Improving the writer-editor relationship

Malini DevadasWriting

In the ideal world, writers and editors work as a team and here are some things to consider when improving the writer-editor relationship.

In the ideal world, writers and editors work as a team, both committed to making a document the best it can be. Of course, as with any relationship, this can be a challenge, including in the academic setting. Whether you are a graduate student writing a thesis, a supervisor of a graduate student, or a co-author on a paper, grant or book chapter, here are some things to consider to make your working relationships as stress-free as possible.

For the author

  • Ask for specific comments – Be as specific as you can when seeking feedback. Some people have an eagle eye for detail whereas others are better at picking up flaws in logic. However, in my experience, most people find it easier to give feedback at the word/sentence level rather than at the paragraph/section level. So, if you only want general comments at this stage, ask for them.
  • Provide a good draft – Those of us old enough to remember the days before computers will also remember taking a lot of care when creating a draft. After all, no-one wanted to write out dozens of drafts by hand. However, with the advent of the word processor, it is all too easy to make minor changes to something and then feel like it’s a new draft worthy of feedback. If you are going to ask someone for feedback, it is in your best interests to make sure that you have put some time and effort into the latest version of your manuscript, especially if you are asking the same person to look at another draft.
  • Don’t take it personally – Remember that any feedback you receive is about your writing, not you. It’s easy to take criticism as a personal insult but, hopefully, the person giving you feedback wants to make the manuscript better and also help make you a better writer. No matter what your writing is like, you are still the same valuable person that you were yesterday/last week/last month. Being a good or bad writer isn’t something to feel morally superior or inferior about. Just as with any skill, some people are naturally good at writing, but everyone improves with practice.

For the editor

  • Give constructive feedback – I don’t mean that you should only say positive things. However, it is possible to give feedback that is critical but delivered in a diplomatic way. When feedback is given only in writing, it is easy to misinterpret tone. Most writers already feel vulnerable about sending their drafts to other people, so keep that in mind when you’re writing your comments.
  • Let the author keep their ‘voice’ – The manuscript is the author’s work, so it doesn’t need to sound like you wrote it. This can be hard for many people to accept! Remember that you have been asked for feedback because of your subject matter expertise, your skills at identifying problems with logic or your exceptional command of grammatical rules. The author doesn’t want you to ‘fix’ things that aren’t incorrect, just because you prefer a different word. Of course, if you are an author on a multi-author work, you may feel more entitled to have your way. But do you want the paper to sound like six different people wrote it? As a team, decide who will be the lead author and let them take responsibility for the final wordsmithing.
  • Keep to the schedule – Adhere to reasonable deadlines or negotiate another deadline before committing to giving feedback. Yes, you are no doubt busy, but it is not fair to the author if you are sitting on a draft for weeks or months.

Many of these problems can be reduced or eliminated by regular, clear communication. I recommend regular, face-to-face (either in-person or via technology such as Zoom or Skype) meetings, so that higher-level issues around content and structure can be discussed thoroughly before the first draft is submitted.