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Reining in the red pen.

Strangely, I’m thinking today about natural disasters. What with the baby earthquake of Tuesday afternoon and the impending hurricane disaster, it’s an odd choice, but such are the inner workings of my mind. In any case, destruction is on the brain. In between putting an extra pitcher of water in the fridge, and checking to make sure the flashlight has batteries and that there are matches for the candles (all while dubiously looking out at the blue skies and bright sun shining this morning), I remembered about the essay I told my friend I would read and edit for him over the weekend.

Destruction of another sort, editing an essay, manuscript or any other piece of writing (especially for a friend) is always a tricky balance, at least for me. Oftentimes, I’ll love an idea or angle, but the writing is just so muddled that while I understand it because it’s been explained to me verbally, the sentences themselves just don’t make sense. Or the eloquence isn’t there—there’s not enough personality or individualism to the words; they could have been written by anyone.  It’s taken a few years of practice to train myself not to get carried away just rewriting the whole darn thing. I would start out well, correcting punctuation and grammar, suggesting a subtle word change or elaboration, but once I became comfortable with a piece, the writing would start to look curiously like my own.

Of course, I had to stop myself, because it isn’t my work. If it was, I would probably have someone else look at it and value their opinion, but I’d want the actual narrative to be mine. Where to draw the line, though? When someone asks you to read a draft—whether it’s something academic or personal, how do you rein in your input? Suggesting a reworking of a paragraph, giving the hint of an idea; these are perfectly acceptable creative edits, but in college I had to learn to restrain myself from taking a friend’s muddled essay—with the kernel of a great idea!—and just tearing it apart and inserting paragraphs of my own.

Is this something you are guilty of? How have you learned to overcome it and what sort of techniques do you use to subtly suggest new and better (in your opinion) phrases and structure to a friend?

Luckily, with this new essay to edit, I’ll have plenty to do if this supposed hurricane barricades me inside this weekend and who knows, maybe inspiration will strike in the face of disaster.

One Response to Reining in the red pen.

  1. One of my betas is a good friend (I know, I know), and it’s definitely a learning curve. With us, lots of communication helps. Rather than marking up the text too much, we’ll note a few key things and then discuss in person (or online) the need for changes and why things aren’t working. Sometimes we phrase suggestions in a round-about, questioning way, like “Were you trying to _____? Maybe it would work better if you _____?”. It’s more time-consuming and less direct, but feels less like we’re imposing on each other. This works well for us because we’re both very interested in writing and have studied it, we’re not just casual writers working on a whim, and we trust each other to be harsh as possible. We’re also not the only people reviewing each other’s work. Still, this arrangement wouldn’t work with just any friend. I actually have a harder time finding the line with friends who aren’t as close, but that’s because a couple of times it’s resulted in an immature “I don’t care what you think” response from people who won’t take criticism well.

    Stay safe this weekend!

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