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Tips on Tact and Tone

Related reading: On the writer-editor relationship


Advice to editors: Tact and Tone: Editing that Makes Authors Want to Cooperate
by Pat McNees

This article, which focuses on book editing, was first published as a special supplement to Copyediting several years ago, when it was Copy Editor.

“A copy editor can be excellent at copy editing but so tactless as to be verboten for special authors,” says Dolores Simon, former copy chief at Harper & Row (when it was Harper & Row) and co-author of Recipes into Type. “Sometimes authors are wrong but, let’s face it, in the long run they are the boss. It’s their book and if they get so mad at a copy editor that they want to erase all the changes, good and bad, they can do it.

Remember, those writers are more valuable to the publisher than you are, and if writers like you, editors are going to love you.”

One copy editor Simon used only once and never again got so exasperated with a Harrison Salisbury manuscript that he wrote “interminable!” and “enough!” next to a passage that went on at some length. “He had written it in ink and we scissored off the margin.” This kind of insensitivity wounds, enrages, and demoralizes writers. And then what happens?

“The tone of an editor’s criticism changes your whole reading of your own book,” says the author of a popular series of books for women. “When a copy editor queries in a voice that suggests, ‘I understand your version, but see whether you think mine clarifies the issue,’ I am definitely willing to change what I’ve written — if not with his or her suggestion, with something in between. But if the general tone is ‘how did they ever give a dumb ******* like you a book contract?’ I am reluctant to consider any and all changes. Each nasty comment makes me dig in my heels more and refuse to comply.”

My first mentor in book publishing (in the 1960s) was Elizabeth Lawrence of Harper & Row, a literary editor from the old school who saw her role as first discovering, then nurturing writers. Lawrence taught generations of editors to treat writers with respect and their often-fragile egos with tenderness. She and the editors who came up under her never forgot that the manuscript was the author’s creation and that their role as editor was to gently (and in remarkably few words) suggest ways to improve it. The editor’s goal was to facilitate the author’s best work, and a good editor never did anything to destroy author morale: Without confidence and a feeling of support, what chance was there they would keep writing for you? Under Lawrence and editors like her, copy editors were unfailingly kind and tactful.

But times have changed, most copy editing work is farmed out now, and editors are so busy that they rarely have time to edit a manuscript and must often depend for line editing on editorial assistants, who are often less experienced than old copy editors. When a manuscript comes in in poor shape, busy editors are often grateful for copy editors who can clean a manuscript up. But many freelancers have not had a chance to work under mentors such as Lawrence, who might have served as models of civil, gracious copy editing.

Most professional writers appreciate being edited for consistency and clarity; they want an editor to go over their copy with a fresh eye, to spot errors, to point out gaps in logic or sections that need cutting, to suggest where style can be improved – but they want this to be done with respect and tact. Tactlessness underlies many writers’ negative experiences with copy editors. Another common problem is inexperienced editors who ask questions that reveal their youth and ignorance but even an experienced editor — with a bad attitude — can sabotage a writer’s relationship with a publisher. A martinet or smart aleck can make a writer’s experience so awful that s/he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the publisher afterward. Writers who have worked with skilled and supportive editors bless the ground they walk on and tell other writers about them, but they also tell tales about the bad ones. Drawing on some of those horror stories, I offer here a few tips on how (and how not) to work with writers, with an emphasis on the tone of editing, the attitude that comes through in editors’ margin comments:

· A kind and civil tone (reflecting an attitude of respect) is critical. When the right spirit is there — a team spirit, with you in a supportive role — the right tone will come through; with some editors, it doesn’t. Whether you are the most skilled and knowledgeable copy editor in the world or a beginner, keep the potentially emotional effects of your copy editing in mind. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will elicit more cooperation from the writer. Writers put a lot of themselves into a manuscript; if you seem to be attacking their work, you will get their back up. A little civility goes a long way.

· Combine tactfulness with positive feedback. Tact is useful when you want to get something done. “Tone” matters because respect matters. It is easier to respect the “requests” of editors who show that they respect your work, but would like to help you make it even better. Remember, the author is the expert; the copy editor is part of the backup team. Says writer Claire Berman, “It is tactful for an editor to note, in the margin, “Good stuff” next to a particularly useful illustration (for example) to temper the comments that mean you’ll have to do some rewriting. I did a report for a major magazine recently, where the editor’s comment, ‘Love the beginning,’ buoyed me through the realization that I had more work to do on the ending.” Editorial suggestions are a lot easier to take when they’re presented in a positive way: Here’s what I love about this work, and here’s where I think you (the author) can make it better.

