Diplomacy is never far from the headlines, whether it’s the Brexit negotiations, ceasefires in long-running armed conflicts, or international agreements on emissions targets. Even if negotiations don’t take place in the public eye, we know they’re happening and we can see the results (or lack thereof).
Although such situations might seem rather remote from our daily lives, I think we probably all use more diplomacy on a day-to-day basis than we imagine. This was brought home to me recently by an incident involving a friend of mine (a fellow editor, although the situation wasn’t related to editing). This friend had managed to resolve a long-standing and seemingly intractable family problem by speaking separately, and with very well-chosen words, to each of the parties involved. The situation was quickly sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. No one lost face, no one felt aggrieved, and no one was seen as ‘the bad guy’. I was seriously impressed with the way my friend had engineered this solution. It was pure genius!
Now, I wouldn’t call myself a natural diplomat. Yorkshire folk have a reputation for plain speaking and bluntness, and that’s often not conducive to approaching situations in a calm, measured way. Add to that my tendency to try to make a joke out of everything and it’s safe to say that I’m not going to be leading international peace talks any time soon.
But in the world of editing and proofreading – particularly the freelance variety – there are plenty of scenarios in which a pinch of diplomacy can go a long way.
Dealing with clients (and, indeed, potential clients) can be a minefield. From discussing the scope of the work to the thorny issue of the fee, there’s ample room to lose your cool, and possibly lose out on the work. If discussions are straightforward, there may be little need for diplomacy. But when there are points of disagreement – which often, it seems, relate to time and money – you need to strike a balance between sticking to your guns at all costs and keeping relations cordial. It’s not easy!
There’s also diplomacy in the act of editing. Whether to intervene or leave the text as it stands can be a major dilemma. How will your amendments be received by the client? Is it worth correcting every single style point or debatable grammar infringement if it’s going to cause problems further down the line? Will the client take offence at your ‘meddling’? Will that mean they’re less likely to accept your corrections when it comes to more serious errors? Is there a chance that your decision will result in a cost to them (financial, reputational or otherwise)? It’s clear that the actual decision about whether or not to make a change can sometimes require a good deal of careful thought and sensitivity.
And then there are the comments you leave for the author. Perhaps you simply can’t understand what the author is trying to say. Perhaps you can understand it clearly, but think it needs to be queried. How do you convey these thoughts in a short comment, without causing upset? Making things less personal can certainly help (‘Will the reader understand this?’ rather than ‘Your argument is complete nonsense’), but it’s still a difficult area.
If your work is part of a process involving several different stages handled by a number of different people, a diplomatic approach is essential. If there’s an element of negotiation involved – on fees, timescales or scope of work, for example – it’s a question of striking that balance between standing your ground and trying to be flexible and helpful. And if problems arise with someone else in the chain, you might need to let others know about it. Here again, a professional approach works best, even if you’re feeling upset, frustrated or angry. After all, your reputation is also at stake.
Here I’m thinking of other editors and proofreaders you interact with, either face to face or in online groups or forums. Such interactions can be a great source of inspiration, information and support, and in some cases, the basis for friendships. But sometimes even professional discussions can cause ruffled feathers. How do you react when a colleague asks a very basic question instead of consulting a standard reference book? What if someone makes a statement that you know to be inaccurate? If you feel you need to react at all, it can be difficult to find just the right tone. Once again, it’s about balance: getting your point across without turning it into a personal attack.
Family and friends
Ironically, sometimes taking a diplomatic approach is most difficult when you’re dealing with the people closest to you. For many, freelancing means balancing work and home life, often with the support of others. How do you establish the boundaries between work and family? Do you find yourself negotiating for the time and space you need? How do you respond to assumptions that ‘working from home’ means ‘available for childminding, going out for lunch, taking in postal deliveries, having long chats on the phone…’? (Yes, freelancers often do those things – it’s the assumption that we’re always available that’s the issue.) And then there’s the friend or relative who’s written a book and wants you to proofread it ‘as a favour’. How do you respond to such situations without upsetting your nearest and dearest?
1. Have some idea what you’re aiming for
Think about your ultimate objective. That might be a particular fee or timescale, or even a specific goal for the text you’re editing.
2. Consider the other person’s position
What effect will your stance – and the way you communicate it – have on them? What’s their agenda?
3. Is it worth ‘making a point’ – to an author, a colleague or a client?
In other words, is the issue so vital that you’d risk upsetting those involved? If you think it is, what’s the best way to present your viewpoint while minimising the damage?
4. Think before you speak or write
Take a moment to consider the content and tone of your message. Count to 10 (at least)!