The Wordstitch blog

Editor-author relations can be like shouting at a wallAs the awed daughter and granddaughter of several teachers, I have long believed I would be unsuited to that most demanding of professions. Luckily, I stumbled on a  career that would enable me to help people who could already write rather than attempt to teach smaller people to write in the first place. Proofreading turned into copyediting and project management, and here I am.

But, now that I’m here, I’ve realised I haven’t entirely avoided the teaching profession after all. In my previous post I said a little about how editors are natural teachers and mentors. Think about it:

  1. We guide and nurture others to a better expression of ideas.
  2. We act as mediators to help authors develop the skills they need to be recognised in the big, wide, ‘grown-up’ world of publishing.
  3. We are creative problem solvers whose expertise must continually evolve to meet the challenges our clients present us with and changes in the industry.

But, if as editors we partly think of ourselves as teachers, who or what is the student? We might instinctively cast the author as the student. But, in the editor–author relationship, it’s not the author who needs correcting: it’s the manuscript. So, if the manuscript is the student, the author must be the parent.

I find this idea of the editor and author negotiating about a shared charge (the manuscript) to be a useful way of picturing my relationships with my clients. The diplomatic challenges are much the same as those faced by teachers: both parties hopefully want the best out of the ‘student’ but they may have very different agendas and different ideas of what that ‘best’ is.

I’ve found that clients broadly fall into one of three types of ‘parent’.

Type 1: the teacher’s dream

This is the ideal. Just as a supportive teacher and a nurturing parent complement each other in the process of educating and socialising a child, so can a conscientious editor and a receptive author. They jointly ‘educate’ the manuscript by ensuring it is stylistically and grammatically consistent and ‘socialise’ it by making it fit for its intended purpose and readership.

In this scenario, both parties enter the editing or proofreading process predisposed to trust and respect the skills and decisions of the other. The parent is genuinely interested in what the teacher can do for the student, and the teacher respects the parent’s worldviews and opinions about how the child should be ‘raised’.

Depending on the project, there may be very little need for actual communication (for example, if it’s a straight-forward edit). However, any communication is prompt, polite and productive.

But this ideal is not always easy to establish. Both editors and authors can be guilty of entering the relationship with barriers raised, and it can take little to turn a seemingly innocuous comment bubble into the site of a full-scale battle.

Conscientious editors can do a lot to avoid this kind of conflict, by establishing a productive and neutral foundation right from the very first email or phone call. Even if you aren’t able to pull the situation round to this ideal scenario, looking out for signs of what type of parent you’re dealing with can at least help you to avoid sabotaging the communication, help you to protect yourself from misunderstandings, and give the parent space to trust you and the editing process.

Types 2 and 3 are the more difficult types of ‘parent’ to deal with. I will give a summary of each and then some tips on how to deal with them.

Type 2: the overprotective parent

This kind of parent probably wishes they didn’t have to send their child to school at all. They believe that the teacher will either fail to teach their child properly or will somehow corrupt the child with ideas or conventions the parent believes are unnecessary or incorrect.

They defend to the death each suggested comma change and clarification of their esoteric written style. They swaddle their child in cotton wool and refuse to allow it to be disciplined it for its grammatical tantrums and obscure verbiage.

Dealing with this kind of parent/author:

  1. Look for clues as to why the author is acting in this way. It may seem like they’re simply being irrational, but they may previously have had a bad experience with an incompetent teacher or have heard about others’ bad experiences (in the same way as there is media hype about teachers, there is internet hype about bad editors). As a result, they may simply be nervous about what an unknown quantity will bring to their project.
  2. Explain why you’re an asset to the project. You don’t have to lay it on thickly, but you can do a lot by carefully communicating the benefits of what you’re doing. Subtle references to previous projects will establish your credentials and help to give the impression that your edits will be proportionate and sensible.
  3. Put the trowel down. It’s tempting to try to build walls between yourself and this kind of parent. If they continually question your decisions, it may feel like they’re interfering with your ability to do a good editing or proofreading job. To counter this, offer more information rather than less. Well-crafted, informative communication right from the start should establish a bedrock of trust that minimises the author second-guessing you as the project progresses.
  4. Use templates. The foundation of all this customised, carefully nuanced communication should be a solid set of email and style-sheet templates. Having the basics prepared in advance will allow you to spend all your time on the details that will make the author feel comfortable.
  5. Learn the art of compromise. English has very few true ‘rules’, and most publishers’ house style guides are malleable to a degree. Sometimes hopping off the bandwagon saves a lot of time without leading to any negative results for the project.
  6. Avoid jargon. Don’t assume that the author will understand abbreviations or complex grammatical terminology. If you do, you risk alienating them.
  7. Avoid being drawn into complex wrangles that will threaten the deadline and budget. Aim to answer queries and issues before they are asked, or avoid them being asked altogether by employing the trust-building tips in this list.

