by Pádraig Hanratty
Collaborating on a team
Editing is a collaborative process.
It is more than just one person ‘correcting’ another person’s ‘mistakes’, though this is of course an essential aspect of the editor’s role. Editing usually involves two people (the editor and the author) working together to ensure that the finished manuscript is clear, concise, accurate and error-free. Sometimes mistakenly regarded as being akin to a teacher–pupil relationship, it can be more accurately regarded as a professional engagement between two peers who are experts in different fields. Although the two peers may disagree – at times, heatedly – about what changes are necessary, they both share the goal of enhancing the text for the benefit of the reader.
The reader is the third person in this relationship. (Ahem!) In a production team, people always need to keep the end user in mind. User-centred design, for example, puts the user at the heart of the development process and design decisions. Similarly, in a writing process, the reader is the end user. And the common aim of both writing and editing should be to deliver value to the dear reader.
The editor adds value to the reader by ensuring that there are no obstacles to understanding. Unfortunately, the editor’s work is largely invisible to the reader. In general, readers think about the editor only when they spot mistakes in the manuscript.
The author, on the other hand, is very aware of the editor and (hopefully!) appreciates the value that the editor brings. So it is important for the editor and writer to establish a good working relationship from the get-go.
A simple preliminary step is for the editor to establish clear expectations.
How available is the editor going to be for the author? When and how often can the editor be contacted? Are unscheduled phone calls acceptable? Should all communication be done via email, or are text messages to a personal phone number appropriate? What communication is acceptable after the project is finished and the editor has been paid?
Having these protocols established early on can help to avoid awkward conversations later on.
Cultivating a collaborative relationship
So, having set up the channels for collaboration, how can you establish a positive, collaborative relationship?
First, when appropriate, explain your changes. They key words here are when appropriate. You obviously don’t need to explain why you corrected a mistake; you changed it because it was wrong.
However, there are times when it can be useful for you to explain your thinking behind a change. It may be because of a lesser-known grammatical rule. Or you may be addressing an inconsistency that the author might not have noticed. Or you might simply explain why you think your change improves the text. This all reinforces the fact that changes are not made on a whim but are the result of a professional judgement based on experience.
Address author by name
Second, when writing comments or queries to the author, addressing the author by name can add warmth to the exchange. Overdoing this, though, can come across as fake and formulaic. Like with food, a healthy balance is advisable.
Use queries and suggestions
Third, consider whether it’s appropriate to phrase your change as a query or suggestion. This helps to cultivate a spirit of collaboration.
Of course, if something is wrong, it needs to be fixed, and there doesn’t have to be a discussion about it. You don’t suggest that the author should correct a typo. Use your professional judgement and your knowledge of the author to guide you. (Some authors loathe suggestions and prefer to be told exactly what to change. Others prefer to feel more involved in the decision-making.)
Fourth, avoid making ‘snarky’ or ‘snippy’ comments on the manuscript, no matter how frustrated you feel with the author. Remain professional and supportive at all times. It can sometimes be difficult to convey the right tone in written comments, so err on the side of caution if you’re worried about your comments being taken the wrong way.
(At the same time, editors are human! So, if you do feel the need to let off steam, write your snarky comment on a Post-it note, and then violently crumple the note into a ball and fling it into a (recycling) bin with great force. Breathe. Breathe again. And then return to the manuscript and provide your constructive, professional feedback – while biting your tongue if necessary.)
Ask for clarification
A fifth way to help maintain a collaborative tone is to ask for clarification when the writing is unclear. You might be thinking, ‘OMG! WTF?’ However, phrase your concern more tentatively, such as ‘The intended meaning here is unclear to me. Can you please clarify?’ or ‘I think you need to explain this more clearly so the reader can grasp your meaning’. These approaches again reinforce the collaborative nature of the effort: the writer and author working together to clarify things for the reader. And remember, if you’re confused, the reader is likely to be confused too!
Accentuate the positive
Accentuating the positive can often help you nurture a friendly, collaborative relationship with your author. Overdoing it can seem forced and insincere, or even be misconstrued. However, a well-timed compliment might be the spark of motivation that keeps the author committed to the project.
Again, take into account the author’s personality and preferences. Get to know what they like (and what they are like). Surprisingly, not every author reacts well to positive feedback. Some authors regard it as patronising or presumptive. And some authors are simply difficult and combative. Remember, know your author. And when unsure, be cautious and restrained.
Positive feedback and the occasional sprinkling of good-natured humour can help alleviate the burden of implementing edits for the author. However, this should never be at the expense of clarity or efficiency. Don’t let these niceties clutter the manuscript or cause confusion.
Speaking of clarity and efficiency, remember that your ultimate goal is to clearly communicate the required changes to the author. Yes, it’s important to be personable and approachable. Yes, it’s always nice to be nice.
However, you don’t have to explain every change. As noted earlier, if something’s wrong, it needs to be changed. That’s not a suggestion. When the house is on fire, you don’t suggest that somebody should call the fire brigade. You don’t query whether you should evacuate the building.
Beyond the manuscript
Finally, don’t forget that the editor–author relationship is not always just a one-manuscript stand. It can continue beyond track changes and comments.
When returning the manuscript to the author, consider using the email to highlight the main issues so that the author can get an immediate sense of the level of changes necessary. Where appropriate, make yourself available for a chat to discuss the changes. Remember, though, that not every edit requires a conference call.
While follow-up communication can help deepen the collaboration, remember what we said earlier about ensuring that boundaries are established. If you believe that 4 a.m. WhatsApp messages to your personal mobile phone should be reserved exclusively for booty calls, then you need to make this clear to the author. We live in an age where the boundaries between personal and work communications are blurred. Avoid confusion by making these boundaries clear.
Dealing with authors can at times be frustrating, especially if you find yourself typing out the same issues time and time again. Some authors can be quarrelsome and at times you need to take a firm line with them. However, by establishing a positive, collaborative relationship with your author and constantly keeping the reader in mind, you can ensure that everybody works together towards a common goal: a clean, clear, compelling manuscript.
Pádraig Hanratty has been a writer and editor for nearly 24 years. In 2005, he founded QUIP Editing Solutions, a freelance writing and editing agency. QUIP has completed a wide variety of projects for clients such as Skillsoft, UCD, Digital Marketing Institute, Dublin City University, Highwood, Dataflow International, Climate-KIC, and RCSI. Pádraig has self-published three fiction books. He is also a Full Member of AFEPI and on the committee of Irish PEN. You can follow his blog at Quips and Chords.