by Michael Bedford
Published at 2021-11-10
Writing fiction and non-fiction presents trade-specific challenges to authors, and editors provide valuable advice that can help turn a manuscript into a book, whether it’s a novel or a home improvement guide. That said, although someone may have a great idea for a book, the onus is on the book’s author to turn that great idea into a piece of writing worth reading.
Editors can only do so much before having to suggest that a manuscript needs more work, but that doesn’t mean we should be rude about it. So, here are some tips for editors on how to help authors manage their expectations when getting the editing underway.
Unless you’re in the habit of doing pro-bono editorial work, editorial costs tend to go up as projects become more involved. Just make sure your client understands this fundamental fact. One way to ensure that you’re both on the same page is to ask for a sample of your client’s manuscript before providing your estimate.
After looking over the author’s work and getting a sense of how involved the project is likely to be for you, you’ll be able to provide a project-specific estimate. Also, emphasize that this is an estimate that could go up or down depending on how demanding the work is—this is a great tactic to use with authors because it also encourages them to turn in slightly more polished work.
If a client isn’t willing to deal fairly by giving you an idea of what you’re getting into, you’re likely better off knowing this before furnishing them with your professional services.
No matter the topic, your client’s manuscript represents, at the very least, a lot of hard work to them. Writing a manuscript, even a confusing one full of problems, can take months or even years. So, even if a full rewrite is in order, remember to be diplomatic or you run the risk of scaring your client off.
Talk to your client about the things you like about their manuscript, and then suggest ways that they can address the concerns you have. Getting an author to create project and chapter outlines is a great way to get a sense of what their overall vision for their book is. From there, you can decide how best to approach edits.
Few things please an editor more than to find out that their talents led to the profitable publication of a book—but, as many authors and editors know, completing editorial work does not guarantee that a manuscript will be selected for publication by a publishing house.
If faced with this dreaded question, I tend to reply that, though I can’t guarantee that the book will be of interest to a publishing house, I will do my best to develop the manuscript into something I would feel comfortable submitting to a publishing house myself. Publishers, like authors, must defer to whims of the book-buying public, so, no matter your faith in the manuscript, discourage clients from counting their books before they’re bound.
Once you’ve gotten a sense of what will be involved in working the kinks out of your client’s manuscript, make sure you both agree on a timeline that works for both parties. Much like providing an estimate, the breadth of an editorial timeline should be relative to the difficulty level of the work and how much of it there is to do.
If your client’s idea of an appropriate timeline is significantly shorter than yours, it may be an indication that they have unrealistic expectations about their manuscript. If they do, try discussing why you think the project could take a bit longer, and, as always, be as diplomatic as possible.
Even if you’ve done everything above, it’s important to have regular check-ins with your client to make sure that the edits and suggestions you’ve been making make sense to them. Although some people are happy to rely solely on email, I prefer having phone or, if possible, face-to-face conversations since people tend to be a bit more unfiltered when talking about their ideas in person compared to over email.
Meeting face to face also offers authors and editors an opportunity to consider each other as people rather than as disembodied voices or perpetual email correspondents. This allows both parties an opportunity to develop some amount of sympathy and understanding for each other.
In this article by Sue Littleford, it’s clear her approach to editor-author relations is slightly different from mine, but her final point is the same, “Communicate, communicate, communicate.”
Finally, word of mouth and good reviews play a big part in securing new and return editorial clients. So, even if your client is difficult, it’s best to try to make their experience as comfortable as possible. That’s not to say that editors should make themselves doormats to get good reviews. Just remember to leave the ego to the author and let your work speak for itself.
Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Stoney Creek, Ontario. He can be reached at https://mgb-editor.com/.
For more on conversations with authors, see:
Providing Feedback for Authors: How Editors Can Do It Right
Editing with Empathy: Understanding and Sharing the Feelings of Your Author
Editing as a Conversation with Authors