Ask the Editor: Editing with Nervous First-Time Writers

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2018-01-10

It’s been a while since I’ve written an “Ask the Editor” blog post! This time, I’m going to talk about how to make the editing process easier for nervous or skittish first-time writers.


While much of this advice might be geared towards how editors can work with writers, these tips can be very beneficial for writers having their work edited for the first time as well. If you are a writer, knowing what’s ahead can help you plan and understand some of the common reactions and potential issues that can pop up during the editing process.


Working with a writer who has never had their work edited before can bring with it a certain set of challenges – not every single time, but common enough that it’s possible to notice a pattern. Knowing how these could play out in advance will help an editor provide the best level of service and help them empathize with their new-writer clients.


Common Reactions to Editing

Authors can often feel (and perhaps rightfully so) very protective of their work. It is something they have worked hard on, and authors usually see themselves as experts in whatever it is they are writing about, whether it’s a memoir about themselves or an article/book they’ve written about their chosen field of work or study. Editors should be aware of these feelings, as they can tie in to the editing process in a variety of ways. Authors may feel that they “know best,” and may resist certain suggestions or changes you make. While this can be frustrating for both parties, the best you can do as an editor is explain to the author why you are recommending they make this change and how it will benefit the work.


Remember, the author may be an expert in their field, but you are an editor in yours as well! The author brought you on board for a reason, and sometimes this can get lost in the back-and-forth arguments or tension involved in editing with a writer who feels quite defensive. However, the author should always have final say over any changes to the work. The best you can do is make your case, and if the author rejects it, then its best to move on.


The inverse of this situation can also be true, and can be equally as upsetting to authors. Some authors can be hyperaware of your expertise as an editor, and this may cause them to feel that they should automatically defer to your judgement, even if they don’t feel totally comfortable with a suggestion or change. This type of dynamic can lead to the author feeling trampled on, and being unhappy with the final document.


To prevent this from happening, an editor can take some time, before the editing process begins, to explain to the author that the editing process is by nature a collaborative one, and you want them to be happy with the final product. Remind them that if they have questions or concerns, it’s important and expected that they speak up. You’re two people on the same team, not adversaries! The author should feel like they have power in the editor­–writer relationship, because they do.


One worrisome situation that can pop up is the author reacting negatively in response to large suggested changes or a more-than-expected amount of criticism from the editor. Some authors just don’t expect to have very many problematic things found in their work, and if it turns out that the document requires a lot of editing or restructuring to get it to the stage the author has requested (quite often ready for publishing or for academic submission), they can become very upset. Hopefully this is an issue that editors won’t encounter often, but if it does come up, just try to maintain a tactful and empathetic mindset.


To avoid this situation occurring further into the editing process, it may be a good idea to request that authors send you their full work in order to provide them with a quote, as opposed to only using a section or sample of the document for quoting purposes.


One simple tip that can ease the editing process for both editors and authors is this:


Editors, it is always helpful to provide memos or notes that can help guide the author through your edits by explaining the changes and why they are beneficial to the work.


Authors, it is important to read these memos! Take the time to understand the feedback from your editor so you understand how they have approached and edited your work. And take note of suggestions or questions the editor asks. Responding to questions can help your editor perform their duties even better. It can be exciting to get your edited manuscript back, but even if you want to see the edited piece immediately, take a moment to check if your editor attached any additional documents for your benefit. This method avoids the potential shock you could experience when you see changes to your work.


The Golden (Editorial) Rule

Lastly, remember: Editing is not necessarily fast, and it is pretty much never a “quick fix.” It is always helpful to keep your expectations realistic. If someone called you, as a writer, and asked you to write a 30-page paper in 24 hours, you would think they were crazy! Yet you would be surprised by the number of calls we get to the TEC office asking us to copy edit 30-page papers with a 24-hour turnaround. (Remember, editors do occasionally like to leave the office and return home!)


Editing is a process that should by nature occur at a measured and deliberate pace – you do not want your editor rushing. So, allot your editor the appropriate amount of time to complete your work. Contact them well ahead of when your project is due!


Editing a first-time author’s work can certainly be very frustrating for an editor (and for the author). By using the advice and tips above, both author and editor can create a great working dynamic that will help both parties achieve exactly the outcome they want.