An American Editor

July 22, 2013

Relationships & the Unwritten Rules

Every relationship is governed by rules. It doesn’t matter whether the relationship is between spouses, parent and child, government and citizen, rock and a hard place, or authors and editors. If there is a relationship, there are rules that govern it.

Some of the rules are written. The relationship between spouses is partially governed by the rules (laws) enacted by their place of domicile or even by a prenuptial agreement. Similarly, sometimes some of the rules that govern the relationship between author and editor are written, such as when there is a contract between them.

But the majority of the rules that govern relationships are unwritten. They come about as a result of the values we have absorbed each day that we live. We begin as a blank slate and with each day that passes we gain a little bit more of our moral compass. It is these unwritten rules that are the more important rules.

In the author-editor relationship, it is the unwritten rules that are most important. I do not disagree with the notion that a written agreement that says author shall pay editor $x on y date is not important; rather, I believe that the moral compulsion for the author to actually make the payment is the more important part of the relationship. As I used to tell clients when I practiced law, an honest handshake was much more valuable than a dishonest signature on a contract.

One unwritten rule (really, a group of rules) in the author-editor relationship addresses responsibilities. Who is responsible for what. Left unsaid, just like the rule is left unsaid, are the reasons why the author has certain responsibilities and the editor has others. But these unwritten rules, which are often the basis for controversy between the author and editor, are the rules that form the foundation of the relationship. In their absence, chaos reigns; in their presence, a foundation for dispute resolution is available.

What brings this to mind is a recent experience I had with an author. Let me be clear about several things. First, I did not have a direct relationship with the author; my direct client was a third-party who hired and paid me. Second, the parameters of the work I was to perform were negotiated between my client and the author. My client relayed the decisions made between the author and them to me.

Even though there was no direct relationship between the author and me, the unwritten rules of responsibility are still applicable.

The parameters of the job were to copyedit the author’s 400-page manuscript on specialized financing within 8 workdays. The edit was specified as “light,” a term that really has no meaning but which indicates that neither the author nor the client thought there were major problems with the manuscript. (For a discussion of light, medium, and heavy as descriptors of the level of editing, see Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?)

It is important to note that my company was hired to perform a copyedit, not a developmental edit (for a discussion of copyediting versus developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) and that there was a rush schedule. The normal process, and the one I expected to be followed, was copyediting, return to author to accept or reject copyediting, proofreading, publication.

After the book was printed, reviewers began panning it. Complaints about content, editing, and proofreading arose, with some complaints about comprehensibility. The author was incensed and decided that all the fault was with the third-party and the author demanded that my client, the third-party, insert author corrections into the manuscript and reprint the book. The author provided a PDF of the book with author corrections added. Needless to say, my client was not happy.

I was asked to review the author’s complaints and the editing and advise my client. My client provided me with the reviewer’s comments, the printer file, and the author-corrected files; I had my own copies of the edited manuscript that I had submitted to my client. (I make it a point to keep copies of what I submit to clients for years.) Let me say upfront that I have an excellent relationship with my client and have edited numerous books for them. This kerfuffle has no effect on our relationship; the question is how to respond to the author.

I spent some time going through the author’s complaints. Two of the author’s complaints regarding mistakes in spelling that we missed were justified. We probably shouldn’t have missed them. On the other hand, there were more than a dozen errors surrounding those missed spellings that we did catch, including one that resulted in an AQ (author query) regarding the word immediately adjacent to one of the missed spelling errors.

The reviewer specifically quoted a sentence that the reviewer found incomprehensible. The reviewer was certainly correct, but the evolution of that sentence is what intrigues me. It turns out that the copyedited version that we submitted differs from the version that was printed. The author rejected one of the editor’s suggested changes to the sentence and made a couple of additional changes that we knew nothing about.

Another complaint was that a theory name was misspelled (the name began Sho when it should have been Scho) and the editor didn’t catch the misspelling. I searched the entire book and discovered that the name appeared twice in the book, both times spelled the same way by the author (i.e., spelled incorrectly), with more than 200 pages separating the two appearances.

I think you are getting the idea.

I then looked at the author’s corrected files to see what corrections were being proposed as necessary because of editing errors. This was revelatory. Some of the corrections were rewrites that added additional information that could not be gleaned from any of the surrounding material. There was nothing particularly wrong with the sentences before the additions, but the additions did add clarification. The question is, “How would the editor know to add the clarifying material?”

