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One of the best editing tips of all time, and one I apply in every project, is to begin query letters and emails to writers with a compliment before launching into the many surprising and creative ways the author may have veered off message and off track.
Those who write frequently know that getting feedback is nerve-wracking. At worst it can nag at our self-confidence or even our self-worth, and at the very least can be annoying. Successful editors know there’s always something positive to say about someone’s writing, however slight. You shouldn’t underestimate the power of beginning with a compliment to ease the pain of all the challenging work ahead for a writer to get their writing to the finish line.
My colleague Ruth Wilson teaches an excellent workshop called The Art of the Query, and in a blog post she summarizes her advice on how to diplomatically work with authors. I would like to expand this Be Kind dictum beyond the author to our entire working lives—and if you’d like, you could even apply it to your personal life too.
Who else can we show kindness and diplomacy to? Designers, other editors and proofreaders, administrators, tech support people—the entire team on any given project. One could say, well, they’re just doing their jobs. That’s true, but for many of these people, their jobs, like ours, are solving problems. So next time you hand a steaming pile of problem off to the designer, first thank her for knocking off that rough design so quickly and notice that cool set of icons that she found that you think are going to work so well for this project.
I have worked in environments and with people where the words “thank you” are heard once or twice a year—if at all. These are generally not happy experiences. In other environments, I have been struck by how nice everyone is to each other. Supportive. Appreciative. In these settings one doesn’t have to go far beyond the minimum to be called out for being awesome. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but not much; being appreciated just never gets old.
The Be Kind dictum is especially important for editors to practise because we have an ongoing goal that is also an occupational hazard: the desire to Be Right. Though we strive to always be right, we’re not, and humility can take us a long way toward getting the best document to web or press as expediently and painlessly as possible.
We love our war stories about the terrible errors our writers commit or the unthinkable typos a designer introduces, but I would suggest that these conversations simply reinforce an us vs. them mentality, when in fact what we need is a sense of teamwork and caring. All our non-editor colleagues are striving toward the same goal, so hiving ourselves off into an imagined tribe of people who are always correct is both wrong and counterproductive. Be kind.
One final thought on being kind: don’t forget to be kind to yourself. We editors have a professional tendency toward perfection and can be hard on ourselves when we fail to meet our own high standards. I recently received this advice from my wise colleague Merrie-Ellen Wilcox, but I must admit I’m not very good at it. Any tips? What do you do to be kind to yourself?