Five Tips for the Author-Editor Relationship

I should probably add a disclaimer: these five tips are hard-won, and often very difficult to put into practice. I’ve made so many mistakes as an editor, not just in my editing but in my relationship with authors. I’ve messed up even with authors who are personal friends of mine (sometimes, those are even harder.) And, let’s be real, I probably owe some apologies for mistakes I don’t even know I’ve made. All this to say — relationships are hard, and we’re all trying our best!

Let\’s start with the foundation of an author-editor relationship: trust.

As the author, I have to trust that my editor has the knowledge and skills to do her job well. I also have to trust that she has my book’s future at heart just as much as I do. As the editor, I have to trust that my author understands both his subject and his audience. I have to trust that he will behave professionally and that we can work together as a team.

Starting with a foundation of trust — that is, choosing to trust unless something happens to crack the foundation — how can we foster a strong relationship with each other?

1. See the other person as a person.

So many issues arise when we start to reduce the other to words on a page, whether that page is an email or a Microsoft Word comment box. I like to start my editorial relationships with a phone call, because I find that real-time, genuine, vulnerable interactions are the quickest shortcut to avoid the strong emotions that can bubble up when we react to words and forget the person behind them. But depersonalization is always a pitfall with digital communication. Whenever I find myself creeping towards that trap, I force myself to stop and think through what I know of the other person: their needs, their cares, their vulnerabilities and desires. Then I can respond in a way that builds trust, rather than react in a way that breaks it.

2. Assume the best intentions.

There’s a theme running through this post which comes from five years of author-editor communications: Respond, don’t react. Emotions have their place, but to reinforce trust, it’s essential to keep an eye on the big picture. Once you’ve had the emotional reaction, respond logically and peacefully, assuming the best possible intentions of the other person. Sometimes that means waiting until you are in a good frame of mind in which you can imagine the good intentions. Or you might need to process with a friend or colleague — or you might just need to ask more questions. But remember that both parties are focused on the same goal, making your book the best it can be. 

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

More is more! Especially in email or written correspondence, when we don’t have each other’s body language or tonal cues, the more clues we can give the other person, the better. Sometimes this means lots of exclamation marks that tell me how excited you are about this book! Sometimes, this means descriptive language and awareness of connotation. Along with the how, the what is also essential: communication about the little things as well as the big things allows for smoother cooperation and better trust-building.

4. Be humble.

St. Thomas Aquinas describes humility in part as “keeping oneself within one’s own bounds” (Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, 55). Accurate self-knowledge places us in the right order of things, understanding where our role ends and another’s begins. The author-editor relationship is between two people in two distinct roles, and an attitude of humility allows us to honor each other’s needs and gifts.

5. Rely on professionalism.

Digital communication makes it so easy to type out our emotions instantly. And to some extent we’ve been trained to “let it all hang out”, reducing honesty and vulnerability to a sort of scattershot display of feelings. But at the end of the day, the relationship between author and editor is a business relationship, and it deserves to be treated with professionalism. I don’t mean we should resort to stilted, jargon-filled emails, or keep each other at arm’s length. By professionalism, I mean mutual respect; a knowledge of and willingness to understand the constraints of the industry and the process; and treating the other as we would a valued business partner. An attitude of professionalism fosters respect and trust, and allows both parties to share clear communication and resolve conflicts with charity.