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“Needs Editing” Is So Easy To Say 13 November 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.

“The first paragraph needs editing.”

“This whole piece needs a further round of editing.”

“Isn’t anyone editing this stuff?”

“Could be improved with more editing.”

“Needs editing.”

Right. And even, fair enough. But helpful? No.

We see some variation on “needs editing” regularly in the reader comments at Every Day Fiction. It’s also a popular critique from new slush readers who don’t yet have much experience with the job. And what it really says is: “I didn’t think this was good enough/up to my standards, but I either can’t be bothered or don’t know how to pinpoint what I didn’t like about it.”

To be helpful and to avoid the appearance of laziness or lack of critical thinking, “needs editing” needs to be modified — “needs editing for verb tense issues” … “needs editing for overuse of modifiers” … “needs editing to achieve smoother sentence structure and flow” … “needs editing to correct awkward and unnatural dialogue” …

However, looking at any of those examples, can you tell me how “needs editing” adds anything except a pretentious scold to the problem being addressed? Even as an editor I try to avoid applying those words in critiques unless I am discussing a specific issue that can be addressed through a revision of the (unpublished) piece.

Furthermore, once a piece has been published, “needs editing” is pretty much a slightly offensive way of saying “this isn’t good enough for me” — it assumes that the author hasn’t already edited the piece to the best of his/her ability, and it implies that the publisher of the piece should have done better, either by editing it properly or by not selecting it in the first place. Of course, I’ve no doubt that there are some people who do assume and believe exactly that, and feel no compunction about saying so, but I also know that many readers fall back on “needs editing” as a quick and easy generic criticism without thinking too hard about it. I don’t like to think of well-intentioned readers getting lumped in with the self-righteous orifices like that, but it’s bound to happen — in commenting on writing, as in the writing itself, word choice does matter.

(As for me, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to help applying mental tags like “lazy” and “clueless” and “rude” when I see those “needs editing” comments. Sorry, and all that.)


1. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson - 13 November 2011

You’re right, of course…if you’re going to bother to comment on a piece in a way that expresses your displeasure, at least have the decency to say why instead of relying on a blanket statement that offers nothing constructive.

2. Milo James Fowler - 14 November 2011

“A pretentious scold” — that’s about it, all right!

3. Camille - 16 November 2011

Just to be perfectly clear, I in no way intended to suggest that EDF publishes only perfect stories that couldn’t in any way stand further polishing. I have nothing against readers reacting negatively to our stories, as long as they are polite about it. That is clearly expressed on EDF’s Welcome Page and I absolutely stand behind the policies laid out there.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but this is my personal blog and I am simply reflecting here on how one particular phrase strikes me when used as a critique of a published story.

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