An extreme example: I took a creative non-fiction writing class in the spring, and every week we had to turn in two pages that we'd written that week. Except we didn't just have to turn it in to the instructor; we had to read it aloud to 2-3 of our classmates. So terrifying! I was producing some really raw, vulnerable stuff, and it was hard enough to let someone else read it, much less read it aloud in front of people whom I didn't know well or at all.
And the most embarrassing part is that every time I read something aloud, I'd break down into uncontrollable weeping. Sobs and everything. I wondered how people could even understand what I was saying. Every week I knew I was going to have to go in there and read and cry in front of strangers. No control at all. That was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But I did it anyway. Every week. (Okay, there was that one week I was sick and didn't go, but still. Almost every week.)
So when I approach editing, I want to keep this terror in mind. To try to remember what it's like to be on the other end of the exchange.
And if I forget, I can always watch this video by Ze Frank, someone whom I admire greatly for his commitment to doing things that scare the crap out of him.
Just like my first priority as a teacher is to foster a love of learning and the desire to learn, my first priority as an editor is to foster a love of writing and to keep people motivated to write, even if I decide not to take on their project or they decide I'm not a good fit for their needs.
Might I make a mistake? Say or do something that shuts someone down? Yes, I might. A couple of months ago I did a copy editing job for a friend, and when we met later she said that she'd been surprised at how many errors there had been in her manuscript. She'd been thinking about self-publishing her dissertation as a book, but now she's not so sure. "Maybe I shouldn't be doing this," she said. "Maybe I'm just not cut out to be a writer." It was like a wooden stake in my heart. And it was a good reminder to me how important it is for clients to hear about what they're doing right rather than just getting back a manuscript all marked up.
Of course I don't want to sugarcoat it or avoid constructive criticism, either. I don't think I'd be doing my clients any favors by only telling them what's working because I was afraid they couldn't handle hearing what's not working. I'd only be doing half my job, first of all; and second of all, my clients deserve more credit than that. They are adults, after all. Enough said.
I'm an editor and a teacher of writing because I believe everyone has right to be heard. We all have our stories to tell, and those stories are worth sharing and hearing. I want to help people's voices be heard, and I can best do that by providing honest feedback that acknowledges both the strengths and the gaps.
And by encouraging all writers everywhere to feel the fear and do it anyway.