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Rejecting Editorial Suggestions

By: Steve Snodgrass

Recently a comment in an online forum for editors I participate in provoked much discussion, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting for you writers to be privy to something editors talk about when you’re not around.

An editor new to the business wondered what other editors do when their editorial comments and revision suggestions are rejected by the author.

The In-House Editor & House Style

Whether or not the writer incorporates suggested revisions seemed to be a big concern for the in-house editors (editors employed by publishing companies as staff or freelancers) in the forum. The job of those editors is to communicate house style and ensure the work meets house standards.

When an author is uncooperative, the in-house editor may have no recourse other than to give up and turn the manuscript back to the acquisition editor with a list of recommendations. You usually can’t fight house style and direction, and as a writer, you should know that when you turn the revision process into a fight with an in-house editor, the magazine or publishing company you thought would be publishing your work may not publish it after all.

The Independent Editor & the Self-Publishing Author

The relationship between an independent freelance editor and a self-publishing author is different. Editors in the forum told about writers (no names were used!) who rejected their suggestions and produced books riddled with errors or who rushed to self-publish books that were clearly not ready. Every editor, it seemed, has stories like that. It became clear that the original poster and some others worried about how their client’s work would affect their reputations as editors.

But as the forum discussion progressed, there seemed to be some consensus that the reading public understands the author is responsible for the book’s contents, not the editor. Experienced editors know that once they’ve given the writer thoughtful advice—and backed it up with standard guides like the Chicago Manual of Style along with conversations with the writer about how their choices affect the reader—that what to do with editorial remarks is the author’s decision.

One experienced editor on the forum wrote that “editing is a diplomatic awareness-raising exercise, not a battle of wills,” and I agree with that. I actually enjoy working with a writer who will push back on my suggestions. It keeps me on my toes when I have to explain myself, and my experience has shown me that a conversation between editor and author can help the writer clarify her vision.

Whose Book Is It, Anyway?

I think my job as an editor is to offer suggestions and other information that enables the writer to make good choices more confidently. My goal, the goal of any editor, should be to help writers achieve their vision for the work. I don’t think my job is to give orders or impose my style or vision on their work. I believe editing is two-way conversation, not a sermon from the mount. Maybe you’ll work with an incompetent editor or one with a God complex, but they are not as common as the movies and New Yorker cartoons would have you believe. Editors want to help, not hinder, the writer.

So back to the original question the forum member posed. What do editors do when their editorial comments and revision suggestions are rejected by the author? The fact is, we cannot do anything but cringe when our names appear in the book’s acknowledgements and the reviews comment negatively on the editing or problems we know could have been avoided had the author adopted our suggestions and taken more time to revise. But it’s the author’s name on the front of the book, not the editor’s. And that’s as it should be.

Editors have no control over the self-published author’s output, nor should we. Some of the saddest words in the world are, “My editor made me do it.” The author is the decider and should remain in control of the work.

We editors can offer the best of our experience and knowledge to our clients. We can explain the reasoning behind our revisions and suggestions and discuss alternatives. But after that, we can only hope writers will truly listen and carefully consider our advice before they decide to act on it or reject it. We hope our suggestions will not be dismissed out of hand, and we hope that writers will give their work all the time and effort it deserves. But we cannot do anything to make sure that happens. So what do editors do when their editorial comments and revision suggestions are rejected by the author? Ultimately, we let it go. Because it’s the author’s book–not ours.

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writer, editor, website designer

Mary Ann is the editor of The Florida Writer (the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association) and MAD’s Monday Muse. She is also a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30+ years' experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-to-one with writers who are developing books, she designs author websites. Website

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6 Responses

  1. Dan Alatorre
    | Reply

    There are good plumbers and there are bad plumbers.

    There are good mechanics and there are bad mechanics.

    There are good editors and there are bad editors. Editors who are new and think CMOS is a bible, editors who appreciate rule breakers, editors who understand nuance, a joke, a style. Editors who are stubborn morons who think they know everything.

    There are editors who suck and get fired, going from job to job and maybe eventually leaving the business. You may be with one the week before she quits for good, a week before her boss has decided she doesn’t do a very good job.

    But you won’t know that, will you?

    So it needs to be a two way conversation, with your editor explaining her side, and you explaining yours, and the ultimate goal is a “better” book by today’s standards that appeals to more people in the way a book is expected to today. If it’s not that, shop around. My first editor became a great friend. I came to rely on her perspective, and her suggestions were great – which I figured out by book two. Because on book one she was on book two. Because on book one SHE was working with a very stubborn moron who knew everything.

    So there’s that, too.

  2. Mary Ann de Stefano
    | Reply

    Hi Dan, I will confess to getting my editor back up at the “editors who are stubborn morons” statement, but by the end of your comment, I was literally laughing out loud. (This is one demonstration of why an editor needs to read through a manuscript once before touching it in any way!)

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the editorial process being a two-way conversation. I dislike it when I hear writers talking about their editors as adversaries. But I also dislike it when I hear editors talk about authors as adversaries. Editing is a conversation, a collaborative process which requires open-minded talking and listening by both parties.

  3. John D. Ottini
    | Reply

    Mary Ann

    Doesn’t an editor have any say as to whether or not they want their name added to the acknowledgements of a book?

    As an author I wouldn’t add anyone’s name to the acknowledgements unless they gave me their permission to do so.

    Isn’t that the right thing to do?

    • Mary Ann de Stefano
      | Reply

      Hi John, Some authors make a practice of asking in advance, but others don’t.

      • Linda Rodante
        | Reply

        Mary Ann, can you clarify a little on the acknowledgements? Is this the same as a thank you? I know many authors have thank you pages where they thank literally everyone who ever made even one comment about their work (or so it seemed). Was it really necessary to get everyone’s okay to include that in the book?

        • Mary Ann de Stefano
          | Reply

          Hi Linda,

          In a book, the thanking is usually done on a page called “Acknowledgments.” If they are short, it appears in the front matter. If there are lots of people to thank, the page usually appears as part of the back matter.

          If you’re being published traditionally, your publisher might have a guideline to follow about acknowledgments, but as far as I know, there is no hard and fast rule about asking permission before you thank a person in your book.

          It might be fair to assume that some people–your agent, your family–will be happy to be thanked publicly by name, and you don’t have to ask their permission.

          But in some circumstances, for some people, because of the subject matter of the book, or for some professional or personal reason, or who knows why, perhaps a person might not want their name printed in a book. So while there is no hard and fast rule, I think it just might considerate to ask permission first.

          That’s just my opinion!

          For the record, I don’t expect my clients to ask my permission before they acknowledge me in their work. I just hope they spell my name correctly!

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