An American Editor

October 15, 2014

The Business of Editing: Workflow

Thirty years ago, when I first started my freelance editing career, most editing work was done on paper; the personal computer was just arriving and many in-house production staff avoided them as much as possible. But it was clear to me that online editing was going to be the standard and would change the editing world I started in.

The problem with paper-based editing is that it is not really possible to make it more efficient and thus raise an editor’s earning power. No matter what task you perform, it takes time and reorganizing workflow has limited benefit. Consequently, when I started I did little workflow analysis.

Computers changed everything. Computers changed client expectations and editor responsibilities. They could be instruments of efficiency or, as they were for many longtime editors, an albatross that could not be shaken. I still remember the arguments on various early lists, including the EFA list, about paper-based vs. computer-based editing, with many established editors viewing computers as a waste of money.

I embraced computer-based editing immediately. At that time, I saw it as an opportunity to set myself apart from other editors. I wasn’t thinking in terms of workflow and efficiency — but it wasn’t all that long before I was.

Every business has a workflow. Workflow is the process you follow from the time, in the case of editors, a project is committed to you to the time it is completed and final invoice is sent. Workflow, in and of itself, is neither efficient nor inefficient — it is just the orderly (or, perhaps for some, disorderly) manner in which work flows in the front door and out the back door. Yet how it flows can mean the difference between efficiency and inefficiency (Does it flow in the front door and make a bee line for the back door or does it zigzag its way eventually arriving at the back door?).

A common mistake many entrepreneurs make is not to think about workflow, not to map it out, and not to attempt to straighten the run from door to door. We forget that every deviance costs money and reduces profitability, as well as increases time required to come and go. Consequently,

Map Your Workflow

We all face competition for work. Few of us get to dictate pricing; instead either market competition or clients dictate pricing and we grumble about how underpaid we are. Some of us have improved our efficiency so that we can make lower (not low, but lower) pricing profitable and sufficient to generate our required or desired effective hourly rate (EHR). (For the discussion of effective hourly rate, see Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I) and subsequent parts; also search An American Editor for effective hourly rate for additional essays.) Yet if we have not mapped our workflow and analyzed it for steps that can be modified, including eliminated or consolidated, then we haven’t gone far enough in our effort to be efficient and increase our profitability and EHR.

Mapping of workflow means creating what amounts to a timeline of your editing process. Each thing that you do should be identified as a step that takes you from the front door to the back door. It includes things like logging in the new project, creating a stylesheet for the project, dividing a manuscript that is sent as a single file into chapters, separating reference lists from the chapter, and so forth, down to the last steps of returning the edited manuscript to the client along with a final invoice.

In that workflow timeline, be sure to include the various steps you take while actually editing the manuscript. For example, if you use EditTools and create a Never Spell Word (NSW) dataset for each project, include that in the list. If you run macros, such as Editor’s Toolkit, to clean up manuscripts, include that step. If you run PerfectIt after editing is complete, include that step. If you run a macro you created called Zazzle, include that step. If you run Spell Check before you begin editing and again after you finish editing, include both steps.

The point is that you need to include every identifiable step you can in the workflow timeline so that you can evaluate how efficient or inefficient each step is and whether there is a better way to do it. BUT…

Also with each step you need to identify whether the step is performed preediting, during editing, or post editing; include a written explanation of the purpose of the step; what is actually accomplished by that step; what you really want that step to accomplish; and how long that step takes. For example:

Step 5 – Preedit: Create NSW dataset. Purpose is to create a dataset that includes client preferences; ensures client spelling preferences are uniformly applied across entire manuscript and that terms of art are preidentified as correct to avoid applying Spell Check incorrectly; I want to avoid spending time checking terms that Spell Check flags that are correct; creation of dataset takes 20 minutes

Why?

With that information in your workflow timeline, you can evaluate the step either based on past experience or after you complete your next project. Is this step worth the time and effort? If yes, then keep doing it; if not, then think about how to fix it or consolidate it with another step. You can also evaluate whether the step has implications for other projects.

