17 ways to annoy an editor

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Editors deal with all types of clients. Many of them are pleasant and easy to work with. Some can be very difficult. Freelance copy-editor Sue Littleford discusses different sorts of difficult clients and the problems an editor faces. Soon to follow is Sue’s companion piece on how to resolve these issues, and what authors can do if they feel an editor isn’t adhering to the Code of Practice. 

I’m a freelance copy-editor, so I hang out around freelance editorial online watercoolers. If you do the same, or read blogs with any regularity, you’ll have seen editors’ tales of nightmare authors and, indeed, authors’ tales of nightmare editors.

Some of the most recalcitrant problems arise around conflicting ideas of ‘perfect’. Objective perfection doesn’t exist, but many freelance editors sell themselves as able to deliver it, which does no one any favours. And some authors expect their editors to be quite unfeasibly perfect – and read minds, to boot.

I’m going to state right now that, in my experience, most authors are lovely to work with. But in any barrel, there will always be a few bad apples. Here are several ways to annoy your editor. Some of these happened to me. Some of these happened to people I know.

1) The me-too

I had one of these very early in my freelance career. Not too long after JK Rowling had published the final Harry Potter, the first part of story about a young orphan wizard in a school in a castle, with horrible relatives, an owl and two friends whose names began with H and R landed on my desk. It was dire. Even if it had been half-decently written, there was no getting away from the fact it was a rip-off. When the client asked if I thought she’d get it published, I had to say no. Getting paid for that job took a while…

2) The can’t-stop-fiddling

Ah yes, the author who just keeps adding and changing and expecting you to edit all the new bits for no extra cash and in the original timescale. I’d once returned files to the publisher for typesetting, and days later was still getting new material from the author, who was trying to charm me into doing more work just because he was a ‘head-in-the-clouds academic’ (I’m quoting). Didn’t work. Note to authors: when you submit your manuscript to your publisher, the working assumption is that you’ve actually finished it. Aside from the actual extra work involved, and the cost and time added to the schedule that no one has budgeted for, it’s hard to do a quality edit of a moving target.

3) The precious

The author whose work was perfect to begin with and who rejects every single edit and comment. You wonder why they bothered getting an editor.

4) The precious with attitude

As for no. 3, but rude with it. The editor is clearly too stupid to comprehend the author’s artistic vision.

5) The vague

The author who can’t answer a question unless you send a separate email with each one. And/or they keep changing their minds about things they’d already answered. Or you have to ask the same question five times to get an answer. Note to authors – if we ask, it’s because we need to know.

6) The condescending

Now, not all academic authors are like this – most are absolutely delightful, I’m happy to say – but there are some who make you deal with their secretary, as they can’t be bothered with your queries, or who treat your introductory email setting out the timetable, query handling and initial questions with airy indifference. I remember taking several attempts to get the author to confirm which variety of English they wanted me to edit the book into. The manuscript provided no clues and the clock was ticking. I was finally told ‘I’m sure you can work it out.’ So I went with my preference, which may not have been theirs. You can edit the book of one of these authors without ever having a conversation with them about it. Editing is dispiriting when the author doesn’t seem to care what happens to the book.

7) The didact

The editor sends the academic author a query. The academic author doesn’t answer the query, but writes a paragraph explaining around the point so I can figure out the answer for myself. Good teaching for your students, not so good for letting your copy-editor know how the manuscript should read at that point. I get one of these about once a year and it really slows things down and does nothing for my blood pressure.

8) The headstrong

First cousin to no. 6, the headstrong author will not be interested in following their publisher’s house style and certainly won’t have bothered to read the publisher’s guide for authors, because it’s of no interest to them – they’ll write the way they always have, and expect the house style to disappear in a puff of smoke. Your copy-editor, however, will be distracted from reading the actual words you worked so hard on by toiling away on the mechanics, taking out, or inserting, commas in references, or substituting First World War for World War I, or correcting your capitalisation of acronyms to haul the text back into house style.

9) The uncooperative

They won’t answer queries, they go silent for days on end, they email you from the airport to say they’re going away and will be offline for ten days and make it your problem to deal with the publisher’s schedule (not to mention the knock-on effect on your own bookings).

