An American Editor

May 19, 2014

The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting

Teaching the Art of Copyediting

by Erin Brenner

A while back, Rich Adin wrote in a blog post, Is Editing Teachable?, that copyediting can’t be taught. He said:

Editing is…a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught.…But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

I agree that editing is a craft, one that editors continue to learn throughout their careers. And while telling an adjective from an adverb is useful, it’s just the beginning of learning copyediting.

Editing courses, Adin says, teach only the mechanics of copyediting because that’s all they can teach. By “mechanics,” he means “the things that are applied by rule [or] rote,” he told me in an email.

But you can’t teach students how to “reconstruct a sentence so that it is clear and accurately portrays the message,” Adin continued.

“It is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor,” Adin had written in his blog post. “If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.”

Let’s look at these two ideas separately.

Teaching More Than Editing Mechanics

My own definitions of editing come from The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn. Einsohn breaks down the task of copyediting into several parts, including:

  • Mechanical editing: making a manuscript conform to a house style, including correcting for such items as spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, punctuation, treatment of numbers, and so on.
  • Language editing: correcting or querying the author on errors in grammar, syntax, usage, and diction.
  • Content editing: correcting or querying the author on errors of internal consistency, content discrepancies, and structural and organizational problems.

Adin and I have essentially the same definition of mechanics, then. Editing a weak sentence into something clear and accurate would seem like language editing to me; in some instances, it might be content editing. Both are teachable, though, and deconstructing sentences and paragraphs is an excellent way to do so.

Break that sentence into its parts and see how it works. What happens when you move modifying phrases around? Does a sentence sound stronger with an important phrase at the beginning or end? These are places of power in a sentence, and a copyeditor can learn to use those places wisely.

Maybe word choice is the problem. Has the author chosen a word that’s precise enough to carry the meaning? Copyeditors should be alert to connotation and denotation of words.

Another key to finding clarity in sentences is understanding rhythm and how that’s achieved. An awkward rhythm can distract readers from the message.

All of these things and more can be explained and, more importantly, practiced. A recent lesson for my Copyediting II students included an exercise in coordinating and subordinating ideas in sentences and paragraphs. My job is to judge how well they’ve done that based on the original meaning of the text and to guide them to better decisions when necessary.

A lot of language editing can be taught by teaching writing style. In The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing, Thomas S. Kane broadly defines style as “the total of all the choices a writer makes concerning words and their arrangements.” What kind of choices are we talking about? Things such as:

  • Diction
  • Verb choice
  • Passive vs. active voice
  • Coordination and subordination of ideas
  • Use of negatives
  • Variety in words, sentence structure, and paragraph structure
  • Redundancy

In addition, copyeditors can learn how to create transitions between sentences and paragraphs and how to organize words in a sentence to better emphasize the main idea. All of these items can be taught and practiced.

Of course, a writing style is a complex thing and not always easy to identify minutely, but we can identify certain characteristics of style and note when something doesn’t fit. When you can identify the problem, you can fix it.

Why Aren’t There More Great Editors?

If teaching copyediting is possible, then, how come there aren’t more great editors? Many reasons, including:

  • Not all copyediting training is created equal. Some materials, no matter what kind you use, are simply better than others. In part, you’re only as good as your training.
  • Not all copyeditors are created equal. Like any other career, copyediting demands certain abilities, such as attention to detail. Some people are simply better at noticing details. Others are good at seeing the big picture. We all have innate abilities that suit us to certain kinds of work.
  • If more people were great, who would be average? Those at the top of their industry are just that: the top. The exceptions, not the rule. Most folks are average, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In fact, though, we don’t really know how many copyeditors are great. As Adin has pointed out, we lack a national organization in the United States that measures how good a copyeditor is. How can we know how many great copyeditors labor in obscurity? We may bemoan the quality of the published word, but can we lay all the blame on copyeditors and ignore writers’ skills, the time given to edit, or any other variable in the publishing process?

I, too, would like to see a national organization that sets a standard for editing, recognizes those editors that achieve it, and educates the world about the importance of those standards. Doing so would also indicate that we think copyediting can be taught.

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.

May 12, 2014

On the Basics: Are Networking and Marketing Essential to an Editing Business?

Are Networking and Marketing
Essential to an Editing Business?

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

A recent discussion on the Copy Editing List (CE-L) raised the interesting question of whether it’s necessary to do marketing to have a successful editing business. At the heart of the conversation were varying takes on what “marketing” actually means. Networking came into the discussion as well.

Most of the participants in the conversation agreed that it’s essential not just to market your skills and business to be a success, but to do so constantly and regularly. A number of participants spoke up to reassure the introverted and shy amongst us that “marketing” can be done in a way that doesn’t force them into behaviors that don’t come naturally.

I see marketing as a necessary process for the success of any business, and as a constant one to work effectively on your behalf. I also see networking as a vital element of your marketing efforts.

A couple of “CELmates” argued that they have successful freelance editing businesses without ever doing any real marketing, making the point that having worked in editing jobs created a natural base of marketing and networking activity for their freelance ventures. They had a built-in network of employers and colleagues who would call on them for freelance services without their making much of an effort to get work from those prospective clients. Just “hanging out a shingle” by letting those former employers and colleagues know they were going freelance was often enough to establish a strong base of ongoing work. They saw no need to do any conscious marketing or further networking.

