The relationship between author and editor is like a couple in an arranged marriage. The two have seen each other around, maybe they’ve even made small talk, but they don’t really know what makes the other one tick. This is why query can be so difficult. There’s a sensitivity that must surround these situations because of this. The natural way the editor speaks may be too rough for the author, or they might like asking many thorough questions, but the author would rather not be bothered at this stage in the publishing process. There’s just no way of knowing beforehand if the person editing your work is going to have chemistry with you. In the second chapter of The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn lays out tips for proper editing etiquette, from tone and how one might phrase their ideas for the piece without offending the writer, to when it’s acceptable to speak to the author instead of making changes by oneself. These are all guidelines to help editor and author meet in the middle, but even with these tips I’m still concerned about my future interactions with an editor because of the generation entering the field and my control issues.
Einsohn says, “treat the manuscript, no matter how poorly written or prepared, as though it were the author’s ugly newborn. That is, no matter how ugly you think the baby is, you would never say so to the new mother or father” (45). I appreciated her advice, as I’m sure many other writers who have been burned by a peer editing situation gone wrong do as well. For one of my English classes last year I wrote a fictional piece where a woman in her early twenties tries to leave her small town to get away from her abusive father. A few days before she’s supposed to leave she goes to the bank to get her money and close her private account. However, while she’s there she discovers she can’t leave because almost all of her money is missing, as her mother had gone into the private account and withdrawn the money for the main character’s brother. I brought the story into class where my classmates and I swapped papers to peer edit each other’s work, and after class while flipping through my paper I noticed a comment made by the girl who sat next to me, “This isn’t how a bank works…”
The ellipsis enraged me. Maybe she wasn’t implying that I was stupid, and I was making a big deal out of nothing; I’ve been known to do this, but this is how I received the comment. She went on to say that it wasn’t possible for parents to withdraw money from their grown daughter’s private account. The fact is, this portion of the story was based on the life of my great grandmother who went through the same situation in the early 20th century, the same time period I set my story in. I wasn’t frustrated in the fact that my classmate brought up the strangeness of the situation, but rather in the way she presented her concern.
Einsohn specifically examines how the tone of editors is important when they express themselves in person or on the page. For example, instead of saying “I don’t find this convincing,” you could say, “Will readers trained in structural analysis accept this conclusion as stated?” to help maintain a civil and respectful relationship. One thing I noticed in the examples she provides is that many of the revised statements end in a question mark, and by phrasing your suggestions as questions you are still leaving the author in charge of his or her own writing. This helps the writer to not feel stripped of their authority. Einsohn says, “Above all, queries should not sound as though you might be challenging the author’s expertise or intellectual ability” (43). If my classmate had written “Is this accurate with how banks operated back then?” on my paper, I would have respected her reservations about the detail. Saying, “This isn’t how a bank works…” immediately steals my authority as an author and gives it to the editor, who is suddenly claiming to be an expert on the subject. This is why I’m even more cautious with my own edits, as I don’t want to make someone else feel inferior for work they have a lot of pride in. If an actual editor had given me that feedback I wouldn’t be able to trust his or her judgement with any of the other comments made on the copy, and would have to take it elsewhere.
Personally, I don’t see this problem of inappropriate tone improving with new editors in future generations to come. This is the first generation to be required to attend school assemblies regarding cyberbullying. The connection I’m getting at? People gain confidence when they’re alone with their computer. It’s easy for some to forget that an author was captivated enough by an idea to write it down, and more than that, they want to share it with others. They cherish the idea, as Einsohn points out, like a newborn child. If an editor isn’t face to face with the writer, they may give harsher feedback because there’s no immediate rebuttal to what they have to say about the story or article. They don’t even have to justify their editorial choices if they don’t feel like writing them out. Along with this, social media websites like Twitter, have helped this generation become perfectly accustom to saying whatever they want to in a limited space, (though all Twitter users are certainly not editors, the grammar you can find there is pretty horrendous). There’s no room for sugarcoating things on Twitter, just the cold hard truth. I worry that many will carry this mentality with them as they enter the publishing field and are left alone with the manuscript.
What I found most controversial about querying was how Einsohn often suggests not speaking to the author for every issue. She cautions the reader, “Query too often, and the author may become frustrated with the amount of time needed to read and respond to all your questions, comments and explanations” (40). Maybe it’s the control freak in me, but I, as the author would want to be involved in every detail my editor wanted to share. If I sent something out to be published for the whole world to see I would want my editor to run everything past me because I want the finished product to be as close to perfection as possible. I’d like to be saved the embarrassment of having my future in-laws point out a typo in something I wrote. Einsohn acts as though once a manuscript has been sent out, the author immediately loses interest in their own piece, and while I’m sure some authors feel that at this point their work is done, I’d like to challenge that idea because I want writers to have more pride in their work. If I already labored over the piece I submitted, I wouldn’t suddenly lose interest in it, or be bothered by attentive feedback from my editor. Minimal contact seems especially ridiculous to me if the manuscript comes from someone who is a writer for their occupation. If the piece comes from someone who has a day job and wrote an article or novel in their spare time it is understandable that an editor wouldn’t bombard them as frequently, because they won’t have the time to check in as often, but if it was my job to write books I would make the time to see the piece through. That being said, I understand that every grammatical change doesn’t need to be discussed with the author for efficiency reasons.
If we read a book we don’t like, it’s easy to go online and post a negative review, listing what irked us the most, but this isn’t what editing is. The editor is not there to tell the authors that their book is terrible, or that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Their job is to think about the future readers of this piece and if there is enough clarity to follow the authors thought process. While I have a lot of respect for the work editors do, I believe that they should, after being told by the publisher what level of editing must be done, ask how involved the author is looking to be in this process, as this manuscript is ultimately, his or her newborn, not the editor’s.
Einsohn, Amy. “Basic Procedures.” The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys. Third ed. Berkeley: U of California, 2011. 29-67. Print.