10) The my-friend-knows-better

It’s enough to make you cry. You’ve slaved over not very promising material and improved it significantly. Then the author shows your edits to a friend or relative, and they find fault with everything you’ve done. They’re wrong, of course. They can’t spell and they don’t understand grammar or how hyphenation changes with context. And they certainly don’t understand that there’s no such thing as perfect. So the author wants you to do it again, this time inserting all their friend’s mistakes.

11) The litigious and/or blackmailer

You’ve done your edit, you’ve sent in the files and your invoice, and the author claims you’ve not done a decent job. There’s a comma missing on page 172! They want a do-over at no charge, or they won’t pay your invoice. Or they’ll take you to court to recover what they paid you before they got bent out of shape over the missing comma on page 172. Or they want a monstrous discount, because you missed out a comma on page 172. And/or they’ll shred your reputation across social media.

12) The utterly deluded

They think an editor will work for a share of their royalties, because their book is such a wonder, movie producers will be lining up for the rights, and publishers will be printing hundreds of thousands of hardbacks for the first print run for an unknown novelist.

13) The parsimonious

‘Freelance means free, doesn’t it?’ ‘Budget? Oh, well, how does £50 sound – I don’t have any more’ (for a 150,000 word copy-edit). Sometimes the author just doesn’t want to pay, because the book is so good really, you should be paying them for the honour (and yes, I’ve had one of those), others just really have no idea of time or cost. And yes, it takes longer to edit a book than to read it. Much longer. And further, editors have mortgages, bills and commitments that require cash, not a swapsie for, well, anything the author wants to offer.

14) The crafty

Editors talk to each other. Facebook groups I belong to have in the past few months caught out two people sending out individual chapters to different copy-editors for a ‘free sample edit’ in an attempt to get the entire book edited free of charge. It’s not big and it’s not clever. Any author who tries that must be prepared to be called out on it, or, should they get away with it, have a manuscript that will not have been well edited. Editing is about consistency much of the time – and no editor will edit a long text in exactly the same way as another.

15) The no-show

After going through the negotiations and agreeing to take on the job, and having fitted it into your schedule, the job doesn’t show up. With some authors I’ve been told about, it doesn’t show up on the rescheduled date, either. When it finally shows up, unheralded, it’s for an immediate turnaround. Sigh. Now, for the freelance editor the no-show means they have a gap in their schedule. No money coming in. Other jobs, perhaps, have turned down because they’ve taken yours on. The editor can try their contacts to see if they can fill the gap, but an offered project may not have the same time requirements as the one you’ve just bailed on. Editors know that sometimes a manuscript isn’t ready when you’d said it would be. Things happen, we get that. But please – communicate with your editor ahead of the date you’re due to deliver your manuscript if you’re at all worried about meeting your commitment.

16) The wannabe book designer

If you know you’re writing for publication, then making your manuscript look just like you hope the book will is, 99 times out of 100, a total waste of effort on your part, and creates work for the copy-editor. And if the author is paying the copy-editor for their time, that’s a waste of the author’s money, too. It is also really dull work for the copy-editor to have to squash all your design into typesetter-friendly format. So don’t use fancy styles – the editor wants to know a chapter title from a side-heading, and what needs to be italic, what’s a quotation and so on, but don’t try to replicate the book designer, who will be following the publisher’s brief (as will the copy-editor). It doesn’t help, either, if the author hits return at the end of each line, or uses strings of spaces or tabs to make a pretend table.

17) The legally naive

Copy-editors and publishers worry about copyright infringement and libellous statements a lot more than some authors seem to. One author told me that they didn’t need permission to quote material and use other people’s photographs ‘because they were on the internet, so they’re free’ (despite the copyright statements in the source websites…). Publication was delayed. Another said a lot of things about Berlusconi that may well have been true, but hadn’t yet been proven, and the publisher was not about to spend its money defending an action for libel. A couple of paragraphs were ripped out.

Sue Littleford has been a freelance copy-editor for ten years, working in scholarly non-fiction, but with forays into fiction. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, and author of their Guide Going Solo: Creating your freelance editorial business.

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  1. So much about this resonates with me! I’m struggling with an edit at the moment where the whole book has been supplied in forwarded emails (including approx. 30 different emails just for the list of contributors). It’s a total nightmare from an administrative point of view and means I’m pretty much compiling the book for them before even being able to think about the copyediting, and if I didn’t know the volume editors personally I would have walked away from the project a long time ago. I’m not sure what this kind of client would be called, but I can think of a few expletives!

