An American Editor

September 15, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: The Editorial Specialist — On Being “Just a Proofreader”

The Editorial Specialist — On Being “Just a Proofreader”

by Louise Harnby

Many professional editorial business owners offer multiple services. Some of us choose to offer only one. I’m an example of the latter. I’ve been in practice for seven years (though for fifteen years beforehand I worked in-house for publishers) and I’m a specialist proofreader. At the time of writing, I have no plans to change this arrangement.

Recently, I was party to an exchange between two fellow editorial freelancers, one of whom was talking about how, having completed her proofreading training, she was now thinking about “upgrading” her skills to include copy-editing. This jarred with me. I could imagine expanding my services to include a new skill, but would I consider the introduction of copy-editing as an upgrade? “Upgrade” implies that proofreading is a lower-level skill — that it’s easier to do.

Later, I had an interesting discussion with another colleague. His business is established and he currently offers a range of services (proofreading and copy-editing). The reason he contacted me was because he was considering shifting the focus of his service provision to proofreading, primarily because he enjoyed the work more. Did I think this was a good idea and could I offer any advice on what “some might see as a retrograde” step? Again, I was uncomfortable with the language being used.

I decided to think more closely about the questions raised:

  • Is being “just a proofreader” a second-fiddle editorial occupation that’s easier to do?
  • Is specializing a backward step?

Is Proofreading Easier Than Copy-editing?

Is proofreading easier than copy-editing and therefore a lesser skill? I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to this. First, it depends on what we mean by “easier.” Do we mean it’s easier to learn? Easier to do? Or easier to manage in terms of workflow?

  • If I could learn skill X but have not yet done so, X will seem harder.
  • If I have learned skill X, I might still find it harder than skill Y because I don’t have such a flair for it.
  • If I have learned skill X, and discover I have a flair for it, but I have five dogs and two-year-old sextuplets, I might find skill X technically easier but skill Y simpler to juggle with my canine/toddler demands.

I only have one dog and one child, but I still find proofreading “easier” than copy-editing for the following reasons:

  • I haven’t trained as a copy-editor and don’t have copy-editing experience, but I have trained and am experienced in working with page proofs.
  • I like short-haul work that takes one (or two at the most) weeks to complete — proofs come in, are marked up, and are returned. This fits in nicely with the non-professional demands of my life.
  • I am more than comfortable with leaving well enough alone even when I think a sentence could be improved by rewriting.
  • I like looking for the minutiae (the incorrect running head; the missing page number; the inconsistent chapter drop; the misplaced apostrophe; the recto word break).
  • I’m happier dealing directly with a professional project manager than with an author who needs a lot of hand-holding.
  • I prefer it when projects don’t overlap. Overlapping projects would be stressful for me and this might impact on my effectiveness.

I have colleagues who struggle with proofreading, however. Their souls are in copy-editing because:

  • They haven’t trained to work with page proofs but they have trained to be copy-editors.
  • They are stimulated by the long-haul nature of a project that allows them to sink their teeth into it and provide a deeper level of intervention that will make the author’s voice sing.
  • They find it difficult to resist the temptation to tinker with non-essential changes because they know that things could be better with just an intsy-wintsy, teeny-weeny bit more intervention!
  • They are excited by the bigger picture and less so by whether the chapter drops are consistently set. Boredom could impact on their effectiveness.
  • They miss having direct contact with an author, developing a working relationship with the writer and hand-holding them through part of the publishing process.
  • They like overlapping projects because this work pattern enables them to break off from one (while waiting for the next round of author responses to come in) and refresh their brains with something different.

I also have colleagues who enjoy copy-editing and proofreading. They have both the skills and personality types that enable them to carry out a range of editorial functions. They mix and match, swapping their editorial hats according to their clients’ requirements and their own workflows. And, of course, they have preferences. They choose to offer multiple services.

Nailing down what is hard or easy is impossible because it’s subjective. And yet, what’s easy for you might not be easy for me. That’s why the language of “upgrading” isn’t helpful. It treats editorial services as if each one is a stand-alone entity that has no relation to the human being carrying it out.

The Decision to Specialize

Is specializing in proofreading a backward step if you have multiple skills? It all depends on what your business goals/needs are. The key issues to consider include:

  • Personal preferences: Which editorial functions do you enjoy doing? Which projects and clients groups generate the highest amount of self-worth for you?
  • Financial requirements: Will specializing affect the sustainability of your business? Will there be fee adjustments to consider that could impact on your ability to pay the bills each month?
  • Market considerations: Have you planned how you will expand your client base in your chosen field of specialization?

If you have a healthy editorial business that offers, for example, copy-editing, proofreading, and indexing, but you want to specialize in proofreading because you enjoy it more, you can earn what you need/want to earn, and you can access enough clients to provide you with the work you need, then it’s a forward step based on sound business planning and personal preference. Then, again, if you find this kind of work frustrating and can’t find enough of it to run your business in a way that is healthy, then it’s a retrograde step.

The point is that specializing (whether in proofreading or any other editorial function) in itself isn’t about moving forward or backward. Rather, it’s the foundations on which the decision is made that will determine the direction. If you want to do something, can do something, enjoy doing something, and that something is economically viable for your business, then do it.

Minding Our Language!

It’s worrying to think that some people working within this industry still talk about proofreading in terms of a hierarchy of ability because that’s not an appropriate way to approach the matter and is of little use to our clients. Seventeen publishers hire my specialist proofreading services on a regular basis and they do so because they can count on me to proofread — not copy-edit, index, translate, or do the hokey-cokey — according to their house brief. It’s not about upgrades or downgrades, or backward steps or forward steps; it’s about understanding what our clients’ problems are and being able to offer solutions.

Being a specialist proofreader isn’t a retrograde step as long as the business framework around the decision is sound. Being a specialist proofreader isn’t a downgrade from being a copy-editor — it’s simply a different function at a different stage of the editorial process. We need to take care that our language reflects these facts, otherwise new entrants to the field could be led towards making business decisions about what to learn and what to offer that are based on misunderstanding.

If you want to be “just a proofreader,” be one. Conversely, you could make the same decision with regard to another editorial function. Or you can mix it up. You’re a business owner and it’s your choice. You can change your mind, too. You might decide to move away from providing a more diverse service portfolio, because that decision works best for you now, but then in a year’s time reintroduce some of the services you withdrew from. That’s the beauty of being your own boss — regardless of what your colleagues are doing, you can determine the focus of your own business without having to negotiate with the human resources department!

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

September 10, 2014

The Business of Editing: The Pride of Price

Over the past several months I have “listened” to discussions of pricing and I have also received numerous applications for employment that include statements of minimum expected fee. What I have noticed about all of these discussions and applications is that there is a wide gap between market valuation and personal valuation.

