An American Editor

February 10, 2014

On the Basics: Tips for Getting Started in Editing or Freelancing

Tips for Getting Started in Editing or Freelancing

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter 

There it was again: yet another LinkedIn discussion asking how to get started in editing, or how to start freelancing as an editor. Versions of this topic must pop up there at least once a week — probably more often, given the zillions of LinkedIn groups, of which I only see a dozen or so. The question comes up so often that I thought it might make the basis of a useful essay here.

The original question is often full of typos, which doesn’t bode well for the asker’s ability to either accept my response or succeed in our field. I do my best not to criticize such posts, but sometimes will say, “If you want to be a professional editor or proofreader, you need to make sure your posts are letter-perfect.”

My first reaction to “How do I start editing/proofreading/freelancing or promoting my editing business?” is usually “It depends. Do you have any experience, training, skills?” If the answer is “no,” I suggest taking some courses from local or online programs through universities, writers’ centers, and professional organizations before trying to get a job as an editor or pitch oneself as a freelance editor. You don’t necessarily need a degree or completed certificate, but you need something to ensure you know what you’re doing and can assure prospective clients or employers that you have at least basic skills in the profession.

I also suggest getting and studying one of the major style manuals — Associated Press, Chicago, American Psychological Association, Government Printing Office, etc., depending on the kind of editing someone might want to do — because knowing what they are and what they require will be a standard necessity for any professional editor. The best way to lose a prospective client is not to know what “AP,” “CMOS,” “APA,” or “GPO” means, or to do a first project using the standards for one when the client calls for another.

And, of course, there is a raft of important books to get, read, and absorb: The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys by Amy Einsohn; Copyediting: A Practical Guide, by Karen Judd; and The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper, by Richard Adin, edited and with a foreword and introductions by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter and Jack M. Lyon and index by Sue Nedrow.

Be prepared to take tests to demonstrate your skills. Prospective employers and clients won’t take your word for your having the experience and skills they expect from you. Even if you have substantial experience, you’ll have to prove yourself, so don’t get in a huff when asked to take a test. Employers and clients know that it’s too easy to hang out a shingle and call oneself an editor, or a freelancer, without the least bit of experience or training. Think of tests as opportunities to show your stuff and prove your worth.

Assuming the person has some experience and skill in editing, or is willing to get some training before trying to enter the field, I have a few standard responses to the “how to get started” question. Here they are in greater detail than usual.

  • Contact everyone you’ve ever worked with or for to let them know you’re available for editing work, and ask them to keep you in mind if their colleagues need an editor. Past and current colleagues and employers know your work and skill level, and are often glad to help you get the word out about being available for jobs or freelance projects. Just contacting people from your work past to let them know you’re available is likely to result in at least one good lead.
  • Let friends and family know as well, especially if you’re looking for freelance projects. You might be surprised at who among them either needs an editor or knows of others who do, and you can usually count on them to be your biggest cheerleaders.
  • Ask those same previous colleagues for references or testimonials that you can post to a website or use in a promotional brochure. Their opinions will have credibility.
  • Join the American Copy Editors Society, Editorial Freelancers Association, and/or National Association of Independent Writers and Editors for access to their job services and directory listings for members, discussion lists, courses, interaction with colleagues, and other resources, all of which will enhance your professionalism, network, and resources. If you have special training or expertise, look for other organizations in that field.
  • Set up a website. You’ll need it to get found, function as an easily accessible portfolio by displaying testimonials to and examples of your skills, and establish a professional-looking, domain-based e-mail address.
  • Participate actively in LinkedIn and association environments, offering advice as well as asking for help — networking is a two-way process. Try to give as much as you take. Make sure all posts in those environments are grammatically and otherwise perfect, because that’s the best way to show that you know what you’re doing and are worth hiring.
  • Contact publishers to pitch your services. Direct contact can be surprisingly effective. Just be sure that your messages and query letters are perfect!
  • Subscribe to this blog (An American Editor) to learn more about the world of publishing and the nature of both editing and freelancing. Join the Copy Editing List to plug into the insights and wisdom of some of the most knowledgeable and experienced editors around. Subscribe to Copyediting newsletter and its related blogs to stay abreast of trends in language and the editing profession, and for access to its resources, such as courses on grammar and other aspects of editing, a job board, and more.
  • Get my “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business” booklet from the EFA for tips on starting your business and making it a success.
  • Start saving now to attend the annual Communication Central conference for freelancers (this year, Sept. 26–27, 2014, in Rochester, NY) to meet colleagues, learn how to make the most of important editing tools, and enhance your business and marketing skills. It’s the only conference specifically for freelance writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, and other professionals in the publishing field who want to freelance or do better at freelancing, and many of the sessions are of value to in-house editors as well.
  • Use your imagination. If you don’t have at least a spark of creativity and originality in how you approach your career, the road to success will be challenging. Don’t rely only on what other editors say about how they approach their work and their search for clients or jobs. Have an approach of your own. As long as it’s based on good practice, ethical behavior, and genuine skills and experience, it will serve you well.

