10 Tips to Build a Healthy Editor–Author Relationship

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A man and a woman sitting down, smiling while looking at a notebook.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-man-and-a-woman-working-together-6592404/

Good grief. That client was the WORST. I need a drink or two or twelve…

…is probably not something you’d want an editor to say after working with you.

Editors and proofreaders share their time, expertise, and passion with you and your book. We’re thrilled to be part of your journey; we woop, cheer, and get giddy with pride when our authors’ books hit the shelves. It’s why we do what we do.

We don’t want to be treated like a temporary throwaway employee (who would?). We want to be seen as a valued partner (as I’m sure so do you).

A healthy editor–author relationship means you’ll get the editor’s best work. It means you’ll have someone who’s familiar with your writing eager to work on your next projects. It means they’ll be comfortable referring you to other book-related service providers, confident in the knowledge you won’t make their lives hell.

This post’s all about getting – and keeping – you on good terms with your editor, ensuring the process is as painless and roadblock-free as possible.

Trust them

Prising your story out of your white-knuckled grip to pass it over to an editor is a monumental act of trust, a leap of faith. And while the common myth says editors are out there to hack ‘n’ slash your manuscript, it’s just not true (that goes for the good ones, anyway). They’re there to nurture your book and make its best qualities shine. They’re collaborators, not examiners.

Asking questions is fine, expected even. But try not to question every decision they make. Trust their expertise and commitment. A friend says there are errors remaining? If they aren’t a professional, they’re likely mistaking that ‘error’ for style choice or a non-rule. Vetting your editors and whittling them to just one is a time-consuming process. One that makes that editor feel honoured to have earned your trust. Don’t ruin that by doubting their every move.

Be responsive

Sometimes an editor may need to ask an urgent question that needs resolving. Don’t make them wait! Whatever communication method you agreed upon, check it regularly.

Solid communication is always appreciated. Have a change in circumstance? communicate. Need clarification on something? Communicate. Going away and can’t respond for a week? You’ve guessed it. Responding timely not only helps them help you and your book, but it also shows respect for their time and commitment for the project.

Don't introduce scope creep

This is a biggie. Once you’ve agreed to terms on the project, such as the timescale and level of intervention, stick to them. Asking them to do extra at no charge is called ‘scope creep’.

There’s nothing wrong with initially paying for a copyedit but then deciding you’d prefer a line edit to address stylistic issues or asking a proofreader to rephrase awkward sentences if needed (veering into proof-editing territory). Just be prepared to negotiate a new fee if it’s something they’re willing to do. (Of course, the sooner you decide this the better.)

Not all editors are confident enough to have those awkward conversations that address scope creep and may just bite the bullet, grind their teeth, and do the extra work anyway because they fear they’ll lose out on you as a client – cue extra stress and worry at reaching deadlines with more heaped on their plate. An editor under stress and discomfort is one that can’t do their best work, so don’t be the cause of that situation.

Make sure you're ready

Make sure you’ve done all you can with the manuscript before handing it over. Self-edit and revise ruthlessly, run it through your favourite editing tools and spellcheckers (with utmost caution), and ensure you’re as happy as you can be with the version you send.

‘I’ve made some amendments, please merge this into the version you’ve already spent days working on’ – a groan-inducing sentence to read. Receiving swaths of added material doesn’t just mean they’ll have to check all of that’s fine and dandy, but they’ll also need to check it doesn’t introduce inconsistencies with the current material.

Don't switch tools

Received your book with Word’s Tracked Changes and your editor plans to check your amendments? Don’t use a separate program/document to make those changes. Keep it in Word (or whatever original system you’ve both agreed to). Keep it simple. Avoid headaches.

While editors constantly complain about Word’s issues and laugh at some of its ludicrous suggestions, it’s still the industry standard for good reason: with macros, abundant add-ins, wildcard searches, it’s a powerhouse. Other writing software doesn’t light a candle to the editing muscle Word boasts.

Regardless what software your editor prefers, don’t try to force them to work outside what they’re used to using; editing is meticulous, straining work without the added mental gymnastics of learning a new program. That, and it’ll be harder to keep tabs on version history and making sure all changes are in place, especially if the editor delivers work in segments. An editor may be flexible and willing to learn an unfamiliar program, but they deserve to be compensated for that extra time.

Don't be a boss

Freelance editors and proofreaders are exactly that: freelancers. Meaning they work how they want and when they want – it’s their business! They have no obligation to work with you, nor do you have an obligation to give them work.