By that I mean, using NSW as the example, if the project I am working on is for AAE Publishing and I know, hope, or expect that I will receive future projects from AAE Publishing on the same subject matter, can I take the time to create the dataset for this project and then use this dataset for future AAE Publishing projects? If yes, then the step may be efficient for this project because for future projects I will be able to skip this step and save 20 minutes.

The point is that you cannot look at steps in isolation, you must look at both today and tomorrow. Your workflow has to be efficient today and tomorrow.

The workflow timeline can help you rearrange the order in which you take steps. Reordering can increase or decrease efficiency, but you won’t know which it will do absent trying.

Just as knowing your required EHR is important to being successful as a business, so is the workflow. The more efficient your workflow, the more easily you will reach, even surpass, your required EHR.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 6, 2014

Thinking Fiction: The Mind-set of the Fiction Copyeditor

The Mind-set of the Fiction Copyeditor

by Amy J. Schneider

Before we delve into the details of copyediting fiction, I’d like to talk a bit about the general approach and mind-set that a copyeditor needs to develop when editing novels, short stories, and the like. Although some elements of the nonfiction editor’s approach remain, some adjustments are required.

I’ll start with an anecdote. When I was a greenhorn freelancer in 1995, I pretty much fell into copyediting textbooks, and that soon became my comfort zone. But during that first year, on a lark, I also took a fiction copyediting test (on hard copy!) as part of my application to work for a major New York City publishing house. Sometime later I heard back from the managing editor, who told me that she would like to start sending me novels to copyedit. And (don’t ask me why) I actually argued with her! I told her I didn’t know anything about fiction writing, I had never written anything “creative,” and how could I possibly be qualified to edit someone else’s creation? Bless her, she argued back. She told me that I was exactly what they were looking for — someone who wasn’t a writer and wouldn’t be tempted to put his or her imprint on the author’s work. So I agreed to try. And I’ve been working for her and her colleagues at that same publisher ever since.

So with that story in mind, let’s take a look at the fiction copyeditor’s mental toolbox.

