I'm sure each of us has been the recipient of the phrase, "It's not what you said, it's how you said it!" when we've inadvertently offended someone. I would be willing to bet there's not a person on this earth who hasn't said the right thing in the wrong way at least once. Heck, I do it all the time, so I probably skew the statistics a bit for everyone else.
Is tact really an art form, or can any ol' schmo learn it? I do think some people are naturally more tactful than others, but I think a small helping of tact can smooth over a plethora of situations. In our family, we have the two ends of the scale, right under one roof. Lucky us, right? Hmm. Well, on one hand there's me:
PERSON: Would you like to come over on Saturday? We're having a picnic with a bunch of people you don't know and probably won't ever see again, but you're always good for a fun time.
ME: [I'm tired and do NOT want to go but can't lie about it, either.] Well, I have a lot going on this week, and Saturday's the only day I can catch up with my family, so I'll have to bow out this time. But thanks for inviting me! That was really sweet of you.
And there's my husband:
PERSON: Would you like to come over on Saturday? We're having—
HUBBY: No.The man does have it in him to be tactful when necessary, like when I say, "How does this look?" and he replies, "Well . . . I know you really like that outfit and it doesn't look bad, but it's not the most flattering thing you own." More often than not, he prefers to be blunt. Because he never does it with the intention of being hurtful, people who know him appreciate that they'll always get an honest answer.
I associate honesty with caring. If I care about you, I'll tell you if you've hurt my feelings. I may wait a bit so as not to react in knee-jerk fashion, but I need to the relationship to be healthy and therefore won't let it fester. It may not always be the comfortable thing to say, but I'll put it out there and if the other person also cares, the issue will get fixed.
How does this relate to editing, you may ask? Let's put it into the proper context. I get paid to do the job of a copy editor. I can correct typos, fix those tricky semicolons, and correct your homophone use. I can do the bare minimum required. I sends da bill, I gets da money. Fair and square.
But what if the manuscript needs more than what my job description entails? Furthermore, what if I know what needs fixed and have suggestions on how things can be made better? Am I obligated to tell the author these things? No.
But . . .
My personal standards don't allow me to skip that step. If I care, then I am, indeed, obligated to say something. Sometimes the improvements are light, easy fixes, and other times, a whole lot of work is involved.
Perhaps this word might work more effectively here than the one you've used sounds a whole lot nicer than Do you even know what this word means? The first suggestion implies there's a better option out there and it may improve the book to use that option. The second implies that the writer is a moron who deserves to be charged double.
This is not to say it's kinder to only say easy things. There are times that hard truths need to be said, and saying them kindly doesn't mask the fact that they may still be hard to hear. If someone truly wants to improve his work, he'll at least ponder those truths and confirm them with others. If ego takes over, the truths will be stubbornly ignored, and the work may never improve.
It's my hope that those I work with will always see my comments and suggestions as stemming from a desire to see the book at its best. I would rather tell the truth than stroke the ego any day of the week.