Correcting with compassion

How to improve others' writing without causing friction

By the very nature of copy editing, anyone doing it is inevitably going to come off as pedantic, meticulous, and hypercritical at times — a few of the qualities that will make you the life of any party. Those characteristics can sometimes be interpreted as fussy and snooty. Those are adjectives for babies (well, snotty if not snooty). We’re not babies. My advice is to take care not to accidentally seem that way, and not to unintentionally infantilize others either.

I realize the irony that this suggestion to essentially be polite can be read as patronizing in itself. But this is just a necessary reminder for this kind of work, especially when we’re in time crunches and comments are short out of necessity. Nobody likes seeing their mistakes pointed out to them, and that’s literally your job sometimes. Yes, you have to draw attention to errors. Yes, you often need to justify those corrections with bits of grammatical information. But there’s often a thin line between correcting and scolding, between trying to educate and appearing to condescend. As an editor, you have to walk that line gracefully. We all know tone doesn’t always come across in text and we can only use so many exclamation marks (which can teeter on the fence between excitement! and screaming!!!), so it’s a subtle art. 

Here are some suggestions for ways to strike that delicate balance:

Be informative but not arrogant — Explaining grammar rules can too easily make people feel stupid, like they belong back in actual grammar school. But the reality is that copy editors have to look up grammar rules all the time as refreshers or to put brand-new-to-them words to a concept that they just knew because they “just knew.” Be gentle in relaying that information. Something like “I went back and forth on whether this comma was needed and I just found this interesting article that confirms that it’s not: coolgrammarblog.url” lands much better (and says much more) than something like “Due to the rule of infinitesimal abstract nitpickatives, this is wrong.”

Be specific and solution-oriented — Saying “This is wrong” has an entirely different effect than saying “Because this and that, this would be more correct as [insert possible solution].”

Explain but don’t argue — You can tell them why you’re making a change but you can’t expect them to always agree. And that’s OK. For suggestions based on personal preference or potential ambiguity, maybe even end the comment with “Feel free to reject if you disagree!”

Be honest but not harsh — You obviously can’t tiptoe around errors like you’re afraid to hurt feelings, but you can be nice about it.

Be brief but not curt — Often, you don’t have time to write long and thoughtful comments anymore than those reviewing your suggestions have time to read them. It’s OK to be concise. Actually, it’s best to be concise. Just do your best to not let that translate as rude.

Use diplomatic language and a conversational tone — For example, don’t start a comment with “I would.” It implies that you would do it better. Try “I think,” “In my opinion,” or “I suggest.” When you have an idea for rewording a string, start with “Please consider changing this to something like [my thing]” rather than “Change to [my thing].”

Don’t comment at all — Not everything needs to be queried or explained. Unless there’s an unresolved issue, something you need to clarify, or a need to justify a suggestion that may be misunderstood, trust that your expertise will be respected.

But comment enough — Slashing through copy without a word seems a little hostile, no?

Respect the writing even if it’s not your style — You don’t need to like it. You just need to find the errors.

Ask questions — If you’re unsure about something, don’t assume anything.

Be constructive and supportive — Negative feedback doesn’t need to be, well, negative. Use a tone that makes it clear that you’re on the same team and have the same goal. Also, while it’s not part of the job, you can compliment great writing when you see it.

Say the magic words — “Please” and “thank you” aren’t needed in every comment but a little goes a long way.

Understand that all communication is subjective — You can’t completely control individual experience. How you’re writing it is subjective and how they’re reading it is subjective. Misunderstandings are inevitable.

Foster an atmosphere of gratitude, thoughtfulness and respect — Empathy and patience are key to good editing just as much as attention to detail and grammatical mastery are.