An American Editor

July 26, 2017

From the Archives: Relationships & the Unwritten Rules

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on July 22, 2013.)

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.

Richard Adin, An American Editor


  1. My service contract is built from one provided by an experienced editor who’d had a lawyer draw up the core document. Every job or two I tweak it to better reflect my own experience. It’s quite explicit about what author and editor are expected to do, but it didn’t cover me well in circumstances such as described in the above essay. I took care of that by adding a line specifying, “Client is responsible for the ultimate content of the manuscript.”


    Comment by Carolyn — July 26, 2017 @ 6:20 am | Reply

  2. Defining terms such as developmental, substantive, line and copy editing at the editor’s website might help in situations like this – at least when the relationship is directly between client/author and editor, but that wouldn’t have helped in this instance. If I were to be in such a situation now, after rereading this column, I would ask my client to clarify my role to the author. And I would definitely include Carolyn’s input to my contract language!


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — July 26, 2017 @ 9:55 am | Reply

    • Negotiations when there’s a third party involved are definitely different than when direct between editor and author. With indie authors, I’ve found that defining all of my editorial services in the first contact communication gets things off to a good start; they can pick exactly what they want, or have a basis to ask questions. These definitions are an elaboration of what’s on my website, which they may or may not have seen. Then, in the contract, spelling out in detail exactly what the chosen service will entail forms a second opportunity for the deal to be understood before anything happens. The combination saves a whole lot of trouble!


      Comment by Carolyn — July 26, 2017 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  3. “I do not disagree with the notion that a written agreement that says author shall pay editor $x on y date is not important”

    No, you don’t mean what you just said. Roughly speaking, “I do not disagree” = “I agree”. So your sentence is equivalent to
    “I agree … that [a written contract] is not important.” See Language Log, “The temptation of overnegation “.


    Comment by thnidu — July 26, 2017 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: