Editors make decisions all the time as they edit, but the most important judgment call of all is how to work best with each individual author. No one-size-fits-all solution will do.
Most commonly, editors make their corrections with track changes, write questions and comments for the author in the margins, and describe their overall approach and the major issues they’ve addressed in a covering letter. Personally, I rarely explain in comment boxes why I’m making corrections — I doubt most writers are interested, and I’d rather spend as much time as possible improving the manuscript. Let the clean version of the edited text speak for itself!
That system works for manuscripts that have been prepared reasonably well and generally suit their intended readers. But how do editors work with authors when their texts are simply not ready for publication? With fiction, the whole imaginary world exists in the writer’s head, so the only way to tackle severe problems with plot, characters, dialogue, ambiance and voice is to attempt to draw the needed details and nuances from the author. These communications may take many written passes or hours of conversation, but there is no other way to move the novel or story from lackluster to good.
With nonfiction, editors have more choices because, at some level, they share the subject matter with the author and can take the lead if necessary. If the content is marred by gaps, complex explanations, weak narrative and insufficient detail, the editor can work with an efficient writer in much the same way as with a novelist — by using astute queries to get the material from the author. Guided by the editor, the author can also try to reorganize the text and rewrite the narrative to make it more useful and pleasurable to read. The editor then handles the revised manuscript in the usual way.
But what about those nonfiction writers who are not willing or completely unable to revise their texts, experts though they be? Editors prod and suggest and query, but the communications go on and on to little effect. At this stage, if a publisher or communications-savvy institution is in charge, the manager will cancel the project before more valuable time gets wasted or, more likely, ask the editor to do whatever is necessary to bring the manuscript up to standard. No reputable publisher will release a book that sullies its name. The same high standard applies to many government and corporate publications. If the writer is also the client, however, should a professional editor warn the author that, without radical intervention, the publication will probably embarrass and fail?
In the best-case scenario, these weak writers will agree to let the editor rework the manuscript. That may involve some research and original writing, a major reorganization, and a complete rewriting of the text to make it more interesting and suited to its purpose and readers. Yet, in my experience, when such authors receive their heavily revised manuscripts, they are usually very pleased. They see their ideas set out clearly and attractively, make a few sage revisions, and quickly take ownership as the projects move on to completion. The whole process is done with dignity and respect. The publishers or institutions are relieved and happy, the editors are satisfied — and the world is saved from more mediocre and ineffectual publications.
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