Just one example from an application: The applicant expected to be paid a minimum of $50 per manuscript page for editing. Just one example from a discussant: The discussant believed her editing was worth not less than $85 an hour.

In neither instance do I think that it is impossible for their services to be worth the price they want. What I do think, however, is that (a) the market will not pay that price and (b) they have not provided sufficient justification for that pricing. BUT, more importantly, they have imposed pride of price rather than viewed the market, determined what the market will bear, and figure out how to convert what the market will bear into what they think their service is worth.

Editors are like most professionals: Because we view ourselves as highly skilled professionals, we value our services at prices we think are commensurate with our skills. All of us do this, myself included. Yet some of us recognize that the market will not and cannot value our services the same.

I have, on occasion, asked these editors how they justify whatever price they have determined their services are worth. I have yet to receive a well-reasoned, carefully mapped out justification. We know that, for example, the grocery store justifies the price of a can of tomatoes on the cost to the store for the can, the store’s overhead attributable to the can, and a percentage for profit, all tempered by what the store’s competition charges. Professionals can’t do this same objective analysis for myriad reasons, none of which do we need to address here. It is enough to say that pricing is an art not a science for the professional.

Yet it is this pride of price that, I think, hinders many colleagues from finding financial success. Too many colleagues set an unrealistic price, based on what the market will bear, and are not flexible enough to work for less — as one colleague, told me, “Why insult myself?”

As you have guessed, my view is different. I, too, think my services are very valuable and were I to place a dollar figure on their value from which I would not deviate, I would rarely work. The market in which I move simply does not value editorial services similarly. Consequently, I have placed greater value on having sufficient work to keep me fully occupied throughout the year. In other words, I would rather have sufficient work for 52 weeks at a rate that pays my bills and generates a profit than to have work for only a few weeks a year at a rate the recognizes the value of my skills.

As we have discussed numerous times before, I accept the market rate and work to figure out how to convert that market rate to an effective hourly rate that exceeds my requirements. (For those unfamiliar with the effective hourly rate concept or who would like to refresh their memory, do a search on AAE for “effective hourly rate” and/or begin with this essay: Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I).)

I do not let pride of price interfere with business sense.

This always starts a heated discussion about pricing that revolves around these statements: Make your price too low and not only do you not earn a living but you make it harder for everyone else to charge a more realistic price. Never lower your price: Every year raise your price. Never accept less than you are worth.

First, none of these arguments are sound. They are emotional arguments that are not evidence-based. Second, from a business perspective they are not rational arguments, again because they are not evidence-based. Third, they fail to account for each person’s individual circumstances. It makes a difference if your editing income is the sole income that supports a family of six or is “play” money that allows you to supplement your day-job income so that you can take monthly vacations.

But it is the lack of an evidence basis that is the fatal flaw in these arguments. There is no evidence that any of the arguments can withstand scrutiny — or, more importantly, that they are of any intrinsic value.

Louise Harnby wrote a wonderful essay at her blog, The Proofreader’s Parlour, titled: “I’m a newbie proofreader – should I charge a lower fee?” Her article is well-worth reading for the insights it provides. Alas, I think she omitted the essential answer, which is the need to determine what rate is needed to meet one’s financial obligations and to figure out how to meet that needed rate when the market won’t bear it forthrightly. It matters not a whit what colleagues charge; what matters is what you can charge in your market and can you make that rate a profitable rate. I wrote in my comment to Louise’s article: “You could be the greatest editor of all time — the one that dozens of biographies will be written about — but it matters not one whit if you need to earn $100 an hour but can only manage to earn $25. The best starve as readily as the worst.”

The pride of price is a deadly trap. I know editors who are underworked (in the sense that they are not working every day and wish they were) who could be working more except for that pride of price. This is not to say that there is not a minimum price below which one should not go; there is such a price, but that price should be determined not by pride but by hard calculation that there is no way to convert a fee below that price to a rate that meets one’s needs.

As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to work year round. I know what pricing my market will bear and I can accept that pricing because I can convert it to meet my needs. That pricing is less than I think my services are worth, but I look at the broader picture — over the course of a year rather than over the course of a single project. I recognize that on an individual project I may lose money (in the sense that I do meet my needs), but that doesn’t factor into whether I will take on a project (see The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three). My decision is much more influenced by the number of projects I can expect over the course of the year, because experience has taught me that other projects will more than makeup for the losing project.

Pride of price requires one to focus narrowly on each individual project; meeting one’s needed rate allows for the more expansive view.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 8, 2014

Thinking Fiction: An Overview of the World of Fiction Copyediting

Today’s essay introduces Amy Schneider and a new monthly series, “Thinking Fiction,” to An American Editor. Amy’s focus will be on fiction editing and writing. Please welcome Amy as a new columnist for An American Editor.

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An Overview of the World of Fiction Copyediting

by Amy J. Schneider

When I mention that I spend a fair amount of my professional life copyediting fiction, colleagues (especially those who have edited only nonfiction) and laypeople alike are fascinated. Wow, so you earn your living by reading romances and thrillers? Neat! Well, as with all editing there’s a bit more to it than just reading. Nonfiction editors recognize this, but they worry about getting so caught up in the story that they forget to edit judiciously. Or they worry about sullying the author’s creative work. In my contributions to An American Editor, I hope to address some of these issues and share my approach to copyediting fiction.

What Fiction Copyediting Is Not

  • If you are an aspiring or actual novelist, this is not the time or place to try to take over the telling of the story or critique the work. Your job is mechanical only. You may certainly set your writer’s or critic’s hat off to the side and glance at it from time to time as you copyedit, but do not even think about putting it on. A common saying among editors is “It’s not my book,” and this certainly applies when we are copyediting fiction.
  • This is also not the place to apply your own moral code. Unlike in most nonfiction, you may encounter naughty words, unpleasant people and actions, blasphemy, and (gasp!) sex scenes. Your job is to copyedit the narrative and dialogue in all its unsavory glory. You may certainly choose not to accept projects in genres such as erotica or violent military or paranormal thrillers — but once you do, you’re duty bound to edit the text respectfully and keep it true to itself. (Is that term for a sexual act one word or two? Decide and put it on the style sheet. Not every style sheet is one that you would show to your mother.)
  • In fiction, grammar, punctuation, syntax, style, and the like are much more fluid. Fiction authors often use words to paint a picture, create a mood, wax poetic. Characters may or may not speak grammatical English, whether in dialogue or in first-person narrative. If you are a stickler for language perfection, you must retrain your brain a bit when copyediting fiction. Mind, it’s not a free-for-all, and when copyediting for a publisher you need to balance house style against the author’s voice, but you must also be aware of when it’s okay (or even necessary) to break the rules.

