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I resent editing other people’s work

by Jun 5, 2010On Writing: Craft and Commiseration, Works in Progress4 comments

I am good at taking other people’s gibberish and making it sound really good.

I know this is a blessing, otherwise I’d be one of those people writing gibberish in the first place and wishing I could make it sound good. But it’s a strange and sometimes annoying superpower. I have the power to make other people sound smart. It is a useful skill, one rather in demand.

But it makes for a lot of ghost writing. For instance, every time anyone in my family needs a resume, they dump a pile of rambling notes on me that I have to make into something useful. I used to have a job where I would do this for clients, taking their notes about their awful product and making those products sound like the best thing ever. I’m the sap that people asked for “help” with a paper because they knew if they made me sit there long enough, I’d re-write it for them.

As you are probably picking up on, I hate doing this.

It’s odd, because it’s something I am good at and you’d think I’d enjoy the praise. Bad writing and lack of clarity offend me on some level and I do feel pretty awesome when I reread the new and improved text. I’m a master of the hack and smooth, esp when someone else wrote the first draft. But I hate doing it, I dread it when something like this falls into my lap. And fall into my lap it does, again and again, between work and real life obligations. As soon as people know you have a superpower, they want you to use it to save them as often as possible.

I resent the family/friend favor kind of project more than a paid project, obviously, because with a paid freelance type project I know if I suck it up and do it, money awaits. And if it is something that I sought out myself, ie, I offered to read a friend’s novel, my cousin’s essay for school, etc, that is different. I can’t explain the distinction other than to say, I like to feel like it’s my choice to take on the project and when I feel trapped into it, I just want to run screaming.

But, at the same time, I can’t say, “No.” Firstly, it seems like a compliment every time they ask. Secondly, if my relative is selling themselves short with a terrible resume or a client is cheating themselves out of marketing with a terrible press release, no matter how much I dread doing it, I can’t just leave it in its original bad state. I need to fix it because…? I guess because I can.

I’ve lately been trying to be able to figure out why I hate/dread doing this so much when afterwards I always feel good about myself and when the financial rewards can be great. When I used to do this freelance, I made good coin doing it and walked away from all that nice money because I hated doing it so much. That is some powerful hate, when you can’t even suck up a few hours of doing something you don’t want to for a ton of money. But I walked away and when I think of going back I get a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach.

It’s a little like this:

But I think my aversion to this boils down to one thing: I resent having to use my talents for other people (no matter how much they are paying me or not), when I don’t get much time to use my talents for myself and my projects.

Tonight I was working on just such a project. And while I’d been putting this project off for a long time, when I finally did it, it wasn’t that bad, took very little time and will benefit me in the long run even though no one will ever know I had anything to do with it. But the whole time I was working on it, all I could do was focus on the fact that, there I was, on a Friday night, writing and editing my little heart out on something that doesn’t matter a fig to me while my poor writing, that I actually care about, lay ignored.

And I know what I should do, I should ignore the paying work and the favors once in a while to focus on the writing I do for me but in the real world, that is much easier said than done. So it ends up feeling like everyone else’s rewriting project is more important than mine which I find very discouraging. What if talent is a finite thing and I’m using up all my skills on other people’s things?

It’s not that want people to know that I’m doing the writing while someone else’s name is on it. I just don’t want to be in that position in the first place. It’s not so much that I object to being a ghost as I resent to not getting to live my own writing.

I don’t have a solution to this. I try to just focus on being thankful for my talent and thinking of all the ghost work as practice for my own stuff. But some days I just want to throw the original cruddy writing back into the writer’s face and say, “You fix up your own damn writing! Why should I waste my time editing your crap when I could be editing my own crap which is higher quality to start with?” This is an arrogant sentiment at its heart I suppose but there it is all the same.

So, I guess what I am saying is that, despite the fact that I have been writing near constantly for many days and I wrote for many hours today, there is no change whatsoever in my writing progress for the year. I can’t help but feel like that is messed up.


  1. Jason Black

    In the words of another infamous president:

    I feel your pain.

    Fellow freelance editor, I hear ya. I have an old novel I'd love to go back and re-edit, now that I have more experience under my belt. A slightly less old novel I'd love to go back and actually edit the first time. And an even less old novel that, in fact, is so new it isn't even finished. But I haven't written a word on it in about six months because, like you, all my time goes to my clients.

    Who, after all, are paying me.

    And I need the money.

    But oh, do I feel your pain. I want to finish that novel. I want to revise that other one. And re-re-re-line edit that other other one.

    You know, I started reading this post thinking “ooh, I'm going to tweet out a link to this saying 'not me, i love editing other people's work!'” Because I do, actually. I don't think it uses up my skill. I think it builds my skill. And I get money for it. But now that I've reached the end of your cathartic post, I don't think I'm going to do that. Because you're right. It is kind of messed up.

  2. Andrew

    That was a good post, nicely written.

    I too feel your pain. I don't mind editing for other writers, especially if they ask nicely and I don't editing if I'm paid a reasonable rate for it.

    What I hate is the assumption that because I like writing I'll fix other people's stuff for free.

    I like writing fiction…and while some people's resumes certainly qualify it's not really why I started writing!

  3. Hillary

    When I walked away from my regular freelance gig, that was a really hard thing for me. Not hard because I enjoyed doing it (I hated it) but hard because it was really good money and it always feels stupid to turn down money. But when I left, I felt so much better, freer, without having something I dreaded hanging over my head.

    And I think that you are right because sometimes I do like editing or I wouldn't say “yes” when people ask me to edit their stuff. I like the challenge, I know I can fix it. But when I look at the big picture, it's just like… ugh.

  4. Hillary

    “What I hate is the assumption that because I like writing I'll fix other people's stuff for free.”

    Absolutely! It's a similar thing with my husband who is very handy. Because he knows how to fix things, people just hand him broken things as if that is his lot in life, to fix their stuff for free on demand.

    I don't mind helping. If my brother hates his job and I can punch up his resume and get him a better one, I want to do that. But I would rather it be me saying, “Hey, do you want me to look at your resume?” instead of the way it happens now which is just an email full of mixed up info and a note that says, “Need this as a resume by tomorrow.” Assuming I'll do it, not even asking and taking for granted.

    I like to at least have the illusion that I can say no. 🙂



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Hillary DePiano is a playwright, fiction and non-fiction writer who loves writing of all kinds except for writing bios like this.

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