Communicating with Your Editor

Editing is a two-way street. Whether they’re doing developmental work on multiple versions of a project or a line-by-line edit on a finished piece, editors need to communicate with their writers regularly. Updates, questions, and reminders can keep the lines of communication open, especially if—like many freelance arrangements—it’s a remote job. One of the reasons I ask my clients who have book-length works to send me files for each chapter is so I can return edited pages promptly and identify problem areas. If I’m doing something wrong starting on page 3, I don’t want to learn about it for the first time on page 103.

It helps us tremendously when our writers do the same. Whenever I’m talking with a potential client about a project, I’m clear about what I will and won’t do as their editor. I’m also clear about how I’ll do the work, make comments, and return edited material to them. I want them to tell me exactly what they want so I know how to do the work. If they want a light edit to clean up some problem areas, I’ll avoid doing the heavier edits. This benefits everyone: the writer gets what they want, and I avoid excess unpaid work.

As the writer looking to hire an editor, you should express your expectations early to find your fit. If you’re unsure or concerned about the level of editing you’ll get, ask to see some sample edited pages. I was in this situation once: I over-edited a client’s work, in part because I have to keep reminding myself that I just don’t like how this sounds isn’t reason enough to make an edit. The client expressed her concerns via email. I saw what I’d done wrong and then only edited what needed to be edited. Early communication solved this problem before it became unmanageable. I’m glad she contacted me because it saved both of us a lot of work. Since then, I’ve offered to share the first few pages of my edits with clients.

Don’t be afraid to walk away if the editor doesn’t seem receptive to your needs. This might be a little tougher if you’re working with a publisher and one of their people over- or under-edits your material, but you can always contact your acquiring or managing editor to express your concerns. If there’s a chain of command, use it.

A writer friend has some advice based on a recent bad experience with a publisher’s copy editor: there were excessive edits, needless changes, and unprofessional queries and comments. She suggests communication with all involved parties, particularly if you feel the copy editor is overstepping their bounds. One issue was that the copy editor didn’t use the manuscript’s cheat sheet for stylistic and other conventions appropriate for the book, so there were a lot of edits and queries that needed to be reversed. If the publisher doesn’t have a cheat sheet for your book’s subject area, she suggests, ask to make your own. This last one is a great observation, so I’ll let her do the talking: 
We’re more than track changes on a document. You don’t have to like our work, and our copy editors deserve direct and respectful communication (like effective cheat sheets). But bad attitudes and poor comments are beyond the pale. Copy or screen shot them. Send them to editors. Stet what you need to stet. Move on.
As editors, we need to remember this when doing our work. Just because something doesn’t look or sound as we would make it look or sound doesn’t justify changing it.
I’ll add a few more pieces of advice:
  1. If you’re looking to hire an editor, be specific about what you want and don’t want done. No one wants their time or labor wasted, so establish what you want early.
  2. Some freelancers—myself included—offer to share a scope of work before beginning. This keeps all expectations, responsibilities, payments, and labor clear for both parties. If your editor hasn’t offered one, ask for it. If your editor doesn’t want to give you one, consider finding someone else. 
  3. Don’t hesitate to ask if the editor (1) can send some edited pages early in the process to make sure you’re getting what you want, (2) can put you in touch with recent clients, or (3) has a policy for handling unsatisfied clients. To me, any editor worth their salt should be willing to share excerpts of what they’ve done, client testimonials, or the options for ending the arrangement early.
  4. If you’ve already hired an editor and you don’t like what’s being done, speak up. In my case, the writer pointed to a few areas where I had obscured her point and stylistic choices just because I wanted tighter prose. I flagged what I’d done to remind myself not to do it again in the document.
Trust me: it’s also in your editor’s best interests to ensure the quality and quantity of the work. Communicating expectations or concerns from the beginning can help you realize whether you’ve found the right editor.


Have an idea for another post on writing or editing topics? Let me know.

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