· Remember, it’s the author’s work and the author may know best how to fix it. Ursula Nordstrom (the late children’s book editor) was a master of the art of the delicate query, says Dolores Simon. Nordstrom’s margin comments reflected her role as the artful reader and her understanding that the writer was the writer, and the best person to shore up weak passages. “NYB” she would write in the margins, meaning “not your best.” Sometimes the author needs more guidance than that, but often they simply need to hear which passages work and which don’t. (Read Nordstrom's artful letters to her authors in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.)

· Less is usually more; keep margin comments brief. “Even the wordiness of the query can be a problem, when the copy editor sounds as if he is pontificating,” advises Simon. “Try to be humble, and keep it to a minimum of words.”

· Don’t confuse the author with conflicting comments and instructions. One writer who appears regularly in several of the major women’s magazines says, “I think there’s a trend on magazines toward passing manuscripts to the entire staff, with the result that a manuscript comes back to the author with nine different handwritings in the margin, and often with conflicting comments, such as,

‘We need another story here.’
‘Cut the story. We need expert advice.’

When I get such a manuscript, I’m not only confused but demoralized. I don’t know which comments I’m to take seriously, and whether and when to argue. It would be helpful if my editor distilled the comments and was clear about what was needed. When I made this point to one editor, she replied, ‘Oh, don’t take it too seriously. Just do what you think best.’”

· Squelch your inner schoolmarm. Copy editors should be grammar coaches, not grammar police, and the final stage of editing the manuscript should feel like a collaboration, not an inquisition or a day of judgment. Some copy editors come across as school marms, with rigid sets of rules and an urgent need to rap knuckles every time they are broken. So many authors have violated their linguistic pet peeves over the years that a kind of biliousness leaks through in their margin notes. Nothing makes a writer want to stop writing for a publication more than a hand-slapping copy editor, who sees his or her work not only as “correcting” the writing but as training the writer not to make the same mistake again. The publication best known for making writers never want to write for them again is one on which the editor literally faxes letters and memos back to them, with corrections. If you explain why you’re making certain changes, do so without an air of superiority, judgment, or condescension. Suppress the unlikeable side of your inner know-it-all.

· Respectfully question (rather than correct) factual errors. Current shorthand on at least one magazine is to write “TruFact?” in the margin to flag an assertion and let the writer know that you aren’t sure if this fact is correct. It’s kind of like “Huh?” but not quite as rude.

Don’t assume that you know more than the author, especially in the author’s field. Avoid the embarrassment of the copy editor who, knowing that pre-Columbian artwork was from Latin America, changed “pre-Columbian” to “pre-Colombian” throughout a manuscript, instead of querying the author. (Many such boo-boos fall under the heading, A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.) Because such errors happen all too often, even magazine editors on tight schedules should always fax proofs to authors.

· Beware the absurdities of political correctness. Writers tend to back away from publications in which editors “dumb down” their works too much or allow personal prejudices to color their editing. One writer, assigned to do a piece about self esteem, read what Nathaniel Branden had written because he had done some pioneering work on the subject. The copy editor cut all references to Branden from the article and in the margin of her copy the author found this note: “Isn’t he the guy who slept with Ayn Rand?” Writers bridle at what they view as cavalier editing. If you must edit for an audience’s special sensitivities, explain that to the writer.

A health writer tells me that in copy editing one of her books, “the copy editor [my publisher] hired was so politically correct that she changed my sentence about the superego being ‘the inner policeman of our behavior’ to ‘the law enforcement official’ and she changed my quote of John Donne’s ‘no man is an island’ to ‘no person is an island.’ I was pretty caustic in the margin when I changed them back.”

· Avoid sarcasm and disrespect. Succinct, thoughtful queries are enormously helpful to writers and useful for improving a piece, but avoid brevity that conveys arrogance. As one popular magazine writer explains, “When I’ve been assigned a piece because I have acknowledged expertise in a field, the copy editing comment, ‘Says who?’ is insulting. What am I – chopped liver? I’d rather be told, ‘It would be helpful to cite another expert here.’ This approach acknowledges my authority and still makes the point: ‘We’re looking for a Ph.D.’