That laidback, no-effort approach may work — but only “may.” Nowadays, when the marketplace includes consolidation in the publishing world, outsourcing to cheaper markets or providers, and the proliferation of inexperienced people using the Internet to hang out their shingles as freelance editors, marketing and networking become more important to a freelance business, especially for anyone who doesn’t have years of experience and contacts to rely on.

What the colleagues who were able to launch their editing businesses didn’t realize is that simply letting an employer and coworkers know that you’re going out on your own is marketing. It may be a one-time effort, it may not feel like a marketing campaign — but it’s still marketing. Marketing is nothing more than letting the world know, on a large or small scale, that you’re open for business and available for assignments. Whether you tell five people or 500 that you’re a freelance editor, you’re doing marketing. The larger audience you reach, the more likely you are to succeed.

Neither networking nor marketing has to be especially aggressive. Among the less-aggressive techniques is joining professional organizations or communities that have membership directories you can be listed in or discussion lists where you can be visible. A well-crafted profile on LinkedIn can result in prospective clients contacting you, instead of you having to contact them; participating in relevant LinkedIn groups takes some time and energy, but also can generate new clients and assignments by clients coming to you, rather than you having to find or go to them.

Having your own website is also an effective marketing tool, because it gets your name (or business name) out there among those of other freelancers and in the environment that many prospective clients will use to find us. Once the site is up, you can let it function as a static “online business card” or you can make it active and up to date; how much time and effort you want to put into it is up to you and where you fall on the passive–active scale of marketing efforts.

These are essentially passive marketing activities that are ideal for the shy and retiring types, because they don’t involve any in-person, face-to-face activity and they don’t require leaving the comfort of a home office to engage directly with the outside world.

One colleague made the point that rethinking her approach helped her be better at marketing, despite a reluctance to engage in that activity in any formal way. She started focusing on how she could help her clients and presenting herself from that perspective, which felt more comfortable and less-pressured than anything using a “here I am, hire me!” approach that she saw as marketing.

That ties in nicely with another colleague’s approach: to put the focus on storytelling — telling people something about who you are, how you approach the editing world or process, how skilled editing can make a difference in the value of a document or project — and “stop beating people over the head with ‘marketing.’”

That makes sense when you consider that many freelance editors find the whole concept of marketing a little scary. We don’t want to seem pushy or aggressive; we just want to get and do the work. But you can do networking and marketing without much effort or being more aggressive than is comfortable for you (although more — when done well — is usually better in terms of building up your business).

Even subscribing to and commenting on a blog like this one is a form of networking — you’re interacting with colleagues, making your views known, showing how well you use language or understand the business of editing, as well as the editing process itself. Making cogent, coherent contributions to a blog or discussion list is also marketing, because it’s another way of putting yourself and some aspects of your skills out there, in front of potential clients or at least colleagues who might refer you for projects.

The vital thing for any freelancer, whether a newbie or a long-time pro, is to find ways to get in front of prospective new clients. Those prospects include friends, family, colleagues, and employers from past jobs, clients you haven’t heard from or worked with in a while — and people who don’t know you yet. How you do this is less important than that you do it. Whatever you call it and however you do it, marketing is important, if not essential, to a successful editing business — just as it is to any business.

We freelance editors have to remember that we are businesses and have to act like businesses, and that includes getting the word out about who we are and what we can do for clients — that is, marketing. Because we are businesses.

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.

April 30, 2014

Editing for the Message or the Language?

I was reading a review of a book about Stefan Zweig, an author who is obscure today but was quite famous in Central Europe and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s when this question occurred to me: Do professional editors edit for the message or for the structure and language of a manuscript?

I realize that in the abstract the answer can be “both,” but the reason this question came to mind was because of Zweig’s history. Zweig was one of the founders of the formalist school of writing and subsequently came to be viewed as its leader.

The question I ask does have some parameters. For example, message means the politics, philosophy, or “religion” of the manuscript, whereas structure and language refer to the specifics of the manuscript. For most of us who are asked to edit on tight deadlines, I think the answer is clearly that we edit for the structure and language, not for the message. For us, the message is incidental except for how clearly and coherently it is expressed. It is because of this that we see the discussions about the ethics of turning down work on a manuscript whose message we personally abhor.

But the article on Zweig got me thinking about editing and its role. Perhaps this question best sums up my wondering: Is editing literary criticism just in another guise? If editing is literary criticism, then we need to be concerned with the message. If editing is not a form of literary criticism, then we need only be concerned with the formalism aspects of the manuscript.

Zweig’s world divided editing into formalism and symbolism. Under formalism, the concern was with repeatedly seeing and “enforcing” across manuscripts the same literary style and approach. Formalism determined that there is one way in which to present a genre and all manuscripts had to conform to that one way.

Although I am sure there will be a rush to dismiss the strictures of formalism in today’s editing, I am not convinced we can so easily dismiss formalism as a product of a bygone era that no longer has life. After all, isn’t the approach of the style manuals a formalism approach? When we ask what “Chicago” says about compound adjectives or when we are told by a client to adhere to the APA style manual, are we not practicing formalism? Maybe we are not so rigid that every plot is identical, but are we not rigid enough to require that every manuscript we edit adhere to certain predetermined rules and if it does not, we make it conform?

The formalism school goes much deeper than (perhaps) copyediting today goes. For example, formalism allows the same basic story to appear in multiple cultures at varying times using different words but the same fundamental story. In other words, the details and the evolution are the same just with different words. And formalism requires the stories to start at similar places and end in similar places, having crossed similar places and themes getting from beginning to end.

