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I am your editor and I reject your apology

Photo: 20th Century Fox/DreamWorks

When writers send me pieces to edit, they all seem to come with an apology. Your apology is meaningless to me.

“I’m sorry this is so long.”

“I’m sorry this isn’t better organized.”

“I’m sorry this seems to wander around a bit.”

I have one client who doesn’t apologize, but submits every piece with a note that says “This is a mess.” The apology is implied. (It usually isn’t a mess — in fact she is a brilliant thinker whose work I can help to improve, just the way it’s supposed to work.)

I am not here to judge you, I am here to help you. What you are really saying is, “I wish this writing were better.” As your editor, I am here to make it better. If it were perfect, you wouldn’t need me. So stop apologizing for what’s wrong with your writing.

Instead, let’s both work on improving it. In this context, I do expect you to send me a note along with your writing, explaining where you think the problems are. This helps me. So:

“I am concerned that this is too long. Can you look for places to cut?’

“This piece has organizational problems. I’m interested in your ideas on how to structure it.”

“I lost the thread in here. Help me find the narrative that will pull this together.”

It’s like going to the doctor. You don’t say “I’m sorry I can’t bend my knee without it hurting.” You say “I think this is the problem,” and then describe it. I know the analogy is not perfect — after all, you created this writing yourself — but as the editor, I am like your doctor. I am going to diagnose the problems and show how to fix them.

There is a rousing scene in “The Post” where the writers, having poured their souls into writing amazing prose about what our government was actually doing based on the Pentagon Papers, have their typed copy delivered to the editors. The editors whip out their red pencils and start marking up the writing. The writers do not apologize to the editors; they have done amazing work. The editors do not apologize to the writers about their red pencils; they are making that work better. That’s how it should be.

So I reject your apology, but am quite grateful for your description of the problems. If it makes you feel better, sure, apologize. But I think you’ll find that, in the long run, not apologizing for your writing is better for your psyche.

What you can apologize for

If you really want to apologize, there are three things you should apologize for:

  • Being late. If you don’t deliver things in time, I don’t have time to read them as thoroughly as I need to. So that’s not particularly nice.
  • Not finishing. It’s hard to edit things that are missing a big chunk at the end. It’s better to deliver a crappy or incomplete ending than none at all. Give it a shot. That’s much better than an incomplete draft.
  • Not learning. In your last three pieces, I showed you what passive voice is, what parallel structure is, how to write a lede, or whatever. I took extra time to make you a better writer, not just to improve your document. And yet, you didn’t even try to get better. For that, sure, you owe me an apology.

But don’t apologize for the flaws in your writing. I’m not your mom. I’m your editor, and I’m here to help.

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  1. I too am here to help…. in your opening sentence there is an edit needed.

    “When writers send me pieces to edit, the all seem to come with an apology.” Should be “they”.