A clearly inexperienced copy editor was editing a book-length biography. After asking why the copy editor had changed “nineteenth century” to “19th century,” and learning that she’d used the AP Style Guide, the author explained that the AP Style Guide was mainly for newspapers and magazines, not books and literary works. “This is not a literary work,” said the (understandably defensive) copy editor, blowing whatever rapport had existed with this author.

On the other hand, don’t be so humble that it’s annoying. Just copy edit, don’t bow and scrape. One copy editor routinely sets his author/editor’s teeth on edge because he hems and haws and gives fifteen reasons why he’s probably wrong. “It wears you out,” says the editor. “It is particularly annoying when he is passive-aggressive, as in ‘Did you intend to spell this wrong?’ with the implication, I know it’s wrong, and I know you know it’s wrong, but I still need to ask.” Just ask, with a minimum of words.

· Resist the temptation to take liberties with fiction. Fiction, far more than nonfiction, reflects the author’s voice, language, and creative vision. Maybe some writers of low-rent fiction are sloppy enough to require rewriting or heavy editing, but unless you have instructions to transform the author’s style, be careful what you tamper with. Some well-established fiction writers refuse to be edited for anything but consistency of punctuation; Vladimir Nabokov refused to be copy edited altogether. Rare is the copy editor artful enough to change the words of a demanding novelist. The few editors who are artful with fiction seem to get inside the author’s head, and, for example, when a word is not quite right, suggest a replacement word with the same number of syllables, a word that will maintain the same rhythm in the sentence, the same nuance and attitude.

Fiction writers are grateful to copy editors who save them from committing factual errors to print. The author of a historical novel that contained a crucial chase scene in lower Manhattan was ready to kiss the feet of the knowledgeable (or thorough) copy editor who told her that the streets of lower Manhattan were laid out differently at the turn of the century, and produced a copy of a map for her.

But many fiction writers find literal-minded queries (especially about language) intensely irritating, believing most copy editors have no ear for the allowable distortions of fiction. Jacques Barzun observed that “not being professional writers, copy editors are seldom aware that prose, like any other art, calls for frequent compromise among desirable aims – sound and sense, force and fluidity, clearness and precision, emphasis and nuance, wit and truth. This very need for balance rules out consistency in the use of any component of writing… Style itself demands the opposite of mechanical regularity…” Copy editing for stylistic consistency all too often cancels out the writer’s voice.

One novelist wrote, about a character who played the flute, “No matter how you bend the notes, some songs are just natural blues.” The copy editor gave him a dictionary definition of the blues and told him that bending notes is inherent in the musical production of the blues, so his sentence was misleading. The novelist described a woman as having “rhinestone-blue eyes,” to suggest how fake they looked. The copy editor queried the phrase, observing that rhinestones are always clear. He ignored both queries, feeling the editor had a tin ear for language.

· Remember that it is not the copy editor’s job to rewrite. “The worst editors are those who consider themselves to be writers first,” says one writer. “They seem to approach our stories as if they are raw material for the story they would have written, if they had not been stuck being an editor.” Maybe some writers need rewriting, but many (if not most) writers resent it. Some copy editors are better at standardizing writing style than improving it.

Years ago, one of the mass market paperback houses published a beautiful first novel, a parable about a pilgrim in fourteenth century Spain, in which the author had intentionally kept the style simple, with short sentences, easy vocabulary, and halting diction in speech. The editor on that novel remembers being appalled when the manuscript came back from the copy editor to find the author’s words rewritten from start to finish to make the style more “current day.” When a copy editor takes liberties like that, the copy chief either has to go through the manuscript erasing most changes (to avoid alienating the author) or has to farm a fresh copy of the manuscript out to a second copy editor, losing both time and money.

· Don’t assume all writers care about mechanical details. Some writers appreciate being sent a copy of the house style sheet, but some are merely annoyed when a copy editor spells out house style on elements such as serial commas and hyphenation. “I write for many publications, which pay me for my expertise and writing, not my mastery of house style sheets,” says one busy science writer. “I want to be bothered when the content or manner of expressing it changes, but not on mechanical details.”