  • Tact. Put yourself in the author’s shoes. You’ve opened a vein and labored over your story to get it just right. You’ve presented it to your writer’s group and gotten feedback, and you revised it some more. After that, your agent and the publisher suggested further revisions. Now it’s perfect, right? Time for copyediting. And you just about feel like you’ve been revised to death. Many authors are extremely sensitive to editing at this point, if they weren’t already. So it’s important that you consider your edits and suggestions carefully. Take care that you are making or suggesting a change for a very good reason, and not just for the sake of change or to impose “correctness” where it is not required; in other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it is broke, cast your queries and comments gently and objectively. Nothing is “wrong”; it is “unclear” or it “doesn’t seem to make sense because [give the reason]” or it “may contradict” something elsewhere in the story. Bring possible problems to the author’s attention, explain why they could create problems for the reader, suggest possible fixes if you can, and let the author decide what to do.
  • Respect. Remember that you are not the author, nor are you a ghostwriter. Your job is to help the author tell his or her story, not yours. I remain in awe of the process of story crafting; it seems like sorcery to me. And that is true for a first-time author or an established New York Times best-selling author. It seems to me that a work of fiction must be so much more personal than, say, a textbook. It takes incredible courage to put one’s creation out for the whole world to see. The story, location, or characters may be taken from the writer’s own life. The theme may be close to the writer’s heart. The writer may be taking a plunge, following a dream. If I can find the author’s website, blog, or Facebook page, I look it over. I look at what other books the author has written. Most important, if I can find a photo of the author, I keep it handy so that I remember the person behind the words.
  • Flexibility. Most book publishers follow Chicago style — but because Chicago is intended mainly for use with nonfiction, in fiction editing it’s more of a guideline (being, after all, a style guide; see, for example, Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance). Publisher’s house style may overrule Chicago, and so may the author’s chosen style. House style may specify the first spelling in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, unless the author’s preferred choice is the alternative spelling. The publisher or author may specify correct grammar, spelling, and usage in third-person narrative, but more leeway in dialogue or first-person narrative. (Garner’s Modern American Usage is an excellent tool for understanding variances in usage.) Most difficult of all for the copyeditor with prescriptivist tendencies is knowing when to leave something that is “incorrect” alone. Balancing all of these options can be a tricky business.
  • An open mind. You may be asked to copyedit manuscripts in a variety of genres — some of which may not be part of your personal pleasure reading. No matter; during the time you spend copyediting each book, you must embrace the idiosyncrasies of that genre and the world of those characters, whether you personally like them or not. Of course, if you get to copyedit an author you adore, great! But that’s not always the case. Periodically my clients send me military thrillers — which are definitely not my cup of tea! But while I’m copyediting that thriller, I immerse myself in the terminology of weapons, aircraft, land vehicles, and military rank and protocol. I make sure all the f-words muttered by bad guys and good guys alike are treated consistently. When foreign characters speak broken English, I make sure it stays broken, and in some cases I’ve broken it for them (with a query). Keep a variety of capes in your editorial closet. And speaking of capes…
  • Spidey-sense. Unlike nonfiction, the “facts” of a fiction work are usually not presented in a linear, logical order. There is no table of contents and no index. Story elements are described throughout; a character’s eye color may be mentioned in chapters 3, 4, 7, 13, 18, and 25. And as mentioned earlier, the story has likely been through many revisions, during which inconsistencies may not have been caught, or perhaps have even been introduced. The author may not have a clear grasp of how a certain process works in the real world, or simply may have been caught up enough in telling the story not to have paid attention to such details. A wise copyeditor questions everything. Was this character present in the scene from four chapters ago that she is now remembering? Can you drive from City A to City B in six hours? To steal an example from film, the director of Driving Miss Daisy did research to determine whether a proper Southern lady would eat fried chicken with her fingers. (The answer was yes.) When in doubt, check it out. Keep meticulous notes (which I’ll cover in future essays). Take nothing for granted.

I like to think of the job of copyediting fiction as sanding off the rough edges. The author has done the design and construction; I’m just smoothing and polishing, maybe pounding in a nail that sticks out here or there, maybe applying a little putty where something had to be taken apart and redone. If I’ve done my job correctly, my work is invisible — but it shows off the author’s work to its best advantage.

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.

October 1, 2014

What a Tale We Tell

Editing is intended to provide the polish to a story. Cicero gave three reasons for telling a story: “to teach, to please, to move.” Although these are not all of the reasons to tell a story, they do form a sound foundation for telling of all types of tales. Editors take the rough tale and polish it so that the tale does teach, please, and move a reader.

As has been noted many times on An American Editor, editing is a craft. One cannot simply hang out a shingle and magically have the skills to change carbon to diamond. Editors sharpen their skills with each manuscript they work on. How well we polish a manuscript tells a lot about how good an editor we are.

We all are familiar with those books that blatantly boast of poor editing. Yet some of those badly written and even more badly edited (assuming they were edited at all) manuscripts sell well. Why is that? It is because the consumer/reader has been poorly educated and doesn’t recognize dreck when she reads it. (It is also because them author has connected with readers regardless of whether the book is editorially perfect.)

And it seems that things are getting worse, not better. Increasingly, I find editors lack the fundamental skills needed to be editors and business people — they lack both the editing skills and the business skills, a very deadly combination — but they do have one very important attribute: They can be hired cheaply.

And therein lies the tale of editing.

Editing probably began with contracts and disputes over contractual terms. Two people without advanced authorial skills probably wrote and signed a contract and discovered when brought before a third person that what they thought they had written, they hadn’t. As the need for clear expression grew, so grew the editorial profession. We may have been called other things, such as scribe or lawyer or priest, but whatever we were called, our role was to bring clarity to chaos.

Over the years, greater skillsets were needed and editors rose to the occasion. We were among the educated classes, and in those eras, class stratification ensured that editors had distinct skills. Not anyone could be an editor.

