The Wordstitch blog

PerfectIn a recent post I said that copy-editors and proofreaders should always ask, ask, ask if they find their client’s instructions unclear or aren’t sure what’s wanted. In this impromptu post I’d like to expand on that a little.

When editorial project managers (PMs) write briefs, they try to make them perfect. They really do. They endeavour to make them complete, unambiguous and as concise as possible.

But the reality is that they will make mistakes. Especially with more complex, bespoke books.

I recently wrote a detailed twenty-one-page brief for the copy-editors of an encyclopaedia. I started the brief almost from scratch as I was in the midst of a major overhaul of my paperwork, and inevitably the brief contained some inconsistencies, typos and ambiguities. It would be crazy if it hadn’t; after all, the very premise we editors and proofreaders build our livelihoods on is that no human being – whether publisher, author or indeed professional copy-editor or proofreader – is capable of editing their own work with a clear eye. We cannot see our own errors because we see what we think we typed, not what we actually typed.

However, my two excellent copy-editors carefully worked their way through the brief before they got stuck into the manuscript, internalising the 95 per cent of it that made sense and sending me queries on the 5 per cent where I’d come unstuck. Result: all-round clarity such that the text will be consistently edited, necessitating fewer corrections at proof stage than there might have been if the ambiguities had remained unaddressed. Plus, my template brief has been honed for future use.

In another example, a shorter book, a single minor ambiguity was not queried by the copy-editor, leading to difficult choices having to be made in an already tight schedule. A five-minute query + reply could have saved hours of reworking.

Knock them off their perch

Many PMs may like to give out the impression they are infallible. As copy-editors and proofreaders, we do a certain amount of that too. It’s a valid part of being a professional: nobody trusts an editor who prevaricates about the nuts and bolts of their trade. But we’re human too: we leave typos in emails, we occasionally fail to explain things clearly enough to authors. And, most, importantly, if we are infallible, we have an infallible sense of when we might be wrong, might have made a mistake or might not know the whole answer to a problem. Project managers should be the same.

If they’re not, knock them off their perch (politely!). Traditional thinking would say that this is risky: I’ve often picked up on a lingering attitude – even fear – that challenging PMs irritates them and risks them not engaging your services again. But be more charitable: faced with a genuine ambiguity in the instructions they’ve written, most PMs aren’t anything like that egotistical (and do you really want to be working with one who is?). Even if you do currently feel stuck working for clients who refuse to admit their fallibility, what you should fear most is misinterpreting the brief (making assumptions, not judgements) and either doing unwanted work or leaving undone what the PM wanted done.

In my copy-editing and proofreading work, I can’t recall ever asking a valid question of a PM and receiving a frosty response, so let’s squash this myth of unapproachable infallibility and allow PMs to be human.

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What are your experiences with querying project managers? Do you think PMs benefit from or lose out from the myth of their infallibility? Do you even agree that such a myth exists?

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