Rough Drafts: We All Need Editors

October 17, 2019 Updated: October 17, 2019

In the days when I taught literature, history, and Latin to a boatload of homeschoolers, I hired juniors and seniors to grade tests, mark essays, or help with some of the younger students. I also employed one student every year not only to grade essays, but to edit some of my own writing. Sometimes that student and I would read aloud what I had written, looking for mistakes and awkward usage, while at other times she would read silently and alone, writing out suggestions for us to consider together.

On one occasion I was teaching a composition class of seventh- and eighth graders. Standing beside me was a junior in high school—we’ll call her Maggie—who was assisting with the class. I began telling a joke to the students—to this day I can’t remember the joke—when suddenly I felt a whack on my shoulder. I looked over at Maggie, who had delivered that whack. She pursed her lips and shook her head. I laughed, and said to the class, “Well, I guess we won’t be finishing that story.” Later Maggie informed me I had told the joke in her class when she was younger, and she regarded it as inappropriate.

Guess who I hired to help edit the book I was working on?

I figured anyone bold enough to whack her teacher was bold enough to tell me when a sentence wasn’t working or a comma was out of place.

A note I recently received from an editor brought that young woman to mind. The editor, who is as meticulous as a seamstress when it comes to language, made me realize the value of a good critic. Like Maggie, she’s not afraid to give me a figurative cuff of correction. Because I know the two of us share the same goal—a solid, accurate, and readable piece of writing—I treasure her comments.

Which brought another thought to mind: Maybe we all need editors—not in matters of writing, but in matters of living.

Until my wife died 15 years ago, I had such an editor. Sometimes after I had finished talking on the phone with a friend or relative, or to my children, Kris would say, “You had that tone in your voice.” I knew the tone she had identified—a little judgmental, a little harsh. The trouble is, I am tone-deaf to that tone, which means that for the years since Kris’s death I have undoubtedly hurt or insulted others without realizing it.

Anyone who participates in social media understands why many of us might benefit from an editor. That woman who emails the boss what she believes to be a mild critique of a company decision walks into work on Monday and finds her employer stony-faced and glaring at her. She needed an editor. That guy who uses obscenities and snark to attack others in the comments section of a blog needs someone slapping him upside the head every minute or so. Those on dating sites who use 10-year-old pictures on their profiles or who claim to be nonsmokers when in fact they fire up 15 cigarettes a day need an editor.

Rough Drafts Need Editors … and We’re All Rough Drafts

In our daily routine, most of us could use an editor as well. We wound a friend with something we say and failed to notice the crumpled smile on her face. We make a promise and then break it. We blithely unleash words—“I love you,” “It wasn’t your fault,” “I’ll get right on it,” “I agree completely”—when in fact, deep down, we believe not a jot of what we’ve just said.

Of course, most of us have editors inside of us, that small voice warning us to guard our opinions and speech. We are also privy to the wisdom of sages from centuries past, those who admonish us to think before we speak, to count to 100 when angry, to tell the truth whenever possible, to be clear and precise in our speech.

Unfortunately, that interior editor, at least in my case, trots off on a coffee break from time to time, and there I am, sharing some story that deserves a “Maggie whap,” offending someone with a chance word or taking offense at some innocuous comment, creating misunderstanding because of my poor choice of language.

Self-editing is a necessary tool both for our relationships with others. Yet all too often that tool fails us.

Which is why writers have editors and why all of us might gain from a “personal editor.”

4 Eyes (and 4 Ears) Can Be Better Than 2

If we are willing to listen and to accept criticism, a good personal editor can offer us tremendous benefits. Just like a magazine editor, a personal editor—a spouse, a parent, a friend— truly hears what we are saying, looks for and points out holes in our logic, and offers sympathetic criticism. Like the magazine editor who wants to publish a piece as finely written as possible, our personal editor wants us to be as fine a human being as possible.

If we are wise, we listen to that person’s comments and advice without taking offense. If we know she has our best interests at heart, if we can drop our defenses and truly hear her, we may receive one of the most valuable gifts of love and friendship.

And we can act as editors to others as well. If our daughter sits down with us, collapses into tears, and tells us she is pregnant, instead of jumping down her throat, we can listen to her, console her, ask questions, and help her face the future. If a friend makes a terrible mistake, disappointing his family and all those around him, we can act like good editors, working with him to clean up the messy prose of his dire situation, probing his story with an objectivity tinted by sympathy, and guide him back to the right path.

Good editors strive to make good writing better. Good personal editors strive to make the good people they love better.

If you are fortunate enough to have such an editor in your life, count your blessings.

I sure miss mine.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.