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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