Best of luck to all who seek to enter the rewarding field of editing.

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.

February 5, 2014

The Business of Editing: Worth in the Decision-Making Process

Within the past few weeks I had a single experience that was an initial up and a subsequent down. It is not that I haven’t had this type of experience before; rather, this time I had a little bit more information and so the experience registered with me at a different level of consciousness.

In the beginning…

I received a call from a publisher who was having a very unhappy experience with the editing of a series of books. The final straw had arrived, and the publisher called me to ask about my availability. The deal was somewhat typical of many of the convoluted deals I experience in today’s global editing world.

  • The publisher was not actually doing the hiring; its packager was responsible for the editing (and composition).
  • The author–series editor was unhappy and had been unhappy with the editing of the past several books in the series and wondered why I hadn’t been hired to do the editing. (I had edited the first book in the series and the author–series editor was pleased with my work on that first book.)
  • The publisher intended to strongly suggest to the packager that it hire me for this book, if I was available.

I advised the publisher that I would make myself available and would be interested in the project as it fit within my specialty of large projects. Consequently, the publisher made the suggestion to the packager and the packager contacted me.

The packager made an offer, which was not acceptable. I advised the packager of the terms under which I would accept the project, which terms included payment, schedule, page counting, and fee. The initial stumbling block was the fee. The packager’s offer was too low. The packager said it would contact the publisher because the amount I was asking was more than was authorized. We never got past the fee.

Eventually, the packager notified me that the publisher would not authorize the increased amount and so I would not get the project. As far as I was concerned, that was not a problem and it even worked out well as not an hour later, I was contacted by another publisher offering a larger project at a higher fee. But back to the original tale…

Because it was the publisher who originally contacted me, I kept the publisher in the loop by sending blind copies of my correspondence with the packager to the publisher. As it turned out, the publisher had authorized the increased fee. How do I know? Because the publisher called me, told me so, and asked if I would still be available if the miscommunication with the packager was straightened out. The publisher expressed surprise that the packager had made the decision on its own.

In the end, I did not get the project — to the publisher’s surprise, the packager told me no and immediately found someone else to do the project without consulting the publisher — but I did come to realize how differently various parties to the decision-making process view the worth of editors and editing. It is likely that the tale would have been simpler had the publisher originally set a price for editing that was commensurate with both the needs of the job and what the publisher wanted and needed both editorially and politically. In such event, the publisher would have had the packager contact me and the price would already have been “agreed to.”

But pricing is rarely set by those on the frontlines. The price decision is usually made by someone whose only contact with the project is a balance sheet. Although there may be flexibility in the price decision, it requires back-and-forth communication and justification, causing delay, which also affects other project aspects, such as schedule.

Yet it also raises another possibility. If the intermediary can obtain services for less than the approved price, who, if anybody, reaps the benefit of the difference between the accepted price and the available price?

