Editing as a Conversation

This morning, I got an email from a friend of mine who's just been through the painful three-month process of publishing an article with a well-known international journal. The final product, the editor's version, had several inaccuracies that now embarrass her. She described the process as pure hell: "I never want to write again." 

My heart sank. This woman is an expert on a serious global problem that only a handful of people on the planet understand well, even those whose full-time job is to solve it. I wondered: How many people out there with stories to tell get so frustrated with the writing process that they just give up? 

My guess is that there are millions. Amazon.com certainly believes so; as do Wordpress and Squarespace and Medium and all the other platforms that make it easy for people to self-publish. Yet when we bypass the editorial process entirely, we open ourselves up to all kinds of trouble. Instead of fighting with editors, we're fighting with readers, usually when it's too late to take our words back.

We have a technology-embedded culture problem I call the Battle of Tracked Changes. This is how editing is supposed to work: You send off your precious work in Word or paper format. Your editor writes back changing "happy" to "glad" or sometimes altering the entire paper so much that you no longer agree with what's on the page. You go back and forth through endless revisions until one of you gives up. The whole experience is unpleasant and combative. In the worst-case scenario, a bad editor can make a brilliant, necessary writer want to hide under the covers and eat Nutella until it all goes away.

I hate this so much that I invented a new process. I call it "co-writing." It is a cross between ghostwriting and editing, less time-intensive than ghostwriting and less invasive than the editorial process I describe above. It's a quick-and-clean way to help people say precisely what they want to say, in their own words, while being so precise that there is zero room for misunderstanding. I used to have to do it with the author right by my side. Now, I can do it all remotely, using Google Drive, Skype, or sometimes even GitHub. We explore approaches together until we wind up using the same words in the same way. I know we're done when both of us read a sentence and sigh with relief: There, we can say, that's the truth.

This approach turns editing from an argument back into a conversation. I have been doing it successfully for some 14 years now, and it feels really, really good. Instead of saying, "I never want to write again," I hear people say things like this, from yesterday, after I helped her finish her performance evaluation in less than two hours:

"Your system is brilliant. You are like a writing therapist! I feel much better. Thank you!"

I want everyone to feel that way when they put their experiences into words, without having to struggle through an antiquated editorial process or the demoralizing experience of being misunderstood. There are too many important stories out there that need to be told.

So here's my parting advice: Whoever you are, if you have something you need to publish, don't give up. Find readers who will converse with your piece, not argue with it. And if you ever need an editor who will help you articulate your ideas, not her own, you know where to find me.