Other corrections made incomprehensible what began as poor writing; that is, the corrections would do more harm than good. Importantly, a large number of them were simply wrong, such as adding commas where no comma belongs, deleting a word or two so that a sentence went from poorly written to incomprehensible, adding a misspelled word or the wrong word to an otherwise difficult sentence, and so on.

Bottom line is that most of the author’s proposed corrections would make things worse, not better.

One other thing I noted is that some of the errors the author complained of should have been caught by a proofreader. Whether the manuscript was proofread or not, I do not know, but I do know that if it was proofread, the proofreader was not a professional, or at least not one I would consider professional. More importantly, the author should have caught these errors during the author review.

The author also refuses to accept that there is a difference between a developmental edit and a copyedit, that separate fees are charged for each service, and that the author paid only for a copyedit.

The question is the unwritten relationship rules. Who has responsibility for what. It is not that there weren’t some editor errors; there were. However, all of the editor errors could have been and should have been caught by the proofreader and the author during their review. It is one reason why there are proofreading and author reviews.

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.

Ultimately, my client has to make a political decision: Should they appease the author or stand their ground? I think they have a solid basis for standing their ground. The book desperately needed a developmental edit, but no one wanted to spend the money to have it done. The author did not determine in advance what was needed and expected by way of a copyedit. For example, the author assumed that fact checking was automatically included, yet did not specify that as one of the tasks, did not pay for it, and did not allot sufficient time for it to be done (remember that the editing schedule was 8 workdays).

Realistic — and knowledgeable — division of responsibility is important in the author-editor relationship. As an unwritten rule, however, division of responsibility is so fluid that it is easy for one party to attempt to shift what should be their responsibility to the other party. Both the author and the editor should give careful thought to the division of responsibility before they begin the relationship and should recognize that such division is governed by the parameters set for the project.

More importantly, authors should clearly state, in writing, their expectations and the services they want an editor to perform, and be prepared to pay for those services.



  1. This is an excellent column, and a “keeper” (though I admit to keeping most of them on file!).
    It seems increasingly difficult to get clients to understand the differences between different layers of editing
    (structural, copyediting, proofreading) and their respective differences — and prices.
    I too have encountered books post-production where the author chose to ignore editors’ recommendations or
    inserted new material that made the edited copy incorrect…. it reminds me of a critique I just read of a book (in PW
    I think) in which the writer noted that one often hears the critique that the book in question “needed an editor.” The
    author’s comment was telling: “Well, it had an editor….but the author prevailed.” Touche’.

    Thanks for this helpful column — if not new information per se, it at least makes me realize I’m not the only
    one dealing with this….

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Patricia — July 22, 2013 @ 9:13 am | Reply

  2. Great essay. These murky waters are going to get even murkier as more self-published authors directly hire copyeditors—assuming the copyeditors will line edit, fact check, and proofread on top of all the copyediting heavy lifting—rather than going through a third party (like a publisher or agent) who could presumably help explain the various editing roles. Money and time also are compromising the whole process, and it’s showing in the final products.


    Comment by Laura — July 22, 2013 @ 10:00 am | Reply

  3. I consider every new editing client, regardless of their experience with the edit process, to be in need of education about that process. One reason I encourage all my solo book authors to have a manuscript assessment done prior to any edit is for the education opportunity it presents.

    Most of my snags in author/editor partnerships have come about because the author has a set of service expectations that actually require multiple editing functions, but are perceived by the author to be under one large and unrealistic editing service umbrella.

    I agree wholeheartedly that if an editor takes the time to determine what the author expects from their edit, gets it in writing, includes it in the service quote or contract, and sticks to it – few, if any, problems will arise.

    And every editor who expects (demands?) that every author should understand and have knowledge of the editing process can also expect to face problems.

    Wincing a bit, I’ve told authors that if they ignore my guidance it’s much like getting your car repaired and then taking a wrench to it yourself, making adjustments, and expecting it to run well afterwards.

    Excellent article, as always. I’ve instituted a new rule for myself where I re-read at least 3 of your pieces each week – great, straightforward reminders!