More importantly, it raises the question of worth. What role does worth have in the decision-making process? For example, what is it worth to have a happy author? Or to know from experience with a particular editor that if you pay a little more you are unlikely to have to spend money fixing erroneous editing or consoling an irate author?

Worth is a two-way street.

Worth is not only involved in the question of how much should be offered to the editor, but how much should the editor require. I knew that the packager would have no problem finding an editor who would jump at the opportunity to do the project for the original price. I also know that at the original price and the level of editing required and the schedule to be met (remember that I had already done one book in the series), the editing could not be high quality — the combination of factors simply prohibits it; if it didn’t, I would have said yes immediately.

Which makes me wonder what is the worth of editing to editors?

If we value our services too cheaply are we not perpetuating the low-pay plague that has befallen editing as a result of globalization of editorial services and the rise of the transformative packaging industry? At what point does editing become a mere commodity, where an oversupply of editors forces the cost of editing downward because “editing is editing”? Unlike the maple syrup market, there is no market based on gradations; rather, “editing is editing” and all that matters is cost and speed as there is nothing to distinguish grades of quality.

Isn’t this what the indie author market has been telling editors since the explosion of the ebook and self-publishing market? That editing is editing and only price matters? Isn’t this what is both put forward and reinforced on forums like LinkedIn where editors are told they charge too much and too many are not good editors or don’t understand editing and the sacrosanctness of the author’s words as written and misspelled/misused; that authors can do better by self-editing or peer editing; that “I lost [dislike] my job and so am thinking of becoming an editor.” And let us not forget those editors who move us along that path by proclaiming to the world that they will provide not only a “perfect” edit, but do so for as little as 25¢ a page.

Increasingly, editing is viewed as having little financial value (worth). Increasingly, editors are shoring up that belief. It becomes particularly troublesome to me when I see that the ultimate client (in my tale, the publisher) is willing to extend itself but the intermediary is unwilling to take advantage of that willingness and is unwilling to provide the service that the ultimate client wants.

The problem of worth is hydra-headed; the solution requires cooperation of a type that will never be in the passionately independent world of editing, which world also suffers the plague of easy entry. I have my own solution: I provide high-quality editing in a form that allows me to specialize. As a consequence, although clients pay me more, they save other expenses that they would have to otherwise incur, and so find in my services that balance of cost and worth.

Where are you in this editing world?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 3, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: Editorial Freelancing — Are You Really Ready for It?

Today inaugurates a monthly series of essays by Louise Harnby, “The Proofreader’s Corner.” In her essays, Louise will explore the world of freelancing, drawing on her varied background as an accomplished proofreader, author of books on freelancing, and businessperson. Please welcome Louise as a new columnist for An American Editor.


Editorial Freelancing:
Are You Really Ready for It?

by Louise Harnby

So you’ve decided you’d like to freelance. Congratulations! This means you’ll be self-employed. The survival of your new editorial business will depend on other individuals and organizations hiring your services.

A word of advice, however. If you currently work for someone else, make sure you’re actually ready for the world of self-employment before you clear your work station and wave goodbye to your boss, your annual-leave allowance, any pension provision (no matter how small), and your monthly salary.

There are lots of wonderful things about freelancing — things that most of us are ready for: control over who we work with, what we wear, the hours we choose to dedicate to our business, and the ability to work in the surroundings we choose.

There are lots of questions that we need to ask ourselves, too, before we embark on a freelance journey, not least of which is: Are we really ready?

“Ready for what? Ready to freelance? Definitely!” comes the response. “I’m sick of office politics. I’m sick of commuting. I’m sick of working with people who don’t appreciate me and who don’t behave professionally. I’m sick of not being paid what I deserve. I’m sick of having to barter with colleagues about who’ll come into the office over the Christmas holidays.” And so on.

