It’s always prudent to choose your words carefully because they are powerful. They represent you and your thoughts and they deserve respectful consideration. Except, that is, when they represent someone else’s thoughts—then they require even more scrutiny and care.
Editing and writing have been a major part of every job I’ve had. As a teacher, I corrected mountains of writing exercises and helped (or tried to, anyway) my students develop their voice and craft as writers. When I was a college counselor, I worked with students to brainstorm and edit countless drafts of admissions and supplemental essays, as well as revise cover letters and resumes. And now, whether I’m working on a blog post, press release, or a thought leadership piece, I’m involved in many stages of writing and editing.
Finding the right voice, both as a writer and as an editor, is something that requires constant recalibration for me. Even though I do it frequently, it’s still often challenging to navigate.
Writing your own pieces, while sometimes agonizing to get through (in fact, while I was writing this, I paused to make lunch. And then have tea. And then empty the dishwasher. And then…), is usually less tricky than other editing and writing endeavors because you’re writing in your own voice. You don’t really need to give thought to whether it sounds like you or if something reflects your style.
However, if you’re writing or editing a piece for someone other than yourself, keeping your voice in check can be tricky. When I first started working to shape higher education op-eds, I was quite stressed out—how could I accurately reflect someone else’s voice? How could I ensure that my edits and suggestions mimic the style of the Ph.D.-level writer I was representing? And truthfully, it’s something that still stresses me out on occasion.
Sure, there are clear-cut, straightforward edits, like when something is misspelled, but often, edits require some bigger changes or restructuring. And even some of the seemingly simple edits might have weightier implications. For example, I often used to grapple with how much to correct the syntax and usage of my students for whom English was not their first language—I wanted to help them draft their strongest essays to strengthen their applications, but if I restructured their sentences too much, it didn’t accurate reflect their writing ability.
There’s a lot at stake when college administrators write, especially if they’re weighing in on hot button topics like the affordability of higher ed, new title IX requirements and processes, or race relations on campus. So naturally, editing can also be high stakes—certainly, you want the language to be clear and without error, but there’s more to it. With thought leadership, there are levels of complexities and nuance when you consider audience in addition to author. You need to consider not only the message that is intended, but also any possible perceived messages. It’s essential that the right tone is conveyed in the writing and reflected in any changes or suggestions. One word can alter the intended meaning of a sentence—precise phrasing matters!
At this point, I’ve had enough practice that I feel more comfortable and confident when I’m writing for a president or editing a faculty’s piece that is far outside my own expertise, but it’s necessary to always find a balance to maintain that neutral voice. Collaboration through phone calls and emails as well as reviewing drafts and final products of other pieces can give a sense of style to help writing and editing go smoothly. That, and second readers!