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How to edit the writing of people on the autism spectrum

By Mirna Wabi-Sabi

For those of us who work editing people’s writing, one of the first lessons is that each writer handles edits differently, and it’s helpful to be flexible in your approach to feedback. In my career, it has happened that someone’s writing and response to edits made me suspect they might be on the autism spectrum, but there is never a need to confirm a layman’s diagnosis, only to adapt your approach as you would with any other individual writer.

Recently, however, quite a few writers have come to me with texts about being on the spectrum, and this led me to identify some patterns and to organize some of my editing tools accordingly. This information can be helpful to those who have felt the urge to abandon a project because they may have observed these signs but interpreted them as confusion, hostility or inexperience.


Sign 1–Prolix

When a short passage is unclear, and an editor asks for an explanation, the text comes back with a few extra pages, which don’t necessarily address the issue in the first place.

Possible cause:

Extreme wordiness as a response to being asked for clarity can be a sign that the writer is insecure about their ability to make themselves understood, often even to themselves.

Tool:

In this case, there is no need to abandon the piece because it got too long and even more confusing than the first draft. Make sure you talk to the writer and agree on what the main point of the article is.

With this in mind, remove the passages, sentences or paragraphs that go off on tangents (away from the main point). As you peel off the layers, you will see there is a narrative beneath.


Sign 2–Retreat

Sometimes, as a response to an editor asking for an explanation, a writer will retreat, saying “nevermind, I don’t want to write or publish anymore.”

Possible cause:

Frustration over the challenges of trying to connect with an audience can lead any writer down a path of self-doubt mixed with annoyance. For someone on the spectrum, this feeling can be dialed up, making them want to disappear.

Tool:

Reassure the writer that this frustration is a natural response to the writing process, and that your job as an editor is to help build a bridge between their work and their audience. Then, provide examples of explanations (be as wild as you want in your suggestions). This way, you spark a brainstorming session, inspiring the writer to come up with their own explanation.


Sign 3–Diary

Some texts sound like entries of a diary. This is when a writer starts too many sentences with the word “I”, the narrative of events is too linear, and they struggle to make the leap from their experience to a slightly more universal one.

Possible cause:

The narrative style of, “I did this, then I did that. Therefore, this is what I did” can be a sign that the writer is having a hard time putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. In this case, in the shoes of the reader who might be asking themselves, “so what, why do I care?”

Tool:

Encourage the writer to avoid starting sentences/paragraphs with the word “I” or “It”. Give examples of how to do that, by making the object the subject of a sentence. Ask the question, “for a reader who does not have this specific experience, how would this apply to them?”


Sign 4–Prose

Perhaps the writing is structured in an unusual way — Extremely long paragraphs, inability to separate themes and to organize these paragraphs, or odd line breaks and punctuation.

Possible cause:

Unclear overview of the whole text and lack of structure are signs that the writing is happening as a stream of consciousness which doesn’t prioritize the reader’s understanding or access to the content. This type of writing is associated with the aforementioned Prolix and Diary Signs, and shows that the writer is attempting to clarify the content to themselves.

Tool:

The same tools used for the Prolix and Diary Signs can be used here, with the addition of openness to innovative approaches to structure. If the main point of the article is clear, being flexible to accommodate the writer’s instinctive use of structure can be helpful. Such as, prose poetry, rhythmic line breaks and so on (I, personally, would encourage academia and its professionals to be more open-minded when it comes to this).


Of course, not everyone who is prone to some of these behaviors as writers are on the spectrum. But understanding that these behaviors can be approached in an efficient way is helpful to everyone. Communication skills are something we all have to learn, and often struggle with.

1 Comment


KaEL
KaEL
Aug 29, 2023

I recall being upset about some feedback received when starting a Master's (as a mature student in my fifties). My problem, really, was working on the text for so long that I remembered the parts I'd already edited out. So I glossed over the gaps in the text because, to me, they were 'psychically' still there.


That's one aspect of my unique brain lol. Remembering to stand in the reader's shoes is important. Make as if you are reading for the first time. (just like your editor is, in fact.) An excellent tip I had from a mentor was to read the text out loud. Any part where you stumble or run out of breath, or the text sounds clunky, that's…

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