Make it easy for the writer to focus on the important things, not the mechanics. “We were told to make our responding comments in pencil,” says one writing team, “but the pencil couldn’t be black, blue, or red (which the copy editor had used). Let me tell you, it’s not easy (except in an art supply store or a large office supply store) to find a pencil that isn’t red, black or blue.” If someone needs to use an unusual color, you do it.

I encourage the use of this article in courses on editing or copyediting, but as with any such reproduction, please acknowledge the source by including this credit line. Copyright (c) Pat McNees (https://www.writersandeditors.com). If you have a minute, let me know what class it was used in.

What is wrong with my title? (Capitalization) (246 KB)

Errors in capitalization of titles and headlines signal that a product was not professionally edited. Which capitalization errors can you spot and correct in these titles?

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The writer-editor relationship

The Art of the Editorial Query (Sheilah Gagen, Vector TalentMEDIA, Aug. 2017) The editor’s task is to serve readability (not, as some authors might think, to hack away at text or, as some editors might think, to point out where an author is wrong).
John Bennet, Enemy of the “Blah Blah Blah” (Nick Paumgarten, New Yorker, 7-25-22) "An editor is like a shrink," was one of many Bennetisms. He was that, and a lot more. Through some rare mix of taste, judgment, candor, composure, selflessness, and insubordination, he earned that measure of trust and affection which makes it possible for editors to deliver cold, hard feedback, and for writers to be open to it, and grateful. I once asked him why he'd cut a joke I was fond of. "Because it's lame," he said. 
Writer, editor, and intimacy (John E. McIntyre, Baltimore Sun, 1-25-13) "[Y]our editor should be like the friend who advises you that you have toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe, just before you walk up to the dais to receive your award. Better to suffer a moment of private discomfort than endure public embarrassment." Another good bit: "But even in an operation like a newspaper, where a handful of remaining editors deals with scores of reporters, where a reporter after finishing one article must hurry on to the next, and where the copy editor may handle the work of a couple of dozen writers in a day's shift, a degree of intimacy remains."
How to query like a superhero – 5 tips for new fiction copyeditors and proofreaders (Louise Harnby) Be an advocate and watch your manners. Choose elevation over criticism.
Students Learn From People They Love (David Brooks, Opinion, NY Times, 1-17-19) Putting relationship quality at the center of education: "...emotion is not the opposite of reason; it’s essential to reason. Emotions assign value to things...emotions tell you what to pay attention to, care about and remember....Information is plentiful, but motivation is scarce....what teachers really teach is themselves — their contagious passion for their subjects and students."
Relationship advice for writers and editors (Ann Friedman, Columbia Journalism Review, 11-29-12) How to let your editor know you appreciate him or her.
The Writer-Editor Relationship (William Brohaugh, Writer's Digest, 4-3-08). Advice to new writers on what to expect from editors to whom you are submitting materials, and how to respond if you don't get what you want or need)
In Defense of Editors (Deena Drewis, The Millions, 1-7-10). A fascinating essay on why she are bothered that editor Gordon Lish not so much edited as commandeered the short stories of Raymond Carver. Yes, he made them better, but he also changed their essence.
The Carver Chronicles (D.T. Max, NY Times Magazine, 8-09-98). A long, interesting account of Gordon Lish's extensive edits (rewriting) of Raymond Carver's short stories, followed by an interview with Lish.
Rules of Maintenance: The Writer-Editor Relationship (ClearVoice)

Author-Editor Collaboration: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Corina Koch Macleod and Carla Douglas, The Book Designer, 12-9-15) Ever the upstart, self-publishing has thrust authors and editors into a new and much closer relationship. With the middleman gone, authors hire editors and rely on them for their editorial and publishing knowledge. Producing the best book possible is their common goal, and in this sense their relationship is a collaboration. This is both good and bad for authors, and sometimes it’s ugly, too. When good turns to bad in an author-editor collaboration, it is usually about expectations and communication.
The Author-Editor Relationship (Sandra Y. Desjardins, Indie Book Review, 1-30-20) The author-editor relationship is one of the most important unions you’ll have during your writing journey, so shop around and speak up!


"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." - Robert J. Hanlon

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Dear Pat,
I've just read your "Tips on Tact and Tone" and found it very helpful. I was directed to your site by Universal Class, Proofreading and Copyediting 201. Your article reminded me of the saying "Don't get too big for your britches." I hope to follow your advice and stay humble.
Thank you, Linda Swanson