All good editors are therapists


When I start editing your manuscript, I learn something about you, the writer. That’s not just a side effect. It’s actually central to my ability to edit your work effectively.

I don’t set out to psychoanalyze you. It’s just impossible not to.

To improve a manuscript, I must understand the author’s goals

What is the editor’s job? It is to identify problems in a piece of writing and suggest ways to fix them. This might mean anything from poking holes in the central premise to fixing spelling errors.

To start, it’s helpful for me to know what you, the author, are trying to accomplish. Is the goal of your writing to change people’s minds on a topic? To help them effectively prepare and implement a plan based on your expertise in a subject area? To entertain people and make them laugh? To generate speaking opportunities for you? When I understand your readers, objective, hoped-for action, and desired impression — the ROAM analysis — I can evaluate whether your writing accomplishes those goals.

Often, I can make a pretty good guess about those things even without discussing them with you. But if the manuscript is all over the map, often the problem is a lack of clarity about the readers and your goals for them.

What common problems in manuscripts tell me about you, the author

If you’ve misspelled “psychology” in one place, that doesn’t in itself tell me much about you. But repeated or endemic problems in the manuscript tell me others things. For example:

  • Your manuscript doesn’t hang together around a theme. When your chapters seem to be driving in different directions and don’t connect, that’s a sign that you’re more focused on sharing insights than creating a coherent whole. You probably assembled a bunch of your best ideas, and may have written them over a period of months without trying to make connections among them. Sometimes a book seems to have two main themes, because you wrote the first part, waited a while, had your ideas change, and then wrote the second part based on a significantly different idea. To fix a manuscript like this, we need to discuss what might be a common theme, because it’s going to require some pretty extensive rewrites before it makes sense to undertake a detailed edit.
  • You repeat stories and ideas across chapters. There are several big causes of repetition. One is that you wrote different chapters at different times and forgot what you wrote earlier. Another is that your idea just doesn’t support a whole book, so you’re hitting the same content over and over. A third is that your chapter organization isn’t the best way to organize your content, so you hit the same ideas from similar angles in different chapters. But what all these problems tell me is that you’re probably a pantser — a writer who writes from the seat of their pants — rather than a planner — a writer who carefully plans everything out before writing.
  • You have lots of sentence fragments. “Write like you talk” isn’t necessarily good advice, because a transcript of speech usually isn’t made up of complete sentences. Writers with lots of fragments have confused writing to the reader — that is, telling a story directly to an individual — with speaking to the reader. Fragments and asides to the reader (“You probably think I’m stupid, but hear me out,” or “Yes, I know, I use way to many metaphors”) are a symptom of writing the way you speak. Frankly, such problems are easy to edit, and a lot easier to fix than authors who write as if they are lecturing to an empty classroom and don’t care about the reader’s reaction.
  • Your sentences and paragraphs are too long. Runon sentences and endless paragraphs speak to a writer whose ideas tumble out in a stream of consciousness. It can feel glorious to write this way when it’s happening, but it’s abusive to the reader, who, partway through a 90-word sentence or a 500-word paragraph, feels lost and out of breath. Editing such rambling prose may be as simple as breaking up the sentences and adding paragraph breaks. But they tell me that you’re more focused on your own ideas than on the reader’s problems.
  • Excessive use of passive voice. Passive voice is the most common problem I find in manuscripts. As with many other writing mannerisms, a little is ok, but a lot is distracting. There are a lot of cause of passives in writing: you were trained to write scientifically or academically; you’re unwilling to take responsibility for your recommendations; or you actually have no idea why certain problems are happening and how best to fix them. When, as an editor, I attempt to fix your passives, I’m going to take you into an uncomfortable territory, one where you describe who does what and what the reader must do to address their problems. Thinking this way may be upsetting to you, but you owe it to your reader to do this soul searching.
  • Vague prescriptions and meaningless platitudes. I often see manuscripts full of recommendations like “Believe in yourself,” “Think before you act,” “Choose your collaboration partners carefully,” or “Don’t be afraid to innovate.” These meaningless platitudes are useless to the reader, who is certainly already doing these things. (Did you really think that, before reading your advice, the reader wanted to doubt themselves, act before thinking, choose collaboration partners at random, or fear innovation?) These recommendations happen because you, the author, failed to do enough research. You need case studies, statistics, or frameworks to make your recommendations substantive, convincing, and actionable. If you don’t want to do that work, sure, I understand, but as an editor I can’t fill in those blanks for you.
  • Too many personal stories. Unless you are writing a memoir, you don’t want to include dozens of personal stories in your manuscript. Such writing is less convincing, since it tells the reader that you believe your own experience, by itself, is sufficient — or in other words, you are so experienced that you are infallible. Client stories are fine, but the emphasis should be on what they did, not what you did. When I read writing like this, the cause is often either an author whose ego is out of control, or just somebody who didn’t do research and wanted to depend on easily accessible personal recollections.
  • Overenthusiastic cheerleading. There are two symptoms here: excessive use of superlatives (“You’ll be the best, fastest, most incredible innovative leader ever”) and exclamation points. I know exactly why you write this way. You are insecure about your ideas and want to paper it over with enthusiasm. But readers have little patience with this approach — they’re looking for useful advice, not pom-pom waving dance routines.

Why this matters to the editor — and what it means to you, the author

For editors, being aware of the psychology behind common writing problems is essential. If you truly want to make the manuscript better, you need to understand why the author wrote it the way they did. That way you can customize your advice and edits in ways that will make the author more likely to understand why you suggested the changes and how addressing them will better accomplish the author’s goals.

As an author, you may not have realized how much you were revealing about yourself when you turned over that manuscript to the editor. Prepare yourself — you’re about to learn things about who you are and why you write the way you do. But as with the best therapy, such realizations, even if they are uncomfortable at first, often lead to a greater degree of insight, and can make your work far more effective. So don’t fear editorial therapy. Embrace it. It’s a valuable path to personal growth.

Final note: I know that you, my readers, will have a fun time psychoanalyzing me based on the millions of my words you’ve been reading here. I look forward to hearing your ideas about what makes me tick.

2 responses to “All good editors are therapists

  1. Great summation. And I have actually done the reverse: used your editing tips to get at the heart of a conversation. “What repetition is telling you” was my favorite idea this year.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.