Writers and Editors: Superiors, Subordinates, and Equals

Your first editor was probably an authority figure—a parent or a teacher who looked at the backward “N” you had scrawled on a piece of paper and then gently corrected you in his or her own handwriting. And so began your long academic career—positioned to view superiors as editors and editors as superiors. It’s a mindset that carries over easily into the post-academic careers of professional communicators: the editor is the boss. But it’s a mindset that needs some major adjusting as we all move forward in our careers, whether as full-time editors and writers or as workers who become involved in content projects from time to time.

Not every editor is a boss or a supervisor. An editor might work for a client, who is “the boss” and who has the final say. An editor might work in a purely copyediting role—checking for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style errors and barely interacting with the writer. Or an editor might work as an equal, collaborating partner with the writer.

Image source: blogs.archives.gov/prologue/?p=184

Image source: blogs.archives.gov/prologue/?p=184

And then there are the editors who really are the managers—the bosses of writers. Sometimes there’s more than one of them. Sometimes there’s a direct chain of bosses acting as editors. Sometimes it’s less of a chain and more of a web—with a writer’s direct boss doing an initial edit and then some boss from another department doing a secondary edit.

For the writer whose copy gets reviewed by more than one editor—one of which may be her “boss,” one of which may not be—sorting out who’s in charge and who has the final say can sometimes be a challenge. … “My editor/boss (my direct supervisor) instructed me not to include ABC and PDQ in my article, but then some other senior person reviewing my article advised me to mention ABC and PDQ. He’s not my boss. And his guidance might be off target. So what the heck am I supposed to do?”

Although plenty of writers bristle at those who edit them, many writers still fail to challenge editors—direct bosses or otherwise. Many writers accept all edits without question and then move on to the next task. But it’s OK for writers to challenge those who edit them.

Challenging an editor—or challenging a writer, for that matter—should take place only after you firmly understand the context in which the writer-editor relationship exists. And there are two components to that context:

– Know the rules.

– Know who you’re dealing with.

Knowing the rules is about understanding the organization, processes, roles, and responsibilities. What’s the chain of command? Who has final say? Which writing/editing tasks should happen in what order? Whose job is it to make the edits or revisions? Who can overrule whom when there’s a disagreement among equals? Who’s the “client”? Who “owns” the content? What veto power, if any, does the writer have? (“If you run the article with that information in it, you can’t put my name on it.”) Whose edits are mandatory and whose edits are more like suggestions? Can some editor or reviewer make changes that are immune to contest? (A final proofreader? The CEO? Corporate counsel?) Knowing the rules makes communication easier and helps you avoid chasing your tail when editing and revising.

Knowing who you’re dealing with is about understanding the experience, the talent, the expertise, and the knowledge of the people you’re working with—whether as editor or as writer. It’s all about respect and humility.

Writers sometimes don’t get the respect they deserve from editors. Not all writers choose to evolve into editors. And many organizations want their best writers to stay writers, not become editors. So editors should not assume that a writer is someone who has his career wheels stuck in the mud.

Editors should seek to learn about writers’ backgrounds. Many writers are former editors, with scads of editing experience. And many writers bring with them a wealth of knowledge and wisdom from previous writing jobs or previous careers. (“Is the guy writing about education an ex-teacher who deeply understands what he’s writing about? … Did our new reporter work for years as a freelance editor before deciding he needed a job with benefits?”) Not all editors act as hiring managers or get to see new writers’ résumés, so they might not know exactly what experience a writer brings to the job. But all editors should try to find out a little more about the experience and the specialized knowledge of the writers whose copy they’ll be editing.

Writers sometimes also give their editors a bit too much deference. (Again, it goes back to the old superiors-as-editors/editors-as-superiors mindset.) Not all editors are good or seasoned writers. Many editors are relative rookies in their positions. And not all editors are subject-matter experts. Even editors who are subject-matter experts might not be as expert or as up-to-date as a writer who’s dealing with the subject matter on a more regular, more current basis. So writers shouldn’t be too shy with editors. They should gin up a little extra confidence and claim some of the respect that they’re due. Challenging an editor—and backing it up with experience and superior knowledge—can help prevent some writing blunders, such as a watered-down article, a buried lead, a lousy anecdote, and the presentation of outdated information.

The door swings the other way, too. Editors often don’t get the respect they deserve from writers. A writer can easily view an editor as out of touch or out of the loop. But writers, too, should endeavor to understand the experience, the knowledge, and the perspective of their editors. Editors, after all, should be advocates for the reader—meaning that sometimes the “stupid” questions they ask and the “pointless” edits they make serve not to please the writer but to make the content more useful for the reader. Still, many editors will swallow their experience and superior knowledge and defer to prima donna writers who don’t want a single word of their text changed. Instead, those editors should be playing the confidence/experience card, and they should advocate from the perspective of the reader.

Knowing who you’re dealing with—and letting others know who they’re dealing with—ultimately moves everyone toward better writing, better editing, and better content for the reader.

Establishing the dynamics of the writer-editor relationship can be tricky. Communication remains key. Asking simple questions like “Who has the final say?” or “How should work flow in this process?” can help a lot. Seeking information and volunteering information about personal expertise or the lack thereof also can help establish the understanding between editor and writer.

And taking a more fluid, collaborative approach to editing—in which the writer confers with the editor as writing progresses and in which the editor solicits some writer input during edits—also might help prevent a negative vibe between writer and editor. But even in such a collaborative environment, it’s still important for writer and editor to know the roles and the rules of the process. In all but the smallest of organizations, an approach that’s too fluid or too informal can lead you right back to where you started—to questions, confusion, and contention.

Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, lstillett.wordpress.com. All rights reserved.

2 responses to “Writers and Editors: Superiors, Subordinates, and Equals

  1. Thanks for following. I came to visit and will do the same. Looks interesting here. I think your blog will help when I interact with the editor from my publisher (as soon as the contract gets done)

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