    Comment by Maria D'Marco — July 22, 2013 @ 11:44 am | Reply

  4. I have to confess that I’m baffled by this essay, and I’ve read it three times. It seems to hinge on a recurring theme here at AE: authors lack even a basic understanding of what we editors do, yet it’s their responsibility to specify the parameters of our work (“their expectations and the services they want an editor to perform”).

    I think that’s just asking for trouble and it violates basic, ethical business practices. I’d argue that its *our* responsibility as editors to:
    1. Explain our menu of services and what each level of editing entails;
    2. Diagnose the ms to determine what level(s) of editing it needs; and
    3. Use our professional judgment to recommend the course of editing services that best suits the project.

    At that point, the author may ask for clarifications, decide which editing services he or she wants, or decline and seek another editor. If an author requests a light copyedit on an ms that clearly needs a developmental edit and heavy line editing, the ethical editor will point out the discrepancy in expectations and ask the author to reconsider. If the editor agrees to put lipstick on a pig, the contract should note that the requested copyedit will not resolve the project’s structural and semantic problems.

    If an author and editor cannot agree on the level of editing a project requires, then the ethical editor will decline the job.

    All of this happens before an editor accepts a job.

    Allowing a poorly informed author to specify the edit level for a project isn’t likely to end happily. In the OP case, it sounds as though the edit went forward even though the author did not understand (1) what the different levels of editing entail, and (2) what problems would remain if the author chose a copyedit over the heavier developmental edit the project actually needed.

    For a professional, such terms should never be part of the “unwritten rules.” They must be part of the written contract. And surely it is the *editor’s* responsibility–not the author’s–to bring them to light and to dog them until they are clearly articulated and agreed upon by all parties. Even when an intermediary party is involved (in the OP case, the “client”), clarifying these terms remains the editor’s responsibility. A client who doesn’t engage the editor in this discussion is not one I’d work for.


    Comment by Will Harmon — July 22, 2013 @ 12:54 pm | Reply

    • Will, what you suggest works when the editor’s client is the author. In the case written about, the editor had no contact with the author; all contact was handled by the publisher and the publisher is the party who set the parameters of the job. But the author is blaming the editor for the results.


      Comment by americaneditor — July 22, 2013 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

    • One other thing occurred to me, Will. I do not expect an author to know what a copyeditor versus a developmental editor does. What I do expect an author to know is what she wants the editor to: just correct grammar and spelling; tighten sentences; help organize the manuscript for logical flow; etc. Once the author has identified what she wants, the editor can explain what he can/will do or not do and the pricing. It is unacceptable, to me at least, for an author to simply say “Here is my manuscript. Copyedit it.” when what the author really means is “Here is my manuscript. Do not make any changes except to correct misspellings.” I think it is the author, not the editor, who has to begin the discussion regarding what editorial care her manuscript is to receive.


      Comment by americaneditor — July 22, 2013 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

      • The main thing here is that it is the PUBLISHER who hired the editor and told you EXACTLY what to do. Whether or not the author knows about editing, the publisher,who presumably hires editors all the time certainly ought to have a clue. Sounds like the publisher told the author diddly, then passed the blame onto the wrong target. Whatever your normal “good relations” with that publisher, I’d be a bit more skeptical in future.


        Comment by anansii — July 23, 2013 @ 12:30 am | Reply

  5. Rich, after 28 years in the business, I don’t expect the average author to know enough about usage, style, presentation, or even reader-based prose to know what level of editing his or her ms actually needs. In this context, the author isn’t the expert, the editor is. I think it’s backwards to start with what the author wants done to the ms. That first step should come from the editor, using his or her best professional judgment. The author and editor can then seek agreement on what services are to be provided, at what cost. If the ms needs a heavy line edit and structural revisions, but the author insists only on a light copyedit, then I would not proceed without spelling out, in writing, what that copyedit will NOT include. Such details should never be considered as “unwritten rules;” they’re part of the written contract.

    I’ve happily walked away from jobs that were nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig. I’d much rather work with authors and clients who appreciate what a professional editor can bring to their project.

    As for your relationship with the intermediary cited in the OP, I am mystified why anyone would do business through such a muddled, non-transparent process. I would not.


    Comment by Will Harmon — July 23, 2013 @ 2:04 pm | Reply

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  8. […] 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 […]


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  9. […] Adin, editor, pulls out some of my most familiar scenarios here on his blog, An American Editor. “I spent some time going through the author’s complaints. Two of the […]


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