Making the Transition from Nonfiction Copyediting

When I started freelancing, my bread and butter was copyediting college textbooks. Very formulaic, strong adherence to rules. So when I started editing fiction, like my nonfiction editor colleagues mentioned earlier, I worried about interfering with the story or offending the author. But really, copyediting fiction is just wearing a different hat. Instead of keeping the text 100 percent in line with the real world, it is your job to ensure that the story is internally consistent within its own world, whether real or fictional. This means checking both real-world facts (are there mountains in Wisconsin?) and fictional ones (which colors of magic stones are sentient and which are not?); errors in either case may interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of the story (keeping in mind that authors sometimes deliberately fictionalize locations and other facts for various reasons). If the book is part of a series, ideally the same copyeditor will have handled the series from book one onward to ensure continuity across the entire story arc (I’ll talk about series copyediting in a future essay). Here are some of the things you’ll handle as you copyedit:

  • General style sheet: Every book needs one, and fiction is no exception. You need to track treatment of numbers (e.g., they are usually spelled out in dialogue, but not always). You need to keep a list of abbreviations for both real and fictional entities. How is dialogue punctuated? How are we treating internal thought, telepathic dialogue, remembered speech, handwriting, text messages, and so on? These need to be noted on the general style sheet. Which terms of address are capped (Officer, Detective) and which are not (ma’am, sweetheart)? The author may choose one style or another. Or the publisher may request that the author’s style be changed. Because these choices are so fluid in fiction, you need to note them for each book.
  • Characters: Some authors keep rigorous track of their characters’ attributes — but many do not. Or they make changes but don’t catch every instance. Marcel becomes Malcolm. Julie’s eyes change color from blue to green. Greg is left-handed but wears a golf glove on his left hand (oops — most golfers wear the glove on their nondominant hand). Lee is single and an only child — so how is it that she has a niece? Back when you edited book one in the series, you noted that Claude could read ancient Greek, but now in book three he has mysteriously lost that ability. Time to query!.
  • Locations: Again, you’ll track both real and fictional locations. Cathy’s bedroom is on the second floor, and the walls are painted blue. Sticksville is 25 miles from Cityscape. The tree on the west side of the park is a magnificent oak. And so on. So when Cathy walks in the front door of her bungalow and down the hall to her green bedroom, it’s time to query.
  • Timeline and plot: The level of detail here will vary. Some authors use only vague time markers (a few days later; by spring), if any. Others are more specific, mentioning dates, days of the week, and times of day. You need to note all references to time, whether vague or not: Carlos’s birthday is next month. The Friday night knitting club meets tomorrow (in which case today had better be Thursday). The last mention of time today was nine a.m.; has the action moved along sufficiently that it can now be midnight? I use a Word table that looks like a monthly calendar page to track time-related facts, because that’s how my brain works; it also helps me follow timelines that range over weeks or years, to make sure that six weeks isn’t really three or that it’s not snowing in Minnesota in what should be July.
  • Kid gloves: The most important part of your fiction copyeditor’s uniform is your kid gloves. As I alluded to earlier, a work of fiction is the author’s creative work — the author’s baby. Often there is no clear “right” or “wrong.” Query carefully and tactfully. If wording seems awkward enough to pull the reader out of the story, suggest a revision and explain the reason, rather than making the change outright. (Remember that it’s not your book.) I use the word perhaps a lot when querying: “Perhaps substitute [word or phrase] here, [give reason]?” Couch your queries in terms of what’s best for the story or for the reader’s enjoyment.

In future essays, I’ll discuss these and other topics in more depth. I look forward to engaging with you and getting down to the nuts and bolts of editing fiction.

(For another perspective on fiction editing, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction — AAE)

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

September 3, 2014

What Should Editors Read?

I recently wrote about the troubles my daughter is having with copyediting of her forthcoming book, The Brooklyn Thrill-Kill Gang and the Great Comic Book Scare of the 1950s by Mariah Adin, in The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit. (By way of a quick update, those troubles continue. I have advised her that in future contracts, she should ask the publisher to agree to allow her to hire the copyeditor and the publisher be responsible for the amount it would pay for an editor it hired.) Her troubles, and continuing troubles, got me thinking about the education of editors.

In thinking about editor education, I realized that the education that an editor receives is not focused. Sure, there are courses that teach some of the fundamentals of how to be an editor, but, as has been argued on An American Editor, I do not believe any of these courses can teach one to be a good editor. (For my view, see Is Editing Teachable?; for a contrary view, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting; also worth reading are the comments to these essays.) Ruth Thaler-Carter wrote a while back about the need for continuing education (see On the Basics: Editors and Education — A Lifelong, Ongoing Process) and has often made a point of emphasizing the value of self-education through reading.

None of these essays address the questions of: What should editors read? and How much should editors read? It is these questions that, I think, are part of the root of the problems of poor and adequate editing. It is the answers to these questions that, I think, distinguish the great (better) editor from competing editors. I also think that the answers to these questions help separate struggling editors from very successful editors.

In discussions with colleagues about reading (What types of books do they read? How many books do they read? How do these books relate, if they relate at all, to the type of editing they do? — Note: Although I use the word book[s] to describe the reading material, it is just a shorthand term for the more general. Reading includes books, journals, magazines, newspapers, to name a few reading material sources; it excludes the material we read to edit.), I have discovered a wide range of reading habits.

Some colleagues read three or four books a year; others tend to read a much larger quantity, 100 or more books a year. Some subscribe to daily newspapers; others occasionally read news online. Some subscribe to general-interest magazines; others only to narrow-interest magazines.

What I have found is that those whose work as editors I consider topnotch read a wide variety of books and a large quantity of books. Similarly, some of those whose work I do not consider to be anything more than okay tend not to read outside of work or read very little and often in narrow genres. The same correlation appears to apply to “success” as an editor (defining “success” in financial terms).

What should an editor read?

The answer is really wrapped in the cloak of describing an editor’s function. If an editor is merely a human version of a spell-check system, then I suspect reading only a dictionary will suffice. But if we view the editor’s role as an author’s helpmate, a much more expansive role, then an editor needs to read a wide variety of things — both fiction and nonfiction. Every book that an editor reads teaches something, if the editor is open to receiving that information.

I have written about the books I buy and read in my On Today’s Bookshelf series of essays, the most recent of which was On Today’s Bookshelf (XVII). In addition to buying and reading those books, I subscribe to numerous periodicals and newspapers and even do some reading online. Does this make a difference in my editing? Yes, it does, because I acquire enough knowledge to ask questions about the material I am editing.

