Making trouble: using expert editorial judgement to hunt down issues

‘Don’t make trouble’ is an edict that we often hear as children. Making trouble means being difficult. It raises unnecessary issues. It causes aggravation. It wastes time and thereby costs money.

The idea of making trouble also goes against a core principle that proofreaders and copyeditors learn early on: if something’s good enough, don’t change it (sometimes phrased as ‘leave well enough alone’).

But what if making trouble is just what an editorial project needs? What if you’re specifically briefed by your client to ‘make trouble’?

A tangle of string symbolising the idea of making trouble for a client
Making trouble might feel like you’re creating a tangle for your client
Photo by Kier In Sight on Unsplash

What does making trouble mean?

I first came across this phrase a few years back in a client’s documentation. It made me smile because of its elegance in communicating both technically and psychologically what the client wanted of its editors. Specifically, as I understand it:

  • From a technical point of view, the client wanted its editors to be rigorous, holding the text to a high standard in terms of sense and accuracy.
  • From a psychological point of view, the client was giving its editors licence to step over an invisible boundary and deliberately make things difficult (where justified) for both the author and the client themselves.

A similar concept, quoted by Michael Faulkner, a fellow Wise Owl of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, is embodied in the phrase ‘elegant scepticism’. Michael describes this as his client asking him to ‘look sideways at everything’ but not go ‘blundering in unnecessarily’.

Clients might use a variety of language to communicate this requirement to editors. Some will simply call it ‘heavy editing’. Others might assume that ‘line editing’ involves picking apart sentences in exhaustive detail. Still others might ask you to ‘query freely’.

As with all things relating to negotiations with clients, the key is to discuss the matter carefully. Precisely because editorial work is so open ended, the potential for miscommunication is substantial, so it’s vital to ensure a shared understanding of what is required.

Why make trouble?

A client might have a variety of reasons for asking you to make trouble in their manuscript. For example, they might have concerns in one or more of the following areas:

  • Process: has the project had a difficult or fragmented history? If personnel or processes have changed during the project’s development, there might be a need for extra-stringent checks.
  • Audience: what are the plans for publication? If the intended audience is especially large or the publication will have a high profile or significant commercial value, the quality expectation will naturally be of the highest level.
  • Accuracy: are the author’s statements correct? Have they inadvertently misrepresented an issue? This is essentially a high level of fact-checking, and it’s important to ensure you have the necessary level of subject expertise (or just a good sense for funky facts).
  • Sensitivity: have potentially sensitive cultural topics been presented appropriately? Sarah Lustig explains the benefits of a sensitivity read on her blog.
  • Consistency: has the author used different words for the same concept? Is the tone consistent with the rest of the publication or any brand guidelines? Even the most accurate manuscript can be rendered confusing or jarring where consistency is lacking.
  • Flow: are the concepts in the most helpful order? Does the reader have all the information they need to track through the text logically?
  • Completeness: are major topics covered too hastily? Might the text be enhanced by a few sidebars or new figures?
  • Legalities: is there a suspicion that the author has plagiarised a published text? Might the manuscript contain libellous statements? Editors don’t need to be legal experts, but they are often able to flag when something doesn’t seem quite right.
  • Referencing: has the author given proper credit for all the opinions and quotations they include? Have they represented their sources faithfully?

Even the most diligent and conscientious of authors can slip up in these areas from time to time. A trained editor can flag potential areas of concern before they make it out into the world and become major embarrassments.

How to make trouble

Once I’ve established with a client that they’d like me to make trouble – however they word and conceptualise this – I aim to keep in mind six key principles:

  1. Be respectful: I’m making trouble in the text, not with the person who will be dealing with my comments (whether the author or the publisher).
  2. Be clear: the trickier the issue, the more clearly it needs to be described.
  3. Be solution-focused: if I can see a potential solution (or options for solutions), I always propose them in my comments. This helps to communicate my concern and also shows that I’m working in partnership with the author, not just gleefully pointing out mistakes.
  4. Be empathetic: when I’m proposing those solutions, I always keep the author’s (and/or publisher’s) intentions, voice and brand in mind. I certainly shouldn’t be trying to remake the text to my own tastes.
  5. Be self-critical: similarly, an invitation to make trouble is not an invitation to impose my own bugbears and preconceptions on a text. I try to keep in mind whether I could justify every suggestion to a parliament of my editing peers if called to do so.
  6. Be gracious: it’s not my text. If the author or publisher later reject any of my suggestions, it’s their prerogative to do so. If I have a strong view on a particular case, I might politely reiterate my professional recommendation and clarify the benefits (as I see them) of the proposed change (or a version of it). But ultimately it’s their baby and their call.

Bear in mind too that this kind of editing takes time. You might need to research issues, think through potential solutions and craft longer-than-usual queries. This time should naturally be reflected in your quote.

When not to make trouble (or limit the trouble you make)

The clients I work with tend to value in-depth editing, so they generally welcome my troublemaking skills. I also tend to work on texts relatively early on in the process, so there is usually time and scope to collaboratively assess the findings and agree a way forward.

In some cases, though, clients are less likely to welcome trouble. Time, cost and process limitations may drastically inhibit the possibilities for fixing any issues. For example, if a text has already been developmentally edited, copyedited and typeset, a client is unlikely to be receptive to the idea of adding new diagrams as this would mean repeating earlier stages. Alternatively, the text might already have been approved by some on-high body in its current form. Or the publisher might have an agreement with the author that limits the extent of the changes that are allowed.

However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t raise concerns if they are serious (e.g. if they might have legal or reputational implications for the client). Even if I haven’t been briefed to make trouble (or have even specifically been asked to use a light touch), I will still always tell the client if I spot anything that might have legal or reputational implications. Then it’s up to the client what to do about it – and it becomes even more important for me to suggest solutions for them to consider.

Making trouble wisely and in context

Clearly, it would be professionally irresponsible to head into every job with the aim of making trouble. Adopt this approach without invitation and you’ll likely be dropped from a client’s list of freelancers without ceremony.

But I’d argue that tactfully and judiciously making trouble is a key skill of an experienced editorial professional. Doing so not only helps to eliminate potentially costly and embarrassing errors but also helps a text’s unique message to sparkle for its intended audience.

About Hazel Bird

Hazel is an editorial project manager, copyeditor and proofreader who works with businesses, charities, publishers, academics and students to make their projects happen. She was once described as ’superhuman’ and is still wondering whether this is a good thing.

2 Comments

  1. Sally Asnicar on April 23, 2022 at 4:31 am

    Love this article, Hazel. The ‘sideways look’ made me smile, as this is precisely the type of glance that can make anyone shake in their shoes, wondering what will follow. There’s a certain feeling of anticipation (I won’t say dread) for both client and editor when they work together for the first time. Rather like that first date; you wonder if the relationship will work or you’ll be a mismatch.

    • Hazel Bird on April 23, 2022 at 8:19 am

      Absolutely, Sally. Finding the right fit is so important, and part of that is working out whether your idea of ‘trouble’ matches the client’s. So pleased you enjoyed the article!

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