Type 3: the disinterested parent

What about when you find yourself in a situation in which you seem to care more about the student than the parent? When the parent seemingly doesn’t care how their progeny turns out?

This kind of parent drops their child off at boarding school and disappears on holiday or into their career, expecting to find the child perfected and socialised upon their return (or, worse, not even caring whether the child is socialised or not).

Requests to attend parent–teacher interviews go unanswered. Emails are acknowledged only after endless chasing.

Dealing with this kind of parent/author:

  1. Assess your ability to work in these restricted circumstances. There is nothing inherently wrong with going above and beyond standard proofreading or copyediting (editors, like teachers, should be able to deal with the unexpected and solve problems). But ask yourself two questions: (1) Are you qualified to do the job? Newly qualified teachers, or those working outside their specialist area, may struggle to deal with an unruly class. (2) Are you being adequately compensated for the work? If you’re doing extra fact-checking and looking up endless reference details the author should have provided, you should be compensated accordingly.
  2. State what you’re doing, even if you don’t expect a reply. It’s important to cover yourself, as you’ll likely find yourself making all sorts of decisions without authorial approval. Send summaries of all the main changes and why you’re making them, and keep copies of the tracked files. Keep the channels of communication open so the author has the opportunity to voice opinions if they wish.
  3. Watch out for trigger points. Disinterested authors have the potential to unpredictably mutate into overprotective authors. Be prepared to justify yourself if the author suddenly takes issue with a certain spelling variation or the hyphenation of noun + gerund compounds (for example). Deal with these incidents quickly and thoroughly to avoid the author becoming suspicious about the rest of your work.
  4. Learn to write awesome queries. A good query should be as succinct and clear as possible and ideally offer a solution or solutions for the author to pick from. Make your queries easy to respond to and non-threatening and you’re more likely to get a response.
  5. Appeal to a higher authority (traditional publishing). If the manuscript is in such a state that you simply cannot work on it without more input from the author, you might need to ask for the publisher to intervene with the author directly. Think of this as an appeal to a head teacher, who will likely be highly skilled in the politics of dealing with parents and will have more string-pulling power.
  6. Educate your client (non-publishers). If you’re working with a self-publisher or a business, you might not have a higher authority to appeal to. You may find it harder to explain to the author-client why you can’t do the job you were briefed to do without their input. However, to an extent this is part and parcel of the process of working with non-publishers, and you should have factored extra time into your original quote or have a contract that allows you to revisit the fee if the scope of the work changes. When educating your client about what you need from them and why, keep your explanations simple and focus on the benefits for the manuscript and the client rather than on how their replies will help you.
  7. Extreme measures. Occasionally you may find yourself with no alternative other than taking the parent aside and gently informing them that their child is an antisocial, illiterate thug who will probably never function usefully within society without extra help. I’ve never had to do this myself but I’ve come very close. There is no fixed solution in this situation, but options may include referring the author to a ghost writer or developmental editor. Ideally, you shouldn’t let the project get to this stage in the first place (your initial assessment should show whether the text is suitable for the level of editing you have been asked to provide). But sometimes it just happens.

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Just as a good teacher adapts their approach to each individual student and parent, so too must editors learn to tailor their communication to the needs of each particular client. Effective and adaptive communication is not an optional part of being an editor or proofreader. You are not a grammar-bot.

Have you encountered these types of author? How did you establish productive communication? Can you think of any other major types of author?

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2 Responses to Parent–teacher relations for editors

  1. Lauren Meyer says:

    I love this piece! As a born teacher and newly-minted copyeditor, I can definitely relate.

  2. Brilliant topic Hazel Harris.We came to know wonderful things form your blog.
    Very nice blog.

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