Client Etiquette: How an Editor Should Interact with a Client Always

And the recent etiquette mistake I made even though I knew better

Photo by Stillness InMotion on Unsplash

Let me tell you about a recent mistake I made as an editor.

I was doing a developmental edit of a 3,000-word blog post for a tech startup. This startup did not have its own writers; instead, it hired a service that provided a handful of writers to produce regular blog content.

My job was to ensure that these writers adhered to the voice and style of the tech startup, and that the content was error-free and engaging. I would review each post twice: first a developmental edit, then a copy edit.

During the developmental edit, I would leave comments to the writers with suggestions for improving structure and organization; simplifying or clarifying language; explaining a complex idea more thoroughly or accurately; and meeting the tech startup’s style guidelines.

The content was complicated—think artificial intelligence and sales processes—and the writers were not subject experts.

Still, after more than a month, the startup’s editorial manager and I felt that the writers were not listening to our feedback as well as they should. It seemed we were repeatedly giving them the same notes, and the writing at times was rushed and sloppy.

That created more work for me as the editor and delayed the content production timeline for the startup.

So the editorial manager sent an email to the writing service pointing out the blog posts that were weak and why they needed more attention, adding that some writers didn’t seem to be making an effort to research and understand the material. The writing service responded and promised to improve.

However, when I began to edit the next 3,000-word post that came in, I was dismayed to see that many of the same issues remained.

One particular section of the post, a large paragraph, not only didn’t address our previous feedback but also just didn’t make sense. The writer clearly didn’t understand the tech or even the industry of the startup, and as a result, the sentences were vague and confusing and the information shared was incorrect.

I sighed, then highlighted the section and left a comment: “This isn’t working. The writer doesn’t seem to understand the subject matter. Please fix.”

That comment unleashed the kraken.

The owner of the writing service wrote a furious response. He said my comment was disrespectful and unhelpful (to summarize a much longer rant).

And you know what? He was right.

I had forsaken a cardinal rule of editing that I had learned long ago:

Etiquette demands that an editor should always be conscious of tone of voice when interacting with and providing criticism to the writer.

We have to show respect for the people who create content out of nothing! Being a writer is challenging—especially when you’re writing about something of which you know nothing (a common occurrence for a professional writer).

Beyond that, I knew very well that comments to writers should never just point out problems. They should always suggest a solution in tandem.

What is a writer supposed to do with a comment that says “This doesn’t work” but doesn’t provide a way forward? Maybe that writer struggled to get to that point, simply didn’t know what to do to strengthen that section, and just needed some guidance. In that case, receiving a comment like mine would be frustrating and demoralizing.

Leaving helpful comments is a practice I uphold with every client I have, and I also firmly believe it’s a great way to filter out editors who aren’t a good fit for you.

Which is why I was disappointed in myself for leaving such a short comment. I knew better.

Sure, the editorial manager and I had already given the writing service a lot of feedback. That was why I left the comment I did—I imagined the writer would make the connection between my comment and that feedback.

After all, the writer is responsible for consuming and listening to all constructive criticism in order to do better in the next round.

But a comment in a Google doc was not the place to get snarky.

I should have listed all the reasons the section did not work and share a suggestion. And then the editorial manager could have stepped in to have a larger conversation with the writing service about meeting the tech startup’s needs.

As an editor who also writes professionally, I recognize how important it is to have an editor who respects the work you put in to creating content.

And that respect should shine through in every interaction writers have with their editors.

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To get to know me a bit better, and for more copyediting tips, follow me on Instagram @pristine.editing.services, Twitter @PristineEditing, and Pinterest @PristineEditing. You can also sign up for my quarterly email newsletter on my website, or do so by requesting my free style guide template!

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Jaime L. Brockway

Copy editor with 8+ years’ experience. Former National Copy Chief of Time Out North America. Semicolon lover, despite what Kurt Vonnegut said.