Then came the shift in philosophy. No longer were classes based on education. Education became free and universal. Everyone who wanted to be an editor had the opportunity to learn the necessary basic skills. The original editors had to learn every task and skill intimately and had to have mastery over language; there were no electronic aids to provide a crutch as a foundation.

The twentieth century became the great leveler; education became universal. What counted was how much education an editor received and the editor’s grasp of language and vocabulary. The editorial eye had to be sharp because there wasn’t a tool available that could point out misspellings or wrong usage except the editor’s eyes and brain.

The late twentieth century brought a revolution to the special status of editors. First came grade inflation — everyone got an A for effort. Then came personal computers with squiggly lines beneath alleged misspellings. The combination of these two at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries finally leveled the ground to a perfectly flat line. Editing became a profession of whoever wanted to be called an editor; elitism was destroyed.

Amidst that destruction one hoped that editing would suffer a rebirth, have a phoenix moment, but that is not what happened. Instead, the bane of civilization occurred — a worldwide recession. With it came job losses, yet people still had bills to pay and food to buy. Combine the Great Recession with the greatest equalizer of all time, the Internet, and a deadly cocktail for professional editors was born — the door swung wide for the exponential growth of the numbers of editors.

With that growth in numbers of editors came competition for editing assignments. Competition was done on the only known basis for competition: price. Every publisher, regardless of size and including the self-publishing indie author, wanted lower costs, which meant that hidden services, like editing, suffered greatly. Yet, surprisingly, the number of editors didn’t decrease — it increased. So, editors began competing on price.

The more editors competing, the lower the price. Ultimately, the price became a drag on the profession. Increasingly, professional editors struggled. Increasingly, there was author dissatisfaction with the quality of the editing received. Interestingly, an increasing number of book reviewers noted poor editing.

Editors are on the brink of becoming commodities. The link between professional editors and quality editing is being stretched thin — so thin that eventually it will break.

I know that many AAE readers will read this and say this is not true, this isn’t happening to them. They are still both important and relevant to their clients. But if you look at the broader picture and try to see down Future Road, you will see that the walls within which lies the editor’s craft are being assaulted and weakened by the ease with which one can hang out an editor’s shingle that says “open for business.”

We need to write a different ending to this tale while the ending is still in flux. Professional editors need to support more stringent educational standards so that upcoming workers have the intellectual skills and exposure to be good editors. As noted in earlier essays, we need to support and advance certification and education for editors. We need to sell ourselves to the publishing industry as necessary and needed participants in the production process. We must make the case for the differences between professional and amateur editing. Above all, we must believe we are relevant and proclaim it.

We need to absorb some lessons from accomplished authors. The diligence that goes into an author’s telling of a tale is waiting to be learned by editors for application to the editorial process. We need to make sure that the story we tell about professional editing teaches the value of editing and professional editors; that the tale is told in such a way as to capture the imagination of publishers and authors; and that there is a pathway to move from amateur to recognized professional.

In the continued absence of telling our story, our profession will continue to decline. Our standards will become ever more lax and our income ever lower. As that occurs, our skills will decline. Ultimately, future clients will see no need for professional editors; future clients will do as nonprofessional editors do — run spell check and call it editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 24, 2014

The Business of Editing: The Key to Success

Every business has keys that lead to success, but only one is the key to success — all the other keys just open doors on the success pathway; this one key opens the door to success itself.

We all can identify many of these keys already; all we need to do is think about what makes for success. For editors those keys include honed language skills, management skills, computer skills, proper equipment, a library that supports our work, and so on. Every one of these keys is important to carry us along the path to success, but not one alone — or several in combination — is sufficient to bring success.

Of course, there is one problem with the foregoing, and it is a fundamental problem: What is success?

If you gather editors together and ask that question, you will get a variety of answers. But I think the answers, no matter how phrased, basically boil down to these propositions: job satisfaction and sufficient income that the editor can live independently on their own income. In my view, the latter, financial success, subsumes the former, job satisfaction, because if you do not have financial success, it is hard to focus on those elements of the job that bring satisfaction.

