Connect with me elsewhere

linkedin twitter

Latest tweets

Top 5 Tips for Editors

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting by Sally Evans-Darby on 22 April 2012

Writer + Editor = Harmony

How to stay on the right side of a writer

It’s your job as editor to improve the writer’s copy; but do it with a healthy dose of tact and respect

I’ve been meaning to write a blog for a little while on just how easy it is to get on the wrong side of the writer whose words you are editing. As editors, we tread a fine line – while we can’t be treating every piece of copy that comes our way with kid gloves, it is important to be respectful and tactful when it comes to changing what an author has written.

This week, here are my top five tips for striking up and maintaining a good relationship with the writer whose work you’re editing.

1. Understand the brief

It’s essential to get your working relationship with a writer off to a good start by making sure you completely understand what it is you’re being asked to do. Nail down the basic details of the job – when does the writer want the copy returned, what format do they want you to work in (if they want you to work in Track Changes, clarify whether they want a ‘clean’ version sent back to them as well as a marked-up version), what are the payment arrangements; but crucially, how much intervention is required.

It may be that the writer would like you just to check for spelling, grammar, and overall fluency. Or, they may be asking you to do a heavier edit requiring some sections to be moved around or rewritten. Make sure you are clear on the level of edit required before you dive in, or you could get yourself in hot water (more on this below).

2. Communication is key

As an editor, there must at all times be a clear line of communication between you and the writer. You need to talk to each other. If you have a query about the piece you’re editing or need to clarify something, don’t try to answer it yourself or ignore the issue. Flag it up with the writer and work on a solution together.

It would be going to the other extreme to call on the writer every time you have a question, so make a list of queries as you’re going along, then put these in an email/phone call clearly and succinctly at an appropriate time in the editing process (perhaps after you’ve completed your initial edit).

It’s also key to let the writer know what’s going on and what stage you’re at with the editing. Don’t leave them in the dark, wondering when they might get their copy back and what state it might be in. Within the deadline they give you, come back to them with an estimated date that you’ll be able to return the copy to them. If it looks like you might not be able to meet this estimate, let them know in advance. At all points of the process, keep them informed about what’s happening.

Also, a note about comments boxes in Word Track Changes. If you need to make a comment or query using these, make sure to keep them brief. You can always elucidate in the covering email or letter if you need to. No-one wants to spend ages squinting at a long note in a comments box trying to make out what you mean and what they need to do about it.

3. Don’t get a superiority complex

At some point on the road to becoming an editor, you will have had the realisation that you have a particular knack for language – maybe you were top of the class at school when it came to spelling, or you could come up with a catchy slogan quicker than your university peers. You will have realised you’re born to work with words and that is why you have become an editor. However, this does not mean that you have the last word when it comes to an author’s piece of writing.

It’s easy, as an editor, to start seeing yourself as an authority on words, spelling, grammar. And while you must have conviction in your knowledge of the nuances of the English language, there’s a fine line between that and becoming an insufferable know-it-all who thinks their job is to clean up after messy, incompetent writers.

Don’t let yourself get into the toxic situation where you are playing the role of the stern schoolteacher armed with a red pen, and the writer begins seeing themselves as the reprimanded pupil. No-one wants to feel like they are back at school being slapped on the wrist for forgetting that ‘accommodation’ has two m’s and two c’s.

Realise that you are not infallible. You are not perfect, and you will sometimes make mistakes. If you start from a place of humility and equality, rather than putting yourself on a pedestal, you don’t have as far to fall if you do happen to make an error of judgement. Strike the right balance – you have expertise, and you’re here to use it wisely and professionally, but don’t let that sense of power go to your head.

4. Have some tact

In fact, this is probably the most important point. Have tact in bucketloads. Apply it liberally and at all times.

You don’t have to baby an author or feel like you’re walking on eggshells every time you point out an incorrect spelling. You don’t have to be genuflecting, subservient (whatever you say, sir!), tip-toeing around the mighty author-boss. But it can’t be said enough that sensitivity and tact are key to working as an editor.

If you’re not a writer yourself, it might be more difficult to see this from the writer’s point of view. They have created something, they may well have spent months crafting and honing it, deliberating over each carefully chosen word. Now they have released it to you, the editor, to improve and polish it. Don’t send it back to them torn to shreds. A few pointers:

  • Advise, rather than instruct. Never say ‘this must be made clearer’ or ‘this section must be deleted’. Point out the problem, then suggest a solution. Suggest changes rather than telling the author to change something
  • Don’t use inflammatory statements/questions. Some inexperienced editors do this more often than you might think. Writing in the margin comments such as ‘this is not clear!’ or ‘what is this supposed to mean?’ are just going to annoy the writer
  • Avoid sarcasm at all costs. It’ll just reinforce the stereotype of editors being irascible grumps. Instead, politely explain the problem and suggest a solution.

Remember, the writer has hired you for your editorial expertise, but if they don’t like the way you work, they can always ignore your suggestions and hire a different editor.

5. Work in partnership

The relationship between you and the person whose work you are editing should be one of harmonious partnership. Granted, some editor-writer partnerships can be more harmonious than others. But the key point is that you, as the editor, are collaborating with the writer on the piece of work at hand. You are not here with your grammar guides and red pen to lay down the law. You are here to work together with a common goal: making the writer’s work ready for publication.

Don’t think of yourself and the writer as two separate entities, at opposite ends of a spectrum. Remember that editors and writers are both human, and both fallible. What you are sending by email is going to be read, digested and acted upon by another human being sitting at a desk in front of a computer just like you. It’s easy to forget that sometimes.

Next week, see things from the other camp: my top tips for writers – how to stay on the right side of an editor.