One colleague told me that he edits only fiction and thus doesn’t need to read broadly. I view that as a mistaken belief. Even fiction has to be grounded in reality or the reader will be adrift.

It is equally important to remember that the more broadly one reads, the more likely it is that one will pick up information they will use in their daily editing. For example, a new problem in my daughter’s book was the changing of the quote marks from single to double when it was a quote within a quote. To illustrate, as originally written the sentence might have been: “Yes, when I spoke with John, he said, ‘Do not return ever again!'” It became: “Yes, when I spoke with John, he said, “Do not return ever again!”” Reading books would teach you that the latter is incorrect, simply by its absence from any book.

Reading broadly also gives a sense of timeline. We learn by reading how history unfolds. This may be important in editing when a sequence of events seems to have strayed from the historical timeline we have learned, thus warranting a query. Or we might be able to point out that although two historical figures were contemporaries and knew each other, they subsequently fell apart or that the Napoleon of Andrew Jackson’s presidency was not the Napoleon of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. These may be important to know when editing a Victorian Steampunk novel or a romance novel set in the mid-1800s or a history of the Paris Commune or a biography of Alexander Dumas or Karl Marx.

How much should editors read?

As much as possible. When I speak with clients, I display a broad range of knowledge which gives them confidence in my abilities. When I write to clients, I often recommend books and articles to read because I have learned about their interests or because the information might affect something they have written.

It is important to remember that knowledge can be a marketing tool. By making use of acquired knowledge, an editor instills confidence in the client. It is hard to explain why a change should be made to a manuscript if all you have is a feeling that the change should be made.

Because of our profession, editors need to be widely read and constantly supplementing what they already know with what they have yet to learn. I think one component of the difference between a great (better) editor and the average editor is how broadly and how much the editor reads.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 1, 2014

On the Basics: Thou Shall Behave Ethically — A 4th Commandment for Editors

Thou Shall Behave Ethically —
A 4th Commandment for Editors

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Recent discussions of ethics for editors here and elsewhere have inspired the concept of a fourth commandment:

Thou shall behave ethically.

To have an ethical editing business, it helps to understand two definitions of ethics. As Rich Adin has noted (see The Business of Editing: An Editorial Code of Professional Responsibility), one is “the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession” and another is “the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy” (vide American Heritage Dictionary).

I see being an ethical editor as somewhat of a combination of the two. I have rules for how I conduct my business — rules that I think can or should apply to any editor who wants to be seen as both professional and ethical — and I have a philosophy grounded in a moral code. That code is based on honesty: being honest about my skills, qualifications, availability, fees, and business model, and being honest with clients about their projects. It’s based on competency — I see competency and ethicality as complementary.

To me, being an ethical editor starts with presenting oneself as an editor, freelance or in-house, only if one has a level of training and experience that can support the claim to being able to do this kind of work. Far too many people nowadays are hanging out shingles or applying for jobs as editors (among other professions) who have no such training or experience. That puts authors and other clients at a serious disadvantage — they are often trusting their work to the hands of untrustworthy editors, and don’t know enough about publishing (or editing) to know the difference.

Granted, many of us start out in editing without much formal training. We learn on the job at publications, or we become editors because we’re the only people in the company who care about good grammar, correct spelling and punctuation, proper usage, and other aspects of ensuring that written material is clear, coherent, consistent, cogent, and whatever other c-words colleagues can come up with to describe well-written documents.

We find a deep-seated love of language, of words, of making clunky material into something readable and usable, even beautiful. We move on from there, sometimes getting additional formal training; sometimes learning from more-experienced colleagues; sometimes developing self-study mechanisms. If we really care about what has become our trade, we look for ways to continually hone our skills and become ever better at what we do. That, to me, is a hallmark of an ethical editor.

It probably should be noted that a skilled editor is not the same as an ethical one, although I like to think that a truly ethical editor is also a skilled one. Someone can have topnotch editing skills and still be unethical — charging for time not spent on a client’s project is probably the most common violation of an ethical code. An honest or ethical editor is one who doesn’t inflate or outright lie about skills and competency.

One of the most important aspects of an ethical editing business is to only charge for the work the editor actually does. If a project is based on a flat fee and the client doesn’t care how long it takes to do the work, it is ethical to charge the full fee, even if it takes less time to finish than expected. However, if the fee is based on an hourly rate, it is dishonest and unethical to charge for more time than one works. If a project is budgeted for 50 hours at $50/hour but it only takes 40 hours to complete the job, the ethical thing to do is to charge the client for only those 40 hours. Such honesty — or ethicality, if you prefer — is not only the right thing to do, even if it means losing a few dollars, but usually works in the editor’s favor over the long term, because it establishes an honest relationship with the client, who is more likely to trust such an editor and thus use that editor again.

An ethical editor knows and uses the standard tools of our profession. We don’t make up rules to suit ourselves or reinforce our own assumptions. Among other things, we learn and internalize the accepted rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. We identify and use the appropriate style manuals for the sector(s) in which we work — the Chicago Manual of Style for book and much magazine publishing; the Associated Press Stylebook for journalism; the Government Printing Office manual for government-agency projects; the American Psychological Association manual for much of academic publishing; the Merck Index, Dorland’s, or, perhaps, American Medical Association manual for medical publications; etc. We have the leading dictionaries on our bookshelves and/or computers.

Of course, someone starting an editing career is unlikely to know any given style manual inside-out; that’s why it helps to work in-house in a professional environment. The ethical editor lets a prospective employer or client know his or her experience level and if  the editor is new enough to the field to still be learning the essentials of whatever manual the employer or client expects the editor to use. Some may think that such honesty will mean losing out on jobs, but we all have to start somewhere, and employers and clients understand that.

Along the same lines, an ethical editor stocks his or her bookcase with guides to grammar, because none of us can claim to be perfect. We’re all likely to have grammar gremlins or simply need the occasional refresher to make sure any changes we make are justified. If nothing else, we may need a reference at hand to support a proposed change with a client who needs to see a reason for everything done to a document beyond “I can’t explain why, but I know this was wrong and that my version is right.” Editors aren’t parents; we can’t get away with “Because I said so.”

Because an ethical editor believes in continually honing skills and knowing when to consult appropriate resources. We invest in the current versions of the appropriate manuals — often, we have more than one on our bookshelves — and learn as much as we can about them. For when the right choice doesn’t leap to mind, we subscribe to online versions of those manuals so we can check or verify our decisions. Beyond those tools, we learn (sometimes even establish) in-house preferences, since a publication, publisher, organization, or company can use one of the standard manuals as a starting point, but go its own way on some details.

