It's kind of fascinating how different authors respond to my—er—style of editing. About 85% of the time I get, "finally, somebody who just comes out and plainly tells me what's wrong"; but 10% complain, "why are you so mean?!" and twice in the last two months I've had clients say, "That's it, I'm quitting writing!" And those were the ones I was trying to be tactful with. (I think I talked one of them out of burning the manuscript and quitting...haven't heard back from the other!)
I often joke that I took early retirement to edit full time because I could be ruder editing authors than grad students... the fact is, after doing this for 25 years, I can usually guess which writers I can be sarcastic with, and which I need to retain a degree of decorum. When an author and I are pretty simpatico, I can relax a bit and edit faster by just saying stuff, 'playful sarcasm' and all. It's actually a lot slower to find 'supportive' ways of saying "this is stupid". (Well, not that I'd actually use the word 'stupid', but you know what I mean.) I can be incredibly supportive when in supportive mode, and I've encountered plenty of grad students/authors over the years who didn't need editing so much as reassurance and morale building. And I happen to be good at that too (as testimonials on my website attest). The problem, then, comes if I guess wrong....
I've had this discussion with other editors, and they all pretty much tell me I should be nice to everybody all the time because you can't take the risk of getting it wrong. They're probably right, since I am painfully aware that writing is hard, we all question our ability all the time, and someone telling us this or that piece of writing sucks can set one back months or worse.
Here's the thing: I've also gotten a number of manuscripts across my desk that have already been edited, but I couldn't tell. I understand that sometimes novices ask for 'an edit' not understanding the difference between copy editing and structural editing. I get that maybe the editor in question thought the person wanted the grammar and spelling fixed before sending it off to a publisher, and honestly believed that their tactful copy edit was worth the $3500 they charged the client. But personally, I believe it is unethical to copy edit a manuscript that one knows to be terrible. Some of this might reflect in how low regard mainstream editors hold SF (i.e., they did not think the giant ants a problem), but I think most of it is motivated by the fact that freelance editing is a tough way to make a living (a lot like writing!) and taking an novice's money is better than being short on the rent. You know? So at what point does "tactful and supportive" morph into 'exploitative ripoff'? Because I have had half a dozen clients now tell me they have already spent thousands of dollars on several iterations of a manuscript, which when I get it, looks like I'm starting from scratch. And it's not that these writers didn't have any potential...it's that no one has told them that giant ants are a no-go, at least not in this way. So when is 'tactful' just out-and-out lying to maintain an income stream?
Vanity presses are tactful and supportive. I'm starting to wonder how much of the freelance editing industry is the new vanity press?
On the other hand...I don't want to scare away potential clients reading this and thinking, "Oh my god, he's admitting he's mean? So a couple of (made-up) examples of my editing style to illustrate what I'm talking about:
1) An author writes: "I expect a few good chuckles and maybe the odd wince."
If I thought the author should use "occasionally" instead of "odd" in that sentence, I might say something like: "Well, your protagonist is odd, so I would expect her to wince oddly...how about 'occasionally' instead of 'odd''? I think I'm being hilarious, but if it strikes you that I am in fact revealing myself to be a self-indulgent ass, feel free to ask for the 'tactful' editing package.
2) "The good folks at Mall World accepted my proposal."
If I thought that a bit too casual for a formal piece of text, I might say in the track changes "Yes, the bad folks at Mall World were dead against it, but the good ones eventually prevailed." Again, I think I am lightening the mood, but would completely understand if people found that annoying.
Okay, maybe not the best examples I could have chosen but they do sort of represent my style with people I know well. I don't do
This is one reason I insist on editing a sample (usually, about 30 pages) for a flat introductory fee ($90) before taking on any new client. That way, the client can see if they like my style of comment (and it's only the cost of a 'first date', if they don't) and whether the feedback they are getting is the type of feedback they want. (Not everybody wants to hear that they have to rewrite.) And, I get to see if the manuscript is one that resonates with me...because there is no point trying to edit a piece I don't 'get'.
Related Post: Five Rivers' Publisher, Lorina Stephens, weighs in on editing style.