Actually, I loved my last office job. Certainly there were times when things didn’t go as I wanted them to, but overall it was a lovely place to work and it was full of enthusiastic, inspiring people who were both friends and colleagues to me. I know many people who’ve not been so lucky in their careers; if you’re one of them, freelancing may seem like the solution.

An initial question…

If you’re still an employee and thinking of taking the plunge into editorial freelancing, ask yourself who deals with the following:

  1. Your tax deductions have changed in line with a salary increase/decrease.
  2. Your PC has broken.
  3. One of the organization’s customers hasn’t paid their invoice.
  4. You need to go on a course to learn how to use a specific piece of software.
  5. The company website is down.
  6. Your work station is filthy. The cleaner seems to have missed your work station!
  7. One of your external customers needs mail delivery of something TODAY.
  8. You feel ill and can’t attend a scheduled meeting; a colleague needs to stand in for you.
  9. You feel ill and can’t finish an urgent job; a colleague needs to stand in for you.
  10. The marketing materials need updating.
  11. The company’s suppliers need paying.
  12. The company needs to create/update/develop a mission statement.
  13. One of the department’s external suppliers has underperformed and a replacement needs to be found.
  14. You feel you’ve been treated unfairly by a colleague or client.

In my previous office-based job, where I was an employee rather than the employer, the answers to the above looked like this:

  1. A woman called Kim
  2. A man called Luke
  3. Kim again
  4. A woman called Jane
  5. Luke again.
  6. A woman called Marie
  7. A man called Paul
  8. A woman called Bernie
  9. Bernie again
  10. Me…or Bernie, Jane, Clive, Debbie, Lorna, and more!
  11. A man called Peter
  12. A man called Steve
  13. A woman called Claire
  14. A woman called Susan

In my current job as a freelance proofreader, the answer is “me”, and in numbers 8 and 9 I’d add: “Tough!  You’re on your own — deal with it.”

And all those things that you’re sick of…

Running your own business is empowering in many ways but it’s not a cure-all.

  • Politics — there may not be office politics, but there is still politics. Freelancers, editorial or otherwise, work with people. And where there are people there is politics. It’s unavoidable.
  • Lack of appreciation — many of your clients will be wonderful. But a quick browse on one of Facebook’s member-only editorial discussion groups will soon tell you that it’s not always an easy ride. Many editorial freelancers have had the odd run-in with a rude client, an unappreciative client, a “difficult” client, a client who doesn’t work within the same professional parameters. This is the world of work, and experiences like this are to be found everywhere – we’re not immune.
  • Appropriate remuneration — not all your clients will be prepared to pay what you feel is an acceptable rate. There are various suggested rates offered by editorial freelancing associations, but they are just that — suggestions. Furthermore, not all the work you do will be billable: while someone will pay you to edit, they won’t pay you to tune up your PC, update software, create an up-to-date CV, chase a client for payment, or take time out for training courses. Additionally, if you don’t have any work you don’t get paid — there’s no guaranteed monthly check.
  • Time off — don’t assume that you’ll never end up working holidays, evenings or weekends to hit a deadline. It’s unrealistic. Freelancing is hard, hard work. If you’re the primary income provider in your house there may be even more pressure on you to deliver, even once your business is established. In the early days you might be keen to accept anything you can, for the experience and the possible repeat work, even if that means putting in unsociable hours. Or one of your USPs (unique selling points) may be that you offer a quick-turnaround service. Reasons vary but irregular hours are anything but uncommon, even for established proofreaders and editors.

Getting ready…

Freelancing is hugely rewarding, though it will take most people time to build up a sustainable full-time business. Editorial work is also a wonderful way to earn a crust if you enjoy working with words and have the appropriate skills and mind-set for it. It’s worth being aware, though, that in order be ready to set up your own proofreading, editing, indexing or project management business, you’ll have to be prepared to sort out your own tax, insurance, IT, marketing, training, accounting, and administration. For many, that’s part of the fun of it; for others, those things are a chore. Whatever your view, once you become a business owner it’s your responsibility ­— take the necessary steps to prepare yourself.

