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Repairing bad author–editor relationships

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2006. Repairing bad author–editor relationships. Intercom January:24–25, 41.

In a previous article (Soften the blow, September/October 2005 issue of Intercom), I described techniques that editors can use to build a productive and possibly even friendly working relationship with authors. That advice has served me well in the past, but sometimes you inherit a situation in which an author has already been poisoned against editors by a previous editor's mistakes, or in which the author is under enormous stress and your editing becomes the final straw. Sometimes you create the problem yourself, either accidentally or because you lost your own temper in the heat of the moment and said something regrettable. Sometimes you face a combination of these factors.

In my first job as a professional editor, I was asked to edit a manuscript by an author who was known to be difficult even under normal circumstances. These circumstances were far from normal: The author was working hard to complete his PhD at a university that was a difficult 6-hour drive from our mutual workplace along bad roads. At the same time, he was trying to complete his regular work responsibilities. And to add insult to injury, his wife was constantly on his case about the fact that she never saw him anymore. My editing (not nearly as good or as tactful as it is now, many years later) was the straw that broke this particular camel's back, and the author gave me an earful I'll not soon forget.

Yet half a dozen years later, the author had become a good workplace friend, and eagerly sought out my editorial assistance even when this wasn't formally required by our employer's policies. You can't always turn a situation around this dramatically, but there are ways to at least try repairing the relationship. Here are a few of them.

Don't add fuel to the fire

Resist the temptation to blame the author for the situation, even if they're truly the one who is responsible for the problem. Meeting force with force in this manner only adds to the author's stress and provokes an emotional response that only fuels the fire. Even attempting to defend or justify your own position can appear oppositional, and will often evoke a strong and hostile response. Similarly, efforts to compliment an author on their work or say something blandly positive, in plain denial of a difficult situation, may further enrage the author, particularly if they already feel that you're condescending to them. Instead, look for ways to defuse some of that emotion and reopen a dialogue that involves more than venting.

Accept your responsibility

Don't be quick to accept blame for something that isn't your fault. But that being said, in the majority of problems that arise between two people, both have contributed to the problem. If you're at least partially responsible, start by admitting your share of the responsibility and by apologizing: "Look, we both know that we're not getting along well. I haven't helped, and I'm sorry about that." At first glance, this may seem to be absolving the author of responsibility for their share in the problem, but shouldering the blame accomplishes a very different result: it removes fuel from the fire (by not even hinting that the author is to blame), and it offers the author a chance to behave like an adult and offer their own apology in return.

Try to move on

Of course, the author may not apologize, particularly if they're really stressed or mad at you, but at this point, an apology isn't the important thing: what's important is trying to move on. To do so, offer an opportunity to make the situation less tense: "We agree that this situation isn't helping either of us. From your point of view, what can I do to make things better for you?"

Feuds continue long past the point at which the original insult has been forgotten because nobody is willing to admit they messed up, take responsibility for the mistake, atone for the mistake, and ask the other party to help stop the problem from reoccurring in the future. Even if the author clearly wronged you, proving this should be less important than improving the future relationship. To get to this point, you have to accept that the pleasure of getting revenge ("payback") or forcing the author to acknowledge that you're right is transitory. The long-term reward of a mutually respectful and possibly even friendly working relationship lasts longer, and usually makes it worthwhile to eat a little crow in the short term.

By no means am I suggesting that you accept an ongoing stream of abuse, or allow a truly toxic author to run roughshod over you. Later in this article, I'll suggest what you can do in such situations.

Think triage

The French term triage means "sorting", and more specifically in the context of editing, sorting based on priority or importance. When there are more problems than you can possibly deal with simultaneously, focus on the problems whose solutions will provide the greatest payoff. Ask the author which problems are most serious for them. These problems may not be particularly serious in the larger scheme of things, and may be relatively minor priorities for you, but they're clearly important to the author. And since the author is the one you need to mollify (in the original sense of the word—to soften their resistance), you can't begin repairing the relationship until you can demonstrate that you understand the author's problems and truly want to help solve them.

It may seem like I'm encouraging you to ignore more serious problems—and that's true, in part. But the payoff from solving the author's problems is that you immediately become an ally in a situation that is difficult and stressful for the author too. Because deeds are more important than words to most people, this approach offers concrete proof that you're serious about making things better. Ask the author the following question: "We have to find a way to get your manuscripts edited that works for you. How can we do this in a way that you can live with? What changes would you like to see in the way I interact with you?"

This approach has two clear benefits: First, changing the way you're working reduces the number of things you'll have to fight with the author about, and that reduces the level of tension enough that you can begin a true dialogue. Second, you produce an immediate payoff: the author immediately sees the payoff from cooperation, and at that point, their self-interest will help convince them to continue to cooperate. If that collaboration becomes painless and productive, and makes it easier for the author to publish their work, they'll be grateful for the help you've provided and far more willing to listen to you when it comes time to work on other problems that must be solved. At that point, you can ask the logical follow-up question: "Here are my goals for the editing process. How can you help me achieve my goals?"

