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Learning from Mistakes

book editor and proofreader David RoseBy David Rose, Copy Editor

Book Editing Associates

We all learn from our mistakes. At times it might seem that’s a large part of what copy editors do – correct mistakes and help authors learn by them. But we editors learn a lot by our mistakes, too.

When I was starting out as a copy editor, I worked on a fantasy novel where I changed towards to toward throughout the novel, dropping the s according to Chicago style. I never explained to the author why I made the change. I was a middleman in a production team and didn’t think I needed to explain such a simple change. Later I had several direct emails with the author, who expressed his chagrin at being such a poor speller, not knowing how to spell toward. He didn’t make a mistake; I did in failing to explain that the different spellings were only a style issue. Neither was wrong, and either could be right, according to a style.

In my mistake of not explaining a spelling revision (and seeing how I inadvertently bruised the author’s ego), I learned the value of clear and transparent communication. Heck, many authors new to publishing don’t even know what a style guide is. Instead of bruising the author on a mistake where there was none, I could have instilled confidence by adding an explanation. Lesson learned.

Another early mistake I made was failing to offer praise with criticism. After I had submitted one particular edit, a client came back to me with, “Oh my God, I can’t believe how much red is in my manuscript!”

It reminded me of a positive experience I had as a student in journalism school. We published a daily newspaper at the University of Missouri, and I had a four o’clock deadline on a breaking story, and it was four o’clock. As I finished my draft, my editor sat next to me and read my story on the computer. Finding an awkward phrase, he said, “Not bad, but how about this?” and with a few strokes he smoothed some rough edges.

I find a similar approach works best with the authors who hire me today: give some praise first, then offer an improvement.

Every writer has something worthwhile in their manuscript, and when I submit an edit I include a note to the author in which I make sure to offer a positive comment on something I liked in the book, along with sprinkling a few attaboys in the text when a turn of phrase or a plot development works particularly well.

A little praise along with clear and transparent communication leads to respect on both sides – and for a more productive collaboration. And that is perhaps the central lesson I’ve learned in the editor-writer relationship: that it is a collaboration. We’re working together to improve the reader’s experience. It’s both the writer’s and the editor’s responsibility to keep that perspective in the forefront when working together.


David Rose has edited more than seventy published books, both fiction and nonfiction.

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