Editing as Fellow-Feeling
Jesus does more than understand us; he identifies with us.
I edit books for a living, and editors can have a bad reputation. They’re seen as killjoys, rule-enforcers. They’re the kind of people who will get into arguments about the merits of footnotes versus endnotes, or will buy clothing that proclaims their loyalty to the Oxford comma, or walk around with red pens in their pockets, itching to correct errors on any piece of writing they see. They have strong opinions about the changes in the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. They want everything to be just so, and they are probably judging you right now.
Maybe some editors are like that, but I haven’t met any. You only have to make a couple of major slip-ups before you find it easier to show grace for other people’s mistakes. And while I know all the writing rules from having to look them up every few minutes when I first started editing, I find it difficult to work up any passion about them. I hate correcting people in my everyday, non-editing life; I don’t want to be that guy. Yes, I did tell the projectionist at church to correct a typo on a slide last weekend, but I was apologetic about it. And if I’d seen it during the service instead of before, I would have let it slide and not mentioned it to anyone. Following the rules and correcting all the errors isn’t what motivates me.
No, what makes an editor good isn’t an overdeveloped desire for correctness—it’s sympathy. Editing is far from a helping profession like counseling or social work, but we have to have emotional intelligence to do our job well. We have to understand how a writer thinks and feels, understand what a reader thinks and feels, and bring them closer together by helping the writer communicate in a way the reader can understand and relate to. I’m less of a grammar enforcer and more of a literary marriage therapist.
When a writer sends me a book manuscript, I read it closely, more closely than anyone but the writer will ever read it, and I try to make it better. I make it better by crawling inside a writer’s mind armed with my knowledge of how books work and figuring out what they are trying to communicate, shaping it into a form I think readers will see and think, “This writer knows what it’s like to be me.”
This means I also project myself into the mind of the reader. I think about what they don’t know, what they want to know, what interests them, what they’re afraid of or distracted by, what would keep them reading, and I try to communicate this to the writer in a way that amplifies their compassion.
Most of the time, writers are grateful for this. They know they can get pulled off course by their pet preoccupations or speak in generalities or fall in love with a turn of phrase that sounds melodious but wouldn’t resonate with the person they’re trying to reach—and they really do want to reach them. The only writers I’ve found it difficult to work with have been ones who, usually toward the beginning of their career, cling to their words and ideas as if they are a precious limited resource. Their prose is almost a magical incantation, or a potion that has to be brewed just so, and it has to be preserved in order for the words to have their effect. More experienced writers, even as they have much greater skill in putting words together, know that the precise order of the words isn’t the point. The point is the effect they have on the reader, and so these writers are usually more open to other ways of putting things to make a connection.
In the delicate process of loosening a beginning writer’s grip, I sometimes have to reassure them that I don’t just understand what they are saying but that I care about it. There was a time, earlier in my editing career, when I would take on a project for which I had no sympathy. I didn’t believe in what the writer was doing, but I reasoned that my natural curiosity would enable me to serve the writer and the reader well. These projects were unsatisfying to everyone involved. Even if I felt like I understood what the writer was doing, the project ended up being a power struggle, one isolated mind unable to join forces with another. Understanding wasn’t enough.
Howard Thurman wrote in Jesus and the Disinherited, “It is a grievous blunder to assume that understanding is always sympathetic. Very often we use the phrase ‘I understand’ to mean something kindly, warm, and gracious. But there is an understanding that is hard, cold, minute, and deadly. . . . Understanding that is not the outgrowth of an essential fellow-feeling is likely to be unsympathetic. Of course, there may be pity in it—even compassion, sometimes—but sympathy, almost never. I can sympathize only when I see myself in another’s place.”
In relationships with a writer that have soured, I was never able to move from understanding to sympathy. I found that it wasn’t enough to know what a writer wanted to say; I had to inhabit their very voice enough to help them say it. I had to, at least while editing, allow myself to be convinced enough by their argument to make it for them, or caught up in their story enough to fill in the gaps or pick up where they left off.
If even editing—which often has you sitting alone in front of a screen for hours a day—is done best when done with sympathy, is there any vocation that isn’t?
Maybe it would be helpful to draw a distinction here between a job and a vocation. If a job is just something you do to pay the bills, it’s possible to do it without sympathy, or giving the appearance of sympathy. But when it comes to a vocation—a calling—maybe it’s failing to see yourself in another’s place where things go awry.
For example, why does it feel like such a betrayal when someone you haven’t talked to since high school suddenly messages you on Facebook, possibly consoling you for a recent tragedy in your life but quickly pivoting to what a difference has been made in their life by a line of herbal supplements made from cilantro? Could it be because they are giving the appearance of compassion but are actually being self-serving, seeing you as nothing more than a potential sale? In Thurman’s terms, this is using a counterfeit sympathy that is merely understanding. There’s a way in which the person sending the message does understand the pain that the person they’re reaching out to feels—the pain of needing money, of wanting purpose and recognition in their work—but this understanding never rises to the level of sympathy. As with so many people who do work that falls short of what it ought to be, they use the appearance of sympathy for other ends.
Maybe you think this all sounds nice but, in your job, you can’t get things done with sympathy. Maybe you think fellow-feeling is good in your off hours, but at work what’s needed is an emphasis on taking charge, leading, or at least rule-keeping. Maybe having sympathy in your vocation might be good in a perfect world, but we don’t live in a perfect world. In this world, we have deadlines and benchmarks and ladders to climb and bills to pay.
But are sympathy and getting things done as incompatible as that? Even more, if you can’t get things done without sympathy, are you getting the right things done? If the vocation of Jesus, who lived out what it meant to be human more perfectly than anyone, involved putting himself in another’s place, then why shouldn’t our vocations aim toward sympathy? “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Being human at its highest level involves the projection of yourself into another person’s experience such that you have a fellow-feeling for them, whether you’re an editor, a barista, a lawyer, or a sanitation worker.
To put yourself in the shoes of someone else is not incompatible with leading and getting things done—only leading and getting things done in a self-serving way. Jesus does more than understand us; he identifies with us.
In my small, imperfect way, that is what I do when I take up my pen or open up my laptop to edit: take the best attributes of a writer and make their voice more fully them, and know the feelings and thoughts of a reader well enough to connect with them as well. And correct some spelling and grammar along the way.
Cover image by charlesdeluvio.