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.

January 29, 2014

The Business of Editing: Noncompetition Agreements

As I have discussed in the past, I rarely am asked to sign a contract. Yet lately it seems that an increasing number of packagers are asking for contracts. The terms are one-sided and onerous, and in some cases want me to agree to be bound by the law of a country to which I have never been and with which I have no legal or cultural connection.

But there is one particular clause that I find to be especially irritating, and unlike sand in an oyster, does not produce a pearl. I am referring to noncompetition clauses.

I am a freelance editor. By definition it means that I have more than one client. If I have only one client, the IRS is likely to look askance at my claim to being a freelancer and call me an employee, something neither I nor my clients want. Consequently, I sometimes wonder if my clients are confusing noncompetition clauses with nondisclosure clauses, although they assure me they are not.

The illogic of the noncompetition agreement is that clients are unwilling to divulge their client list. How can I possibly know who I should not solicit as a client because of such an agreement if I do not know who the packager wants me to not solicit? The answer is, all too often, that the packager basically wants me to stay away from everyone who could possibly provide me with work except them — even though they are unwilling to commit to giving me more work than the current project.

More importantly, from their perspective, I would think, is the possibility that the IRS would ask why a freelance book editor, someone who is supposedly not an employee of the packager, be required to sign a noncompetition agreement when by the very nature of being a freelancer, I am in competition with the packager, at least to the limited extent of the limited number of services I provide. The normal situation is that an employee who is leaving the packager’s employ would be asked to sign a limited noncompetition agreement because it would be expected that the leaving employee is leaving with knowledge about the employer’s clients and business.

I have raised this issue several times with those who ask me to sign a noncompetition agreement. I have even suggested that we submit it to the IRS for an advisory opinion, because if I am going to be made an employee, I want to bargain for all the benefits. Not only has there been a general refusal to discuss the matter, there has been universal refusal to get that IRS opinion. I am not surprised.

For the purpose of the noncompetition agreement, it is editing that is the subject matter. These agreements need to spell out exactly what areas I cannot compete in (which they do not), and it basically has to be limited to the services I actually provide the packager (again, which it is not), that is, limited to editing.

But then the packager would need to attest that my editing services are unique and particularly valuable. If they are run-of-the-mill, they cannot be restrained by a noncompetition agreement. When I raise this point, I ask if the packager intends to pay me a premium for my services, so that it would be clear that they value my editing skills much more than the skills of any other editor, which might make my editing skills unique, not run-of-the-mill. Alas, that has not yet occurred — but I keep trying.

Part of the problem is that some lawyer somewhere has given the packager a bunch of papers for freelancers to sign without stressing that the forms are appropriate for certain types of work but not for others. The people who do the freelance hiring at the packagers are told to have the freelancer sign the forms and so they become insistent, and impervious to any suggestion that the forms (or clauses) are inappropriate for the work I am being hired to perform.

So that puts us at a stalemate: the packager won’t hire me without my signing and I won’t sign.

I know that some of you are saying “just sign, get the work, and move on.” The problem is that there may be nowhere to move to. If I sign a noncompetition agreement without knowing who I am to avoid and without narrowing down the services involved, I could be putting myself out of business. The usual case is that the packager and I both often do work for the same client. Think about a publisher the size of McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Wiley, or Elsevier. They produce thousands of books and journals every year and have numerous divisions. How unusual do you think it is for both a packager and an editor to work with one of them? But if the packager’s agreement is signed as presented, you may be precluding yourself from working with such companies.

Besides, why should such a limiting agreement be signed without appropriate compensation? If you give up valuable rights, in this instance, the right to work with clients you may have worked with for years, should you not be compensated?

I am constantly amazed by editors whose job it is to deal with words, language, and meaning, yet who will blithely sign contracts without considering the ramifications of signing. Just as I give the manuscripts I work on a careful read and think about what message is being communicated, so I do the same on my own behalf when it comes to signing contracts for editing work.

