Editing guidance

Punishment for gluttons

So you’d like to help edit this thing?

That is astonishingly lovely. You are a delight of a human being. I thank the gods for your existence and wish that you encounter the perfect balance of joyful highs and growth-accelerating abysmal lows on your life’s path.

But I wouldn’t bother if I were you. Because you probably don’t really want to.

Seriously, editing a friend’s work is a huge ask, for basically no reward, especially if the author is someone like me who for whom genuine appreciation of thoughtful suggestions is of zero relevance to acceptance of the change (see point 7).

It’s also really difficult. I’ve worked with sublime professional editors, so I’ve seen how it can be amazing… but I’ve also worked with terrible ones. And the terrible ones, however well-meaning, greatly outnumber the good.

Still, I know that some people actively like this sort of shit, so press on if you want… I just want to make sure it’s an informed consent, that you feel absolutely no obligation to do so, and that you feel comfortable to quit at any time.

The guidelines

(for those that really do want to do this)

  1. Be friendly! – By which I mean if you feel like sugar-coating something, then please save us both the time and stop. I fucking hate sugar. One of the best ways to demonstrate friendship is by being a bastard. Who better to deliver potentially uncomfortable truths? Who can be more trusted to do something they probably won’t personally enjoy for the good of someone else, who won’t enjoy it either, but will appreciate it (in the long-run)? I know people hate to be honest in feedback situations, for all sorts of really crummy reasons; I can but hope you’re better than that. If you think something’s shit and you don’t tell me, it’s not the least reliable sign that you hate either me, or yourself. Don’t be a hater. Be a friend. And remember, the science is clear: shit sandwiches don’t work and they waste time.

  2. You are a listener, not the speaker – Good editing ensures the message received gets as close as possible to the one being sent. Bad editing sends the same message in a different tone, so it’s received better by people who are like the editor, but worse by people who aren’t. Bad editing can also distort the message entirely into the one the editor would’ve sent if they were writing it. Please comment where you think a message is ambiguous. Please do not comment where you’d merely phrase it differently because you speak differently. Judging by the latter accounting for 95% of editing I’ve ever experienced (including professionals) this is really hard; but it has to be avoided because otherwise you just get caught in a time-wasting back-and-forth of changing the tone, not the clarity.

  3. If you think Hemingway is a better writer than Proust, please step away now – The word writer is too vague to have any useful meaning, but that doesn’t stop 99% of modern writing advice thinking prose style is somehow sinful. This isn’t a business book. Yes, I could probably be better understood if I went down the business-book path. But I have some semblance of a soul, so I refuse to do this in the name of art, common decency, and life in general. Top-class reporter-writers like Hemingway have their place of course, it’s just not here.

  4. Examples of acceptable feedback

    1. This particular bit is really fucking brilliant because of x, y, z.

    2. This content does not match the point the precis says it is making.

    3. The content matches the precis, but you’ve tried to explain more than just this one point and lost some clarity over the main point because of it.

    4. This content makes no sense to me. Are you saying <attempt to explain what you think I’m attempting to explain>?

    5. This content feels like it would be better off in <this different part of the book>.

    6. Judging by the precis, this section doesn’t feel important enough to be included.

    7. You’ve assumed knowledge here you cannot assume (i.e. <the knowledge that has been assumed>).

    8. An example would really help here. [special note on examples: I don’t want to fill this with examples for the sake of it, but I am also acutely aware that I’m blinkered by my own assumption of what everyone else has already internalised just because they’ve possibly read some of the same books as I have.]

  5. Types of unacceptable feedback

    1. I would change this point a bit so it sounds more like the tone I personally use when writing or speaking. [warning: if you think this at all, you will do so in a much more subtle way than this… it’s by miles the number one temptation of editors, but it’s ultimately unhelpful.]

    2. This is too long. [special note on length: Length is not a reason to change something. Shit short things are better than shit long things, but they’re still shit. Simple is great, but simplistic is not. I want elegant, not simplistic. I am not writing this book for commercial success. I am writing it to be right, not to sell right now. Because a lot of these ideas are new (or at least old ideas applied to new situations) they inevitably take some explaining, to take people on the journey from not having a clue, to understanding. This often (but not always) takes longer than getting the gist in a diagram. Others are better at that. Do not review this book thinking it is that book. These are important, insightful, ideas (I hope). If they could be expressed simply enough for everyone to instantly understand them, they would be trivial ideas, not insightful ones. If you’re learning something new, by definition you have to put in some work to see what you did not see before.]

  6. Questions to answer

    1. If you had to remove a chunk, what would you remove? [if something is more or less unanimous, I’ll remove it]

    2. Which particular bits (if any) do you think should be kept at all costs? [a single vote is likely to make it stay; history suggests the answers to 1) and 2) will be annoyingly almost identical]

  7. My love and appreciation of your feedback is not to be judged by whether I incorporate it – I welcome all outside views, because by definition sharing your vision improves my own. You will see things I simply cannot. But you will also see lots of things I too have seen, considered, and dismissed. This doesn’t mean they’re bad ideas. And it definitely doesn’t mean I think you’re an idiot. Some of my best ideas about this book were not right for this book. To get the first type, I need a lot of the second. To be a one in a million requires a million to be the one of, to paraphrase Nietzsche.

  8. Special note for Americans – I’d love to engage with you on the ideas, to try to see the world of money relationships as you do, because frankly I’ve tried pretty hard and I still don’t understand you at all. But your editing views have too many hurdles to overcome to be of much use (e.g. the issues of tone and predilection for business-like writing noted above, especially when coupled to the divergent worldview). Maybe one day I’ll translate this into American, but I doubt it.

Last updated