Editing with Empathy: Understanding and Sharing the Feelings of Your Author

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2021-01-27

Editing training can teach you many things – grammar intricacies, plotting, structuring, developing proper flow, etc. But there’s more to being an editor than just correcting commas and restructuring sentences.


A big part of being a good editor is knowing how to develop relationships with the authors you work with. Like any working relationship, it’s important to conduct yourself a certain way. Relationship-building is the lens through which I view (and incorporate) the idea of “empathetic editing.”



Why Empathy Is Important

Think about it: an author hands you their manuscript. Who knows how long they struggled over it, how many drafts they wrote, or how many nights they agonized over the content? What they’re handing you is more than just a manuscript, pages of raw material. It’s weeks, months, even years of hard work and passion. And here they are, handing it over to you for a process they know will involve a lot of tough critique and feedback. Put yourself in their shoes: would you feel nervous? I think most of us would!



Mind Your Phrasing

Criticism is inherently part of the editing process, there’s really no getting around it. However, the way that criticism is phrased and structured — it matters. You have a choice to make, every time you write up a substantive edit report, or add a query to a page. Do you stick to the facts, dry and unaltered, straight from your mind to the screen? Or do you take a minute to consider how the author might take or interpret the comment you’re about to make?


I know when I’m editing, depending on how I’m feeling or where I am in the editing process, sometimes the queries or comments I make can be somewhat brusque. One of the steps I take in doing a sort of final review of the manuscript is going through the queries and shaping them a little, where necessary. Why do I take the time to do this? Well, again, it all comes down to building that relationship: I put myself in the author’s shoes and read my own comments back to myself. If I were the author, how would I feel when faced with that criticism?


As we all know, communicating entirely via emails and notes on a screen can feel impersonal. Plus, all the emotional markers that might otherwise be present in face-to-face speech, such as body language, facial expressions, and tone, are absent. That’s why it’s important to make sure your words are going to be interpreted the way you intend them to be interpreted. Sometimes that might require elaborating just a little more instead of sticking to the point.



Kindness Is Key

Basically, at its very core, editing with empathy, to me, means just…being kind. I can stick to the straight information and only include what’s strictly necessary, or I can choose to phrase things in a way that I would want to be spoken to. If the book you’re editing was written by a family member, or a close friend, you would make sure to keep your tone encouraging, right? Take that mindset and apply it to any author you work with! An author has entrusted you with their “baby” (as many authors put it). Of course they trust you to tell them what they need to hear (that’s why they came to you), but the way we engage with each other matters. Remember, it doesn’t cost anything to be kind.



For more on best practices when working with authors, check out our blog "Back to Basics" Editing Rules. And, for more information on demystifying how editors work, check out Ask the Editor: Some Common Myths About What We Do.