Some Prescriptions for Better Editor–Author Communication
While I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room recently, I started pondering some parallels between good “people doctors” and good “word doctors”. I like my physician because in addition to keeping up with the latest in medicine, he’s a good communicator—he asks me about my concerns, he listens to me carefully, he reassures me, he explains the rationale behind the recommendations he offers, and he is personable and has a good sense of humor.
His communication style benefits me, because it makes me feel respected. But also, I think, it benefits him, because through asking good questions and listening carefully, he learns more about my situation and can offer better recommendations.
Might good communication between editors and authors offer similar benefits?
In the face of high volumes of work and deadline pressure, it’s easy to minimize contact with authors in an effort to be more efficient. But ultimately, I find that I’m more satisfied in my work when I take a few extra minutes to communicate. Following are some “prescriptions” for practices that have been helpful for me.
Clarify What the Author Wants
When you receive a manuscript from an author you haven’t worked with before, you can assume that the author wants your standard editorial job. Or you can contact the author and ask a couple of questions.
Has the author worked with an editor before? If not, you can describe in 1 minute how you plan to review the author’s work and then ask whether your plan sounds reasonable. Does the author have any special requests or concerns? Occasionally, an author will have a specific request (“Can you help me figure out how to reduce the number of tables to five?”) or will reveal background information that influences your editorial approach (“My mentor told me that the introduction is too long; could you please help me shorten it?”).
Whether the exchange reveals anything earth shattering or not, the fact that you’ve taken the time to ask the questions shows that you care about the author’s particular needs and preferences and are willing to tailor your work accordingly. The initial exchange also signals to the author that you’re willing to communicate about issues more complex than due dates.
Acknowledge the Author, Not Just the Manuscript
Imagine that an author sends you a paper and says, “You edited this paper for us previously and we submitted it to journal A but it got rejected. Now we’ve revised it and are submitting it to journal B; can you review it again?” You could just answer the question. But I think it would be better to take a moment and acknowledge the other information in the author’s message: “I’m sorry to hear that your paper wasn’t accepted at your first-choice journal; I hope it will be accepted quickly this time around.”
If you show that you’re interested in an author’s successes, you may be more likely to hear from the author in the future when a paper or proposal that you edited gets published or funded.
Ask for Help When You’re Confused
Maybe you’ve read a scientific report three times and you’re still confused about what the author did and why. You can muddle through with your editing and make your best guesses about what’s going on in the paper. Or you can stop and ask the author for help.
A simple approach that often works well is to formulate a brief list of questions and e-mail them to the author. The author can write back or just pick up the telephone and call to discuss the answers. Talking with the author face to face often works well too, especially if you and the author already have a working relationship.
Occasionally, an author’s answer will cause your heart to skip a beat: “Oh, don’t worry about the fact that the introduction doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the paper; we cut and pasted that introduction from an old paper of ours, and we need to change it to fit the current study.” Better to have this information up front than to spend hours trying to fix the unfixable!
Acknowledge Excellent Writing
When in the course of your work you come across a delightful turn of phrase or a beautifully prepared set of figures or a grant proposal that is so clear that you recognize that you would be out of a job if everyone wrote this well, you can just take private delight in your find. Or you can pay the author a compliment: “What a great metaphor!” “This is one of the clearest grant proposals I’ve read this year!”
I don’t believe that it’s the editor’s job to try to find something to praise in every manuscript, and in fact I probably write this type of comment on only about every fourth or fifth document that I review. But when something strikes me as outstandingly well done, I let the author know. In my experience, authors seem to appreciate sincere compliments. And the praise must be a nice counterbalance to all those tracked changes!
Acknowledge Mistakes and Express Gratitude for Help
If an author takes the time to explain nicely why one of your queries was off base, you can pretend that you didn’t notice (after all, it can be embarrassing to find that you misunderstood something). Or you can express gratitude to the author for caring enough to help you to learn something new.
Usually, I’ll just say something like “thanks for gently pointing me back in the right direction where I got off track.” Sometimes a further note is in order, along the lines of “I appreciate your explanations, and they’ll help me do a better job the next time I edit an article on this topic.”
Set Expectations and Provide Feedback
Sometimes when an author sends me a revised version of something I had reviewed previously, the author will apologize for not having accepted all my suggestions. When that happens, I could just say, “Oh, no need to apologize,” and leave it at that. But I usually take a moment to reassure authors that my suggestions are just that—suggestions—and that I would be surprised if an author accepted all of them. After all, I’m not the subject-matter expert—the author is. (I will, however, point out any remaining frank errors, and if I think a passage is still confusing, I’ll continue advocating for clarification.)
Every now and then, an author asks a somewhat delicate question—“Do you think my writing is generally clear?” “What did you think of this paper? Do you think it has a good chance of publication?” It may be tempting to answer with a generic reassuring sentence or two. However, I think a more thoughtful response gives a better impression. Sometimes a telephone call may be better than e-mail, in that a telephone conversation gives you an opportunity to learn more about what prompted the question (simple curiosity? negative feedback? distress?) and to tailor your response accordingly.
Do you ever ask authors for feedback on your work? I like to follow up if I have a nagging doubt about whether my editorial suggestions were on target. That way, instead of worrying, I can learn from a mistake or be reassured and move on.
Do you e-mail authors to find out what happened with projects that you worked on? With my regular clients, I’ll sometimes follow up to find out whether a proposal got funded or a paper got published. It lets authors know that I care about their successes, and I get personal satisfaction from knowing that I may have played some small part in those successes.
Looking Ahead: Queries
Of course, queries are another way in which editors communicate with authors. Do you have a favorite source of recommendations for writing good queries? If so, I’d be grateful if you’d share it with me so that I can consider including the advice in a future column. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.