Ask Aunt Elizabeth: The authors I work with see me as the enemy

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,

At my current in-house editorial job, I have to provide feedback to authors on ways they can improve their writing. This often involves using examples from their work, explaining why the examples are incorrect, and discussing possible solutions. I also rate them on the quality of their work, and these ratings are used to determine their bonuses.

While I try to be diplomatic, half the time the authors resist my suggestions and refuse to incorporate them, sometimes rudely questioning my qualifications. This often translates into no improvement in their work and the continued assignation of low ratings by me. It’s a vicious cycle that is not conducive to a good working relationship.

How do I encourage the authors to work with me and not against me? How do I let the authors know we are part of the same team?


Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Dear Between a Rock and a Hard Place,

I have, as they say in The Princess Bride, bad news for you, señor: You and the authors are not part of the same team. Your employers made sure of that when they made your rating the deciding factor in whether an author can afford a vacation this summer or not.

(Seriously?! That arrangement with an editor exists? I am actually really hoping this question was dreamed up by the BoldFace editors as an attempt to stump me!)

You’re management, and they’re your underlings. Yet you’re also expected to be their writing coach and their editor, a combination of roles that works best when the author has hired you. The only relationship in which all these roles mesh, it seems to me, is one where you are essentially a mentor. That’s hard to establish unless you have some say over who gets to be your mentee—you haven’t indicated whether your ratings power extends to hiring and firing, or at least recommendations on staffing. Tell the big boss that one of the qualifications for this author’s job must be a willingness to work with an editor and a desire to improve writing skills.

Whether you succeed in that endeavour or not, the best road to getting authors to heed editorial advice is always to establish some kind of connection. That can be hard to do when there is already an antagonism, but not impossible! Look for something, anything, you have in common with each author, and try to build on it. Seize on any positive thing you can say about everyone’s work.

Also take a hard look at your own attitude and tone. Maybe you are actually brimming with tact, but your phrasing “I try to be diplomatic but…” doesn’t lead me to assume that’s the case. Try to spend less time explaining why things are incorrect and more time listening to what the author is trying to achieve, and phrase your edits as suggestions to help them do that.

Finally, make sure your editing skills merit the power you have over these authors; all the tact (and advice!) in the world won’t help if they don’t. Ask an editor you admire to look over some of your work and give you feedback (offer to pay for this service), or check out the self-tests in Meeting Professional Editorial Standards. If you know your stuff, then there’s no need to take umbrage that someone would “question” your “qualifications”; instead of being defensive yourself, focus on demonstrating your expertise, including your new, improved author communication skills.

(2) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

I am a freelance copy editor who is a little perplexed as to why she sometimes passes clients’ editing tests and sometimes not. I keep my skills up to date through seminars, etc., and know through feedback from established editors and past clients that I am pretty darn good at what I do. So what gives? Are editing tests completely subjective? Am I missing something? Please tell me the secret to test success!


Seeking Answers

Dear Seeking,

Editing tests are like editing clients—a very mixed bag.

First of all, just because you don’t get a follow-up interview doesn’t necessarily mean you “failed” a test; it might mean that you were the second-best candidate who took it, but the best one got the job. (You may well get a call six months later, when that other candidate gets promoted—or pregnant.)

If the test is a pass/fail one and the client makes clear you definitely failed, you may just not have had the specific strengths the client was looking for.

It’s reasonable to ask for further feedback if you are told you failed an editing test; some organizations will be willing to let you see your marked exam, or to give you some general indication of why you didn’t pass muster. Some won’t be, however, and you should just accept that and move on. There’s enough work out there for editors with good skills, and you don’t want to work for an organization that doesn’t recognize them. (See the first letter in this column.)


Elizabeth d’Anjou is a third-generation editor with over 20 years of 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 Mariah Ramsawakh.

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