How to Have a Good Author-Editor Relationship

“I’ve heard horror stories about editors,” an author told me recently at the start of a project. Another said to me, “I was really expecting the worst during editing.” Horror stories? The worst? Really? What is going on in the publishing world that has authors dreading editors and their fiendish red pencils? I know a lot of editors, and I don’t think we’re a horrible lot. Yet editors do offer up similar lamentations about working with authors: “I need to start charging a stupidity fee” or “Why won’t they just accept that I’m right.” If you’re on either side of this editorial war, I recommend you read on for some rules of engagement:

1. The No Asshole Rule: Editors, authors aren’t trying to push every one of your buttons, and authors, editors aren’t trying to remove all of the personality from your writing. So let’s keep the snide remarks, the thinly veiled judgments, and the condescension out of the editorial process. And if you feel yourself writing a note, memo, or email in anger or frustration, wait a while and reread it before you send it on. Oh, and read The No-Asshole Rule.

2. The Be Reasonable Rule: Yes, there are rules of grammar. And yes, there are guidelines for style. But the guidelines are just that: guidelines. They are not the Ten Commandments. Nobody will go to Hell for breaking them. And as much as I believe in the Chicago Manual of Style, think about how many ambiguous guidelines it offers up or how many changes they make from one edition to the next. So, editors, to quote my favorite style guide, “when a writer expresses a strong preference for a style that’s reasonable and harmless, there isn’t much point in fighting over it, especially if he has already prepared the manuscript consistently with that style.” And authors, give your editors a break and don’t ask them to break too many “rules.” There’s a pretty good reason for most of them, and we editors like our rules.

3. The Mutual Respect Rule: Editing should be a collaborative process based on mutual respect. The editor should respect the author’s expertise and passion. The author should respect the editor’s expertise and passion. Let’s establish two assumptions on which to base the editor-author relationship: (1) Everybody is doing their best to create a manuscript that is as good as it can be. (2) Nobody is infallible.

And remember, without authors, there would be no editors, and without editors, we’d be reading books with typos, dangling modifiers, poorly executed plot arcs . . .