Editing as often practiced today is a search for patterning. We know that certain formulaic presentations work and others do not for today’s audiences. There are rules — express or implied — of which editors are cognizant, consciously or subconsciously, and which we apply in the guise of “improving” a manuscript, either at the request of our client or because, in the absence of client direction, we choose to “apply” a particular style.

Which leads me back to what I consider the most intriguing question: Is editing a form of literary criticism? If we get past the formalism approach and, instead, work on the message of the manuscript, there is a chance that our work as editors could rise to the level of literary criticism. I would consider that a worthy goal, especially today when literary criticism, as practiced in the early and mid twentieth century, seems to be a lost art.

A knowledgeable editor could easily be a literary critic. With the ability to call upon multiple sources as well as to discuss the more formalistic aspects of a manuscript, the editor can provide invaluable insight. Alas, that would amount to volunteer work because it is clear that few publishers and authors are willing to pay an editor for the time necessary to think about a manuscript’s message.

Today’s professional editor is much different than the professional editor of 30 years ago, when I first entered editing, and certainly much different than the editor of the 1950s. When I began editing, one of the things I was asked to do was to give a critique of the manuscript. The critique was to be emphasize any structural issues and, more importantly, any message issues. Was the message coherent? Was it understandable? Was it sustainable? How did it fit, if it fit at all, with similar topic manuscripts?

The in-house staff asked me what books I was reading (in those days, my to-be-read pile was never more than two or three books) and I often was given a manuscript that fell into the broad field of what I was reading. The publisher wanted to know whether the manuscript was carving out its own place in the field or simply mimicking what was already there. If it was mimicking, did it do a better job of communicating?

What was wanted was literary criticism, which made editing exciting and intellectually stimulating (and provided a great excuse to buy books for my library). Unfortunately, it was not financially rewarding.

Today, most clients, if not all clients, want and expect the formalism approach to their manuscripts. For the most part, editing lacks the literary criticism component. I do not expect to see a revival of the literary criticism approach to editing.

Today, I think, most professional editors edit for the structure and language of a manuscript, not the message. This is what clients want and also reflects the skills and mindset of many editors. Fewer and fewer editors have been exposed to or educated in literary criticism; the description of editing has changed over the decades.

What is most fascinating to me is that 100 years after the rise of the formalism approach of Stefan Zweig’s era we are participating in its rebirth. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen; that it is what the market wants seems obvious.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 28, 2014

The Practical Editor: Define Your Terms, Then Negotiate

The Practical Editor:
Define Your Terms, Then Negotiate

by Erin Brenner

Recently, I saw a job ad that advertised for a copyeditor for a 5,500-word academic article. The article had already been accepted for publication, according to the ad, and the author was looking for a light copyedit, most likely to make a good impression on the assigning editor.

Even if the article will be edited in-house, this is a good call. The cleaner the copy, the more likely the assigning editor will hire this writer again.

I have an occasional client for whom I do such work, and she is thrilled with the results. The copyediting not only produces cleaner copy, it helps her to be more confident. The editing has led to her receiving more assignments. And why not? Assigning editors are busy folks, too, and the easier you make it to publish your article, the more likely they’ll call you again for another.

What’s a Page?

Back to the ad. The author is willing to pay $9 a page for the project. Does this sound good to you? Before you say yes, ask yourself this very important question:

What does the author mean by page?

Many folks in the publishing industry define a manuscript page as 250 words, and the Editorial Freelancers Association encourages that definition.

However, you can define a page in whatever way makes the most sense to you. As Ruth Thaler-Carter notes in a previous blog post (see The Commandments: Thou Shall Establish the Rules of Engagement Before Beginning a Project), Rich Adin uses a character count.

The key is to ensure you and your client are using the same definition of a page.

Let’s say the author from the ad is using the 250-word definition. That’s a 22-page document, resulting in a $198 payday:

5,500 words/250 words per page = 22 pages
22 pages × $9 per page = $198

If you can edit seven pages an hour, you’ll complete the project in 3.14 hours. Even if you round up your total to 4 hours to account for administration work on the project, you’ll earn $49.50 an hour. That’s a good rate in my book.

Even if the editing take longer, say four pages an hour, you’ll spend 5.5 hours on it. Round it up to 6.25 hours, and you’ll earn $31.68 an hour. Depending on your circumstances, this could still be a good rate. (However, it’s always a good idea to calculate your required effective hourly rate [see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand] ahead of time.)

But let’s say the author means one page is equal to a page in the Word file, not an uncommon occurrence. How many pages is this according to our 250-word definition? The total will vary greatly depending on several variables, including font, font size, leading, length of paragraphs, and margins. If you haven’t seen the document or been given a page count, you’re taking a risk on being able to make a decent hourly rate on the project.

How much of a risk?

In Ariel 12-point type, with a couple of boldfaced headers per page and a 1-inch margin all around, 5,500 equals about 10 pages. At $9 a page, I’d earn $90 on this job. If I edit at seven pages an hour, I’m earning just $22.50 an hour. If I edit at four pages an hour, $14.40 an hour. Ouch!

And let’s not forget that this is an academic article; it’s very likely the article includes citations. Are these footnotes or endnotes, which aren’t automatically included in Word’s word count? If you’ll be responsible for editing those citations, your editing pace and subsequent hourly rate dropped again.

