Ask Aunt Elizabeth: How do I let my boyfriend know his manuscript sucks?

By Elizabeth d’Anjou

Looking for advice on editing the editing life? Whether you’re a beginner looking for tips on starting out or an old hand looking for another perspective, veteran editor Aunt Elizabeth is ready to address your queries. Submit them to [email protected]—you may find the answers you are looking for in next month’s column.

1) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

I’m a long-time freelance editor with a successful business in the book publishing field. My boyfriend of the last four years just finished writing a manuscript, and he asked me to read it. I have been avoiding reading it for months. I finally finished it, and my worst fears were realized: it is terrible. The plot was boring, the characters were unbelievable, and the dialogue was riddled with clichés. Do you have any suggestions on how I should approach this sensitive situation? I want to be honest, but he’s so excited about the prospect of becoming a published author, and I don’t want to crush his dream.

Thank you for your advice,
Panicked in Port Hope

Dear Panicked,

Yikes. Every editor has awkward moments related to the writing of friends and relations from time to time, but your case is particularly unfortunate!

My approach is usually to tell friends/taxi drivers/church ladies who want to give me their manuscripts that I’m just a drudge—a hired-gun copy editor or structural editor who has zero influence on what gets published, zero understanding of how to get a publisher or agent to take a look at a manuscript, and zero market knowledge. Mysterious creatures called “acquisitions editors” make all those decisions, I explain, and they are like unicorns—nobody ever actually sees or meets them. I am only able to work on manuscripts after they have been acquired. (Of course, the point is I can only afford to work on them when someone is paying to have them edited, but I manage to make it sound as if it would be a great breach of professional ethics to do otherwise—almost illegal.)

If, however, your business involves acquisitions, or advising self-publishing authors, and you’ve made the very poor decision to make this fact clear to your boyfriend, this approach may not work. Unless you like the idea of disappearing overnight and starting a new life in the Cayman Islands (hey, they must need editors there!), you could say “I really enjoyed it—there is so much of you in it!” but then go on to stress that, alas, this isn’t the kind of book that your contacts publish.

In any case, what your boyfriend needs is some author peeps. You could start by suggesting he join the Canadian Authors Association; point out that its members are not dilettantes, but all are Serious About Writing, like he is (the fact that its members are willing to fork over $150 annually is, after all, evidence of seriousness). Better yet, get him blogging (if he isn’t already) and finding his niche in an online community of writers. It will make him feel like a writer, which is probably what he wants most of all. Other aspiring writers are his best bet for constructive criticism meted out gently and with a practical bent—and, who knows, maybe he’ll improve. Or maybe there is a readership out there for this awful book. (Can you really say the bookstore shelves are empty of boring plots and bad dialogue?)

2) A few weeks ago, I was contacted by someone who wrote an article expanding on some material I posted online in 2006. My 2006 post pointed out how several different authors in different countries approached a particular controversial and amusing theme. This guy tracked down the authors of two of the papers, interviewed them, and wrote up his findings in another language—a language that I speak and read. Then he wrote an English version, which I volunteered to edit because of my connection with the material. His English version was next to unintelligible, and I had to rely on his original-language version to figure out what he meant a lot of the time. He then published the revised English version online and credited me with editing it, though (a) he didn’t cite my 2006 web page, and (b) he didn’t follow most of my editorial suggestions, so there’s still a fair amount of strange grammar in it. The English version then went viral.

Now he’s asking me to edit a follow-up article. I’d like to stay on good terms with the author, so I made a suggestion to him about one glaring mistake in the English version, but I’m hesitating to edit the whole thing or even send him this comment without letting him know that I am currently deriving my entire income from freelance editing (so I would like him to consider paying me for future work). I’m not sure how to word it without sounding crass, even though I think he’d understand my situation because he has worked as a freelance writer in the past. I’m also somewhat annoyed that he credited me for editing something that is still filled with mistakes, but not for having alerted him to the existence of the works of at least one of the other authors he interviewed in the article that went viral (that is, from a paper in a language that he doesn’t read).

What do you suggest?


Intellectual Property and Edit Credit Annoyance Conundrum


Do not, repeat, do not do any more editing for this person who does not pay and who ignores your editorial suggestions! You can stay on good terms without being taken advantage of. Tell him you are flattered to be asked to work with him again, but regret that you are all booked up with other freelance work for the foreseeable future and don’t have time. Say you’ll be happy to recommend a colleague who could help him out for a reasonable rate, and then do so. (Be sure to mention the rates, lest he assume the colleague will work for free.)

While you are in communication with him, ask him to add a link to your original material both in this piece and the earlier one. Don’t make it sound like a big favour; phrase it as what it is: a simple request that assumes a positive response, from one colleague in the community of people interested in this topic to another. You might even suggest some wording (“For an earlier exploration of these themes, see…”), so he just has to cut and paste. You can also say you’ve added a link to his piece from your page—and do so. If he doesn’t pay you this simple courtesy, ask again, phrasing it as if you are sure it’s an oversight.

If he refuses or ignores you, use a (bilingual) comment on his post (or Twitter if the page doesn’t have comments) to get the connection to your material out there. Again, keep the tone friendly, but assume your right to participate in the discussion: “I enjoyed your findings on this topic, especially X! Some of your readers might enjoy my own brief 2006 take on the matter, which can be found here [link].”

Elizabeth d’Anjou is a third-generation editor with over 20 years’ experience. A past chair of Editors Toronto, she has worked freelance, in-house, and in-between; teaches both grammar and copy editing online courses for Ryerson; and is a sought-after presenter on all subjects editorial. She is also a rather competent tomato gardener and tweets as @ElizdAnjou.

This article was copy edited by Ambrose Li.

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