Editors Advise: Dealing with Your Clients

In this series, Editors Toronto members and BoldFace contributors share their experiences, insights, and tips on the practical aspects of working as an editor or writer. In the previous edition of “Editors Advise,” six editors recommended their go-to websites and books on grammar and style. This time we zero in on the editor-client relationship: handling difficult situations and writing queries.

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Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

If you’ve ever had a difficult experience with a client, what have you learned from that experience?

Photo of Erin Della Mattia

Erin Della Mattia (she/her), writer and freelance editor

When I was volunteering for a literary magazine, there was this incident involving an author, another editor, and me. I won’t go into details, but there were some concerns over problematic content that ended up being completely baseless. My mistake was that, wanting to help out the other editor, I overstepped my role as intermediary between them and the author. This damaged my working relationship with the author and ultimately did nothing to help the other editor.

Also, it wasn’t until afterwards that I spoke to the editor-in-chief about the situation. I had wanted to handle it by myself, out of fear that doing otherwise would delay our production schedule. But now I realize that, when a difficult issue comes up, it’s better to ask a trusted person for their perspective, even if it creates delays, because it can help you avoid making the issue worse.

Photo of Berna Ozunal

Berna Ozunal (she/her), certified professional editor and editing instructor

I’ve been very fortunate with clients and employers. The few times when there have been issues, what I’ve learned is—even though it’s a cliché—“listen to your gut.” (There are neurons in our guts, so there’s a reason that expression exists.) And if your gut says to walk away, then walk away at the appropriate time (after fulfilling all obligations if applicable). Do it graciously and gracefully if possible.

Photo of Vilma Indra Vītols

Vilma Indra Vītols (she/her), freelance editor-in-training

“If you find yourself becoming annoyed with the author…, do not write queries until your mood has improved.” I had come across this advice in Amy Einsohn and Marylin Schwartz’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook before I formally learned about the art of the query, and it saved my sanity when I was dealing with my very first client, who disagreed with me on a particular issue I felt strongly about.

That experience taught me the importance of maintaining a professional tone and always finding something positive to say even while strongly disagreeing with an author’s decision.

Photo of Michelle Waitzman

Michelle Waitzman (she/her), writer and copy editor

The main difficulty I find working with my legal clients (either lawyers or law professors) is that their writing is not their main focus. They are doing this “in their spare time,” and it is not a priority to hit deadlines and move through the stages of editing. I’ve worked on textbooks with up to 13 different authors collaborating, and sometimes it feels like herding cats. What have I learned? (1) Always ask how many authors are involved. (2) Try to have a “lead author” who is in charge of keeping everyone on track throughout the editing process. (3) Accept that, to some authors, deadlines are more like suggestions.

Do you have your own “shortcuts” for writing queries explaining complex grammar issues in a straightforward way? Can you share some examples or tips?

Photo of Erin Della Mattia

Erin Della Mattia (she/her), writer and freelance editor

This may seem like I’m sidestepping the question, but I’ve found that instead of entering into long explanations, I give the power back to the writer themself by asking for clarity. For instance, if I come across a sentence that, because of its errors, can have a variety of meanings, I offer the writer two or three interpretations and ask which one best represents what they’re trying to express. Of course, this doesn’t work in every situation, especially when the writer repeats the same error over and over again. But if you determine that it wouldn’t be beneficial to either yourself or the writer to explain a grammar issue, then why not focus on finding the best expression of the writer’s meaning?

Photo of Adrineh Der-Boghossian

Adrineh Der-Boghossian (she/her), project manager and freelance editor

I don’t have a shortcut (though I’ve been meaning to learn to use macros for query shortcuts!), but I do have a tip: not every manuscript or author requires explaining complex grammar issues. Sometimes authors (or publishers) want you to make the correction—no explanation needed. I understand this is a bit of a non-answer, but it is something I’ve learned working with a hybrid publisher.

Photo of Berna Ozunal

Berna Ozunal (she/her), certified professional editor and editing instructor

I try to avoid grammatical explanations in my queries, especially complex ones. In my experience, most reviewers just do not have the time to care about these things—they have bigger fish to fry. If someone does care, they’ll ask you, and then you can provide an explanation. That’s my experience, and that’s what I think is the best approach.

Photo of Michelle Waitzman

Michelle Waitzman (she/her), writer and copy editor

Most of my authors are not writers; they are subject-matter experts. They see me as the grammar expert. As a result, they aren’t terribly interested in learning about complex grammar issues; they just want me to fix them. I will leave a comment that a sentence was “revised for grammar,” and occasionally (very occasionally) an author will ask for a more detailed explanation of why their grammar was incorrect.

This article was copy edited by Isobel Andjelkovic.

One thought on “Editors Advise: Dealing with Your Clients

  1. It’s interesting that we all had very similar answers to the second question. As I reflected on it more, I realized that a different approach (when relevant) would be to direct clients to a blog post or article that explains the grammar in more detail than you would be able to do in a marginal comment or editorial letter.


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