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How To Argue With Your Editor by Zetta Brown

When you are writing for publication—regardless of its form—your main goal is communication. Your purpose to write may be to inform, educate, or entertain, but if you cannot communicate with your words effectively, why bother.

I see my job as an editor as a part of the author’s last line of defence between their baby (work) and a cold, sometimes-cruel public. Editors are not here to teach you how to write, but you may learn from a good editor how to improve your writing.

I want to reveal to you some secrets when it comes to dealing with the mysterious and sometimes-cranky creature, communis Editor, aka “the common editor.”

It is a myth that editors are an unholy cross between female human and a male of undeterminable origin or species. The truth is that editors are 100% human —and we make mistakes.

So, how can an author reason with the likes of us?


Use Your Words

Editors have above average knowledge when it comes to grammar and punctuation and things like that, but the author has skills and experience that is essential to the work at hand.

I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an editor’s red pen. It’s never easy to get criticism about your work. The best thing for it is to give yourself time to be angry, worried, upset—get it out of your system—and then approach their notes with a clear head and an open mind. This advice isn’t new, but it’s valuable advice all the same.

If an editor questions or changes something that you disagree with—ask the reason why. I learned early in my career that one of the biggest reasons for resistance from the author was because I didn’t understand exactly what they were trying to accomplish. Sometimes the author was totally off-base in their defense, but more often than not it was simply miscommunication in the writing.

The editor needs to have a clear understanding of your writing. If your intent is to persuade but your writing is combative, the editor can help you reframe your writing to get the desired result. If you think the editor is taking your work down the wrong path, chances are that you are not making your point clear.

You have the knowledge and experience your editor does not. If an editor questions the accuracy or plausibility about something—and you have knowledge (or better yet, proof) to the contrary—tell them about it.

Editors can learn much from an author and vice versa. But you have to make your case.

Just don’t be a pill about it.

For example, the publishing house my husband and I have uses a style sheet. There was a grammar rule on our sheet that one of our authors pointed out as being grammatically incorrect—and she gave her justification for it—and she’s an English teacher. We changed our style sheet to reflect the correction.

Pick Your Battles

You have to be ready for the editing process. If you believe your work is perfect and every word, comma, and passive and/or illogical construction is correct—you’re not ready.

I’ve had the misfortune to work with authors who will argue and debate and ignore every single edit or suggestion I made. They took an adversarial approach to editing rather than a team approach, and the result was painful for both of us.

Do you like your boss jumping on you for everything you do, whether you are right or wrong? Do you stay put or do you bail at the first opportunity?

Some think that if they fight their editor at every step, they will get their money’s worth.

Actually, what the author is doing is establishing a reputation for being difficult. Some people thrive on this, it makes them whole, but for the rest of us we associate them with a different hole.

Think about it. Which is more important? The editor’s preference for using the serial comma, or the need to show your protagonist as an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic in a realistic manner? Unless your publisher says otherwise, you can forgive the editor’s  comma fixation.

Authors pay me for my editing services and I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t highlight the problems I see. I’m not going to give you lip service. If an author wants their ego stroked, they can get that for free without hiring an editor.


Horror Story

What advisory blog post would be complete without a horror story? Like any editor, I’ve had my share of clients that I swear were drop-shipped to me from Hades by an anonymous prankster.

I’ve been accused of dashing a budding author’s publishing dreams and scaring them from writing forever. This is bunk. In this day, with all the publishing options available, the only person standing in your way is you.

I had a client terminate our contract once because she felt my edits were not suitable to her genre, were both vague and repetitive, my comments were hurtful, and my tone was “demeaning.”

Whoa. Talk about being blindsided. My previous email communication from her was a status report. Nowhere did she hint to my edits or comments giving her trouble.

In fact, first email from her said the reason she picked me is because she liked my editing style, I provided more feedback than other editors she had approached, she was “thick skinned,” and “liked blunt.” I even gave her a free sample edit before we started (something I do hoping of avoiding situations like this…sigh!) and she said it “kicked [her] ass the hardest” and she “liked what [I] brought to the table.”

Regarding her comments about my edits being wrong for her genre, I believe good storytelling supersedes genre. Repetitive edits indicate the problem is present throughout the work. As for the perceived “demeaning” tone, editing comments are never to be interpreted as a personal attack. At least mine aren’t.

She made other statements that didn’t ring true, but you get the gist. Then she said she had showed my edits to “her editor friend” who “agreed” with her.


If the author had come to me, I can’t guarantee that we would have agreed on every issue, but I do believe we could have compromised enough to get the job done. To this day I don’t know if she ever published that story or any story.

Can you really call yourself an author if you refuse to communicate?


Beware of the Water Cooler

There are plenty of author forums, chat rooms, and clubs where authors can talk freely, ask for recommendations or advice—or vent when things go wrong.

Believe it or not, the publishing world is small. Expect to run into people you’ve heard of or possibly even know via online in various places. Many editors, agents, and publishers are authors too. We have our own cliquish cliques, and you better believe stories get shared about difficult people and their manuscripts.

No one has clean hands when it comes to talking trash, but you better be careful where you do it and who you do it with.

I was working an assignment for a publisher. I had turned in my first round of edits to the publisher and the author and waited for their response. In the meantime, I went about my business and caught up on my social media.

So imagine my shock when I discovered the author criticizing me and my work in a certain Yahoo! group the author owned.


Golden Rule Pro Tip #1: If you are going to create an online social forum (public or private) and want to talk about someone behind their back…make sure that person isn’t also a member of the group.


I lurked and read the commiserations the author received from her author pals, because the editor is a jackass—duh!

The author was writing a contemporary romance set in Scotland and claimed my edits didn’t fit because I was “from the UK.” How could I possibly relate to this American author and her American heroine?

I’m an American. At the time this happened, I was living in Scotland and had been for five years. I have B.A. in English with emphasis on Creative Writing. So, yeah, I felt confident about my edits.

In the end, I said nothing but presented my case to the publisher, who then dealt with the author and allowed me to step away from the assignment.

Sometimes, if you can’t say something nice…

There you have it, authors. Don’t be afraid to question—or correct—your editor. Communicate!

It’s your job.


Love this? Check out Zetta’s webinar:  WEBINAR: The Elements of Style…Sheets: How to Create Your Own Style Sheet with Zetta Brown ~ October 11 @ 9 p.m. EST  with SavvyAuthors


Zetta Brown is an author, small publisher, and professional editor with over twenty years of experience helping authors at every level of their career. She has nurtured and published new authors who have become award winners and even an Amazon bestseller.

Visit her website at zettabrown.com.

Zetta Brown is an author, small publisher, and professional editor with over twenty years of experience helping authors at every level of their career...