Define and Negotiate

It’s crucial, then, that you’re using the same definitions as your client. This could be a good, quick job or a miserable money loser. Ask your author the following:

  • How do you define a page? Offer your own definition and see if they’ll accept it.
  • What do you mean by “light copyedit”? Try to discover what the author specifically wants done to the article.
  • What are my responsibilities regarding citations? Are they included in the word count?
  • Can I see the entire manuscript first? Determine for yourself whether you can edit it to the client’s satisfaction in a timeframe that earns you a decent paycheck.

At this point, you should have enough information to determine whether that $9 per page is acceptable. If the answer is no, it’s time to negotiate:

  • Tell the author how much you would charge to do what’s needed or wanted. Emphasize what the eventual outcome of such an edit would be. Sure the manuscript will be cleaner, but so what? Your job is to explain the “so what”: higher quality leads to better reception by the assigning editor, a greater chance for more work, a more positive reception by readers, and a rise in the author’s reputation.
  • Tell the author what you would do for the offered rate. If the author is truly cash-strapped but wants your services—and you want to work with this author—you could do less editing for less money.

Define your terms with the client. Negotiate for what you want. And if you and the author can’t agree, gracefully let them go on their way.

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.

April 21, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: A Call to Action — Nudging the Customer to Work Out Whether the Fit is Right

The Proofreader’s Corner: A Call to Action — Nudging the Customer to Work Out Whether the Fit is Right

by Louise Harnby

Unless we’re a member of that small cohort of editorial freelancers who do it all, we’ll have good-fit customers and bad-fit customers. Take me, for example — I’m a proofreader who specializes in working for social science and trade publishers. I also proofread for independent authors whose manuscripts have been professionally edited.

Experienced writers (e.g., academics) and mainstream publishers know what a proofreader does, so they don’t ask me to index, copyedit, structurally edit, or write. They know the differences between these levels of editorial service. We all know we’re a good fit for each other.

Often, this isn’t the case with the customer who is unfamiliar with the publishing process. I’m regularly contacted by self-publishing authors whose first manuscript has been beta read by their mother and their best mate. The likelihood of this file being ready for proofreading is miniscule. Give me a badly written and poorly organized manuscript and I’ll do my best to eradicate spelling mistakes, ensure there’s subject–verb agreement, tackle any misplaced apostrophes and wonky homophones, and attend to overall consistency of the client’s preferred style. But the manuscript will still be badly written and poorly organized when I’m done with it. I won’t apologize for this any more than my dentist will apologize for not being a good plumber.

Then there are the infrequent (one or two a year) requests from students who want me to write sections of their doctoral theses. The likelihood of this being possible (I only have a Bachelor’s degree) and acceptable (surely that would make it our doctorate) is zero on both counts.

In the above two examples, there’s a knowledge gap — I know we’re not a good fit for each other but these customers don’t. Why would they? For them, proofreading is a catchall term that means “help me sort out the mess.” Alas, that’s not my job. So what to do?

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that every minute I spend responding either to a student asking me to collude in her cheating, or to an honest independent author who needs a deeper level of editorial support, is a minute spent communicating with a bad-fit customer, and that’s a waste of my time and a waste of theirs. I’d rather spend my nonbillable hours engaging with good-fit customers than explaining why I won’t, or can’t, take on a particular project.

Furthermore, like many of my colleagues, I’m keen to educate the customer so that they understand more about the different levels of editorial intervention, and what’s appropriate and when. Take self-publishing as an example: The massive growth of this market has meant a substantial increase in the number of independent authors facing a steep learning curve as they move from being writers to publishers. And while there’s a ton of advice for them out there, we are still a long way from a world in which we can be sure the indie author understands exactly what service is needed and who can provide it.

As I said, the solutions are out there. I’ve produced a free ebooklet, Guidelines for New Authors, and created an FAQs page at my website that summarizes key issues aimed at helping customers identify whether we’re a good fit. I’m not unique by any means. Many of my colleagues, too many to list here, offer excellent examples of this best practice that aim to guide their customers in the search for appropriate editorial services — in the form of blogs, terms and conditions, FAQs, guidance sheets, ebooklets, and other knowledge bases and resource centers.

Is the Information Discoverable?

I hit a problem early on. All the necessary information was available to help the customer determine whether we were a good or bad fit, but I was still receiving a huge number of inappropriate requests to quote, indicating the message wasn’t getting through. I stopped taking student proofreading work two years ago, but still the inquiries kept coming. My Guidelines for New Authors were popular, but not popular enough — I was still being asked to copy- and structurally edit, and receiving sample manuscripts that weren’t even close to being ready for proofreading. I concluded that I wasn’t enabling the customer to navigate their way to the information effectively, so they couldn’t ascertain whether we were a good match.

From a marketing perspective I’ve always been a keen believer in focusing my blurb on what I can do rather than on what I can’t. I still believe that this is an appropriate strategy for my website’s home page. However, there comes a point for many of us when too many bad-fit customers choose (understandably — they’re busy, too) to move straight from the home page to the contact form. No matter how many other pages there are on our websites detailing our areas of expertise, there’s still a good chance that our customers miss these (or don’t spend much time reading them). Jakob Nielsen sums it up nicely:

How long will users stay on a Web page before leaving? It’s a perennial question, yet the answer has always been the same: Not very long. The average page visit lasts a little less than a minute. As users rush through Web pages, they have time to read only a quarter of the text on the pages they actually visit (let alone all those they don’t).

(“How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages?”, 2011)

This was my problem—the information was there but it wasn’t discoverable enough. I needed to nudge my customer with a stronger call to action.