We also wait until we know how to use the technical, as well as the academic, tools of our trade before inflicting ourselves on employers or clients. That is, we learn at least the basics of using Word and, in some environments Framemaker, Excel, Acrobat, InCopy, etc.

An ethical editor also stays current on language trends. Language evolves and changes constantly. An ethical editor knows to find ways to pick up on when new words enter the lexicon and existing ones change (just think of the country names that no longer include “the”), through reading and interacting with colleagues.

An ethical editor is connected with trustworthy colleagues and resources to ensure that she or he understands the nature of the work and sees information about new trends or changes in language, editing techniques and tools, useful resources, and other aspects of being effective and professional. (Interacting with unethical or dishonest editors could make an ethical editor turn into an unethical one, but I find that unlikely.)

Similarly to members of the medical profession, the ethical editor “first does no harm.” It is the role of the editor to enhance, clarify, and convey the author’s or client’s voice, not to rewrite the work in the editor’s voice or from the editor’s point of view. This also relates to being trained and experienced in grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, etc. — doing no harm means not trying to fix clients’ material based on inadequate skills and knowledge, because that would mean both introducing errors and missing problems a skilled editor would be expected to recognize and fix.

Another important element to being an ethical editor is to incorporate clear communication with clients into our business practices and processes. That means letting clients know how we will work on their projects, what the fee will be, that we will meet their deadlines, and if there are problems that affect how and whether the editor can do the work and still meet those deadlines. It means asking questions rather than making assumptions, and keeping the client informed along the way.

The ethical editor does not do certain kinds of projects — writing a thesis or dissertation for someone, for instance, no matter how tempting the fee. An ethical editor may develop a kind of radar for material that doesn’t “fit” and should learn how to use antiplagiarism tools on behalf of clients such as book publishers and journals. An ethical editor also doesn’t do the client’s writing.

An ethical editor learns the differences between various levels of editing and between editing and proofreading, how to educate clients on what those differences are, and how to provide the services a project needs. For many reasons, both a lot of prospective clients and some colleagues have no idea that there’s a difference between copyediting and substantive or developmental editing, or between any type of editing and proofreading. Some clients are trying to get higher-level skills at lower-level fees or wages; others are truly ignorant of the difference. Either way, the ethical editor speaks up.

Being an ethical editor boils down to being honest about all aspects of one’s work process, skills, and presence in the field. To hold up your head and be a success in our profession,

Thou shall behave ethically.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

August 27, 2014

The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job

Teresa Barensfeld asked this question:

If a job is going sour, do you (a) cut corners, (b) tell the client and try to renegotiate time and/or money, (c) just grind through it even though you’re making no money and the rent/mortgage/bills are due, (d) something else?

I suspect that all of us have faced this problem in our editing career. I also suspect that each of us has a different approach to the problem. But let us start at the start of the problem: with ourselves.

When we took on this souring job, did we ask to see the manuscript or a sample before agreeing to do the editing? If we did, then why didn’t we see the problems that are now causing the job to sour? If we didn’t, why didn’t we?

In discussions, many editors state that they always ask to see a sample and that they instruct the client as to what they want to see. Other editors, like myself, never ask to see a sample unless it is a one-off project for a one-off client, which would be the usual case when dealing directly with the author. In the one-off instance, I ask to see the whole manuscript and I skim it. But when I am doing work for a packager or a publisher, I never ask to see a sample (sometimes they send me sample chapters).

Now that I have stated my blanket rule, let me state the “exception.” If the schedule is short in comparison to the client’s estimate of the manuscript size, and if the client also states that a medium or heavy edit is required, I do ask to see the entire manuscript. I want to do my own page count so I can determine whether the schedule is doable.

Aside from doing my own page count to evaluate the schedule, I pretty much rely on my rule of three, which we discussed in The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three. But I’m drifting from the posed questions, so let’s drift back.

Once I agree to undertake a project, I feel bound to perform the agreed upon job for the agreed upon fee and in the agreed upon time (assuming that is at all possible). So, given the choices Teresa outlined, I would adhere to choice c.

If I am not making money on a project, that is my fault, not the client’s fault. If I didn’t ask to see sample chapters, that is my fault. If I didn’t do my own page count, that is my fault. If I failed to determine how difficult the editing would be, that is my fault. Basically, the client has no fault in this transaction, so why should the client suffer any penalty?

If the client told me that the manuscript ran 500 pages and the client didn’t have all of the manuscript available for me to do a page count at the time I had to make a decision, and I have hit page 425 and know that I still have 10 chapters to go, and when I finally receive the remaining chapters I discover that instead of there being 75 pages to go, there are 500 pages to go, then the fault lies with the client (assuming I asked for the complete manuscript; if I didn’t ask, then none of this matters — it remains my fault) and I would advise the client that the schedule is not doable and needs to be renegotiated.

(Not asked and not addressed is the situation in which I have calendared for the 500-page manuscript based on the client’s representation and schedule, but subsequently discover the manuscript is much longer and needs more time, but I am already committed to another project for that time.)

What I would not do — ever — is cut corners or try to renegotiate the fee, unless the fee was a project fee based on the original representation of size. If the fee is per-page fee or an hourly fee, I would simply apply that same rate to the additional pages and time. If the fee arrangement was a project fee based on the manuscript being a certain size, and if the final size significantly differs, and if the client will not renegotiate the fee, then I think it is correct to return the balance of the project to the client, once I have edited the amount I agreed to edit.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to how much preparation we editors do when determining whether or not to take on a project. The more preparation we do, the less likely a project will go sour. Having said that, I realize that in evaluating a project I may not have looked at the most problematic chapters, the chapters that cause a project to sour. But if those chapters were available to me for the asking, then it is my fault and I live with my poor decision making; if the chapters were not available, then it is the client who is at fault and who needs to bear the consequences.

As the experienced editor, I should know whether I can do a medium edit of a manuscript written by nonnative English speakers and that is 500 pages within 10 editing days. If I say I can, then I need to do it; if I don’t believe I can, then I need to negotiate with the client before accepting the project. If I accept the project knowing that it will be very difficult for me to meet the schedule, then it is my fault and I need to figure out how to accomplish the task.

Which raises another side, but important, issue: editing days. When a client sends a project with a two-week schedule, the client counts every day in that two-week period as an editing day. In addition, the client thinks in terms of full days. I, on the other hand, do not count weekends and holidays as editing days and I recognize that quality begins to decline rapidly after about 5 hours of editing. That is, I calculate the maximum editing day length as 5 hours of editing.

