Difficult authors: 14 tips for editors

Editors deal with all types of clients. Many of them are pleasant and easy to work with. Some can be very difficult. In a previous article, freelance copy-editor Sue Littleford discusses different sorts of difficult clients and the problems an editor faces. Here she follows up with some useful tips on how to tackle these issues. 

Here are a bunch of strategies that may help should you have the misfortune to encounter any difficult authors (who, I stress, are the minority!).

1) Trust your instincts

If the client makes you feel uneasy at any point during the negotiation stage, trust your instincts and don’t take on the job. Do NOT cross your fingers and think, oh, it’ll be okay. While you’re dealing with a client you don’t want to have, you’re using up the time and energy you could have spent finding the client you want. A really bad client will be an enormous drain on you.

2) Test the waters

If you’re not sure about a client, offer a paid-for sample edit, the cost to be offset against the final invoice. You’ll get to see not only the writing, but how the author responds to your edits and your invoices. I have declined to work on a handful of jobs as a result, with no regrets.

3) Define your terminology

Have a document you send to prospective clients, or a page on your website, that explains the differences between the services you offer, and check they understand what it is they’ve asked you to do to be sure it’s what they actually want you to do.

4) Define your quality

Don’t promise to deliver ‘perfect’ text. You’re human, so you won’t. Don’t raise your client’s expectations to an unreasonable level. Remember the old adage – underpromise, overdeliver.

5) Pre-empt

This one is so important, as it deals with several of the ways authors can be difficult. Have a contract that says exactly what work you will do, referring to the definitions you’ve supplied, how you will deal with re-edits, and edits of changes or additional material, for what reasons you will walk away or the client can, payments in instalments, what happens to those instalments if either of you fires the other, whether you must be paid the balance of your fee before you release the files – think about every way a job could go wrong and anticipate it in your contract. Whenever you finish a sticky job see whether you need to update your contract. In the UK, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders provides a template contract to use as a starting point.

6) Put yourself in the author’s shoes

If you were on the receiving end of your edits, how would you feel? You may think the author is an unconscionable idiot, but are you rubbing them up the wrong way whilst savaging their literary baby? Are you giving the author what they need and what they are paying you to do? Are those two things the same? Is there a conversation to be had now you’re further into the text and more of its horrors are being revealed?

7) Learn how to query and comment gracefully

It’s hard to be criticised. And that’s what queries about the text are – you’re saying the author didn’t get it right. So be kind, and clear, and pepper your queries with words like ‘please’ and ‘perhaps’ and ‘would that be okay?’ no matter how exasperating the job. It’s doubly hard to be criticised if your editor seems to be scolding you. As editor, you may think you’re being brisk, but it will all too easily be read as brusque.

8) Consider that your author may conceivably know more than you on this subject

Don’t snap out a query each time something looks a bit weird. Look it up. You may find that your author is entirely correct. Odd-sounding turns of phrase may be exactly right in that field. And if you’ve looked it up and it’s still wrong, then your query will be all the better phrased because of your research – you may well have discovered what you think the author was aiming for, and now you just need it confirmed (or not).

9) Patience, patience, patience

You may be concentrating on the text, but the author’s life is proceeding apace. It’s no longer their main focus. You may have to wait your turn to get their attention. They may be dealing with problems you can’t begin to imagine.

10) Learn the art of the snottogram

This is my closely guarded secret, honed in many years in the civil service persuading senior officers to do things my way without offending them. If your author is threatening the publisher’s timetable, or is being uncooperative in some other way, send a carefully worded, polite but steely message that spells out the consequences of their behaviour, and what they need to do about it. Include a checklist of what’s outstanding – it could be they’ve just lost their way.

11) Vary your working practices

Try to work out what your author’s problem is, and see if a change to your usual way of working will help them out.

12) Set out your stall

Most of my work is in scholarly non-fiction, working for publishers and pre-press companies. In my introductory email to the author(s), I tell them the timetable, invite them to say if it’s a problem, tell them how queries will be handled, how often they can expect to hear from me, whether they get the whole amended text back for a last read-through or not, ask any initial questions I have based on the brief I’ve been given, and anything I’ve already noticed in the manuscript, and I encourage the author to tell me of any concerns they have about the edit, and anything they think I should know about the text before I start on it.

13) Alert the publisher early

Put the desk editor on warning that there may be trouble ahead. Could be they can do something about it. Could be they can produce some wiggle room in the timetable. At least they’re forewarned.

14) Communicate, communicate, communicate

I’m not saying this is a panacea, but talk to each other before it goes completely pear-shaped. Most editors I know prefer to keep all exchanges to emails – a sensible precaution for both sides, as there’s a record of what was said and agreed (or not agreed). Thrashing things out by phone or on Skype is sometimes the only way to go. Make notes as you go, write up the conversation immediately afterwards, email it to the author as a record and ask them to agree it or to correct it. The key is to take action early, not hold on in silence and hope things will miraculously improve. Sometimes you need to be proactive – a new author may need a bit of education about the publishing world. Even an experienced author may not realise the impact their action or inaction is having. No author wants to have the edit go badly.

One final point – the Society for Editors and Proofreaders requires its members to adhere to its Code of Practice. If an author feels that a member editor hasn’t done so, then there is a complaints route.

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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