Nudging the Customer With a Call to Action

Given that I was receiving inappropriate requests to quote via my Contact page, I decided to nudge my customer about the good-fit issue by placing a strong call to action right above my email address — a statement saying:

“Help me to help you…Whether you’re a colleague or a potential client, if you have a question for me, you may find that I’ve already provided the answer on the FAQs page. If you wish me to provide you with a quotation, please click on the button below. This will open a one-page PDF that summarizes what I need to know about your project. Then call or email me to discuss your proofreading requirements in more detail.”

Underneath, I placed a large gray button—”What I need to know when you contact me…” Clicking on this button links through to the guidance sheet.

It’s early days so I don’t have anything statistically significant to report at this point. But already I’m receiving much more detailed information from potential clients that proves they’ve read the guidance sheet and have considered the different levels of editorial intervention. This means I’m able to assess whether we are potentially a good fit much earlier in the process. The results? Fewer email exchanges, much less time wasted quoting for projects that ultimately I’d have had to turn away, and happy customers who’ve learned a little at no cost to them.

What I’ve Learned

The primary lesson for me throughout this process is this: What I place on my website and what my customer chooses to read might well be two entirely different things. If I really want them to read something, I need to nudge them at the point where I have their attention. And that nudge — the call to action — needs to be obvious. Says Ginny Soskey, “In the land of calls-to-action, the motto is go big or go home. You can’t make a tiny little button that appears at the bottom of the page and hope that people will click on it — chances are, people are going to miss it.…” (“The Complete Checklist for Creating Compelling Calls-to-Action”, 2013).

If you feel you’re spending too much time fielding inappropriate enquires, or it’s taking too long to establish whether you’re a good match for your potential client, consider introducing specific guidelines to help your customers do their own assessment first. If you already have these guidelines, but you feel they’re not being read, then consider how best to nudge your customer in the right direction. Perhaps it’s your Contact page, or perhaps it’s somewhere else. That’s for you to test. There are no wrong or right answers when it comes to testing — just a gradual, practice-based understanding of what works best for you.

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 the forthcoming Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

April 9, 2014

The Business of Editing: Finding Editors

Last week I wrote about subcontracting and said it isn’t a difficult thing to do from an administrative perspective (see The Business of Editing: Subcontracting). I did mention the one stumbling block: finding competent editors.

Finding a competent editor to subcontract to is difficult. There are lots of reasons for this difficulty, such as the lack of universal certification with reliable standards. In some subject areas and some countries this is less of a problem than in the United States, but even in those countries and subject areas that have certifying organizations, the problem exists, if for no other reason than most editors lack the certifications that are available.

Don’t misunderstand: neither certification nor lack of certification is proof of an editor’s competence or incompetence. They may be indicators in some cases, but they do not rise to the level of proof.

The problem is that there is nothing that I know of that rises to the level of proof certitude. Editing is still an artisan’s career, which means that the same manuscript will be handled differently by equally competent and professional editors. Too much in editing is other than cast-iron rule for it to be otherwise (e.g., Is since synonymous in all instances with because? Should a serial comma be used even though the style is no serial commas?).

Another unsolvable problem regarding competency is subject matter competency. An editor may be an outstanding editor for historical romance novels yet abysmal as an editor of medical texts.

What it boils down to is that finding the right editor for a particular job is a difficult task that is not made any easier by the ease of entry into the profession.

In my early years, I assumed that an editor who was experienced in the areas in which I worked had to be competent. So if someone’s resume indicated that she had 3 years of medical editing experience, I assumed she must be competent. It took a while for me to grasp that in some cases, there was little correlation between competence and years of experience except, perhaps in the case of many years of experience, which tended to correlate very well.

Alas, even with a strong correlation between subject matter competence and years of experience, there was no assurance that the person would be a competent editor for the particular job(s). Editing is much more than knowing subject matter; editing is also much more than having edited a certain number of manuscripts.

I suppose we can say there are at least three levels of editing competency: no competency, mechanical editing competency, and inspired editing competency. The first, no competency, needs no discussion. It is represented by the person who hangs out a shingle, calls himself a professional editor, gets hired, and not only enrages the client with the poor work but gets the client to rant about editor incompetency to anyone who will listen.

Mechanical editing competency is probably where most editors fall on the editing continuum. They know grammar and the rules, know how to make sure that lists are parallel, tenses aren’t shifting every which way, and can quote the style manual rule that supports whatever editing decision they have made. They are good editors but uninspired.

Inspired editing competency is a label that, I think, can be given to a much smaller number of editors. These editors not only know the rules but know when to ignore them. (Imagine the difference between the editor who insisted on “to go boldly” versus the editor who understood “to boldly go.”) The inspired editor does not rewrite and reframe an author’s manuscript simply because he can; rather, he knows when it is necessary to rewrite for clear communication and when it is necessary to ignore the rules that have governed language for decades, if not for centuries, and leave the manuscript alone. The inspired editor understands the importance of language choices and understands when since is synonymous with because and when it should not be considered synonymous.

This is the problem of subcontracting. Which editor do you seek: the mechanically competent editor or the inspired editor? And how do you find them?

In part, the answer lies in what service you are providing and to whom you are providing it. Someone who works directly with authors on their novels and offers developmental-type services may want the inspired editor; in contrast, the editor who works with packagers whose budgets are small and tight, whose schedules are tight, and whose instructions from their clients are focused on the rules may want the mechanically competent editor.

In part the answer lies in what type of business you are trying to grow. You may already have a sufficient number of one type of editor and want the other type so as to be able to expand your business. In addition, you may be constrained by the type of clients you serve and the pay you can offer, which may dictate the type of editor you seek.

