–to give useful, kind feedback that the writers we teach will actually respond to and act on, not just shut down about. Some of our ranks hide behind the anonymity of peer review to provide feedback that is unnecessarily harsh and potentially damaging. We’re also (for those of us in traditional humanities and arts programs) trained in a system that privileges originality and sole authorship over so much else. We don’t learn how to see writing and publication as a collaborative act.

So it’s been a surprise to me how much I love being edited these days. Many of my current writing projects–selected poetry editions, articles for major online publications, ghostwriting–require me to work with professional editors, and to have my work go through at least one, sometimes many, rounds of substantive, line, and copy editing. Sometimes my editors are really happy with what I send in, and it gets a minor tweaking. Sometimes I’m told to go back to the drawing board and try again. In either case, I genuinely appreciate it, and that’s a huge change from my experience in academia.

Why is that? Here’s what I identify as the key differences from my past experience that make being edited such a generative process now:

  • By virtue of our working relationship, my editors and I are in this together. We’re both working toward the common goal producing high quality content for the publication or press that they ultimately for, so they’re invested in (and work to promote) my success.
  • Working with an editor takes the pressure of sole-authorship off my shoulders. While my name is (most of the time) still the one that appears on the cover or byline, I’m no longer solely responsible for how my writing turns out. It becomes a collaborative endeavour, and one that benefits from multiple perspectives and sets of eyeballs.
  • I’m working with consummate professionals who know and are good at their jobs. Academia doesn’t always do a great job of training us for key parts of faculty jobs (most parts of faculty jobs, some would argue), and editing (which is a part of grading, peer review, and providing feedback on thesis and dissertation writing) is certainly one of those things. I trust my editors quite a lot, and I know that they’ve been trained–both academically and on the job–to elicit from me the best writing I’m capable of giving them, in the most productive (which often means kind and generous) way possible.
  • My editors make my work so much better. It is such a surprising pleasure to write something that I’m already happy with, then have it come back to me tighter, more elegant, more on the nose, better structured. Often my editors are only suggesting minor tweaks, but they’re changes that I couldn’t see my way to on my own and that make a world of difference to the effectiveness and style my work.

What about you, dear readers? How are you feeling about the editors in your lives, good and bad? How can we do better at teaching people to give and receive useful criticism in academia?

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