The 500-manuscript page project is viewed by the client as requiring editing of 36 pages a day (2 weeks = 14 editing days) at a rate of 4.5 pages an hour. I view that same project as requiring 56 pages per day (2 weeks = 9 editing days) at a rate of a little more than 11 pages an hour. Consequently, the issue becomes do I think I can do a quality medium edit at the rate of 11+ pages per hour? If yes, the project can be accepted; if no, then schedule needs to be negotiated. If the client insists on the two-week schedule, then the fee has to rise because I will need to work weekends to meet it.

But once I have accepted the job, as long as any fault in the decision-making process was mine, I do not return to the client because the job is turning sour. I “just grind through it even though [I'm] making no money and the rent/mortgage/bills are due.” If any fault lies with the client, then I try to renegotiate the schedule, but not the fee (unless it was a project fee and the size of the manuscript has changed significantly). Unfortunately, that leaves me in the same position of grinding through.

I remain a firm believer that a deal is a deal and maintaining that deal is the ethical way to do business. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 25, 2014

The Practical Editor: What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction

What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction

by Erin Brenner

A copyediting student asked me recently how she could learn to edit fiction. The copyediting and copyediting certificate program I teach in covers basic and intermediate skills of copyediting. While it’s a good program, it doesn’t cover everything (no program could). Hence, my student’s question on what to do next.

To specialize in editing any subject, you should have a good grasp of that subject. I participated in a Twitter discussion lately on how much you have to know to copyedit a subject intelligently. We didn’t conclude anything, but we generally agreed that you have to know something about the subject to edit it.

What I know about fiction, I learned in obtaining my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature. At this point, a lot of it comes naturally to me, so I had to do some research on what resources were out there and what other editors did with fiction manuscripts.

Disappointingly, there aren’t many training tools (an opportunity for someone, surely!) and of those out there, few seem to distinguish genre fiction (science fiction, romance, mystery, etc.) from literary fiction (everything else). Naturally, if you want to edit genre fiction, you want to be familiar with the specifics of the genre, as well.

Here’s what I gathered.

Developmental Fiction Editing Tasks and Resources

Generally speaking, a developmental editor works with the manuscript’s structure, either before the author has written the book (common in nonfiction) or after (common in fiction). It’s the big-picture view.

As a developmental editor, you’re looking for structural and organizational problems. You’re judging whether the author’s concept or theme works throughout the manuscript. Is the structure logical and appropriate? You’re looking at the author’s voice closely: Is it consistent? Appropriate for the story and audience? You’re also looking for sections that don’t work, whether they ramble on or are starved for detail.

Beyond that, you need to look at the various elements of the fiction work:

  • Plot. Does the plot make sense? Does it hold together? Are there any holes?
  • Timeline and events. Is the timeline logical and believable? Do events advance the plot? Build character? Are there any events that don’t add to the story in some way?
  • Setting. Is the setting appropriate for the story? Does it enrich the story or seem at odds with it?
  • Pacing. Different stories have different speeds. Does the pacing here seem to drag? Move too quickly?
  • Characters. Are the characters well-formed and believable? Do they grow, as real people do? How well do characters interact with each other?
  • Dialogue. Does the dialogue match the character? Does it seem believable? Move the plot along? Is there any dialogue that seems mismatched in some way?

Though it doesn’t deal with fiction in particular, Developmental Editing by Scott Norton is the go-to resource for editors wanting to do this type of editing. The Author-Editor Clinic offers online courses in developmental editing for fiction and creative nonfiction.

For fiction in particular, try resources for about literature itself: themes, models, symbols, archetypes, and so on. One promising book (which I haven’t read) is How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. It appears to have a good overview that would give editors a working understanding of general fiction. (If you read it, let me know what you think of it.)

If you’re up for a challenge and really want to dig into literature, check out the works of Joseph Campbell and The Nature of Narrative by Robert Scholes, James Phelan, and Robert Kellogg.

Midlevel Fiction Editing Tasks and Resources

Any time you define editing stages, someone else will have different definitions. One editor’s developmental editing is another’s structural editing. A third editor might see structural and line editing as the same stage, with developmental being its own stage.

Whatever you call this stage that comes between developmental and copyediting, you’ll be doing a line-by-line edit of many of the tasks in the developmental edit. You’ll also look at flow, usage, and sometimes language mechanics.

I couldn’t find any resources for this specific stage of fiction editing. (If you know of any, please share them in the comments.) A trained editor could pick up the skills necessary from a developmental fiction editing resource, I’d wager.

Copyediting Fiction Editing Tasks and Resources

Copyeditors look at the word and sentence level of a manuscript. Grammar, usage, spelling, and style are all concerns here. So are logic, consistencies, and basic facts.

To copyedit fiction, you should be familiar with some of the basics of story structure, story elements, and character building so that you can edit without harming the story. You need to be alert for continuity issues (e.g., changes in character descriptions) and plausibility. If the story is set in present day, the details should be right. If it’s set in the future or on another planet, the world should follow the rules the author set up. Keep an eye out for possible trademark and copyright issues, too.

Editcetera has a correspondence course on copyediting fiction, and at Copyediting we’ve covered fiction editing in a couple of ways:

  • A fiction-editing audio conference with Amy Schneider. For those who don’t know, Amy works as a freelance copyeditor for the big publisher, and authors regularly request her (translation: she really knows her stuff).
  • The April-May 2013 issue of the Copyediting newsletter. This issue contains several articles on fiction editing, including one by Amy on the style sheet she developed for editing fiction. I’ve used the style sheet; it’s fantastic.

As I said at the beginning, a lot of what I know about fiction I internalized a long time ago. What other tasks do you think are particular to fiction editing? What resources do you use to obtain the skills necessary? Share your thoughts below!

(Starting in September, you can read more about fiction editing in Amy Schneider’s monthly column.—AAE.)

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

August 20, 2014

The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit

The title may tell you that I am a bit frustrated. But let’s begin this story at the beginning.

My daughter wrote a nonfiction book that was accepted by a major crossover publisher for fall publication. (A crossover publisher is, in this instance, one that publishes academic titles for popular consumption — think Doris Kearns Goodwin-type books, which are well-researched nonfiction and could be written and published for a strictly academic market but instead are written and published to appeal to both academics and consumers.) Everything has been going smoothly with the process and my daughter has been very happy with the publisher.

Except that like far too many publishers these days, this publisher outsources to a packager the editing and production services. When told that the copyediting would be outsourced, my daughter asked about the assigned copyeditor. She was told that the editor had worked with the packager for more than 6 years, and was considered an outstanding editor — in fact, she was considered to be the best of the editors who worked for this packager.

Hearing that made my daughter feel better and gave her high hopes that the editing would be high quality.

