Editing Principle 05: The Medium's Mood Affects the Message

I’ve written about this before in a more abstract way but I now think it’s better to be blunter about this topic, because the thing is, it matters. A lot.

When I first started freelance editing, I was thoroughly persuaded that what worked on a printed page does not always work on a screen, or that the tone of a blog post may not "sound" right in an email. You could see that truth reflected in book sales, too. You could be a big-name op-ed columnist for the New York Times, for instance, and so your publisher would be expecting your book to sell well, but as often as not, it wouldn’t, because the tone of an op-ed is fun and bracing over the course of 750 words (a typical op-ed length) but can be exhausting, even annoying, when sustained over 75,000 words.

If the columnist couldn’t amend their style to better suit a full book-length argument, the book wouldn’t be that successful, commercially or critically.

I also had a few clients who thought that in order to sound “natural,” or to keep a casual, conversational tone in their writing, all they had to do was essentially clean-up the transcripts to their keynote speeches and publish them as is. But they were ignoring how much leverage they get from the earlier medium. You, on a stage, speaking without notes, can count on at least seeming vulnerable to your audience, and that can help you seem sympathetic. When it’s just disembodied words on a page, you have to try something else to achieve the same disarming effect. Same words, different medium = different results.

So that’s all true, still. Bearing it in mind helps editorial conversations go smoother. But now I’d take it farther and say that the medium affects the message not just when the final product is presented but much earlier in the process. The creator’s mood, mindset, and sometimes even certain philosophies of life that they entertained while making the thing can be felt, even when such matters aren’t the ostensible subject. That is to say, a reader can pick up on nervousness, neediness, arrogance, generosity, etc. on the part of a maker They can smell it. They might not be fully able to articulate their reaction to the work, or pinpoint the parts that are causing that reaction, but the reaction is real nonetheless.

So let’s say you know, as an editor, that the author you’re working with has a mindset that got in the way of the message they hoped (and still hope) to convey. What do you do?

Great question. There’s no single solution.

I’d probably start by trying to have a conversation about their beliefs about their audience. What do they believe to be true about the people who will read their work? What do they want from that audience? Do they believe they’ve a good chance of getting the outcome they hope for, or is this whole project a moon shot for them, one that psychologically at least they find somewhat uncomfortable? That’s where I’d start.