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!

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