Then I started receiving phone calls with questions about Chicago style, capitalization, whether it was OK to change “was” to “had been” in every instance, and on and on. Finally, my daughter asked me point blank: “Should I panic about the quality of the editing?”

I had not seen the edited manuscript but assured my daughter that some of the changes, such as removal of serial commas, were a matter of preference and house style and not (generally) something to panic over unless meaning was changed. I also suggested that she read more of the edited manuscript before coming to any conclusions about the editing.

Then she dropped the bombshell: The editor altered/rewrote direct quotations, making ungrammatical quotes grammatical. “Is this what a copyeditor does?” she asked.

Now I began to panic and asked her to send me a sample chapter to look at.

Within 15 minutes I saw that the editing was unacceptable in multiple ways and that my daughter not only needed to panic but needed to contact the publisher immediately. The editing was a disaster. (I also subsequently learned that no one told my daughter that as the author she could accept or reject any of the editor’s changes; she assumed that she had to accept the editor’s changes on the basis that this was the editor’s area of expertise. I quickly disabused her of that notion.) Once she explained to the publisher the problems she was finding and some of my comments, the publisher agreed that the book needed to be reedited by a different editor.

Which brings me to the commandment: Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

If you do not know that direct quotes in nonfiction (and that the quotes are sourced should give you a clue) should not be changed, you should not claim to be an editor. I was taught that basic principle in sixth grade, if not even earlier. If you do not know that editing changes are to be limited to those that do not change the meaning of the sentence or paragraph, then do not claim to be an editor.

More importantly than not claiming to be an editor, you should not edit — period.

An editor is supposed to understand the value and meaning of words and how they fit, or do not fit, within the structure of a sentence and paragraph. When a sentence reads “…when he suddenly awoke…”, an editor needs to think twice about deleting “suddenly”: “…when he awoke…” is not the same as “…when he suddenly awoke…”. And if you think “suddenly” is unneeded and should be deleted, you should explain why you are deleting the word (or suggesting deletion). As an editor, you should know the importance and value of communicating with the author your reasoning for nonobvious changes.

In the case of my daughter’s book, this was a major failing of the editor. Not a single change that the editor made in the entire book was accompanied by an explanatory note, not even something as simple as “changed per Chicago.” Providing an explanation is fundamental to maintaining good author–editor relations. We have discussed this in detail before (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often?).

The question that arises is: How does someone know that they do not know the basics? If you don’t know something, you don’t know that you don’t know it. And in the case of my daughter’s editor, supposedly she had been a professional editor for 6 years and was receiving superior grades.

This is a tough question and it is a question that vexes authors who hire an editor. The only solution I know of is to ask for a sample edit. The problem is that there is an underlying assumption when a sample edit is asked for: That the person who will review the sample edit actually knows enough about editing that the reviewer can separate the wheat from the chaff. As my daughter noted, she has no experience and wouldn’t know whether the editor was correcting her mistakes or creating new mistakes. My daughter can fall back on me to review the sample but most authors and in-house production staff do not have someone to fall back on.

In the end, all an author can really do is rely on “gut” feeling unless, as occurred in my daughter’s case, a blatant, basic error repeatedly occurs (in this instance, it was the altering of direct quotes).

Editors can instill confidence by adding explanations and by knowing the basics of editing, such as direct quotes in nonfiction are left as they are but may be queried; that one doesn’t make a change unless it improves the sentence and doesn’t change the sentence’s meaning; that you don’t change tenses willy-nilly; that an editor’s role mimics that of the doctor — do no harm; that it is better to break a sentence into multiple sentences than to make an incoherent sentence even more incoherent.

Alas, my daughter’s experience convinces me even more of the need for a national editor’s accreditation. Her experience also convinces me that a significant part of the problem is the willingness of publishers to leave the task of finding qualified editors to third-party vendors whose interests are not synchronous with the publisher or author’s interest.

I’m not too worried about my daughter’s book, but I do worry about authors who do not have someone knowledgeable they can call on for help in evaluating the quality of editing. No matter what, ultimately the responsibility lies with the person offering the editing service, and that person should remember the commandment:

Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 18, 2014

Lyonizing Word: Let’s Go Spelunking

 Let’s Go Spelunking

by Jack Lyon

Spelunking is the recreational pastime of exploring caves. It’s a dark and dangerous hobby, an extreme sport for those who are confident in their ability to climb, navigate, and even swim (there’s usually water down there).

I try to avoid such hazards, but I’m not afraid to explore some of the deeper reaches of a computer program — Microsoft Word, for example. That’s one reason I know quite a bit about that particular program. Some of my friends, however, seem terrified of making a “mistake” on the computer. They want a concrete series of steps to follow in everything they do. “How can I make a word bold?” they ask. I reply:

  1. Double-click the word to select it.
  2. Click the “Bold” icon on the Ribbon.

Then they say, “Oh, that’s wonderful! Let me write that down for next time.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with learning to use a computer in that way, and those who are comfortable with that should keep a big Microsoft Word reference book close at hand. These are probably the same people who would enjoy taking a guided tour of Timpanogos Cave, which is about an hour away from where I live.

But that’s a far cry from spelunking, and I doubt that any of the people on the tour discover something new.

So what kind of a person are you? Do you like someone to hold your hand along the well-marked trail? Or would you rather descend into the dark depths of the cavern with only a flashlight as your guide? Either way is fine, but sometimes it’s nice to get off the beaten path; you never know what you might find. As Henry David Thoreau once said, “Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness I am sure to be filled.”

Want to learn something new about Word? Try exploring Word’s features that aren’t on any menu, the caverns that aren’t on the map. Here’s how:

  1. Press ALT+F8 to open the Macros dialog.
  2. Click the dropdown list next to “Macros in.”
  3. Select “Word Commands.”

Now, in the window under “Macro name,” you’ll see all of the commands available in Microsoft Word, whether they’re on the Ribbon or not. If you click one, you’ll see a description of its function under “Description,” at the bottom of the dialog. These descriptions are minimal at best, but along with the name of the command, they’ll give you some idea of what the command does. You can also click the “Run” button to run the command, which may give you even more insight. (Be sure to do this only with a junk document; you don’t want mess up an actual project.)

Let’s take a look. Don’t be afraid; I’ll be right behind you all the way.

So we’re scrolling through the list of Word commands in Word 2013, and what do we see? “CharacterRemoveStyle,” which, according to its description, “Clears character style from selection.” What?!? Does this mean it’s possible to remove a character style without affecting text-level formatting (such as italic)? If so, I sure didn’t know about it. Let’s find out. We type a junk sentence into a junk document:

This is a test to see what will happen.