Knowing the type you seek allows you to configure your search methods to meet those needs. The one thing I have determined to be an absolute necessity (unless I know the editor and the editor’s work exceedingly well) is an editing test.

For many years I hired based solely on resume and an “interview.” What I found was that doing so was a crapshoot. Sometimes I struck gold, but most times I struck out. A test should be used to weed out, but not as the sole decision maker. I have found that since I instituted a test, 95% of applicants fade away. They do not return the test at all and so they make the decision for me. Of the 5% who take the test, fewer than 1 in 50 pass it. “Failing” my test does not mean the editor is not a good editor; it means that they will not fit my needs.

Even the editor who “passes” my test, should they be hired, needs some guidance from me, but the goal is to for them to be assigned a project and to run with it without supervision and with my having the confidence to know that I can take their editing and submit it to the client and not worry about a negative reaction.

There is no sure-bet method for finding an editor who fits when looking for subcontractors. There are steps one can take, but nothing is guaranteed — which is why when a good fit is found, it is worth working hard to maintain the relationship. Finding the editor is the hardest part of subcontracting, but it is not an impossible part. It just requires a bit more upfront work, but it can be well worthwhile.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 26, 2014

The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches

Over the past 28 years of my editing business, I have been consistently busy. Rarely did I have any down time and I nearly always had multiple projects going simultaneously. As things worked out, there was a steady flow of work and it was rare that I needed to tell a client I couldn’t undertake a project.

More importantly, those few times when I had to decline a project, the client modified the schedule so that I could ultimately accept the project. This year, however, has been significantly different.

This year the projects are more numerous and larger. I always handled large projects (greater than 2000 manuscript pages) but the projects this year are larger than the large projects of the past (one runs close to 20,000 manuscript pages, and several others exceed 5,000 manuscript pages). For the first time, I am facing the problem of advising clients that I cannot take on their projects even with a schedule change, unless the schedule is altered by months rather than weeks.

Within the past two weeks, I have had to turn away seven projects; within the past month, I turned away 11 projects.

The problem occurs from a mix of things: (1) client projects are bunching rather than being spread across the year; (2) this is the time in the publishing cycle when new editions of many large books are coming to fruition simultaneously; (3) books that had previously been offshored are being brought back; (4) authors are more faithfully fulfilling their commitments to deliver manuscript on time; (5) the books are larger than the “usual” large; (6) in-house production editors are having to handle a larger number of books and so want to minimize the number of freelance editors they need to supervise; etc.

The question is: How do I resolve the problem?

One client suggested I hire more editors. I explained that the problem with that solution is that I cannot get a commitment from my clients for enough work to keep additional editors busy year round. The suggestion might cure the short-term problem, but it will create a long-term problem. Besides, it would add to my workload as I would need to monitor and supervise their work until I was comfortable that I could rely on the new editors to submit work that met my and the client’s expectations.

The embarrassment of riches (i.e., having too much work offered) is a real problem that freelance editors need to face at various points in their career. The editor doesn’t want to turn work away for a number of reasons, not least of which is a fear that the client will not call again. In addition, there is the worry that when the editor is ready to take on more work, there will be no more work to take on — that is, the editor will have hit a dry spell, which means a loss of income.

As you can see, the problem and the worries are not unique to the solopreneur; the problem is one faced by all forms of business. The solutions are not easy and all solutions amount to a form of gambling.

I see basically two alternative solutions (when change of schedule is not possible). The first is to accept the work and increase the number of hours the editor works. This solution has its own problems, such as trying to extend the workday may jeopardize the quality of the editing; most editors can only effectively edit for a maximum of five hours a day. And what happens when the next project comes along? How do you extend yourself even further? At some point, editing quality diminishes and you then jeopardize your relationship with the client.

The second is to say no to the new work and hope that the client will call again. The merits of this solution depends on the nature of the client. If the client is new, then you really are taking a big gamble that the client will return. If the client has been a regular client, the gamble is not very large because the client already knows the quality of your work and wants you to continue working for them. Here the gamble is more that when you are ready for additional work, the client has additional work for you, than whether the client will return.

In both instances — extending yourself to take on the additional workload and saying no — whether the client returns has much to do with the niche you have carved for yourself. For example, in my case, my “brand” is that of excellent editing service by a cadre of editors who require minimal supervision (basically, “here are the files, here are the peculiarities of this manuscript, please return edited files as quickly as possible”) and who use tools designed for large projects, including multieditor projects.

Clients return because they know they can rely on my company to handle projects with minimal problems and supervision, thereby freeing the in-house production editor to deal with other freelancers, other projects, and the myriad other things they need to deal with on a daily basis. Consequently, I feel more comfortable saying no to projects that cannot be squeezed into the schedule.

I admit that I did not feel so comfortable 25 years ago. The comfort with saying no has grown over the years as my reputation grew and the demand for my services grew and when I discovered that I had more work than time each year. (I would add that a good part of that rise in comfort came about as a result of my recordkeeping habits, which gave me a better picture of how I was really doing and, more importantly, what I should be doing. It is not enough to know how much I earned and how much it cost me to earn that; good data can give lots of insight into a business. See The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I and The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II.)

Scheduling remains a problem for the freelancer. We’ve previously discussed the problem; see, for example, Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules and Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations. All I can do is hope that I am making the right business decisions. My data say I am, but the tricky thing about data is that data are ever-changing.

