Dealing With Difficult People — Editors’ Version by Kaarina Stiff


Editing is about clarity, consistency and the mechanics of grammar, but it is also about the relationships that editors have with those being edited. As much as editors need to have expertise in matters of punctuation, we also need strong people skills to navigate the murky world of helping people communicate better.

“Editors … should demonstrate initiative and flexibility, being able to adapt to the needs of the project and the specific work environment, and they need to communicate clearly and tactfully and to respect the opinions of others.” EAC Professional Editorial Standards, The Fundamentals of Editing.

In the best of worlds, editors and writers have a symbiotic relationship where the editor intuitively knows what the writer meant, and the writer is thrilled to accept all of their editor’s suggestions. This can actually happen in real life, and it’s pure bliss when it does. Just as often, though, editors work with people—clients, co-workers, even supervisors—who are less eager to receive our advice. What should an editor do when someone insists, “No, you’re wrong—I learned it that way in school,” or, “I don’t care if you think it’s wrong, I think it sounds better that way”? Here are five strategies to deal with difficult people in your editorial world.

Pick your battles

Not every comma splice is worth fighting over, even if you’re right. Save your energy for the errors that really matter—instructions that could be misunderstood, sentences with double meanings, or other missteps that have real consequences.

Choose your timing

We don’t always have the luxury of time, but calling out a colleague (or boss) in a public place is rarely a good idea. Try to catch them one on one, when you have enough time to describe what you have noted, and how you propose to fix it. You don’t need half an hour, but do let them make their way to the washroom and back before you raise the issue.

Be prepared to explain yourself

As editors, we must always have a reason for changing something. Be ready to explain your recommendation, with specifics. Don’t just say, “That’s the rule.” Instead, try, “Even though both spellings are in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, our style guide calls for always using the first choice.” When you can describe the problem, people are more likely to be persuaded.

Keep it professional

As frustrating as it can be when colleagues sprinkle extra commas everywhere, it is critical to maintain your composure. Even though yelling, “Didn’t you learn this in grade school!” might be satisfying for a brief moment, it will only hurt your credibility down the line. Establish yourself as the consummate professional, and you’re more likely win people over in the long run.

Know when to let go

Even if you’re right, and even if there are consequences if people ignore your sage advice, there comes a time in every editor’s life when you have to let go. If you have tried all manner of tact and diplomacy—complete with citations and concrete evidence of impending doom should your words go unheeded—and your colleagues still don’t wish to listen, your work is done. Make a note of the advice given (and the response received) and move on. If your predictions come to pass, make a note of that too, so that you can gently use it as an example later on.

Do you have a tried and true trick for dealing with difficult people in your editorial life? Share in the comments below!

Kaarina is a freelance writer and editor, and is currently serving as Secretary on the Editors Ottawa-Gatineau Executive. She loves words, hockey, and trying to make sense of the 1980s.

6 thoughts on “Dealing With Difficult People — Editors’ Version by Kaarina Stiff

  1. Great article, Kaarina, with great advice! I have two more tip to add: (1) Make a connection with the author. A friendly e-mail exchange at the start of a project, a few informal kind words in a cover memo, a request for more info on the author’s pet topic—anything that helps establish you as a human rather than just a source of overstrike red text from the start can help. (2) Make yourself valuable to the author. It’s a gift if you can fix a potentially embarrassing error early on, helping to establish you as an ally, but any way of clearly helping can go a long way. I once won over a whole department of experts who were infamous in their organization for rejecting *all* editing by being able to help them figure out a feature of Word that had been frustrating them on another project. The in-house editorial team couldn’t BELIEVE all the changes they’d agreed to in the happy glow of getting their other document fixed. ;-p

  2. Nice tips. Another one – build up goodwill and trust in advance by showing respect for the author’s subject matter expertise. If you’ve shown interest, asked good questions and done some conspicuous active listening, the author is likely to have more confidence that you really understand their meaning and context. With luck, that will translate into more willingness to let you help.

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