When editorial project managers expect too much

Last updated 1 June 2023

I recently received a thought-provoking comment from a fellow freelance editorial professional who has been working alongside me on a project I’ve been managing. The projects I manage are often very large (hundreds of thousands or even millions of words), and there are inevitably hiccups that arise and have to be resolved. So I found it interesting when the other editor commented that I am more understanding than some other editorial project managers about these kinds of hiccups.

My first reaction, I’ll admit, was an irrational sense of worry: Am I a soft touch? Am I checking editors’ work thoroughly enough? Am I setting high enough standards?

It’s always good to self-evaluate when such questions arise, and there will always be things I can learn about my management of other editors’ work. However, a short bout of reflection and a thorough check of the text re-confirmed that I set high standards and ensure they are met. I was confident that there were no issues lurking.

But this got me wondering: in what ways might editorial project managers expect too much of the suppliers they work with – or even of themselves? Those suppliers might be copyeditors, proofreaders, indexers, typesetters, or anybody else involved in the production of a text-based product.

Here are some ideas about how editorial project managers sometimes expect too much – and how I try to avoid this in the projects I manage.

A man sitting at a desk and shouting into an old-fashioned dial telephone.
Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Expecting to sit back and watch the magic happen

As a project manager, I have to be an active part of the process. Before I send files out to a supplier (usually a freelancer), it’s my responsibility to check them over, familiarise myself with any issues, solve the ones I can, and make a structured plan for how the rest will be handled. I also need to provide a thorough brief. Then, while the supplier is doing their work, I have to be on hand to answer questions, liaise with the authorial team where necessary, and confer across the project team. My role is to provide direction, certainly, but it is also to facilitate and complement the work of the supplier.

The best results are realised when the roles and stages of a project are carefully joined up and everyone is doing their appropriate bit.

Expecting miracles

When work is returned, it has to be assessed in the context of the project as a whole. If the project has been tricky in some way (e.g. a very tight deadline, manuscripts in a particularly poor state, or authors who were unable or unwilling to thoroughly answer queries) then it’s unrealistic to expect perfection. (In fact, while many editors aim for perfection, it’s unrealistic to expect it in any circumstances; Adrienne Montgomerie reports standard error rates in publishing of between 5 and 20%.)

The fact that I often partially copyedit the projects I manage gives me some helpful perspective here, as I’m generally checking my own work alongside that of other editors. Inevitably, I will find sporadic imperfections in my work – I’d be inhuman if I managed to edit, say, 500,000 words with zero errors. So I have a good understanding (and in fact expectation) that I will occasionally find errors in others’ work too.

I’m also aware that, if my expectations don’t reference reality and if I don’t make plans to deal with shortfalls, then it’s likely I’ll be setting the project up for gaps and failures further down the line. This increases the risk that the final product will be of a suboptimal quality.

Pie-in-the-sky expectations introduce risk into a project. Project managers should be reducing risk, not introducing it.

Expecting to know everything

It’s tempting as a project manager to feel the need to be seen as the oracle of all things. However, personally, I prefer to try to be the facilitator of all things. First and foremost, it’s my job to facilitate my client’s goals for their project, and that also involves facilitating the ability of suppliers to contribute to that project. This frequently involves asking questions and putting suppliers in the driving seat. It means trusting experts to know what is appropriate in a given situation and how quickly it can be done.

This is also relevant when it’s discovered that a supplier may have made a serious mistake or omission. I might not have all of the facts, so asking questions before jumping up and down on errors is vital.

Effectively managing a project involves asking as many questions as you answer.

For me, the big theme here is risk: risk that the project will not be delivered on time, risk that its quality will not be up to scratch, risk that a key detail will be missed, risk that a key stakeholder will be unhappy with a process or outcome, and so on and so on. Asking questions, setting appropriate and realistic expectations, and taking an active part by anticipating and managing a project’s issues are key ways I aim to mitigate the risks that will inevitably arise in text-based projects of all sizes.

About Hazel Bird

Hazel delivers editorial services that empower non-profits, charities, businesses and authors to confidently share their expertise and impact. An editor since 2009, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.

1 Comment

  1. Samson Akindoyo on 11 December 2019 at 12:43

    As an Editorial Project Manager, I’ve learnt a lot from this post. It gives me some helpful hints, not only on the handling of text-based projects with their complexities but also on the management of publishing stakeholders, especially writers who could be so dynamic, fastidious and unpredictable.

    Thank you so much, Hazel. Keep it up.

    Sam Akindoyo

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