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How to Pick an Editor (Or Don’t Ask Your Father to Proofread Your Essay)

January 29, 2014

The other night I was thinking about my father and the influence he’s had on my writing. My dad is a great writer and a superior editor. When people ask me if he’s helped me on my writing journey, my answer always comes back to a childhood story I’m going to share with you here.

The summer before I entered 8th grade, I had to select a classic piece of literature to read and then write the dreaded summer book report. I chose Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Ever the under-achiever I was in those days, I selected Alice mainly because I was already familiar with the Disney animated classic and I was looking for something easy. I read the book and then followed my teacher’s directions to write the book report, which was essentially to write a summary of the book.

My father was always concerned about me getting the best grades possible. So he insisted on reading all my papers and editing them with his signature red pen. My former colleagues who also had the pleasure of working with my dad are quite familiar with said pen and know this habit has not changed over the years.

Needless to say, he took that red plan and marked the heck out of poor Alice and my attempt to analyze her wonderland.

“You can’t just summarize the book.” dad explained. “You need to pick three situation in the book and write about those.”

I thought what dad said was the all-powerful truth, and as a result, I did exactly what he said. After all who was I to argue with my esteemed father with a PhD and career in higher education? (Okay really, who was I to argue with my father?) So without questioning him, I rewrote the book report doing exactly what he said to do.

The thing was though, in my gut, I did question what he said. I knew that was not what my teacher wanted.

I turned in the assignment and waited with anticipation for the essay to be returned. What was given back to me was not what I expected. My teacher told me the essay was well-written, but not what she asked us to write. She asked for a summary of the book, not a synopsis of three plot points.

Ah hah! I thought. Dad was (gasp) wrong! I was the one who was right all along. I went home, dug out my old book report, turned that in to the teacher, and received an “A” on the assignment.

The Alice in Wonderland assignment taught me my first lesson in writing: go with your gut when you have something to say. It may not be the popular choice, or what others think you should write. But if you hear a voice deep down that tells you to write what’s in your heart, then listen to that voice.

And also be careful about who you chose as your editor! Needless to say, that was the last essay my dad proofread for me.

alice in wonderland

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Photo credit: juliemeynard via Creative Commons

12 Comments
  1. January 29, 2014 3:51 am

    What a sweet story and good advice. I’m finding now in my playwriting workshop that I’m getting too many opinions, making me question my ideas, etc. When I sit down to edit and revise, I often find myself going back to my original intent.

    • Leah permalink*
      February 2, 2014 7:52 pm

      I’ve done the same thing. You really do have to take every bit of criticism with a grain of salt and weed through the helpful comments and the not so helpful ones. Thanks for reading.

  2. January 29, 2014 7:01 am

    Ha… So similar to my story (only my dad was NOT an editor). I learned to start ignoring his critique (well intentioned, mind you) when I was in seventh grade … Which is interesting since, in my fiction writing, it took me a LONG time to stop feeling compelled to make every suggestion offered, even when many just ‘didn’t feel right’ — and gut rend out to be, in fact, quite wrong.

    • Leah permalink*
      February 2, 2014 7:52 pm

      Isn’t it true?! The gut never steers us wrong!

  3. Sydney Covey permalink
    January 29, 2014 8:38 am

    Ah yes, how very very well I know that red pen…….but to be fair, he is just as critical of his own writing and always re-writes to make his point(s) more succinct!

    • Leah permalink*
      February 2, 2014 7:51 pm

      Very true, Sydney! He is his own harshest critic.

  4. Cynthia Robertson permalink
    January 29, 2014 11:51 am

    How fortunate for you to have your father in the wings (even if he was wrong on this occasion). I had a similar experience when little, and got a terrible grade. I was afraid to show it to my father. I’m curious, how did your dad react, and did you even tell him?

    I love this that you say: ” go with your gut when you have something to say. It may not be the popular choice, or what others think you should write. But if you hear a voice deep down that tells you to write what’s in your heart, then listen to that voice.” I recently wrote a post along those lines, following your gut, and haven’t posted it yet, but it’s a lesson I learned once again in the last year, and it’s a valuable one!

    • Leah permalink*
      February 2, 2014 7:50 pm

      I did tell him and he still (to this day) insists the teacher was wrong! :)

  5. Lorena permalink
    January 29, 2014 2:16 pm

    Leah, I can TOTALLY imagine your father doing that. My mom was my personal editor growing up, too, and where I attribute all of my grammar-, spelling- and punctuation-error identifying powers!

    • Leah permalink*
      February 2, 2014 7:51 pm

      Parents can be tough, but they do make us great writers! Thanks for reading, Lorena!

  6. January 29, 2014 4:40 pm

    My editor wasn’t a parent. It was my High School English teacher. For the whole 9th grade, my papers were nothing but red marks and comments. My moment of extreme joy after much pain came when the only red was a comment, to paraphrase she said that finally I was writing like a future college student. Until that time, I felt I was in the wrong class. Thanks for such a lovely story.

    • Leah permalink*
      February 2, 2014 7:50 pm

      Thanks for reading. And I love your story too!

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