You’ve all had that client—the one who wants you to edit for grammar without changing the words. Is it possible to avoid changing the words in an edit? After all, Merriam-Webster defines grammar as “the set of rules that explain how words are used in a language.” Recently, an editor shared how her client’s words were supposedly “inspired.” What do our clients really want from us?

I’ve come to the conclusion that empathy is a powerful key. Empathy—the ability to share someone else’s feelings, to see the world through the eyes of another—creates a win-win scenario for authors, readers, and editors.

Through reading fiction, a reader may encounter third-world countries, abuse, or the death of a child—all in response to the believable characters the writer developed. And in that manuscript, everything matters. Sentence length controls pace, word choice shows versus tells, syntax affects word flow, and so on. Through nonfiction, illustrations and examples engage readers, exposing anything from unrealized motivations to entirely different points of view.

Writers hire editors to align with and polish their message. If I were to focus on the client’s unintentional insult to “stick to the grammar,” I might conclude that my client is really hoping for an “as is” stamp of approval. Technically, they may be requesting a proofread rather than an edit. Without even consciously realizing it, they might be more fixated on the knowledge and opinion they want to impart than on what the reader understands or needs to know. In order to make my client successful, which is my ultimate goal, I may need to employ the power of empathy to best consider how the reader will respond to the content.

Readers invest in the work of authors who compel them to action or who craft stories to which they can relate. Helping authors craft their stories from the perspective of the character or the reader is not as simple as relating a story from my own limited perspective. In the final outcome, the reader is essentially more important than the writer because, after all, the reader usually is not forced or paid to read to the end of the article or manuscript. Writers must strive to connect with and create a positive emotional reaction from the audience. The extra effort, on behalf of the reader, requires a deep emotional intelligence informed by culture and experience.

Editors have the opportunity in their craft to help clients develop copy that is clear of distractions and laced with empathy in order to compel and spark connection with readers. And furthermore, when I consciously show empathy in my comments to authors and offer suggestions that begin with “Better?” or “Consider . . . ” those comments are usually welcomed.

Empathy, like creativity, is a muscle that must be exercised. The payoff is a mission accomplished for both the author and reader: more clicks, more engaging books, and more unforgettable connections.

Sarah pensive

Sarah is a contributing gold member of The Christian PEN and Christian Editor Connection with whom she passed tests and demonstrated expertise in the proofreading, copyediting, and content editing (substantive) of both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts and content. As a skilled and conscientious editor and writer with over twenty-five years of experience, Sarah offers professional services for projects of all sizes. Clients can be confident in the quality of their polished manuscripts, knowing that her editorial knowledge and skills developed over many years will be applied to their projects.