    1. That’s a fair old combination you’re handling, there. My sympathies. Category 18 – The unaware? I deliberately left out a whole raft of things on references (it’s probably best not to get me started), but I must agree that 30 emails just to get the contributors’ list compiled is loopy. Jobs like these really should be paid on a time basis, rather than a project basis as this kind of basic admin can be such a timesuck. On the other hand, think how lovely it will be when it stops…

  2. I was #3 for at least 20 years. Those are the same 20 years that I was unpublished. Amazing that it took me that long to identify the cause-and-effect relationship there, isn’t it?

    1. Well, you got there in the end, Michael 😉 I’ve been edited myself and I know the instinct to reject an editor’s comments very well. I really had to give myself a talking to! It’s perfectly natural to be protective of your art and your literary baby, you just have to remember that you’re probably no longer the best judge, having been so close to it for so long. It’s not easy, but it *is* essential.

  3. The author who sends me a manuscript to edit, then continues making changes to his copy. Then, after I’ve edited 50 or so pages, I get an email saying, “Oh, here’s the latest version. Edit this instead.” And now I’m supposed to make all my changes again, on a different document? That’s the quickest way to drive me nuts.

    1. Oh yeah, I hear ya! I had an author receive my queries on a chapter, then send me a new version of the chapter (without tracked changes, of course) because ‘I hadn’t edited it yet, I’d only raised the queries’. Facepalm… Thank heavens for the Compare function in Word.

  4. Sue thank you so much for such a witty and well-written piece. Had me in stitches in places as I’ve been there, too! I’ve shared this on my own FB page. Utterly brilliant!

  5. Hi Sue,

    No doubt a lot of what you say is true, but as you admit, above, there is also the counter-argument on: ‘Authors’ tales of nightmare editors’. Having (tried) working with several, let me share my experiences:

    Editor 1: Not only were half of the suggested changes in her critique internally contradictory to the other half which she’d given me, but roughly half of her comments seemed not to be about my MS at all, but to be criticizing somebody else’s story altogether! And despite me giving her plenty of opportunity in subsequent email exchanges to clarify the situation/admit her mistakes, she denied having anything to discuss. The end result being that I was left so frustrated that I (reluctantly) became no.11 above 🙂 I pointed out to her that – since only half of her critique made sense, and one half of it contradicted the other half – I reckoned she owed me a refund of half the fee which I’d already paid her. Sensibly, she thanked me for my detailed critique on her own critique and coughed-up. We thus parted ways amicably, and I have never revealed her name as I have no wish to destroy her career (she’s subsequently gone on to be quite successful, apparently, maybe even learning from my comments…)

    Editor 2: This editor seemed more competent (being a published author herself), yet still (like the first one, above) told me to turn right one minute, yet then turn left the next! Again, this left me feeling confused, frustrated unimpressed, yet I persevered (sending one chapter at a time for critique). Though eventually, I lost patience when, after she’d already deleted my own use of a particular verb in a certain context, she later on actually *inserted* the same verb in what I considered an identical context. So I asked her why she had done exactly the same thing that she’d previously warned me against, but she denied that the two contexts were the same. They were, trust me, and I wasn’t letting go on that point. Yet despite giving her ample opportunity to acknowledge her mistake/inconsistency, she persisted in denying that there was any contradiction in her editing. So we again parted on amicable terms (no names, no pack-drill).

    Editor 3: Unfortunately, I was talked into accepting a full (rather than a simple ‘copy’) edit, when – after giving up on finding an agent, I bit the bullet & self-published. The result was a disaster. In the critique, the ‘house-editor’ of the publishing company misspelt my name in the first line (despite my entering my name correctly spelt not one, but twice in the header of each page of my MS (because I use my name in my email address as well). Then, on the second line, she entered the date incorrectly (for the following year!). Then, in the very first line of my MS, she edited my historically correct date to one which was set about 3,000 years into the future. ‘Hmmm…’ I thought to myself – then later commented to the parent company – ‘This particular editor seems to have an obsession about time-travel!’ Anyway, having almost given up on the thousands of changes the editor made to my MS – 90% of which I ended up deleting again – I re-established some kind of working-relationship with other members of that production team. Well… I *am* a reasonable guy. All I expect in return is a measure of professionalism in return for my hard-earned money. Or does that sound too much to expect in this day and age? 🙂


