Cranky Editors, Irritated Writers

Copy editors can be a cranky lot. We’re responsible for fixing, conforming, advising, querying… all in relation to so-called errors. We take something a writer has created and we change it, often according to rules that the writer didn’t request nor is aware of. We’re a middleman between the writer and the publisher, or the writer and the production manager, or the writer and the typesetter, or a combination thereof.

I would say copy editors definitely add value. Writers need not worry about house style, or formatting headings, or arcane rules of how to format bibliography entries and can simply focus on the content. On the other side, the production staff need not worry about these things either, because they have hired the copy editor to do so.

But there is another aspect of copy editing that often goes unheralded: communication. We are the “experts” in the aforementioned arcana, and we must be able to explain such things clearly and (here’s the kicker) kindly and respectfully.

Recently an author griped in a freelancers’ group on LinkedIn that she needed advice in “dealing with [a] nit-picking, unqualified editor”. Aside from the problems of blatant errors in judgment on the editor’s part, what struck me was the seemingly poor communication going on.

An example: “He doesn’t agree to any concessions and seems overly concerned with grammar and punctuation than content.” I hear this writer saying that she wants her editor to compromise, and to retain her authorial voice more than conform to style conventions. These are not unreasonable requests, and yet it appears that the editor is struggling to comply with his client’s needs.

From the reverse perspective, Carol Saller recently griped about writers who don’t listen to their editors. While she had tongue firmly planted in cheek, Saller’s complaints are obviously real: authors who neglect to read clearly written instructions, who submit massive changes at the last possible moment, or who seem to have read the editor’s instructions but then respond in unreasonably complex or difficult ways.

I’ll go back to those kicker words kindly and respectfully. I think writers and editors often feel that they are on opposing sides instead of being a team. They are interdependent, and thus would be better served working together collegially. Of course there are going to be bad apples, as my LinkedIn example shows. But I look on my editing expertise as something that should help the author, not hinder.

So, I sometimes go overboard to retain that team feeling. Respect for the author’s voice and expertise in his or her subject matter is paramount; I expect that same respect in return for my editorial expertise. Clear communication, at all stages of the process, is vital. Rather than overwhelm with technical jargon, can I just say “XYZ is part of your publisher’s style, therefore I have made ABC changes”?

Please and thank you go a long way. Thinking ahead of time what your teammate might need is a big help: neither an author nor an editor is necessarily able to respond to requests immediately, so we have to leave space in the production schedule for communication. I often work with authors who are university professors, so understanding what times of year are more hectic for academics comes in handy. When the author is my client, I make sure to ask up front how much editing he or she wants, so that we can avoid later conflicts like grammar vs. voice.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Cranky Editors, Irritated Writers

  1. On a related note, here’s a nice commentary on “normal” vs. “formal” grammar from yesterday’s Lingua Franca blog: http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/01/18/normal-and-formal/

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