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Aaron Dalton

Zen and the Art of Editing

Illustration of man, eyes closed, sitting cross-legged, zen-like, in front of a laptop, while papers fly around him.
Illustration of man, eyes closed, sitting cross-legged, zen-like, in front of a laptop, while papers fly around him.
Copyright: sirichoke

This post is part of a series by and for in-house editors. The focus of this series is on the personal experiences and various roles of in-house editors. If you’re interested in writing a post for this series, please email the Member Services Committee.

I’m a punctilious person. I care about the details. I care about things being “right.” Formalities matter. Systems matter. Process matters. And I’d wager most professional editors would identify similarly. And while I consider this trait its own kind of superpower, it’s not without its downsides. When you work in-house, where you rarely have the autonomy and authority you would like, it’s easy to get worn down by bureaucratic imperfections and inefficiencies.

I have experienced the burnout that can occur when you feel you are just not making a difference. I have experienced how unhelpful it is when that stress and frustration bleed into non-work contexts. I am no paragon of mental health, but I know I’m not alone in these struggles, and I thought sharing my strategies might be a good way to start a conversation.

  1. Take a break: Be sure to take your vacation time and unplug as much as you can on your days off. We all need time to recharge and regain perspective.
  2. Socialize: One of the biggest perks of working in-house is the colleagues. They are certainly experiencing similar frustrations and challenges. Hopefully, there are at least a couple you are close to. Support and encourage each other.
  3. Focus on what you can control: Where does your power lie? At the project level, I focus on cultivating positive relationships with project managers and authors and do my best to influence them to do “the right thing” voluntarily. At the organizational level, I cultivate relationships of trust and respect with the leaders closest to me in the chain of command and actively manage up. Leaders can’t fix problems they don’t know exist. And I try to always come to them with solutions — not just problems.
  4. Find the biggest wins: I save my energy for the battles that will net the greatest possible value to the readers for whom I am advocating. I invest a lot of energy in ensuring that documents are well structured, that the introductory material is easily understood by the broadest reasonable audience and that it’s clear as day what we are asking affected stakeholders to do or understand. If that means we run out of time to really hone things “properly,” that’s okay. I maximized the value gained in the time available. As the saying goes, “don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good.’”
  5. Revel in your successes: I naturally perseverate over the negative. With practice I’ve gotten better at focusing on the successes. I do routinely have satisfying and effective collaborations with authors. And every year or two I get a file where I can effect dramatic change. These successes sustain me when things get particularly frustrating, and they over time build a portfolio of work that shows authors what’s possible.
  6. Professional help is available: Don’t be afraid to seek out counselling services. Whether it’s for your career, a relationship (that includes work relationships) or personal mental health, talking to a professional can help you stay healthy and find a path forward that works best for you.
  7. Leaving is always an option: Sometimes the grass is greener. Even if you’re not ready to abandon ship just yet, there is freedom in at least knowing that your resumé and LinkedIn profile are up-to-date and what other options are out there.

How do you navigate these issues? Are there any resources or strategies that have worked for you? Let us know!


Previous post from Aaron Dalton: Editing Face to Face

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4 Comments on “Zen and the Art of Editing”

  • Gael Spivak


    Thanks for another great post, Aaron. As a fellow in-house editor, I find your posts always capture what that kind of job is like.

    « Find the biggest wins » is such good advice. Products are not going to be perfect. And we just have to let go of some things, some of the time. Instead of fighting everything we don’t agree with, we need to be strategic about where we can have the most effect.

    And I’ve discovered that being amiable and helpful means that some colleagues will trust that relationship so much that they will just hand things over to me (and will let me do anything I want to a document).

    • Thank you, Gael. I’ve learned that relationships are everything. Controlling that « inner perfectionist » and learning how to disagree and persuade diplomatically are skills that take a long time to hone, but they pay off.

  • Anita+Jenkins


    I love the comment about how leaving is always an option. I have seen many frustrated people in jobs they hate, and for various reasons they choose not to find another path. I have seen this choice lead to serious health problems such as heart attacks or even a form of PTSD.

    One woman was crying in the washroom. She told me the wooden venetian blinds they had bought for their house cost thousands. Not a good reason to suffer at your job.

    (Easy for me to say, I guess, as I didn’t have kids to feed.)

    • Sometimes leaving can seem harder than staying. It’s difficult, for sure, and usually not a decision to take lightly, especially during times like these. This is why counselling is so important. It can be really hard (some would say impossible) to be truly objective about yourself. Talking to a professional can help you maybe reframe your situation to make it more bearable or help you see avenues you hadn’t considered before, making it easier to move on. Your current job might even have counselling as part of the benefits package!

      If there’s one good thing to come out of COVID, I hope it’s normalizing discussions around mental health. There’s help out there. You don’t have to do it alone.

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