Building strong author-editor relationships through collaborative editing

Kiera Jamison

Ah, to be a new editor, full of the conviction that your role, your duty, is to restore order to linguistic chaos. With a meticulous adherence to grammatical rules and your company’s house style, you set out to ensure clear communication, and perhaps even ‘good writing’. You can’t wait to set upon the untidy manuscripts that come across your desk.

However, vexingly, authors don’t always seem to appreciate your superior insights and corrections; they fight back, or try to hang on to completely unnecessary sections or odd turns of phrase. Why can’t they see that you know what’s best for the reader, and so for the book? Why are they making this so difficult?

Sound familiar? It’s how many of us start out: well-meaning but inflexible. It means that edits can be a battle, and author relationships antagonistic. If you find yourself in the bunker, here are some of my hard-won lessons, from a decade in editorial positions, to help you achieve a more rewarding editing process and more fulfilling, collaborative author relationships.

Manage expectations. If you ask me, this is, hands down, the most important part of an editor’s job. Set out clearly what you and the team are likely to be able to deliver – from deadlines to how each person will work with them, to realistic expectations on sales and media coverage. The idea is to help your author understand to whom, and why, they’ll need to cede some control of the book. If you sense an author’s expectations aren’t aligned with what you can deliver, don’t ignore the situation. (That way painful recriminations lie.) Check in, explain honestly, and keep positive about what you’ve already achieved.

Gain trust. You do this by investing in the author: listening, adapting, showing respect and, yes, setting clear expectations. Trust is crucial when sending/receiving feedback on a manuscript. The changes you make will sometimes be personal, sometimes factual, and sometimes a matter of judgement. No matter how good a writer they are, authors will overstretch tenuous connections, leave gaps in the narrative, insert too much of themselves, display bias, confuse names, or extrapolate beyond the reach of a study’s findings. It happens to everyone. You need to have established trust in order to say, ‘I love the anecdote about you in X, but let’s take this other one out so that we’re giving space for…’, or ‘I’ve looked into this further and I’m not convinced the evidence backs up the claim that…’ or ‘Some of the language here makes me uncomfortable. Could you revisit?’

It’s not always easy to get this right, but try revisiting edits and comments you gave a few months ago: are you happy with the tone you used and how clear you were? If you were in the author’s shoes, would you be happy to receive that edit?

Don’t play tug-of-war. Often writers will engage thoughtfully with your comments and be open to changes. On some points they’ll push back and defend an idea or phrasing. If you think it’s really key to make a change, keep a dialogue going. If, on reflection, it’s just your personal preference and not a big deal, don’t keep pushing just so you can have it your way.

Remember whose name is on the cover. The author needs to feel proud of the book they’ve written, not like it has been taken away from them because of how much you’ve rewritten, or how hard you’ve pushed them in a direction they’re not happy with. Respect their voice and their vision.

Reframe the relationship. When editing, you’re using your experience and intuition to improve the manuscript for readers. You also have an advantage over the author of a critical distance from the material. But don’t imagine that you’re the perfect representative of every potential reader. It’s not you and the reader vs. the author. Instead, see yourselves as collaborators, working together to build on the draft and create a better book than you could have created working individually. Be aware of your own biases and limitations, and use that to be more compassionate; you’re not always right (and the author, if they disagree with you, always wrong).

Collaboration doesn’t mean agreeing to everything. Don’t go too far the other way, humbled by an author’s lofty position or expertise. If something doesn’t sound right, question it. If the author assumes knowledge you don’t think the reader would have, flag it up. If you keep losing track of characters, or how different elements fit into the storyline or timeframe, something needs changing. Remember, you have skills and experience they don’t. You can offer more than simple facilitation: as a builder, muse, mentor, magician, technician.

Editing can be a lot of fun (and – let’s set realistic expectations – a lot of stress, simultaneously). If it always feels like a battle, stop blaming those pesky authors, put down your weapons, and join their side.

Kiera Jamison is a Senior Commissioning Editor for publisher Icon Books, where she has built a list that comprises everything from non-fiction comics to psychology to books on feminism and gender. She has enjoyed recent collaborations on side hustles, with Bec Evans’s How to Have a Happy Hustle, and on the sixties counterculture, with James Riley’s The Bad Trip.

Follow Kiera on Twitter at @theportablekj.

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