I keep searching for a better solution than saying no, but I have yet to find one. Do you have any suggestions?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 21, 2014

A Video Interlude: To Serial or Not to Serial

Filed under: A Video Interlude,On Language,Professional Editors — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: ,

Thanks to The Digital Reader, a blog that I read daily, for bringing this video to my attention.

The following video sums up the argument for and against the serial (Oxford) comma and is worth watching:

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 19, 2014

The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II

In The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I, I discussed the importance of keeping records to determine whether it is better for you to charge by, for example, the page or the hour. But that article gave a very limited view of why recordkeeping is important.

Businesses run on data. As freelancers, we are well aware of the reliance of corporate clients on data — the data is used to determine everything from whether a new edition of a book should be undertaken to how much should be budgeted to produce the book. Although we do not have the same issues to think about, those that we do have are as equally weighty for our business.

For most freelancers, the beginning year(s) are devoted to accepting paying work of any type. When I first started, I accepted book editing, book proofreading, journal article editing, advertising, desktop publishing, and whatever other assignments came my way. And I kept detailed data on every one of those assignments.

Every couple of months I would analyze the data, but it wasn’t until I had about a year’s worth of data that I could draw conclusions. The data told me that for me:

  • advertising work didn’t pay
  • proofreading didn’t pay
  • book editing was the most lucrative work — but only if
    • it was on a per-page or project-fee basis
    • the manuscripts were of a sufficiently large size
    • the work was nonfiction
    • the work was not for academic presses
    • the work was not directly with the author
    • the work was copyediting

I also learned other things, such as what types of subject matter were best for me and that I could increase profitability by working with other editors.

Let me emphasize that the above were lessons I learned based on my experience and my data. I am not suggesting that they are true lessons for anyone else. Rather, the point is that the collection of data can help direct your business into the areas that are most lucrative for you.

Data also helps guide marketing efforts. Once I learned what was best for me, I was able to focus my marketing efforts on those services and (potential) clients. I stopped trying to be all things to everyone; instead I focused solely on those things that had the greatest potential to help me reach my goals. Once I realized that editing fiction was less lucrative for me than editing nonfiction, I eliminated my marketing efforts to fiction publishers and refocused my efforts to nonfiction publishers.

All of that is well and good, but the focusing of my efforts was not the biggest boon I got (and continue to receive) from data collection. Rather, the biggest boon is identifying those projects that were financially more successful and those that were less successful.

With that identification (which is something you cannot readily do if you charge by the hour because hourly charging makes all projects equally successful, regardless of whether that is the best or least success you can have), I was able to focus on what made one project more successful than another. I was able to glean the stumbling blocks.

One example: I discovered that projects that had hundreds of references with each chapter were a mixed bag of success. Those that were second or subsequent editions were more likely to have greater success than first editions because authors would often follow the citation formatting of the prior edition, but if it was a first edition, there often was no uniformity to the style the authors followed.

I also discovered that the two primary problems that I encountered with references were wrong journal abbreviations and wrong format of author names. The questions were (1) could these problems be solved or at least mitigated and if so, (2) what are the solutions? The solutions took some time to formulate, but having identified the problems, I could focus. The ultimate result was the creation of my Journals macro and the Wildcard Find & Replace macro. My journals database now approaches 20,000 entries (see Business of Editing: The Logistics of Large Projects for more information), which makes checking and correcting journal names easy and accurate. The Wildcard macro makes it possible to fix many of the incorrectly formatted author names. Combined, the two macros significantly reduce the time I need to spend on the references.

Of course, other problems also needed addressing, but I would not have been able to identify common problems in the absence of the data; in the absence of the data, I would have been able to identify only the problems in an individual project, which may not have recurred in other projects.

Ultimately, the more information you can parse from the projects you work on and can categorize, the more you will be able to identify common problems among your projects that you can address. The more of these that you address, the more profitable you can make your business.

There is all kinds of data worth collecting, but I have found one of the most valuable to be my churn rate; that is, how many pages an hour I can edit. That number varies by project and project complexity, but I have found it important to track. I know that I need to churn a minimum number of pages per hour (on average across a project) to meet my goals. When I see that a certain type of project consistently falls short of that minimum number, I know that I need to rethink accepting such projects.

As I hope is evident, data is the lifeblood of even a freelancer’s business. The more effort you put into collecting and analyzing data regarding your work, the more likely it is that your goals will be met. This endeavor is well worth the time and effort required.

What data, if any, do you collect and analyze? How often do you review the information? Has it helped guide your business?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 17, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: What Do New Starters Need to Know? Thinking Internationally

What Do New Starters Need to Know?
Thinking Internationally

by Louise Harnby

Like many of my fellow editorial business owners, I’m often approached by potential new entrants to the field who want advice about getting started. Often, the first question a newbie asks is: “What do I need to know?” It’s a tough one because it’s almost impossibly vague and doesn’t tell the editorial pro anything about their enquirer’s previous career, educational qualifications, skill sets, and target markets, knowledge of which is essential if one is going to hand out any substantive advice.

What someone “needs to know” will depend on a number of factors; so, instead of telling them they must read X or Y, I ask these questions:

  1. Which services are you interested in providing (e.g., structural, copy-editing, proofreading)?
  2. What’s your educational background?
  3. Have you just graduated or do you have work experience, and, if so, in what field?
  4. Are you prepared to use your education/career background as a way to specialize?
  5. If you specialize, which types of clients could you target?

