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Writer–editor relationships in revisions

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1995. Writer–editor relationships in revisions. The Petroglyph, newsletter of the Sierra–Panamint Chapter of STC, 12(1):1–2. Also published as: Hart, G.J. 1995. Writer–editor relationships in revisions. Write On!, newsletter of the CSU–Chico Chapter of STC 6(1):4. [Both revised texts are based on a posting in the techwr–l discussion group.]

Raymond Chenier (RC) posed a difficult situation in which the client, an author whose English writing skills are poor, keeps second-guessing RC's writing. RC suggests that this is becoming a great annoyance, and wishes his mentor/editor would intervene and ask the client to butt out.

Been there, done that! But I'd say it's unwise to get your mentor involved too soon in what is largely an interpersonal issue. This would turn what should be a fruitful collaboration into a dominance issue, which will undermine the working relationship and perhaps even end it. It's harder to learn to resolve these interpersonal issues than it is to learn how to write well, and as long as you work with humans, the dynamics of that relationship will be an ongoing challenge.

First off, define what annoys you. You've indicated that the client is an expert in the subject, but not in the language, so make a clear distinction between errors of fact or meaning and presumed errors of writing. Don't let yourself get annoyed by the client's corrections of any factual errors, just try to make fewer of them. (If the fellow is thinking in a second language, you may gradually learn how to map their thoughts into English. If not, talk to the client until you understand the issue before you write about it. Since you're writing from Ottawa, I'd guess this is an English–French issue, and there are enough similarities between the two languages that you could discuss the problem in French and do your own translation into English based on the discussion.)

The writing issues are more of a problem. If the client's suggestions are well-intended, take them that way, no matter how annoying they seem to be. But gently point out that this is a waste of time and that the client should concentrate on errors of fact and leave you to determine whether the writing is correct. To reassure the client, offer to have a small test group of English-language speakers (from your proposed audience) review the final version for its effectiveness. This is a good idea anyway, and you'll learn a useful lesson when you discover that your expert opinion may not match that of your inexpert audience. This happens! <grin>

Most importantly, make sure you're being annoyed for the right reason: no one likes being edited, even if we appreciate the results, and some of what you see as an intrusion may actually be good advice.... it's easy to ignore this aspect of corrections once you've become irritated with the fact that there are any corrections at all. In short, define the reason for your irritation, and use this definition as the basis for renegotiating your working relationship with the author. Gently remind the client that you're the English expert, but do so without devaluing the client's input.

If all else fails, learn to live with it. Editors, professional or otherwise, can be annoying individuals. (As an editor, I speak for myself and only incidentally for my colleagues... many of whom will probably agree with this assessment, off the record. <grin>) The trick is to focus on the helpful parts of that annoyance and try to ignore the less-helpful parts.


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