Editors have an intimate relationship with perfection. An indefinable, amorphous, beautiful state of being, perfection is the underlying aim of the work we do for writers.
We may frown on overediting, advocate for the ugly first draft, and proudly consider ourselves the enemy of old-fashioned grammar sticklers, but it doesn’t stop us from striving for perfection in everything we do.
And while perfectionist tendencies certainly help us be amazing at our jobs, many editors, unfortunately, are tasked with the lifelong lesson of learning how to let go. Loosening our grip on the page, lifting one finger at a time, we discover that the perfectionist personality can have an enormous effect on our careers and, when we’re not behind a laptop, our lives.
When there’s great pressure on us to get things right, the web that entangles identity with action—who we are with what we do—becomes stickier. We take pride in our “editor” label and, of course, we all find meaning for our lives outside of work in many ways. But our self-confidence can be easily rocked when we make mistakes as editors.
We may skip a typo, introduce an error, offer poor advice, miss a deadline, or email the wrong client. We may worry about marketing, take on ill-fitting projects, or dive so deep into manuscripts that we fail to leave time for ourselves and our families. And we tend to beat ourselves up for everything, manifesting the occasional bout of imposter syndrome and locking us in a mindset that only attracts more problems.
With perfectionism at the root of some of our biggest challenges as editors, managing stress, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, and other mental health difficulties on top of this can make editing—our profession and, for most, our passion—a dream turned nightmare.
Building greater self-empathy can help us move through tough times a little more smoothly and be better prepared when we feel weighed down again.
Reviewing Your Burdensome Books
The first step in cultivating self-empathy is awareness. When we’re trying to perform our jobs while dealing with the effects of occasional stress, everyday anxiety, mental disorders, or upsetting events, most of the time we’re well aware of what causes editing to be a struggle. But sometimes we’re not aware of the things we do to add more books on top of the heavy stack we carry and we’re not aware that our experiences are shared by so many other editors.
Here’s what some of your burdensome books might look like:
- Completing unnecessary extra passes of a manuscript, checking and rechecking (and rechecking) for things you may have missed
- Going to extra lengths to perfect a piece beyond the project’s normal needs when the client did not ask for (or is not paying for) additional work
- Psyching yourself out about accidentally inserting grocery lists and goofy words into manuscripts or emailing the wrong client
- Procrastinating on projects and allowing the workload to become bigger in your head than it really is on paper
- Working in environments or using tools that don’t provide the proper ease, comfort, or concentration needed to complete projects and to-dos
- Letting disappointment, guilt, or embarrassment linger when you miss errors, introduce errors, or make a mistake in your marketing or client management
- Sitting in feelings of frustration when your edits are not accepted, a manuscript is messy or challenging, or a difficult client gets you upset
- Forcing yourself to get work done when you’re not in the mood to work or when your body needs attention (like sleep, food, or movement)
- Dedicating more time to client communication than absolutely necessary or not enforcing boundaries for preferred communication hours and methods
Reviewing your personal pile of unhelpful editor life habits should give you ideas on how to start approaching your work in a way that leaves room for self-empathy, even if you manage a chronic condition. Take a good look at how you’re hurting yourself, remember that you’re not the only editor experiencing these situations, and recognize that your only goal is perfect imperfection.
Practicing awareness will help you put these burdensome books back on the shelf, and with time, you’ll start to read them less and less.
Relying on Your Bookmarks
So what if we’ve started to flex our awareness muscles, and the books keep piling up? We’re aware of the harmful habits but they still hit us hard. How do we prevent this stressful tsundoku? We add the other elements of self-empathy into the mix: mindfulness and kindness.
If each bad habit is a burdensome book, then awareness, mindfulness, and kindness are the bookmarks. (This is the last analogy—I swear.) Pull these out and stick them between the pages to pause and give yourself a chance to put down each crappy book before you dive too deep. Because you have better things to read.
Here’s how you can use these bookmarks to edit through stress and other mental health difficulties:
Opening Up About Your Journey
Not many editors are vocal about our struggles and needs, but we should be. If we let our imperfections show and look around for evidence of other editors who share our experiences, we can learn to be a little more gentle with ourselves. We can make the most of our community to find support and solutions that fit us better than what we can find in a Google search.
I remember being so excited to sit in a session on mental and physical health at the 2019 EFA Conference before I was diagnosed with ADHD. I soaked up everything that its panel of speakers had to say about how they edit through body pain, a hurting heart, and a beautifully messy mind like mine. And I’m lucky to be a part of an editing team that checks in with each other on more than just our projects. But I think there’s still room for other voices to speak up.
What do you edit through? What methods for overcoming perfectionism and staying healthy and confident have you found effective as an editor? Feel free to share your wisdom in the comments or get in touch to tell me more about your editing self-empathy journey.