Five steps to successfully editing for a controlling client

By Jessica Trudel

Five steps to successfully editing for a controlling client

To outsiders, editing seems like a very straightforward process: read a document, fix the mistakes, and rinse and repeat. What we editorial insiders know, though, is that no two editing projects are exactly alike.

Think about it. Each project you work on involves a new and different

  • client
  • document
  • intended audience
  • purpose

Your editing process will have to adapt to these and many other factors.

I had to learn this lesson the hard way. After years of editing documents for businesses where each step of the process was fairly cut and dried, I met a woman named Debbie, who asked me to edit a document for her. Given that it was a corporate report, I thought it would be just like all the others that had gone before. I quickly learned, however, that my usual process would not work with Debbie. I ended up wasting numerous hours fixing things she would later decide she didn’t want fixed.

Debbie, it turned out, was a control freak.

The following five steps outline a specific editing approach for working with clients who have trouble letting go of the reins. From here on in, I will refer to the controlling client as “she,” in remembrance of Debbie.

1. Ask questions

Find out exactly what the client expects of you. Does she want you to keep the content as is and just fix technical errors? Does she want you to suggest ways to make it better without actually making the changes? A true control freak will likely want to see a list of proposed changes before either telling you which ones she’d like you to make or making the changes in the original document herself and giving it back to you. Get the client’s instructions in writing, if possible, to avoid inevitable blowback later.

2. Track your changes

Once you know exactly how the client wants you to proceed, do so…but with caution. When dealing with a controlling client, you should absolutely track every change you make; the longer your paper trail, the better. Turn on the “Track Changes” feature in your word processor, or keep all your rough notes until the project is completed and you have payment in hand.

3. Nail down the content

You may be tempted to begin by fixing the easy things, like extra spaces between words or common errors like its and it’s, to get rid of the distracting clutter on the page. Don’t. Your client will undo all your hard work by not accepting half the changes you make. She’ll then repeat errors as she adds new content.

Don’t waste a single second on grammar, spelling, punctuation, or formatting until the content is nailed down. Focus all your energy on the content until your client has nothing more to add, omit, or change. When you send the document to your client, which you may do many times throughout this stage, remind her that you haven’t edited the document for technical issues; you’d just like her opinion on overall content and style. Exhaust and impress her with your thoroughness.

4. Get technical

With content firmly in place, you can now fix all the technical issues, like grammar, spelling, punctuation, spacing, page breaks, and so on. While I was working with her, she often asked me, “Why wasn’t this done at an earlier stage?” I had to tell her, “It was!” Due to her constant pushback, my work was often being undone, resulting in many wasted hours. When working with a controlling client, I highly recommend you save the technical edits for last. Most importantly, resist any temptation to make changes to the content at this point. You’ll see why in the next and final step.

5. Stand your ground

A true control freak doesn’t know her limits, so she’ll likely try to push back, even after the document is done. She’ll ask if a comma really belongs where you placed it. She’ll say the content still isn’t quite right. Now is the time for you to stand your ground. Remind her that you’d already confirmed the content with her and that you haven’t made any substantive changes since then. Also ask her (as politely as possible) to trust your expertise with regard to technical errors. You are, after all, the professional editor, and she did, after all, hire you. Above all, don’t allow your client to change the scope of the project—unless she’s willing to pay you extra. Remember what you’re worth.

There you have it: a short guide to successfully editing for a controlling client. Of course, you won’t know in advance who is a control freak and who isn’t, so it likely makes sense to follow these steps on every project—like I now do.

Jessica Trudel is a professional writer and editor based in Timmins, Ontario. A mother of four, Jessica is known in local circles for being an outspoken advocate for arts in the north. 

This article was copy edited by Sylvia McCluskey.

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