I try not to assume that my enquirer is from the same place as me, speaks like me, has the same potential clients as me, and spells “colour” like I do (except when the brief tells me to spell it “color”). Centrism, whether from the United Kingdom, the United States, or elsewhere in the world, is useless to the new entrant to the field because it’s based on false assumptions about them and their potential customers.

A Case Study: Social Science “Styles” From an International Perspective

A new entrant to the editing profession from California sends me an e-mail with the answers to questions 1, 2, and 3. Based on these I suggest social science publishers and academics would be good initial target markets. How does my new starter’s California location affect her choice of potential publishers? It’s not clear cut. The online world has knocked down those geographical boundaries; you don’t have to spend a fortune to send page proofs to someone hundreds of miles away; you can email them to someone thousands of miles away for the price of an Internet connection.

And how does my new starter’s location in the United States more broadly affect what she needs to learn in terms of styles and language preferences? Again, it’s not clear cut. I see The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) recommended as the sole must-have resource so often in online discussions about editorial work that I worry that new entrants may fall into the trap of thinking that this “bible” alone will tell them everything they need to know. Super though it may be, CMOS is not the be all and end all of style guides, because it depends what a client wants and because it depends on the subject matter and country.

The website of California-based publisher SAGE Publications tells us that copy-editors need a thorough knowledge of both the CMOS and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). Note that these are core requirements for SAGE’s US book division. If you want to freelance for the US journal division, you’ll need to add the AMA Manual of Style and The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers to your reading list. (Also worth noting is that not all publishers want the most current version of these manuals used.)

But why stop there? If my new starter can get work with SAGE in California, might it not be sensible to consider tapping its sister office in London? But in that case, our newbie will also need familiarity with New Hart’s Rules, The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, and Butcher’s Copyediting.

Or what if our new starter decides to target social science academics who, like her, are based in the US? Will those academics all be writing books for US publishers? Will they submit articles only to American journals? Of course not. It’s just as likely that an eminent Boston-based scholar will submit to the European Journal of Political Research as to the American Political Science Review, Scandinavian Political Studies, or the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

How will this impact on what our newbie needs to know? Will it be “behavior” or “behaviour”? Will a comma in a sentence come before a closing quotation, or after? Will “decision-making” lose its hyphen? “Organize” or “organise”? Spaced parenthetical en rules or closed-up em rules? The important point is that where our clients live doesn’t determine where they publish or the location of their intended readership.

Given that the editorial freelancing market is competitive, it makes sense to exploit the most obvious opportunities. In the Internet Age, the physical barriers are gone. The only barrier to exploring an international work stream is an inability to appreciate that language conventions and preferences differ according to client (whether that be a particular publisher, a particular independent author, a particular journal), not according to one, and only one, globally recognized set of rules. Honestly — such a thing doesn’t exist; it doesn’t even exist within many countries.

Diversity of Geography, Language, and Preferences…

It’s not so much about where we live, but where our clients live and what preferences they have. I live in the UK. I’ve worked with a Swedish fantasy author who wanted to use American terminology but UK spelling with –ize suffixes. I proofread for academic publishers who will ask me for US spelling and “style” for one project, and who then, two weeks later, will send a brief for a new project that asks for something completely different. Regarding reference styles, I’ve proofread law books that used Oxford Standard for Citation of Legal Authorities (OSCOLA), sociology books that used Harvard, and industrial relations journals that used Vancouver. I’ve worked on research-methods books that were styled according to CMOS, linguistics books that asked for APA, and politics reports that used The Economist style guide. I’ve proofread philosophy books where the style was…let’s just call it “go with the flow.” Many of my publishers have a “house” style, so working for them means reading and learning that.

So, if a new starter asks me what she needs to know, I tell her that she needs to be prepared to familiarize herself with a number of appropriate resources depending on what her clients want. Perhaps it’s CMOS; perhaps it’s not. And even if it is, ONLY knowing this may mean she is seriously restricting the base of clients for whom she can work, the types of material she can work on, and the geographical locations she can explore. I ask her to (a) think about which particular client groups she is most suited to, (b) do some research that will tell her what those clients require, and (c) use that information to inform the decision about which resources to invest in. If someone’s world revolves around CMOS, it’s a smaller world than it needs to be. And if her world is smaller than it needs to be, so are the opportunities she is exploring in a market that’s already very competitive.

One other item to note. CMOS, CSE, APA, AMA, and the like are style guides; they give you guidance on whether, for example, to close up or hyphenate a compound adjective. What they do not do is give you extensive guidance on whether a word is being properly used. Usage manuals, which give that kind of information, are as important as style guides. Using a style guide or a usage manual alone is an invitation to disaster.

Out With Borders and in With Flexibility…

When you’re the owner of an editorial business you need to learn what your clients want you to learn, whether it’s a manual published by Chicago or Oxford, a house brief designed by a team of publisher project managers, a detailed set of guidelines issued by a European NGO, or a short brief issued by an independent author of fiction. Encouraging our new starters to think broadly, globally, and flexibly is essential if we are to guide them effectively towards what they need to know. Pointing them to one set of rules is not only restricting, it’s just plain wrong.

There is, alas, no simple answer to the question “what do I need to know?” Instead, advice that asks our new starters to give careful thought and planning centered around client- and skill-focused research is a good first step. That way, the new entrant to the field learns for himself what resources, tools, and knowledge bases are suitable for him, his potential market, and his particular business model. Language usage, styles, and preferences differ, and our advice needs to reflect that.

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 the forthcoming Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

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