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By Sylvia Bauer, EdANZ member

When I started out as a proofreader and editor 17 years ago I wondered: was perfection the “only” quality I needed for this job?

Since then I’ve missed the occasional error, just like I feared. That’s no proofreader’s picnic.

“Mistakes were made”’

The worst time was as an inexperienced editor for an ESL writer’s thesis, on a technical topic I knew nothing about. I’d agreed to a horribly tight timeframe and was trialling a new office chair as well. Not good timing. My back was in agony from long days, I was having trouble focussing, and time was running out for the third and final pass. I knew I couldn’t get through it and make the deadline.

Crossing fingers and holding my breath (which is scientifically proven to make everything turn out okay), I pressed “send”.

Apology accepted

A few days later the client sent me some unhappy but fairly worded feedback. He’d found errors and that had undermined his trust in my work. I guess the jury was out on finger-crossing after all. I said I was sincerely and terribly sorry – I’d unwittingly overcommitted on his job. I offered him a generous credit for the future, and a partial refund on the thesis work if he preferred. He graciously accepted the credit, and we parted on good terms.

Two years later he sent me the loveliest email. He was starting a new business, and would I proofread his marketing materials using the credit? That was a generous display of trust, and I was grateful for the chance to make things right and get closure.

I learned that you can still save the relationship (and avoid further fallout to your reputation) if you handle things well and with a spirit of sincere and humble generosity.

Hotels should say sorry

Once, long ago, I read (where was it?) that hotel guests were most likely to stay again if staff:

  • owned up to a mistake quickly
  • apologised sincerely
  • made appropriate amends.

I thought that probably applied to any relationship, personal or professional. I successfully tried it with my eight-year-old daughter, and then helped her to use it when apologising to others.

Tips for handling editing complaints

  1. Reply promptly.
  2. Acknowledge, investigate and take the complaint seriously.
  3. If it’s a style matter, explain your thoughts without justifying. Be humble: you may need to agree to disagree. Add the preference to their style guide for next time.
  4. Give your clients some credit for being human too. After the ESL thesis writer’s initial disappointment, he was very understanding – likely because I was sincerely sorry and didn’t justify, or come across argumentative or defensive. And because he’s a good human. I try to work with clients like that.
  5. Send a generous treat voucher and offer them some free editing hours.
  6. Learn from your mistakes and resolve to do things differently in future. Were you rushing? Running out of time? Sleep-deprived? Do you need more training? Did you zone out for a second? Did you understand the brief?
  7. See the funny side. Have a laugh in the privacy of your own office or with a colleague who understands. In a public document a colleague edited about shifting priorities, I’m glad they spotted the missing “f” from “this shift” before it was published.
  8. Be kind to yourself. You’re in a tricky industry where we strive for the unattainable. It’s difficult terrain.
  9. Be gentle on others also. No one likes a harsh critic or judge.
  10. Know your strengths. I’ve learned I’m not the best proofreader. Now I leave that to others and mostly stick to structural and plain language editing.
  11. Overall, put the relationship with the client first.
  12. Like my wise dad used to say, “You won’t know it in 20 years.” Almost 20 years on, I know he was right.

Compassion cures all

In our jobs, we’re paid to sweat the small stuff. But when you make an occasional mistake yourself, don’t sweat it too much. You’re human after all. Give yourself some compassion and good self-care, and learn the lesson for next time.

Thanks for reading, and I’d be happy to hear your thoughts:

Take care out there in the wild world of editing!