We apply italic formatting to “test” and the character style “Emphasis” character style to “see”:

This is a test to see what will happen.

The formatting of those two words looks the same, but the formatting is not the same. Now let’s see if the “CharacterRemoveStyle” command works. We select the sentence, press ALT+F8, scroll down to “CharacterRemoveStyle,” and run it. Look at that! Our test sentence becomes:

This is a test to see what will happen.

The character style is gone, but the text-level formatting is still there. Neat!

Okay, one more, and then we’ll go back up to the surface. Down, down, down, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. What’s this? “RestoreCharacterStyle.” I’ve never noticed that command before. The description says “Restores character style and removes direct formatting.” Could this be the inverse of the command we just finished exploring? Again we type our junk sentence and apply the same formatting as before:

This is a test to see what will happen.

Then we select the sentence and run the “RestoreCharacterStyle” command. Yes! The sentence now looks like this:

This is a test to see what will happen.

The text-level formatting is gone, but the character style remains!

But why does Microsoft say that this command restores a character style? If we remove the character style from our sentence and then run the command, does the character style come back? A quick experiment shows us that no, it doesn’t. Then why the odd name? I suspect that under the hood, Word is removing all character-level formatting but then restoring any formatting applied with a character style. It’s the equivalent of (1) identifying the character style, (2) pressing CTRL+SPACEBAR (to remove character-level formatting), and then (3) reapplying the character style — which means that the command was named from the programmer’s perspective rather than the user’s perspective. There’s a lot of stuff like that down here in the dark, and it’s part of what makes exploring so interesting.

Back up in the daylight, we assess our adventure, which I’d have to say has been a success. We’ve discovered two commands we didn’t know about before. Could they be useful in our actual editing work? Yes, indeed!

Personally, I enjoy crawling around down there in the bowels of Microsoft Word. Yes, it’s dark and it’s dirty, and sometimes I find something nasty under a rock. But I also make lots of interesting discoveries, and I nearly always learn something new.

How about you? Ready to go spelunking on your own? Have fun, and don’t forget your flashlight!

Jack Lyon (editor@editorium.com) owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

August 6, 2014

How Much Is That Editor in the Window?

I remember as a very young child watching Patti Page sing this song, which sets the tone for this essay:

Lately, I feel like a doggie in the window.

As those of you who are long-time readers of An American Editor, my complaints about work are that I have too much, not too little, and that clients are continually trying to nibble away at my fee. My biggest complaint is that the fee I am being paid today, in raw terms, is the same as it was in 1995. Granted, I have learned how to be significantly more productive and efficient so that my effective hourly rate is higher today than in 1995, but still, it rankles that the going rate for professional editors hasn’t changed much in 20 years. (For those unfamiliar with the effective hourly rate concept or wanting a refresher, see the five-part series Business of Editing: What to Charge beginning with Part I, which includes links to Parts II through V, and for an overview, Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand.)

There are lots of reasons for this stagnation — and in some cases, regression — of rates in the United States, including the lack of a truly professional national organization dedicated to improving the editor’s lot, the rise of the Internet which has made pricing more competitive, and the decline in caring about invisible qualities in the rush to increase shareholder returns. All of these have been discussed in other essays on An American Editor (see, e.g., The Editorial World — Will it Pass Editors By? and Editors in the Offshore World).

Unfortunately, the issue of “I can get it cheaper” (see The Business of Editing: Killing Me Softly and Business of Editing: “I Can Get It Cheaper!”) keeps raising its ugly head. In the past two weeks I have had offers for nine projects of which six were lost because I wouldn’t/couldn’t meet or beat a lower price. (The other three didn’t even raise the issue of price except after awarding me the project. These clients were looking for quality first.)

The six lost projects were being shopped — How much is that editor in the window? Like the puppy in the song, the question wasn’t “How good are your editorial skills?” (“How friendly/healthy/cuddly/etc. is that puppy?”) but “How cheaply can I get you to edit this manuscript for me?”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t disfavor competition and I have no problem with shopping around for oranges or any other thing that can be commoditized. But how do you commoditize editorial skills? How do you compare what an editor does who charges $100 an hour with what an editor does who charges $10 an hour? For that matter, how do you compare what one editor does who charges $25 an hour with other editors who charge $25 an hour?

Surely we can discover whether an editor has intimate knowledge of the subject matter to be edited, but how important is it that the editor have that knowledge if you are unwilling to pay for it or want an edit that doesn’t really exercise that knowledge? Besides, even if the editor has great knowledge of the subject matter, isn’t knowledge of, say, grammar more important if you want only copyediting and not developmental editing? How does the rate the editor charges correlate with mastery of grammar? If there is a high correlation, then the shopper could expect that the higher the fee charged, the greater the mastery; conversely, the lower the fee charged, the lesser the mastery.

Yet professional editors know there is no direct correlation between fee charged and mastery of grammar.

So I feel like a doggie in the window when price shoppers come calling for a quote.

Making me feel more so is that it is often impossible to get the shopper to explain why my price is too high. One of the shopped manuscripts required a heavy edit. The book was a contributed book with nearly all chapters written by authors whose English was probably a third language. Yet the shopper wanted to pay less than what would normally be charged for a light edit of a manuscript written by a single author whose primary language was English. Asking the shopper to explain why my price was too high resulted in “Others will do it for less”; “The manuscript is not as difficult as you think”; “Two weeks is more than enough time to edit the 500 pages”; and similar reasons.

I suppose, in looking at these statements many days later, that the shopper did give me an “explanation.” It is just that the given explanation is not really helpful.

For example, to say that others will do the editing for less is a conclusion, not an explanation. What I needed to know is what kind of editing they will do for less and for how much less. As to the former, the best I could get was that the other editors will do copyediting just like I would (but the shopper didn’t know what I would do/not do for the quoted price because we hadn’t been able to progress that far). As for how much less, the shopper wouldn’t say, which made me suspect that my price became the benchmark price against which other prices would be measured.

We’ve discussed expectations before (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Expectations, Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations, and Great Expectations: A Recipe for Disappointment) and that is what shopping is based on: the shopper’s expectations. Unfortunately, I was either unable to address the shoppers’ expectations or my attempt to address them fell on deaf ears. Editing has become perceptually commoditized; that editing is more art than anything else has become lost in the Internet age where the single dominant expectation is that price is the determining decision factor — nothing else matters.

Fortunately for me, I have enough business that is quality focused that losing these shoppers made no difference. But I really dislike being viewed like the puppy in the window and approached as if my editorial skills were tertiary considerations. How about you? Have you had similar experiences? Do you feel as I do? How do you handle shoppers?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

 

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