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How to survive being edited

Writing is a solitary endeavour—especially when you’re alone in a cabin with just the trees, mountains, and your own thoughts to keep you company. But at some point, if you’re at the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program, the time comes for you to share what you’ve written with others.

Canada Writes contacted Ian Brown, Chair of the program, to find out more about how they approach the editing process and how the writers in the program navigate the unpredictable waters of feedback.

Photo credit: John Barber
“In this program, eight established journalists come here to work on ambitious pieces of long-form journalism,” explained Brown on the phone from Banff. 
On editing
  • Be constructive
  • Start with something nice
  • Look at what the writer is trying to do
On being edited
  • Be open
  • Learn what resonates with others
  • Take what is useful

Faculty members Charlotte Gill and Victor Dwyer each take four writers under her/his wing and, along with Brown, work closely with them on their stories. Part of this process involves sharing the work with the other writers in the program and discussing it in a group. 

“You are given five minutes to talk about the piece, what you like and don’t like about it. We try to make [this feedback] constructive rather than saying ‘this is how I would have written it,’ which is not helpful,” says Brown. “This  allows you to see the themes of your work, and what resonates with people.”

He gives an example of a writer in this year’s program who arrived with a piece on how neuroimaging can influence architecture. At one point during the program she began to write about the sensation of awe that can happen when a person enters a beautifully built room, and what creates that sensation. It turns out that neurologically, awe is quite an interesting process. 

“As we went around the room, everyone thought the way she broke down the experience of awe was so interesting that she began to think maybe what she was writing was the story of awe,” explains Brown.

It’s important, however, to know where to draw the line.

 “What you shouldn’t do is take every single suggestion or remark and try to incorporate it into your piece. That’s not the point. The point is to be open to it and see if it solves any difficulties you have. It’s very hard to know what to listen to and what not to listen to. Ultimately I think it’s instinctual.”

Giving feedback to others is also difficult—writers are notoriously a thin-skinned lot. “The old rule used to be start with something nice, then try and see the intent of what the person is doing rather than whether or not they have succeeded.”

When it comes to his own work, Brown prefers to be dealt with delicately. “I’ve had brutal editing, and it’s like being operated on without any anaesthetic. If you’re serious and you try hard you’ve probable written a bunch of drafts. It doesn’t help to have someone imply you’re a moron.”

But, at the end of the day Brown says it’s important to remember that people are trying to help you. “Remember that everybody can use a second or third of fourth set of eyes. Everybody. Even the very best writers. I encourage people to not take it personally and to welcome the criticism.”




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