Optimising the author–editor relationship

This week’s blog post is the second in our series of posts based on talks given at the MaWSIG PCE in Glasgow. Here, Penny Hands shares the results of her research into the relationship between authors and editors. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

I like to think I’ve always used my common sense and in-built sensitivity when editing someone else’s work, building up a good relationship from the start and working hard to keep things that way while helping the author to get their message across as well as possible.

But a few years ago, I went to a talk given by an independent author and was taken aback to hear him say that he cried when he got his first feedback from his editor. I still wonder if that editor could have been me …

Now, don’t get me wrong: he and I had a really good relationship all the way through, and up to the present day, and I like to think that we worked together to make his book the best it could be. However, the question I started to ask myself was: is it inevitable that an author will respond in this way until they develop a thicker skin? Or is there even more I can do to make the process run more smoothly? Isn’t it normal, after all, after we’ve worked and re-worked our masterpiece, to feel personally devastated when it comes back covered in comments, queries and suggestions?

I like to think I’ve been even more careful since this revelation to smooth the process, but I was sure I still had plenty to learn, so I decided to carry out a survey of both writers and editors to find out what they had to say about their own experience of working together in this type of relationship.

And wow, what a response!

The survey

The anonymous author survey was filled in by 66 experienced authors – both self-publishers and those working for publishers.

The first question was: What words come to mind when you think of your experience of working with an editor?

The survey threw up hundreds of words, which I sorted into positive and negative. Let’s look at the positive words first. The words that came up most often were: helpful, support, supportive, communication, friendly, respect, ideas, cooperation, collaboration

Other words that were mentioned were: sensitivity, humour, organisation, flexibility, inspiring, teamwork

And now for the negative ones: frustrating, frustration, nightmare

Some of the less-frequent words were: miscommunication, misunderstanding, undermined, variable, mixed, and … Aaaargh!

So you can see that, as in life and relationships in general, there are some relationships that work and make us happy, and there are others that just drive us mad.

I categorised the responses into the following areas:

  • feedback (level of intervention, praise or lack of, expertise)
  • availability
  • communication
  • relationship
  • support
  • a collaborative approach
  • knowledge of the product and market
  • experience
  • understanding and respecting aims of author and project.

Feedback

So, let’s start with feedback. On the positive side, authors valued positive, constructive comments; prompt, practical feedback; editors who were polite but strict in reining in their ‘occasional flights of fancy’; feedback that had the project’s best interests in mind; and a little praise now and again.

On the negative side, authors noted editors’ comments that were very abrupt, only focusing on what needed to change; other editors not being critical enough; pettiness; and contradictory instructions.

Dealing with negative feedback

So how do authors deal with negative feedback? A recent post on an ELT writers’ Facebook forum prompted a lot of advice on how best to deal with it.

Tips included waiting 24 hours before responding; asking a close friend or family member to read the editor’s comments and give an objective opinion; and writing an imaginary email outlining (1) what is fair (2) what is a matter of opinion and (3) what is totally unjustified.

The next category that came up frequently was communication. The survey’s respondents gave the following qualities as being important to them: clear communication; a friendly, open attitude; good social skills; and immediate replies to emails, lots of Skype calls, constructive advice and great ideas

On the negative side, authors complained about editors responding late, not giving prompt feedback and asking for things at midnight on a Friday.

Respect

The next most important topic that came up was that of respect. Authors wanted editors to be respectful of the fact that they had a lot of experience teaching the subject matter of their book and to be willing to listen.

Feeling comfortable

They also wanted to feel comfortable in their relationship, especially in a way that meant they felt free to challenge each other while both were ultimately prepared to give way.

An understanding of the aims of the project

Next, authors stated that they wanted editors to have a clear understanding of the aims of the author and the project, ­to be on the same wavelength as them and to understand the book they are trying to write.

Experience and patience

They also wanted to see experience and patience, rather than someone who is not familiar with the level or target audience, who has their own agenda or who wants to ‘make their mark’.

Overwork

Finally, there was recognition that many editors are spread too thinly, leading to a superficial reading of the material, a lack of investment in the project and delays in giving feedback.

Summary

In summary, then, our author respondents’ advice for editors would be:

  • Be prompt, clear and positive.
  • Be clear, yet flexible.
  • Make some tweaks yourself.
  • Try to think of the relationship as fundamentally cooperative and constructive.
  • Remember that it’s about collaboration – the author has some experience, too.
  • Respect the author’s views.
  • Listen and be willing to discuss things. Face-to-face (or Skype) communication is essential from time to time, too.
  • Put yourself in the author’s shoes and consider how much time and effort has gone into writing when giving feedback.
  • Say something nice before you say something critical.
  • Keep abreast of market requirements and developments in the ELT world.
  • Keep an up-to-date checklist of all style and other editorial decisions taken to avoid giving conflicting feedback.

What do you think is the most important quality an editor should have?

Penny Hands is a freelance editor and ELT materials writer with more than 20 years’ experience as a lexicographer and compiler of language reference materials, and as an editor on ELT coursebooks, teacher development books and Applied Linguistics titles. She has worked with a variety of authors, from academics to materials writers and self-publishers. Her main interest lies in how best to achieve the shared goal of making a text the best it can be, through communication, collaboration and a strong understanding of the field and the market. She has a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh and is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

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