Writing is a personal thing. Whether it is for a blog, a publication or a report, we all have our own style. So, when someone criticises it, it is only natural to become defensive.
When I was trainee reporter, I used to find it incredibly frustrating when I asked an editor why something in my copy had been changed, and got the answer “just because” or “it sounds better”. Neither were constructive feedback. It is more frustrating when you know that what was written was grammatically correct and succinct (in other words, the changes had not improved or clarified the piece and had made no difference to the word count).
As an editor now, I find it important to remain objective when editing someone’s work. But when the nature of your job is subjective, can you ever really be objective?
We all have an unconscious bias and it influences our decisions on a daily basis. For example, you may hire someone because you can relate to their background or have similar interests.
According to information theory, our brains try to process an average of 11 million pieces of information per second. However, the conscious mind can only capture 50 items of information per second and can process only seven. Therefore, our brains are constantly taking shortcuts to fill in the blanks. Unconscious bias is a form of this shortcut.
Everyone has deep, subconscious preferences. Our background, personal experiences and social stereotypes can all influence our perception of others, even when we haven’t met them. And when it comes to editing another person’s work, these subconscious preferences can have an effect on how we approach it.
So, what steps can we take to minimise unconscious bias seeping into the editing process?
First, we can work on becoming aware of bias and understanding our triggers. Triggers are things that you recognise and can relate to – often this is what can instinctively make you like or dislike a person’s writing style. It can be as simple as associating their name with a stereotype or someone you once knew, which could lead you to make assumptions about their writing ability.
Next, is recognising the writer’s voice. While organisations may have their own distinct tone and style, the author’s voice is always present in any blog or article. This can be seen in the way they phrase their sentences or their choice of words – and the way they use language isn’t always wrong. Recognising this means that, whether you are proofing, copy-editing or subbing, you can ensure that you avoid imposing your own editorial preferences.
And finally, if you have the luxury – particularly if you have heavily copy-edited or subbed a piece – get a second pair of eyes to go over it. Having someone else give it a final proof can often help maintain objectivity. If you don’t have the resources to get someone else to look at the copy, try giving yourself a break and then coming back to give it one final proof before it is submitted. Or, if you are pushed for time, pause, take some deep breaths, slow your mind down so you can make decisions about your edits. Ask yourself, was that change necessary and why?