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Frances Peck

Editing and Empathy

I’m thinking more about empathy these days. So are other editors — witness last week’s post on the editor-author relationship. So are Canadians in general, judging by Google searches over the past decade.











Source: Google Trends. Y-axis shows interest over time, defined as follows: “Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular” (Google Trends). In Canada “empathy” hit 100 in November 2015, not shown above because the graph maps May to May.

Papers about empathy are on the rise in psychology journals. The health care professions increasingly view clinical empathy as essential to their practice. Business gurus say management is entering an era of empathy. “We live in an age of unprecedented global connectivity and rapid change,” writes Michael Zakaras, from the social innovation network Ashoka, “and empathy can help us navigate that world smartly and morally as we collide with others.”

Current research typically describes empathy as more of a cognitive attribute than an emotional reaction or a personality trait. As such, it can be practised and improved upon. Enter empathy training, which is now widely available. Its applications range from improving doctors’ beside manner to preventing bullying in the classroom.

What does this have to do with editing?

Reading widely, many believe, makes us more empathetic. As the late Carol Shields put it: “The rhythms of prose train the empathetic imagination and the rational emotions. We need literature on the page because it allows us to experience more fully, to imagine more deeply, enabling us to live more freely” (Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing).

Editors are professional readers. But in the act of editing, we do more than read. Like hermit crabs, we crawl inside the worlds of others. We inhabit the author’s brain: is she articulating her message, story, ideas, data clearly and effectively? We look through the reader’s eyes: do the message, story, ideas, data make sense to him; do they enlighten; do they please? We assess text from multiple perspectives, trying it out, gauging whether it meets the needs of its creators and its consumers. We do all of this by attempting, as best we can, to get outside the confines of our own mind, views and experience and think like others.

In my 27 years of working with other editors, socializing with them, volunteering by their side, mentoring and being mentored, I’ve seen an abundance of empathy. “Editors are welcoming,” I say when encouraging students to come to Editors Canada events. “They’ll take the time to meet you and listen to you.” And this is true. As occupations go, editing is open, not closed; collegial, not competitive. Editors as a rule are broad-minded, understanding and respectful.

Is this, to some degree, because our work makes us that way? Daily we stand in others’ shoes — “others” being authors, readers, clients, publishers — and navigate between them as smoothers, arbitrators, intermediaries, coaches. Is editing a form of empathy training? What do you think?


Previous post from Frances Peck: Keeping Up With the (Editorial) Times.

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Frances Peck

Frances Peck is an editor, writer and instructor who now lives on Canada’s West Coast.


7 Comments on “Editing and Empathy”

  • Anita Jenkins


    «Editors are collegial, not competitive.» Absolutely true, Frances. Sometimes a would-be editor would say at a meeting in Edmonton, «I want to meet people will hire me, not people who are my competition.» We didn’t usually see much of those folks later on. They just didn’t get it.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    Thank you for this thoughtful post, Frances. Empathy is surely a quality all editors need – we spend our professional lives making other people look good. To ensure that happens successfully, we must understand what they are trying to do, listen carefully to what they say, and make our case with diplomacy and sound reasoning. It’s not surprising, then, that the individuals who are attracted to editing possess some seemingly contradictory characteristics: they are team players, yet able to work alone for long stretches of time; and, although they forgo the limelight, they are clean headed and persuasive about what needs to be done. Along the way, yes, they are usually friendly, generous, and welcoming.

  • Georgina Montgomery


    An interesting and topical piece, Frances.

    A further thought to add: Certainly an editor’s empathetic training can be greatly enhanced if she or he is also a writer whose work gets edited.

    An editor edited. Few experiences can match that one for improving the editorial bedside manner.

  • Jennifer Dinsmore


    What a lovely post! I truly believe that editing/literature can make us more empathetic, as we spend much more time fully considering the experiences and opinions of those different from us than many others do.

  • Brilliant analysis, Frances. I haven’t thought of it quite this way before.

    Does editing make us more empathetic? Maybe. Or perhaps those who are empathetic are more likely to succeed as editors.

    I’ve often said editing is kind of like bartending, because both professions listen to people’s troubles. It is, in part, a caregiving role.

  • Jason Bassford


    To be a good editor, I believe you need to be able to let go of your ego. A common mistake of inexperienced editors—or those who struggle to become successful—is wanting to impose their own beliefs or style on the work, instead of working within the author’s voice. Enhancing the author’s voice is something everybody agrees with, but I think it actually has as much to do with being somewhat Zen-like (less ego-driven) as it does with intuition and perception.

    I’d be curious to look at a study done on accord and discord in marital relationships where both spouses belong to the same profession. In a statistically large enough sample, it would be interesting to see where editor couples fit on the scale.

    I also think that being less ego-driven lends itself to being more empathetic. Or perhaps vice-versa.

  • Frances Peck


    Thought-provoking comments, everyone. Anne’s question is one I’ve wondered about often. Does editing as an occupation tend to attract empathetic people? Or does editing itself build our empathy? Given what we know about neuroplasticity, it’s tempting to think that regardless of how naturally empathetic we might be when we begin as editors, we develop and enlarge our empathy pathways (or whatever that complex cognitive and emotional network might be called) as we go along.

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