An American Editor

June 17, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners

We recently edited a new book that was badly written. Not only was it badly written, but we were financially and time-wise constrained. So, as we typically do, we do the best we can within the limitations imposed.

The usual process is for us to receive a manuscript that an author has already gone through a few times and often has had crowd-editing by friends and colleagues. In addition, it has received whatever developmental editing it will receive. We are hired to copyedit the manuscript. (For a discussion of the difference between copyediting and developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) After we have copyedited the manuscript, it goes back to the author to approve or reject any changes we have made, to answer/address any author queries we have inserted, and to give it yet another read in case we missed something.

This last step is important. Like authors, we editors are human and we make mistakes and we do miss things that seem very obvious. In this particular editing job, the editor missed a very obvious error. The author had written “Jack and Jill is a married couple” and the editor failed to change the is to are. Out of more than 100 changes the editor made to this particular chapter, the editor missed this change, but that was enough. The author latched onto this error and wrote: “I suggest you review the edited pages I sent in and develop a list for you to use when speaking with the editor of this project.  As I am not compensated to help you do your job, I will offer the most blatant example and then let you do your due diligence on your end.”

This author ignored the commandment: Thou shall treat the editor as a partner, not as an adversary.

I looked at the “edited” pages the author had returned and found only one change the author had made (added a description), which was clearly not a change because of an editing error. Aside from that one change and a comment that praised a rewording done by the editor, the author noted no other “errors.” So I went through the particular chapter and a couple of others to see if I could figure out what the author’s complaint was, but I couldn’t find anything.

The author failed to treat the editor as a partner; instead, the editor was treated as an adversary. First, by not listing or identifying what the author perceived as errors. It is difficult to address unidentified “errors.” Second, the author made a general, broad-brush complaint. This is not helpful to anyone. The author failed to understand that the editing of his book is a collaborative process between the editor and the author, not an adversarial process. The professional editors I know are willing to correct errors they have made, but they are not willing to keep reediting a manuscript simply because an author proclaims dissatisfaction.

The third error this author (and many authors) make is refusing to understand and accept the parameters of the editing process for which the editor was hired. For example, this author also complained about the layout (not an editor’s job at all) and about the failure of the copyeditor to provide both a copyedit and a developmental edit.

The fourth and most important error the author made is to believe that to point out errors is doing the editor’s job and that the author has no role in doing so because the author is “uncompensated.” The author is the one who has everything at stake, not the editor. The book will be published in the author’s name, not the editor’s name. Any error that remains will be attributable to the author, not to the anonymous editor. As the largest stakeholder in the final manuscript, the author does have a responsibility to identify perceived errors.

I find it troubling that an author would look at 100 errors, find 99 of them corrected, but ignore the 99 and rant about the one that was missed (the author should point out the error, but not go on a rant about the editing). I also find it troubling that an author willingly ignores the sorry state of the delivered manuscript and the time and financial constraints under which the editor is working, and focuses on the one error, which error was introduced by the author.

Authors need to look at the manuscript broadly and not focus on one or two errors that slip past the editor. Authors need to remember that editors are human and suffer from the same problem as do authors: they sometimes see what they expect to see. We are not immune just because we are editors. Authors also need to recognize that the editor could have as easily caught the error about which the author is now complaining, but missed one of the other 99 errors.

Authors need to recognize that the editorial process is a collaborative process. If an author is reviewing an edited manuscript, the author should at least point out the missed error. The author could also correct it.

In the instant case, the author was uninterested in the constraints under which the editor worked. When publishers and authors demand a short editing schedule, they have to expect errors to remain. Something has to give to meet the schedule; the most obvious thing to give is second passes. This is especially true when the client demands that material be submitted in batches.

As many of us have experienced, publishers and authors are also putting pressure on pricing. For many authors and publishers, the paramount consideration is price followed by meeting a short schedule. Quality takes a backseat to those requirements. Low price and fast schedule cannot equate to a perfect edit. A perfect edit takes time.

Authors do have responsibilities when it comes to their manuscript. To think otherwise is to end in the publication of a poorly prepared manuscript. Authors need to think of editors as their partners, not as their adversaries. Authors also need to get away from the false demarcations of who is responsible for what when it comes to their manuscripts.

