What’s the magic word?

I’ll put this simply: If you want to succeed as an editor, you have to be nice.

You might be surprised by that statement. Perhaps you have the idea that an editor corrects grammar and punctuation mistakes and rewrites sentences with angry slashes of a red pen—like your high school English teacher. Not to criticize teachers, but editors do not work the same way.

First and foremost, an editor should use the word “please” when correcting an author. Consider the following two editorial comments:

Avoid hyphenating compounds with an adverb ending in “-ly.”

Please avoid hyphenating compounds with an adverb ending in “-ly.”

Doesn’t the second comment sound much less critical? Make no mistake, the comment with “Please” is still to be taken seriously. But it “stings” the author less and makes the author more likely to say, “Oh…I learn something new every day,” rather than, “How dare this editor tell me that my writing is bad!”

Another thing an editor should do is to use more positives than negatives in comments. By negatives I mean the phrase “Do not…” or its contraction, “Don’t.” Which one of the following editorial comments would you rather read on your beloved first draft?

Please don’t hyphenate compounds with an adverb ending in “-ly.”

Please avoid hyphenating compounds with an adverb ending in “-ly.”

The first comment smacks of “You did something wrong!” while the second sounds more like a gentle correction.

Sometimes an editor has to tame his or her thoughts about an author’s glaring error. When you run across a date that is written incorrectly (much of the time it is January and the author wrote the “old” year by mistake), the first things that might come to your mind are, “OOPSY-DAISY!” or “Ouch!” Please control yourself and avoid writing such things in a comment to the author, unless the author is a very close friend (and use caution even then). Comments like these are a slap in the face and sound highly unprofessional.

Above all, remember that an author’s piece represents countless hours of hard work, and when you, as an editor, critique it, you are telling the author that their baby is ugly. At least, that is often how the author hears it. Sensitivity, along with good editing, is key.

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