Consequently, I define success as financial success. Let me be clear, before the uproar, that financial success is a long continuum: for some it is earning enough to pay the rent and put food on the table; for some it is earning a “professional’s” income; for some it is earning a six-figure income year after year; for some it is earning enough each year to pay for one or two family vacations. In other words, what amounts to financial success is personal; there is no magic number that separates success from nonsuccess except as we each individually draw it. The only commonality is that we are speaking in terms of financial success and not job satisfaction or some other criterion.

So each of the many keys lead down this pathway to success but none of the keys opens the magic door — none are the key to success, except for one not yet mentioned: self-confidence.

I believe firmly that the ultimate key to success is self-confidence. Those of you who have suffered through my presentations at conferences know that I keep repeating throughout my presentations this bit of braggadocio:

Three things I alone am —
— I am the greatest
— I am the smartest
— I am the best

Needless to say, each ends with “editor” or “businessperson” but it could as easily end with proofreader, indexer, mother, father, surveyor, writer, publicist…the list is endless.

In the beginning, participants are annoyed. After all, who am I to proclaim myself the best editor; there are bound to be better editors somewhere in the universe. Eventually, it dawns on some participants that I am making a point: The key to success is self-confidence and you need to think of yourself in these terms.

If, and only if, you think of yourself in these terms can you convey this aura to a client. No client wishes to settle for second best and every client will shop around until they find the editor who convinces them — albeit subconsciously — that she is the greatest, the smartest, and the best editor and there is no need nor logical reason for the client to search further.

Think about repeat business. Why do you think you are getting repeat business or referrals from clients? It isn’t because you dye your hair (assuming you aren’t bald like me) or because you are 30 and I’m in my sixties or because your name begins with R (hmmm, so does mine) or any of the reasons why one wins a beauty contest that focuses on beauty. Clients return because you have convinced them that you are the greatest, the smartest, and the best.

You convince them by the work you turn out and by the air of confidence you display when you communicate with them. You have made an editorial decision and wonder how to convince the client that it is the correct decision and the decision that the client both should and needs to accept. Experienced editors know that simply saying “Chicago says” isn’t sufficient; it also isn’t sufficient to say “because I say so” — unless you have already convinced the client that you are the greatest, smartest, and best. Believing you are adds power to communication.

Essentially you are a salesperson and the product you are selling is yourself.

When you tell a repeat client that this new project will cost three times what previous projects cost, what happens? It depends, doesn’t it, on what the client thinks of you and your services. You may have a ready explanation (e.g., it would require me to work my normal days off or to give up my holiday), but clients have their own constraints and seek the path of least resistance, which in budgeting means looking elsewhere.

Yet when you have that combination of quality services and high confidence, and you send that message to clients, clients first want to try to come to terms with you, not take the path of least resistance. I know this from my own experience; I know this from more than 30 years of running a highly successful business. In not one of those years of freelance editing have I ever had to complain of no business or business that didn’t pay enough for me to be successful. Colleagues who I know who have similar histories all exude that key to success: self-confidence.

Self-confident colleagues, like me, never worry about what will happen if a client stops calling. Why? Because we have sufficient confidence in our abilities and our salesmanship of our abilities and ourselves to know that for every client who stops calling, there are several waiting for the opportunity to hire us. Importantly, they think we are the editors they must hire.

Last week I was offered eight new projects, seven at rates higher than my usual rate. Why? Because clients understand and believe that

— I am the greatest
— I am the smartest
— I am the best

Why do they understand and believe that? Because my work is superior and because I have the self-confidence to tell clients that the three words that best describe me and my services are greatest, smartest, and best.

Self-confidence is the key to success; everything else is just a key on the path to success. Do you have self-confidence? Do you exude it so that your clients believe it?

“If you don’t believe you are the greatest, who will?”

Richard Adin, 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

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