When I was a first-year in grad school, I took an introductory course on book editing. Along with the more technical aspects of the skill, such as navigating the Chicago Manual of Style and recognizing common grammatical or syntactical errors in manuscripts, we learned a lot about editorial etiquette. That is, how to phrase in-text queries and developmental letters in a way that would get our point across without hurting the writer’s feelings or assuming too much authority over the manuscript.
I got a job in editing and worked with multiple freelance writers, honing the techniques taught to me in class and in my day-to-day work life. I’ve found I’m very good at it. Interacting with writers as an editor comes naturally to me. I am comfortable as the unobtrusively insistent helper, the invisible creative energy, the unappreciated passenger seat navigator. I know how to communicate in that role. And recently, I’ve started wondering why.
Could it be that the position inhabited by the successful editor in the creative hierarchy is similar to or even mirrors that of the position inhabited by the female gender in most real world situations? Could my social conditioning as a woman be influencing my editorial decisions? Most disturbingly, could my comfort and ability in my chosen profession stem directly from a subconscious embracing of the uneven power dynamic I fight against daily as a woman and a feminist?
Three Top Techniques (For Great Editing and Gender Dynamic Affirmation)
There are a few techniques I was taught in grad school that have proven to be the most effective when working with writers. While not all editors subscribe to these techniques, and while not all of these are going to be applicable to every project, these are the ones that I have absorbed and implemented most successfully. That said, I am not critiquing the validity of these techniques or their effectiveness in the field. What I am critiquing is my own tendency to adopt techniques that so neatly mirror accepted gender dynamics.
Phrase It Like A Question
When possible, phrase any in-text queries like questions. This keeps writers from feeling bossed around or pressured to change something in their manuscript, and keeps the editor firmly situated in a place of secondary command. For example, instead of saying “This line makes no sense, cut it,” opt for a gentler “This line may confuse some readers. Consider rephrasing?”
This is not only an editorial practice, it is something that most women do on a daily basis. The fear of being perceived as bossy or bitchy affects the way women communicate. This tendency can be most noticeable when a woman interacts with a male peer, but translates even to interactions between women.
In a Huffington Post article, Speaking Out author Tara Moss said “the fear held by many women that speaking out will find them labelled ‘bossy’ or worse, is not entirely unfounded.
Moss cites an example from a 2012 Yale University study looking at male and female US senators that found a strong positive relationship between power and volubility in the men. But there was no such link in the women.
‘Instead, the women were found to “incur backlash as a result of talking more than others — an effect that is observed among both male and female perceivers.” In other words, the male senators were rewarded for speaking out, as it reinforced the sense of their power and importance. Women knew they were more likely to be ‘rewarded’ with backlash and did not speak as much. Likewise, studies show that women are, on average, interrupted and cut off more often than men,’ Moss said.
I know I find this to be the case in my everyday life, as a result of my upbringing and the social commentary I have absorbed. I will state facts or observations as questions, apologize unnecessarily, or use qualifiers like “I feel like,” or “If I understand this correctly,” as reflexive transitional phrases. What others find to be diplomacy and top notch editorial etiquette, I call communicating as a woman.
Let Them Think It’s Their Idea
In the editing community, writers are often thought of as delicate creatures who must always feel inspired and never encroached upon creatively. The editor who oversteps by pressuring the writer to move in a certain direction has misused their position. Instead of telling a writer where to go or taking credit if your change is successfully implemented, pose several “potential alternatives” to the writer. This will inspire creativity and move them in the right direction. Trust them to come to the right conclusion on their own, and always make sure they think the change was their idea.
As an editor committed to helping writers achieve their perfect vision for their creative project, this goes without saying. Your ability to respect their artistic instinct and autonomy will set you apart from other editors they work with. As a woman, this feels uncomfortably familiar.
Google “Make Him Think It’s His Idea,” and you come across page upon page of relationship self-help blogs prompting women to use wordplay or subtle cues to get ideas across without infringing on their partner’s “masculine energy.” This particularly horrid video simultaneously crushes any female assertion of self and (if you substitute the words “your man” with “your writer”) offers some very solid and helpful editing advice.
The unfortunate truth is that, as a woman taught this strategy from grade school, I find this mind game easy to play. It is practically instinctual, something I had been utilizing long before I discovered a career that would pay me to do so.
Assume No Final Authority
The previous two techniques have already touched on this, but this technique sums it all up: Assuming final authority over the writer or their work is the biggest faux pas an editor can commit (at least in creative cases). Regardless of the interpersonal dynamic between the author and the editor (which should ideally be peer-to-peer), or the fact that the editor is the one with the expertise whose corrections and suggestions should be taken seriously, it must be always understood that, at the end of the day, the work is the writer’s. The final yea-or-nay moment is the writer’s.
As an editor, this makes perfect sense. As a woman, unfortunately, it also makes sense — at least from a perspective I am actively trying to distance myself from. Whether it’s growing up in a household that taught me that men had a God-given leadership women could not possess “because,” or whether it’s quietly listening to a male coworker over-explain a concept I know more intimately than he does, “assuming no final authority” is an idea I am familiar with. It is something expected, even idealized, in the gender labeled “helper.” And now I succeeding and thriving in a profession that also labels me a “helper.”
As an avid feminist, I am constantly pushing myself out of the comfortable boundaries society has drawn for me, whether that is actively removing “I’m sorry,” from my collection of instinctive interjections, or speaking up a little bit louder, or just saying “No, you’re wrong.” What does it say about me if I succeed, thrive, and find enjoyment in a career that makes me jump through these same hoops? What does it say about the publishing profession in general, a field comprised of 78% women while 83% of authors discussed in the New York Review of Books in 2011 were male? Is it coincidence? Is it some kind of wonderful, rebellious retaking of these socially-ingrained techniques in order to advance ourselves financially, professionally, artistically? Or is it simply finding a new, more comfortable way to inhabit that role and conform to expectations?
Maybe we should consider revising?