Ten tips on how to turn a writer into a friend, not a foe

During the last seven years of my career, I have not only sharpened my skills as an editor, but I (believe that) I have become a more sensitive human being. 

I have worked with so many authors of different types and stripes that I have come to the realization that as much as it is my job to perfect and polish the text, it is equally my role to hold the writer’s hand, so to speak, and guide him or her through the editing process. 

Writing a book is no mean feat, and revealing your writing – which often, directly or indirectly, exposes your innermost thoughts – to an anonymous editor who is itching to roll up his or her sleeves and take out the unforgiving red pen can be an extremely intimidating prospect.

On that note, implement the following pieces of advice, and you, too, will have your web page filled with glowing testimonials will achieve a harmonious working relationship with your client.

Are you ready?

 1. Meet the writer first. Ideally, you should try to meet your client before you begin the writing process. Nowadays email is the standard means of communication, but it is crucial that you start off on a more personal note. Your client will be entrusting his or her “baby” into your hands, so it is advisable that you meet face-to-face in order to build a rapport. While emails are useful and efficient, they can often be misinterpreted, and it is hard to “read” warmth from impersonal messages. If it is an impossibility for you to meet the writer, pick up the phone.

2. Be friendly. When you write emails to your clients, always try to start off on a light and friendly note. Here is a sample of such an email:

Dear Henry,

I hope you are well.

 I read through the first two chapters, and I have the following comments. Please see the attached document. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask.

Best regards,

Sorelle

3. Explain the process. Do not enter a project with the expectation that the writer is familiar with the editing process. Often writers have never worked with editors before, and are not familiar with Word and track changes. Before you begin editing, send the writer an email explaining to him or her (in a bulleted list) the process of editing, and ALWAYS stress at the end of such an email that if anything is unclear, he or she should not hesitate to ask you any questions. 

When working with a writer, your aim should not only be to dazzle him or her with your brilliance, but also to put him or her at ease. Presuming knowledge from clients is a big no-no, and can often end in tears. If you have a preferred method of working, such as always making a point of renaming drafts, make sure that you tell your client from word go about your preference.

4. Be positive. OK, you have read through the manuscript, and it is going to take a great deal of work and many mugs of coffee to get you through this project. Do not project frustration into your emails. You should adopt the attitude that this project is going to improve your editing skills, and will result in you becoming a sharper editor. When you write an email to the writer with your general comments, try to start the email on a positive note. (There has to be SOMETHING positive you can write about the manuscript, and writers really appreciate any positive feedback you can give them.)  

Even if you believe that the manuscript is in an appalling state, starting off your email with a message similar to the one below is only going to alienate the writer and put him or her on the defensive:

Hi John,

I have just finished reading the first five chapters. I am sorry to say that they are incomprehensible and poorly written. Much work is needed to make these chapters publishable.

Sorelle

No good. Try the following tactic:

Hi John,

I have just finished reading the first five chapters, and am attaching my general comments to this email. From what I have read so far, I believe that the book has a great deal of potential. I have outlined in my comments those issues that I feel need particular attention. Please let me know if you have any questions.

I am very much looking forward to working with you on this project.

Sincerely,

Sorelle

5. Consolidate your comments. If you have multiple comments about the work, it is better for you to write them up in a Word document, and attach them to the email. It is tedious for your client to scroll through an email with fifty points. An added advantage of such a method is that you have your saved file for your records. Emails can get lost.

6. Be clear. If you are inserting comments into the Word file, make sure to phrase your question or comment clearly, and write in full sentences. Don’t fall into the trap of writing short comments that resemble text messages. It looks sloppy.

7. Be humble. The following point cannot be reiterated enough. Always make sure to stress to your client that your editing suggestions are exactly that, suggestions, and that ultimately any major editorial decisions are in the writer’s hands. It is counter-productive to present your argument as an indisputable fact. I find that when I have given the writer the option of rejecting my comments, most times he or she will be more amenable to my suggestions.

8. Be organized. If you are working with a writer who is disorganized and sends you vague emails with vague responses to your questions, it is very important that you formulate your emails in such a way that he or she will be forced to answer your specific points. Number each of your points in a bulleted list, and end the point with a direct question that clearly requires a direct answer.

If the lines of communication seem to be broken, make a point of ending your emails with the following request:

“Please acknowledge that you have received this email.”

9. Keep a list. Keep LOTS of lists. Always keep a running list of the issues that you discuss in your email correspondence with your client. Often interesting ideas will be suggested but sadly forgotten in the midst of more pressing issues, so it is extremely useful to have this list handy.

10. Be humble. Yes, I’m repeating myself. Being an editor requires humility. You are not competing against the writer, you are helping him or her. You are in effect finessing someone else’s work for which you will not receive any credit (aside from a few complimentary words in the Acknowledgments, if you are lucky). If you cannot derive satisfaction from the fact that you have helped steer the writer towards an excellent final product, then you are in the wrong profession.   

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