Two weeks ago I talked about how it feels to be on the receiving end of a harsh critique. It’s something I often experienced as a new writer, so I knew how it would feel. What I never considered, however, was how it would feel to be on the other side of the critique:
What happens when you’re an editor and you need to really mark up a manuscript?
Most of the time things are fine: writers know that you’re going to mark their errors, and they’re willing to pay you to do that. But what happens when it goes wrong? What happens when your author isn’t ready for the edits you’ve made, and he doesn’t know how to handle all of the comments and changes?
I recently found myself in this situation. Someone hired me to do a substantive edit, but when said author received the edit, it surprised, upset, and offended the author. My gut reaction was offense – I’m the professional and he hired me! Why would he question me?
But then I remembered what it’s like to receive pages of edits when you’re only expecting a few comments. It is hurtful. It is shocking. And it’s confusing when you’re not entirely sure how something you’re so proud of could seem so horrible to someone else (for the record: I’ve never considered anyone’s manuscript to be horrible – they all have potential and require differing degrees of work, but that’s for another day).
I’ve already given you tips on how to handle that edit if you’re the writer; here’s a look at what I did as the editor after I received an email from an unsatisfied client:
- Step away. The same way a writer steps away, I needed to step away from the situation to make sure I was responding professionally and not emotionally.
- Read your writer’s concerns. I read, re-read, then re-read again the email from my client. I wanted to make sure I knew exactly what happened so I knew exactly how I could help.
- Double check your correspondences. The first thing I checked was the contract – did I perform the edit as discussed in the contract (i.e. if we agreed to a line edit, did I do a line edit or a substantive edit)? Next I checked all of our emails to make sure I received and responded to all of my client’s comments.
- Double check your work. I not only reviewed the manuscript, I reviewed my comments and suggestions to make sure everything was in order.
- If needed, get advice. As this was my first unhappy client, I turned to the experts – I talked with more experienced editors to find out how I should handle the situation (and to see if there was anything I should have done differently – I did receive some nice suggestions).
- I can say with absolute sincerity that I believe I gave my client a good edit and good advice, but that doesn’t matter. The author/editor relationship is just that – a relationship. I didn’t mean to hurt or offend, but I did. I stand behind my work, but I did apologize for the miscommunication and confusion that caused this author so much pain.
- From my point-of-view it looked like I had completed the edit as agreed to and contracted, but obviously my client didn’t feel that way, and that’s what really matters. I not only reached out to my client, I asked to schedule a phone call so we could discuss the situation and clarify any concerns and misunderstanding.
- Offer to help. My goal as an editor is always to help an author clean up a manuscript to make it as appealing as possible to agents and editors. I reminded my client of this goal, and offered to talk and work it out so there was no confusion as to how my edits would fulfill that goal.
- Walk away. After an apology, asking for clarification, and an offer to continue to help an author work toward publication, the only thing left for an editor to do is walk away and wait. The decision to keep working together or to walk away is in the author’s hands.
It really was heartbreaking for me to realize my work had surprised a client like that – my job is to help, not hurt. Sometimes, however, help can be painful. This situation was a little painful for me too, but I know that I’ve learned from it. I’m going to be a better editor because of it. And I hope all of my clients – past, present, and future – realize that their success is my goal, even if the path to get there is rockier than any of us expected.
Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? How did you handle it?