Collaborative Empathic Editing: What It Is and Isn’t by Rusti Lehay

Collaborative Empathic Editing: What It Is and Isn’t by Rusti Lehay

The traditional approach to editing is for the editors to take the whole manuscript off by themselves, mark it all up, and make changes without any back-and-forth conversation. As I strive to connect with the author’s voice empathically, I’m careful to honour the author’s intent, narrative style, and flow.

Editing without the author can sometimes bypass or interfere with the author's voice. Authors retain their artistic copyright with the collaborative immersion approach I have been using since 2014. This way, any in-depth suggestions for changes are discussed.

If I suggest a change that the author does not feel is a fit, we then engage in a conversation factoring in the author’s strategic objectives. Also, we explore what they want to say to the reader. Another tool to reach a consensus is to ask what they want the reader to hear.

Together, we keep in mind that the reader is the real boss, not the
editor or the writer.

How do I empower authors to structure their books effectively, and how do they organize their ideas in both fiction and non-fiction manuscripts?

Trusting the first draft is always my first direction. If it is meant to come out and you create the space to let it flow, it will arrive, often surprising the writer. Follow their hearts and be instinctive. If the author has dived into their passion, they will most likely find and submerge themselves in that mysterious state called "flow".

Listen to anything online with Stephen Kottler speaking to learn more about the flow effect. With fiction, there is more leeway regarding how to structure your book.


How to Structure Your Book

You can have the plot flow back and forth sequentially, give chapters to different characters that come together in the end, or start from the future and work your way around to link up the beginning.

As long as you drop enough sticky bits at each chapter or section end to hook the readers’ attention and fill in the gaps you purposely leave to maintain curiosity, you can do just about anything. It is good to complete one mini-mystery in the plot as you progress and plant fresh ones.

Regarding memoirs, there are as many different ways to structure them as the people who write their stories. Quite often, people will structure their books in a linear style. You can utilize all the tools and structures listed above for fiction authors.

A few ideas are to leapfrog through the years by a common number. Or pick a theme like family weddings or the dresses you wore, friends you had through the years, what Sunday dinners were like, or the things you’ve learned on a specific topic or at regular intervals.

Using the “sticky bits” at the end of sections is also essential to keep your audience reading. It can be as simple as, “In the next chapter, readers will learn the most valuable step of the process…” Many of the fiction and poetic tools can be applied to non-fiction.

Metaphoric writing is a superb teaching tool that enhances reader retention of the information and makes what might be dry material engaging, thought-provoking, and captivating. For an example of non-fiction page-turners, look at authors Gabor Maté or Dean Copeland.


The best editors help writers balance preserving their unique voice while addressing areas that need improvement, such as plot development or factual accuracy.

Working as a collaborative, empathic editor and a ghostwriter, I start with everything that works well, then ask questions to inspire the author to view it from the reader’s perspective. Any feedback I offer is always delivered as suggestions, not as a must-do, which can set us both up for a power struggle where no one wins, least of all the reader.

After calling attention to everything that works well, addressing areas that may improve with slight changes seems more natural. Authors come to editors because, deep down, we all know a piece of writing can constantly be revised and that all writers need a keen editorial eye.

Working empathically with only one author in their specific genre at a time allows me to engage with their use of language, the tone they convey, and the way they create descriptions or explanations. These combined make an author’s voice unique; once I am in the flow of these aspects of personal authorial voice, I can better preserve them while suggesting changes to sections of text that can benefit from improvement.

Any suggestions for improvement are solely to strengthen the work. Sometimes, this requires structural editing, moving text around, and plot development for congruency and consistency. Again, any ideas for revision are discussed with the author from a foundation of tact and sensitivity.

It takes an enormous effort to write a complete book, and this accomplishment, while not for the faint-hearted, must always be kept front and centre in an editor’s mind. We didn’t sweat over it, lose sleep, or neglect other aspects of life to put each of those words down to create the book.

An editor’s role is to walk that fine line, preserving a writer's unique voice and addressing areas that can benefit from revision. The editor/author collaboration aims to make a more robust and polished final product.


Common mistakes or challenges writers face when trying to polish their manuscripts and some strategies to overcome these hurdles when refining their work.

Heather Robertson, a writer I admire, said writers are only as good as their editors and vice versa. We all need editors, and before an author hires one, I suggest finding friendly readers in your friend and family circle or training a friendly reader. I elucidate that latter point in my talk, “The Four Things Every Writer Needs.” 

Even the thought of showing your manuscript to someone will flip a switch in your brain, and you will likely be invigorated to set aside time to revise and edit your work. This crucial stage is often missed when writers are in a rush or set unrealistic deadlines for themselves. While reviewing your work can be challenging, even for those with writing experience, setting your manuscript aside for five days and celebrating your accomplishments is a wise thing to do before digging in to find those grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors that will jump out at you after a break.

Another risk is loving your little darlings and becoming too attached to them. Paraphrasing Natalie Goldberg, author of several fantastic books on writing, who says, “We must be willing to kill our darlings.”

Many authors swear by the tool of reading their work aloud. You will quickly become aware of awkward phrasing, run-on sentences, and word favouritism (every author has their overused words or turns of phrases). These issues become readily apparent when reading aloud. Even more so if you have a friend read your work aloud. They can offer valuable feedback from an outsider's point of view.

One final tip: Though I have many more that arise in face-to-face meetings unique to each author, it is crucial to be amenable to make changes and try revisions based on the feedback you receive.

Sometimes, while feedback may feel like criticism, do your best to remember people who care enough to risk offering feedback are working with you to enhance your ability to create the best possible manuscript. Almost all revisions you can make at this point to raise the quality of your writing will only increase your potential success on your publishing journey. You will know you need a break, an editor, or when you are possibly done, when your energy wanes. If you still don’t feel a charge after a break, it is ready for the next phase.

Some key considerations to keep in mind to ensure your work stands out in a competitive distribution world when you are in the publishing
marketing phase.

To reach the marketing stage, the real work begins. I have curated successful self-published authors to speak at conferences when I was on organizing committees, and they are geniuses at marketing. This stage takes some consistent effort and thinking outside of the box.

I adore arriving at this stage with my authors and am often told I should teach courses on this aspect. When you jump from the editing to the publishing phase, hang on for the ride.

The market is competitive, and with some concerted effort, you can keep your book front and centre with contests, periodic sales, and delivering short excerpts on SubStack and similar programs. This is the time to be creatively strategic to reap an ROI.

Ask local papers if they have a lit section to do a review, have SM influencers on
GoodReads review it on their accounts, and consider investing in a book trailer. Book trailers communicate the feel of the book and can create a buzz of excitement and interest.

Another small but not insignificant investment you can make is NetGalley, which will preview your book to their list of signed pre-readers who can help create a buzz before you launch your book.

Use social media as much as possible, enlist your friends and readers to make posts, and keep your target audience in mind to leverage the platforms they hang out on to influence their purchasing decisions.

Do all of this or even ninety percent, and you can gain a competitive edge in the market and see that readers enjoy your book.



Rusti L Lehay, a global editor and book and writing coach, created over 40 articles guiding writers to authordom. Witnessing writers find and speak in their unique voice to serve the real boss, the audience, not the editor, is one of Rusti’s greatest joys. She offers bi-monthly online writing STAY-Treats and monthly lounges and teaches weekly creative writing classes. Her primary mission is to inspire, provide value, and make writing fun and easy.


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