We asked our parliament of wise owls, all Advanced Professional Members, to tell us about their best piece of client feedback.
I’m a copyeditor working primarily for publishers, so my normal workflow is (broadly): the files arrive; I edit them; if the job includes it I resolve queries with the author; then the files go off for typesetting and that’s an end to it. So if I get an email from the author weeks later, I’m already nervous.
In 2010, I got one such email from an economist, co-author with an Italian colleague whose English was … convoluted. Further, he kept sending replacement chapters with no changes tracked, and my file was for the whole book, which made comparing files a pain. It had taken so much work to straighten out the language that more than a decade later this job remains my lowest hourly rate ever.
My nervousness increased. Eek! What had I missed? Despite earning a pittance on that book, I still had professional pride.
The email started ominously: ‘I have been checking the proofs, and you hardly seem to have done anything’ – I gulped – ‘yet somehow it reads so much better. I don’t know how you’ve done it, but thank you.’ Phew! Cue victory dance! Authors’ voices preserved? Tick-tickety-tick-tick-tick!
I love getting positive feedback from clients, and it’s one of the things, along with being part of such a supportive community, that makes me feel able to keep going – job after job, year after year. A compliment about my work, from someone who understands exactly what I’ve brought to a project, can make my entire week. But some of the best, most useful, feedback has in fact been the most painful. When clients take the time to tell me how I can improve my work next time, or more effectively meet their needs – that’s what really keeps me learning and growing. I haven’t always taken criticism well, but gradually I’ve learned to see it for what it is: an opportunity to do better in future. I always thank clients for fair criticism, because in a profession that can sometimes feel like fumbling in the dark, constructive feedback can really shine a light on the way ahead.
This, from 2008, just three years into my freelance editing career, is still one of my favourite bits of feedback. It was a delightful book, and she was a lovely author to work with:
I fear I have proved to be a slightly hassly author [reader, she was not; just particular], and you have been brilliant in patiently hanging on to the detail with me. In your respect for the detail, and careful consultations with me on everything, you have been confidence-instilling at every turn. I have three other things at proof-stage at the moment, and I can say without hesitation that yours is the most reliable and sensitively attuned best copyediting I have encountered.
The words ‘sensitively attuned’ have seen me through many an episode of imposter syndrome.
I can’t say enough about how useful, important and affirming good feedback is, and I publish my favourites on my website. For freelancers, the affirmative aspect is crucial and not (all) about ego stroking: it’s a way of better identifying what our clients need and learning how we can give them more of it. For example, if a client mentions our ‘careful and thorough work’, they probably value accuracy and thoroughness. Or, if they thank us for making a process ‘smooth and stress-free’, they might place a premium on timely communications. Other clients need to feel they can trust us to protect their image, brand or reputation, which might come across in a variety of comments.
Good feedback is never an excuse to sit on our laurels – it’s an invaluable source of clues to be mined to understand how we can serve our clients even better.
The most thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of feedback I’ve ever received was from a law publisher client over a decade ago, when I was still just proofreading. I continue to work for the same publishers, though now it’s mainly copyediting. Delightful clients, so long may it continue.
This is what they said:
Really chuffed with your approach to the text and the style. We appreciate proofers who will adopt an elegant scepticism to everything.
I thought then, and still do, that elegant scepticism was such a healthy aspiration for an editor. It will say different things to different people, but I took it to mean, Look sideways at everything but don’t go blundering in unnecessarily – and when you do go in, strive towards a clean and economical form of words that respects both writer and subject matter.
Much of my work involves multi-author law guides from different jurisdictions around the world. English is often not the authors’ first language, so there is much digging for the intended shade of meaning, and quite a lot of rewriting. In that context, elegant scepticism is the lodestar and I have it written on a Post-it below the window!
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
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Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.