Have you ever found yourself in an argument with a writer over an issue you’re rock-solid sure about, but because of your naturally generous and open-minded nature, you try to see the other point of view, and then it begins to dawn on you that the writer might actually have something of a point, and finally it hits you like that falling piano that you’re spectacularly wrong?
What to do? If you own up, you will look bad, and your writers will no longer trust you. No, the best course for editors is to save face. Toward that end, I’ve accumulated some strategies that I’m willing to share.
The trick is to calibrate the force and complexity of the apology to the level of your stupidity and (for that rarely needed occasion) arrogance. For instance, a normal apology, for when you’ve argued with professional courtesy and restraint, can be breezy and dismissive and skimp on the actual apology part (“Ah, I see now. Thanks for explaining. No worries!”).
But let’s say you went further and flat-out asserted that the writer was misinformed. In that case, you’re going to need some fancier footwork, like “Oh, dear—I’m afraid this has all been a misunderstanding. In my haste in my previous e-mail I omitted the word not from that last sentence. We’ve actually been in agreement all along.”
Ratcheting things up (purely for the sake of argument), let’s say you got pretty het up. Let’s say you haughtily and erroneously invoked several sections of the Chicago Manual of Style along with various of your credentials, including the exact number of years you’ve been editing and your verbal score on the GRE. This is where you might do better with a quick phone call (leaving no record for future scrutiny): “I’m afraid your previous explanations sent me in the wrong direction, but I think I can sort this out now. Please don’t feel bad—many writers get confused about these things. I’m well used to it—I’ll have this back in shape in no time. And don’t worry—we can keep this between the two of us.”
In the unlikely event that you totally lost it—that you refused to have anything more to do with a project so beneath your standards and threatened to alert Acquisitions and Contracts that the project should be yanked—don’t panic. This always works: “Please disregard all correspondence of the last week—someone broke into my office and took over my manuscripts! I’ve been bound and gagged since Thursday and only just managed to free myself. And—no surprise—the scoundrel was not exactly up to speed on the sixteenth edition of CMOS. I’m sorry for any inconvenience or distress on your end, but rest assured, everything is now back under my expert eye.”
Finally, whatever happens, do not for a moment consider the advice of John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun. I’m warning you: he will tell you to own up and take your lumps. And if you’ve ever tried it, you know the truth: it will only make things worse.