Part and parcel of freelancing is the freedom it allows, so they shouldn’t be bossed around. Their only constraints should come from what’s spelled out in the contract.

The urge to micromanage your editor may come from a lack of trust or being too overprotective of your work. But trust in their skill to handle your book with care.

Don’t demand, collaborate.

Freelance editors and proofreaders are exactly that: freelancers. Meaning they work how they want and when they want – it’s their business!

Don't take edits personally

You’ve poured your soul into your book, toiling away at it into the dark hours night after night. For many, their writing is an extension of themselves, and you may feel the same. So it’s easy to take an editor’s comments as a personal afront.

But remember: the editor’s goal is not to destroy your voice and bend it to theirs, but to ignite your writing, to make it shine, to tease out its potential. They want it to still sound like you.

Misplaced commas, misused words, mistaken meanings – they’ve seen it all, and don’t judge you for it. They expect them (and knowing they’ve helped you gives them satisfaction). Comments aren’t acts of criticism.

Don't expect perfection

Errors slip through the cracks – an inescapable fact. This doesn’t mean you’ve been dealt a bad editor or proofreader.

It does mean they’re human. And a study has shown a 95% catch rate is the best humanly possible. The closer an editor gets to that score depends on:

  • training
  • experience
  • levels of fatigue, concentration etc

If you’re going to focus on a metric, let it be not how many errors were missed, but how many escaped print. Much of writing is subjective, and perfection is an illusion.

Have a little patience

Reading speed for proofreaders/editors is far slower than pleasure reading. Here’s a snippet from the CIEP guide Pricing a Project:

In normal circumstances – that is, when presented with words
in a standard format such as the page of a book or a website –
university-educated adults who are considered to be good readers
‘usually move along at about 200 to 400 words per minute’.

Editorial work, however, is not ‘normal’ reading, and will usually
be at the slower end of typical human reading speed. In addition,
editorial workers do not just take in text: they act upon it in various
ways, and also spend time thinking about the possible options for
changing it, or looking in reference resources to check usage and
style preferences.

This means work takes a while! Also, many of us work part- or full-time jobs alongside our own business. Please don’t expect lightning-quick turnarounds (and be wary of those that offer something ludicrous like 24 hours for an 80k-word novel).

Editing and proofreading is laborious, straining work. This means most editors can dish out around five hours of billable work a day before brains turn to mush. Working for too long affects efficiency and accuracy – so we avoid it!

As business owners, we also need to fit in everything that entails: marketing, CPD, admin, and so on.

Be kind

This goes without saying, but say it I shall: every interaction can be improved with a show of kindness. It costs nothing.

Editors are often introverted, empathetic, and sensitive people-pleasers. The role demands it; staying on the editing side of the line and not veering off into rewriting your book is a balancing act. As such, editors deliberate more than they’d care to admit over whether they should make this change or whether that comment is put in the kindest way possible.

Even better than simply avoiding rudeness, pay them a compliment or two. Editors are unsung heroes, working cloaked ninjalike behind the scenes. Most, if not all, of the recognition of their hard work comes from their clients. Readers don’t put down a book and say ‘Blimey, that was one well-edited book’.

If they remember you as a rude author, you can bet they won’t accept your next project with wide, open arms, if at all.

Spread the joy.

Every interaction can be improved with a show of kindness. It costs nothing.

Final thoughts…

There are two main reasons why an editor turns down or discontinues a project. One is the project itself. Perhaps, after evaluating the manuscript, they don’t support ideas expressed in it and want no part in promoting it. Or they feel their skills aren’t the best fit for what’s needed for the manuscript, or maybe they believe it needs a different level of edit entirely.

The other is the client. A strain on the editor–author relationship can quickly sour when they’ve had enough of their client’s attitude, or if the client frequently ignores instructions, or if something just feels off.

Both are valid.

Freelance editors are free to choose who they do business with, and they’ve the right to protect their mental health – as do you.

Most of the things to do (or not do) in this post comes down to simply being respectful of an editor’s time and expertise, yet others you may simply be unaware of, and that’s okay! May this post help you hit it off with your editor and avoid being the subject of a much-needed rant.

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Tracy Buenk
Tracy Buenk
1 month ago

Excellent points, Matt. Respect, patience and kindness can make all the difference to the author-editor relationship.