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Virginia Durksen

The Inner Editor: Please Allow Me To … Interrupt You

Copyright: juliarstudio / 123RF Stock Photo

On Facebook recently, a colleague reported being the victim of a phone hijacking. You might recognize the feeling. A potential client calls to ask about editing services and then spends the better part of an hour telling her story with barely a breath between sentences, leaving you with no room to speak. There it is. One hour you’ll never get back.

Interrupt the caller! her colleagues replied with variations on advice and empathy. And yet, for many editors, interruptions are as rude and cringe-worthy as the endless oration that begs for interruption in the first place.

What follows, based on a lifetime of experience with stream of consciousness talkers (some of whom are family members), is my response to every editor’s need to deal with someone who hasn’t figured out the important distinction between a conversation and a monologue (a.k.a. a phone hijacking).*

Ten ways to interrupt a caller

A good interruption starts with an interrupting signal, usually one word, followed by a statement (not a question; if you ask a question, you lose the conversational ball).

  1. Okay. I think I’ve got enough background. Do you have a few minutes to listen?
  2. Sam. Sam. Sam. [the caller’s name, repeated until they stop talking] I assume you called to find out what I can do to help. One thing I can do is …
  3. Wow! You have a lot of passion for this project. But before I learn any more about you, you need to learn about me.
  4. Whoa. Spoiler alert! I don’t want to hear about your story until you’ve heard about my services.
  5. Sam? [asked as if you’re wondering if they’re still there] I’m going to tell you about my services and then I’m going to ask you three questions. After that, we’ll have to use email so that we can both manage our time.
  6. So. Now you probably want to hear all about me and my services.
  7. Wait. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. First let me decide if I can help you. Here’s what I do for authors …
  8. Excuse me. I think we’re getting off track. You called to ask about my services.
  9. The sound of silence. Utter silence. No encouraging listening noises. Nothing. Make them wonder if you’re still there. They usually manage to stop themselves.
  10. Set an alarm that will ring loudly after 10 (or two) minutes. That will give you the opportunity to say “That’s my reminder to get back to my clients. Let me send you my details so that you can send me your manuscript for an estimate.”

And finally, avoid setting the monologue in motion by asking them a question that’s too open-ended, such as: Can you tell me about your project?

Instead, help the caller focus with specific questions: Can you summarize the story in three sentences? What’s the manuscript word count? If they ignore the question, ask it again, to keep them on track. Creative people often follow the little rabbit trails of their own stories. Some of them are just looking for someone to put up with hearing their story.

The 11th response: Hang up!

Sometimes a polite push is the only way to protect your time when a caller just won’t stop talking. And there’s my 11th suggestion: I’m sorry. I don’t have time for this. Good luck with your story. Then hang up. Yes, you might just have hung up the phone on J.K. Rowling. But what are the chances, really?

*This post is a gently edited reprint of Virginia’s response to a Facebook post, adapted with the original poster’s permission.

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Previous post from Virginia Durksen: Revisiting the Inner Editor: December Is the Cruellest Month

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12 Comments on “The Inner Editor: Please Allow Me To … Interrupt You”

  • Wilf Popoff

    says:

    There’s also: Can you hold, please? I have a call on my other line.

    • Virginia

      says:

      Hah! Good one.

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    Good suggestions, every one … Sometimes, though, you get a really interesting person on the phone and you can be well entertained and learn a lot by talking to them. Most often that happens with people who are your authors, not just inquirers, but I regard these conversations – by phone or over coffee or lunch – as one of the perks of the editing life.

    • Virginia

      says:

      I agree, Rosemary. The conversations are the perks (when they’re not just an interruption).

      Some people just don’t seem to like interacting on the phone. Until recently, I had the same reaction to email and Facebook that some people seem to have to phone calls. Or meetings. Or lunch! I would much rather connect by voice, at minimum, and in person if possible.

      Email is still a struggle, but I appreciate that it’s a great way to keep the conversation short and on topic.

  • Anita I. Jenkins

    says:

    Rosemary and Virginia, you are members of my club. I see a huge value in talking on the phone (or in person) and find that many colleagues (and clients) think just using email is sufficient. In my mind there is no author-editor relationship when the only contact is by email. Of course if the author is in China and you are in Canada, you have to work around that.

    (Off topic, as usual, since we were discussing how to get OFF the phone!)

    • Virginia

      says:

      That’s the shadow post for this one: How to make phone calls when you dread using the phone.

      I love getting calls, but I’m not so fond of initiating them. Your superpower is picking up the phone, Anita. Or, at least one of your superpowers.

  • Frances Peck

    says:

    What excellent suggestions for dealing with steamroller client conversations. Some, like #10, are also great for those occasional personal calls that come in during the work day. You know, the ones that begin «I know you’re at work, but this’ll just take a minute» and are still going strong 10-15 minutes later. Thanks for such great advice, Virginia.

    • Virginia

      says:

      The personal calls can really throw off an entire day. I don’t recall having that problem when I leased office space for my business. When I first started working from home, I would hold off the «hi, what’s up» tone and add a little more «busy person here» tone, hoping to signal the need to get on with things. One friend would inevitably comment on how serious I sounded, «like you’re at work.» Of course, I stopped taking her calls.

  • Naomi Pauls

    says:

    Thanks very much for this, Virginia. I had a good chuckle over your list. Only yesterday I picked up a call from a former client across the country — knowing full well that it would be an «interrupter.» The best strategy, I find, is having call display on my business line. Oh, excuse me, there’s my sister calling now (ha-ha).

    • Virginia

      says:

      And having a business line is another great way to sort out phone calls.

      As for sisters, in my extensive experience, phone calls with sisters are the welcome interruption—and must not be interrupted! My sister even ignores calls from her daughters when we’re on the phone.

  • Stacey Aktinson

    says:

    This is great advice for those stream of consciousness talkers! I especially like the reminder to make sure not to interrupt with a question as this will just set the talker off again on another story. And setting a timer sounds pretty good too!

    • Virginia

      says:

      The stream of consciousness talkers are an interesting study in their own right. In some cases, if you let them run a bit, they will drop good clues about why you should hang up and move on with your day. My favourites are the breathless 22-year-olds who think their life story would make a great movie.

      The good questions are often how the editing gold is discovered, so there’s something useful about inviting writers to follow where their thoughts lead them. I sometimes forget that I should be saving those questions for when the meter is actually running and I can bill for my time.

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