What if the author has no intention of repairing your relationship despite these efforts?

Enlist an ally

Sometimes an author has no intention of cooperating, and insists on their right to produce consistently shoddy work simply because they feel they can get away with it. In most cases, you have no authority to insist that the author fix this problem, and that's doubly so if the author works in a different department and has a different manager. You can gain the informal authority to insist on changes once an author has learned to respect your advice, but that's clearly not the case here.

Instead, you need to obtain formal authority. The author may still not respect you or your advice, but at least they'll have to listen. If the author's manager agrees that there's a problem, they're the best person to insist on a change. One way to do so is to take advantage of a powerful dynamic that resembles the "good cop/bad cop" trick you often see on TV police shows. In this approach, the "bad cop" makes it clear that they're intent on hurting the criminal as much as they can get away with; their partner plays the "good cop", the sympathetic person who gains the criminal's confidence and persuades them to confess.

On the surface, this might seem to be an inappropriate "mind game" to be playing with a co-worker, but that's missing the point: it's the manager's role to report a problem to their employee and insist that it be solved, and when the problem relates to writing quality, it's your role to help authors solve the problem. That's the real dynamic you're striving to produce. Here's how this works in practice:

The manager meets with the author, explains the specific problems that must be solved, and makes it clear that the author's performance appraisal will suffer if the problem isn't solved quickly. The list of problems must be defined objectively so that everyone understands them and the author can act upon them.

At that point, the manager asks the author to seek your help. That’s your opportunity to become the solution to a serious problem rather than being the problem. "Your boss has identified the following problems with your writing. I can make those problems go away. From your perspective, how can I do this in the least painful way possible?"

In an ideal situation, your work will be sufficiently compelling that the author truly begins to appreciate your efforts on their behalf. At that point, you can begin working together effectively. But sometimes the author will only grow more enraged at you, particularly if they suspect your role in the good cop/bad cop game. Unfortunately, one common response to fear (here, the fear of receiving a poor performance appraisal or even losing a job) is to transform the emotion into anger and seek a safe target for that anger. Since this particular problem involves editing, you're the obvious target. What then?

Bring in the big guns

Sometimes you truly can't find any nonadversarial way to persuade an author to work with you. Sometimes the manager lacks the courage to confront their employee—a problem reported by distraught technical communicators roughly every couple months in discussions in the techwr-l community ( In that case, you need to seek more powerful allies. Doing so should be a last resort, since you run a serious risk of making the author's manager into an enemy; once you go around them, it becomes clear that they aren't doing their job, and that reflects poorly on their competence. They won't love you for this. Although you can ask their permission to go over their head, it's difficult to do so successfully; the manager will then have to convince your new ally (their own manager) that participating in this situation would compromise their future ability to supervise the employee, thereby justifying their decision to not get involved.

In large companies, your strongest ally may be the Personnel or Human Resources (HR) department. Most HR departments have at least one person who is trained in mediation or the resolution of workplace conflicts, and their expertise can help them find solutions you missed. Even if they're no more expert than you are, the fact that they're not intimately involved in the conflict gives them a perceived distance and impartiality that lets them mediate effectively. Moreover, it's often their department's responsibility to solve such problems, and it's appropriate to ask them to do so. At a minimum, you can expect such intervention to control an abusive author, even if you don't solve the real problem.

If your company lacks such expertise, you may still need go over the head of the manager who is refusing to take responsibility for solving the problem. That manager's manager has a clear interest in solving the problem, has the authority to do so, and is sufficiently remote from the author that they have no relationship with the author to preserve. All of these factors offer them the chance to impose a solution. The main downside to this approach is that the manager may (as once happened to me) be so remote from the situation, and so obsessed with other concerns, that they have no time to discover the facts of the case and instead impose a false-Solomonic solution: punishing both you and the author. But if the situation has degraded to the point at which you require this level of intervention, this may be your only alternative—other than seeking employment elsewhere, which is always a viable alternative in intolerable situations.

Blessed are the peacemakers

The ethical response in any conflict is to seek a way to resolve it while causing as little pain as possible. As is often the case for peacemakers, this may mean that you'll need to accept some pain yourself, in the hope that your sacrifice will have salutary long-term results. When you can't solve the problem as a peacemaker, you do have other alternatives, though these alternatives can become progressively more difficult and uncomfortable for all concerned. The reward if you succeed is the one I recounted at the start of this article: a friendly working relationship that brings you satisfaction rather than ongoing stress.

Additional reading

Hart, G. 2002. Dealing with difficult employees in the technical communication workplace.

Hart, G. 2005. Softening the blow: taking the sting out of editorial and other reviews. Intercom September/October:25–27.

To learn how onscreen editing can improve your relationship with an author, see my book Effective Onscreen Editing.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved