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The Importance—and Misconception—of Editing with Empathy

Guest Post by Lacy Newkirk

The Importance—and Misconception—of Editing with Empathy

This may sound silly, but first, let’s get on the same page. Here’s what I mean when I say empathy:

The ability to place yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand experiences from their perspective—to feel what they feel.

What I don’t mean is to feel sorry for someone.

Who should editors empathize with?

Writers need to empathize with their characters and readers, but editors should take it one step further. I argue that we should also empathize with the author, which is to say we’re potentially juggling three different personas at one time—the character, the reader, and the author.

We have to ask ourselves umpteen questions, not the least of which include:

  • Does this scene add to—or take away from—the author’s vision for the story?

  • Will the reader relate to this character? Should they?

  • Do this character’s actions make sense?

  • How will the reader react to this plot twist?

  • Will this edit maintain the voice of the author?

Why is empathy important as an editor?

Without getting inside the author’s head, how else can we ensure that any changes maintain their voice and that the final product achieves the same intended purpose? In my humble opinion, editors need to understand the author’s vision and purpose for their story.

  • Do they want to evoke compassion or anger toward this character?

  • Are they trying to teach the reader something or entertain them—or both?

  • Does this college-spelling-bee-level word sound like the author’s voice, or is it out of place?

As is often the case with an editing relationship, communicating entirely through emails and notes on a screen can be impersonal. You’re missing the tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions that help soften such messages; that’s why an in-depth, get-to-know-you conversation is the first order of business with my new clients.

What are the arguments against empathy?

It’s no coincidence that some call a group of editors a “scowl.” We can be very critical of ourselves and each other. When asked for input on the topic of this blog, many claimed that empathy makes editors “too soft.” They assume that feeling for our clients causes some to “pull punches” when it comes to making changes and providing necessary feedback. In essence: “Editors should be able to chop up a manuscript with no remorse.” While we should indeed be able to “chop up” without remorse when needed, the need is what’s in question.

Of course, anything in excess can be problematic, and it goes without saying that editors can’t be afraid to tell it like it is. But what’s wrong with trying to immerse yourself in the intentions of your author and then applying your editing expertise through that lens?