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Rosemary Shipton

Working With Authors

Illustration of hands over an open lined notebook, correcting text errors with a red pen.
Text checking for errors. Correction of errors in the text.
Dmitry Volkov ©

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.


Previous post from Rosemary Shipton: An Academic Rock Star’s Advice for Editors.

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8 Comments on “Working With Authors”

  • Wilf Popoff


    Most writers have a better idea of what they intend to say than what they actually produce. It’s usually a failure of execution. I am amused when after toiling on a text to make sense of it a writer tells me, “Thanks. I see you didn’t have to change much.”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Thank you, Rosemary. Always great to see a post from you. I did a lot of rewriting when working for the government of Alberta and had the same experience – almost always the authors (not writers) were pleased with the outcome and proudly published the document, forgetting that I was ever there. Once again, the invisible editor that we so often talk about.

    I tried listing with the Editors Canada directory for a couple of years but had very little response. I think it was because I one of the major skills I listed was rewriting. Nobody wants to put their head in that noose. But when they do, the results can be great.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    Yes, Wilf and Anita, I know what you mean – a quiet smile, sometimes, is all we can muster. Over the years, though, I’ve heard some editors – and some editing instructors – say that editors should not rewrite or take over the project. But I don’t agree with this blanket rule. While for the most part we work in various ways with out authors’ texts, there will be occasions when that is not enough. If our chief loyalty is to the “document” (whether book, article, report) and its readers, we must be prepared, when necessary, to do whatever is required to make it good and successful. I’d find a discussion on this issue most interesting, and I hope many readers will join in with their opinions and experiences.

  • This is excellent and certainly mirrors what my experience has been, working with authors. I think this would also give newer authors a good sense of what the process will be like. Great piece.

  • Frances Peck


    I’ve been hired lots, particularly by government and other organizational clients, to drastically reshape and rewrite material. The authors of such material are typically subject-matter experts but not great writers. It’s a far better use of everyone’s time (and talent) to have those authors decide on key messages and produce the content, then turn the project over to a language person to shape the words that convey it all, than it is to try to coax good writing out of someone who’s not sure how to produce it.

    Like you, Rosemary, I’ve found that most authors are all too happy to have a finished product that’s readable and true to their content. We editors mainly need to let them know, from the outset, that we’ve got their back, that we’re there to support them, not supplant them.

  • Rosemary Lucille Shipton


    It’s most interesting that some of your clients prepare for you that way, Frances. My rewriting has mostly been for books and articles, so between us we cover the spectrum pretty well. As Joyce Grant said above, it’s useful for writers and clients to know that editors have these skills, for they certainly expand the scope of the editing profession. Far too many people think only of copy editing when they hear the word “editor.” I hope more readers will let us know about the more unusual projects they take on.

  • Anita Jenkins


    I never thought it was “unusual” for an editor to rewrite copy. But then, I never actually thought of myself as an editor but more of a fire department that was called in when a document was in trouble.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Well, it *seems* to be unusual, Anita, but I don’t really know. If you take a short break to check out the various editing chat lines, you find that the majority of comments or queries, aside from some useful links, have to do with grammar or stylistic points or with editing software or with difficult (and occasionally complimentary) clients. So you get the impression that most of the contributors are engaged in copy editing. Generally speaking, it appears to be difficult to get editors to comment on the kind of work they are doing or how they relate with their clients. Many editors, for example, must be working for both “traditional” clients (publishers, institutions) and the newer indie writers, and it would be fascinating to hear about the differences or similarities between these worlds, so I keep hoping that some of them will decide to write about their experiences and observations.

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