Thus the commandment for authors: Thou shall treat your editor as a partner, not as an adversary!


  1. “As many of us have experienced, publishers and authors are also putting pressure on pricing. For many authors and publishers, the paramount consideration is price followed by meeting a short schedule. Quality takes a backseat to those requirements. Low price and fast schedule cannot equate to a perfect edit. A perfect edit takes time.”

    I was taught this early in my career as you can have it fast, cheap, good: pick any 2 of these 3.

    Well written, Rich.


    Comment by Mary — June 17, 2013 @ 8:15 am

  2. This is a good description of the client no one wants.

    I find it much harder to edit a badly written book, because I know I’m going to miss something. In one case, the author kept switching between past and present tense and between first person and third person point of view, so I missed a couple of obvious errors in that passage simply because I was focusing on tense and POV and that particular sentence happened to use the correct tense and POV. The wrong word, but the tense and POV were correct. I caught the error when I did the proofreading (actually a light copyedit) a couple of months later, after the author had made the changes from the first stage of editing.

    Perhaps that’s another misconception your author had: that the book only needed one round of editing. If you, as the editor, made/suggested 100 changes in a chapter, it’s likely the book needed another round of editing after the changes were made. It will certainly need to have two or three proofreaders, any of whom would have picked up this error.


    Comment by Iola — June 17, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

  3. Great piece. I have beaten myself up in the past for missing one item, worrying about how many other things I might have missed. I was also in a situation where the author wanted me to send the edited manuscript in batches.


    Comment by Jan Arzooman — June 18, 2013 @ 6:41 am

  4. The situation Rich describes here is far too common. But I can understand why many authors feel adversarial: (1) they’re *paying* us for the privilege of this “partnership,” (2) it’s their name on the cover, ready to take sole credit or blame for the writing within, (3) they don’t have a clue what editing entails, and (4) some editors are aloof, selling themselves as all-knowing experts, above questioning.

    As the paid professionals, it’s up to us to explain our role and the scope of our services, establish realistic expectations, and foster constructive, transparent, ongoing communication with the client.

    Another facet of the problem: if you accept work from clients who expect you to work cheap, then you’ll be less likely to take the time to explain your edits, either in a cover letter or by annotating the edits themselves. In my experience, as soon as you assume the client will understand the (unstated) rationale for an edit, you’re doomed. Case in point; most writers have pet words or turns of phrase they overuse. A good editor will replace or delete these. If you don’t explain *why*, however, you’ve probably just hurt their pride and fired the first salvo in an unnecessary argument.


    Comment by Will Harmon — June 18, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  5. As a writer, it is always difficult to “change” manuscripts, but a writer indeed must know the difference between well-written and badly written. Editorial criticism is the greatest asset to a writer’s work whether we like it or not. I would give anything to have an agent, an editor, and a publisher to “tear up” my novels! Working on it. And thank you for all you do!! I read the most fantastic things every day that have been edited. And no doubt, they didn’t just “get there”.


    Comment by ladyinthehouse — June 20, 2013 @ 10:29 am

  6. […] More important, however, is that the responsibility for a manuscript is a shared responsibility. This author insists that the responsibility lies solely with the editor. The author refuses to accept the idea that the author-editor relationship is a partnership and that the editor’s responsibilities are limited by the parameters imposed, ultimately, by the author; the author denies the commandment we discussed in The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners. […]


    Pingback by Relationships & the Unwritten Rules | An American Editor — July 22, 2013 @ 4:01 am

  7. […] The role of the copyeditor is not to developmental edit. The copyeditor’s focus is on grammar, spelling, word choice, not on rewriting. Rewriting should be incidental, an occasional occurrence. Under no circumstance should the copyeditor interject their own knowledge except in the form of a query. This is true for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the author who will ultimately be held responsible for the quality of the book. We have discussed this author–editor relationship before (see, e.g., Relationships & the Unwritten Rules and The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners). […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Walking the Line | An American Editor — June 18, 2014 @ 4:01 am

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