    1. Hi, Steve
      Whilst it’s great to have your comments, I wish you hadn’t had such a rough ride. I’m surprised no one has offered their nightmare editor experiences before this – that post has been up for two months, after all!
      To start at the end – no, it’s not too much to expect professionalism in return for your money. But there are a number of problems with that. First, anyone at all can call themselves an editor, advertise in paid-for directories and have an alluring website. You may not be able to tell that you’re their first client, or that they have a history of disssatisfied clients, or that they think they know a great deal more than they actually do. There’s nothing to stop people who ‘just lurve words!’ deciding they have the tools and capacity to sit in judgement on other people’s writing, when they have nothing of the sort. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ directory is open only to professional and advanced professional members, who have all been through an upgrade process that requires evidence of training and experience, and satisfactory references. Advanced professional members also have to produce evidence of continuing professional development. (Plug over.) Second, some editors and clients are just a bad fit together on a given project, and the editor will never really get what the author is about. Third, anyone at all can also set themselves up as an organisation to help authors self-publish. No previous experience or any talent for the work is required. Those who run such companies *well* have, of course, both and they do provide a sterling service. As in any walk of life, sadly, you will also find cowboys. Fourth, editing is subjective – no two editors will edit a piece of text the same way, and most editors wouldn’t edit the same text the same way twice. I’d have said that, fifth, anyone can have an off day, but the experiences you describe sound like rather more than that. And sixth, though I’m sure it doesn’t apply in your case, of course – some authors will not like what they’re being told, in general or on specifics, and be quite sure it’s the editor’s fault. (Second plug warning…) The SfEP has a complaints procedure where a dissatisfied client of an SfEP member can get an objective view on the quality of the work. Sanctions can include refunds in whole or part, a requirement for additional training, or even ejection from the Society, if memory serves.

  6. Hi Sue,

    Many thanks for your sympathetic reply 🙂 It always helps to talk about problems, I find, and I feel a lot better now that I’ve not only got all my experiences off my chest but found somebody in a position of authority who both believes me and cares about my bad luck. At least, I would *hope* that I’m just the unluckiest author in the world, and that my experiences aren’t typical. But sadly, all I can say is that – from my own personal experience – the editorial community has had a 100 failure rate 🙂

    Actually, my first editor was quite experienced in editing – having worked for a publisher for many years before setting up their own independent editorial service, which they combined with a ‘literary agent referral’ service. To be fair to her, she did offer to refer my MS to an agent (after her initial critique) if it met with an unspecified level of ‘improvement’ following her advice. But then, as I said above, her advice was so self-contradictory, and part of it so irrelevant to my MS (especially after her reluctance to discuss anything) contained in it) that I was left unable to understand what changes might meet with success. Which left me with no option but to cut my losses & ask for a refund. What that consisted of was me writing a 10 page critique on her original 10 page critique (which I quite enjoyed doing, actually, and found it very cathartic – maybe I’ve missed my calling and should have become a literary editor/critic myself 🙂 Anyway, as I say, she actually thanked me for my detailed comments & refunded half the cost without argument.

    The second editor wasn’t so bad (being a published author themselves, as well as being a *very* experience editor), but after a while, I could see things heading the same way, with self-contradictory advice (I mean, how on earth can any of us work with an editor who repeatedly tells us to do the opposite of what they’ve already told us to do?).

    The third editor was of course the worst, despite – again – being very experienced, and in fact (apparently) the ‘editor in chief’ of that particular self-publishing company. The company itself has been going for over a decade and has got several thousand books published, and their detailed comparison between themselves and rival companies (on their own website) seems to put them head and shoulders above everyone else… So go figure 🙂 I don’t know, maybe God just doesn’t like me, and ensures that whenever I try working with anybody, I get them on a *really* bad day (week/month). When I – again – sent a detailed critique of the editor’s critique to the rest of that company, they were very apologetic, offering to get that editor to do further editing for me at no extra cost (which was not necessarily an appealing prospect for me, as I’m sure you can understand 🙂

    But like you, I was also surprised that nobody else seemed to have – or was willing to voice – any negative experiences with editors. I mean, according to my experiences, there *must* be other unhappy authors out there 🙂


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