Would you agree not to edit a spy novel in the future because you are being hired to edit one today? Sign a noncompetition agreement and you might be saying exactly that. Would you agree not to edit a book on pediatric medicine for McGraw-Hill because you edited one for Elsevier three years ago? You might be agreeing to that.

The point is that you need to read noncompetition agreements very carefully. You need to be sure that its scope is very narrow and that all of the entities you are not to approach are identified. Even more importantly, you need to negotiate compensation for the rights you are giving up. Finally, I would think about whether signing the agreement would change your status from freelancer to employee in the eyes of the IRS. Because I am averse to signing such agreements, I make it clear that I plan to send the agreement to the IRS for review. So far, that has been enough to have the agreement disappear without my signature.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 27, 2014

On the Basics: Editors and Education — A Lifelong, Ongoing Process

Today inaugurates a monthly series of essays by Ruth Thaler-Carter, “On the Basics.” In her essays, Ruth will explore the world of freelancing, drawing on her varied background as writer, editor, and conference host. Please welcome Ruth as a new columnist for An American Editor.


Editors and Education —
A Lifelong, Ongoing Process

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

To succeed as editors, we need to educate ourselves all the time, at all times. Because neither language nor editing is static, we can’t be static. Language evolves and changes (not always in ways some of us like, but such is life), and so must editors.

We have to start our careers by educating ourselves about the essentials of good editing and the types of editing (copy, substantive, developmental, project, and production editing, not to mention editing vs. proofreading) we might do. Then we have to continue to educate ourselves throughout our careers to stay professional and at the top of the editing game. We have to stay up to date and know more than our clients — at least about language, if not about the topics of the materials we edit.

I think of this every time I see a query about a term or usage that I’m not familiar with, or encounter one new to me. I think of myself as skilled and well-educated, but I would never say I couldn’t learn more about language in general and editing in particular. Constant learning creates an editor who is more skilled and more credible than people who think they’ve learned everything they need to know to do good work as an editor.

Our editing education started long before we entered the profession, at least ideally — we learned the ground rules of spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation in grade school. We might have had some refinement of that information through high school and college, but most of us received our actual editing educations on the job, refining that basic knowledge by learning about a specific topic, field, or profession and how publishing worked in that area, or as humble editorial assistants in a more general environment, where the editing function itself was the focus, rather than one particular topic. We learned from colleagues and from whatever style manuals were the order of the day at a given company, publishing house, or publication.

Some of us started editing long enough ago to have used blue pencils as the standard tool of the game. We educated ourselves then to use the appropriate markup “language” on paper copy. As the publishing world changed, we changed, too, and educated ourselves about new tools of the trade — word processors and then personal computers; WordPerfect, MacWrite, Microsoft Word, Acrobat, and other programs. Many of us have educated ourselves about more sophisticated resources as well, such as macros and macro programs like Editorium products, PerfectIt, and EditTools. We might not have called how we picked up these new skills “education” — it might have been labeled training, or professional development, or adaptation, or simple survival — but that adaptation was still an education process.

For freelance editors, education includes learning the ropes of being businesslike and separating editing as our craft from editing as a business. That is not an easy thing to do and something many of us are still struggling to do well, but it is essential to financial success.

There is more to educating ourselves, however, than just adapting to the need to use new tools or techniques as they evolve. To be the best editor you can be, as well as the most successful you can be, you have to continually educate yourself about the world around you — new uses of languages, new ways of using language, new words in the language. We have to pay attention to changes in style manuals, advances in various fields, political changes that affect country names and borders, and more. We can never assume that we’ve learned enough; there’s always more to know.

That means reading, constantly and widely — daily newspapers; a variety of general and news magazines; blogs about editing but also about other topics; professional publications; books in different genres; and more. Even watching TV news and some popular culture programs, as annoying as they may be and as superior as it may feel to eschew them, has educational importance. You can’t be a great editor if you cut yourself off from general information about the world around you. Books, magazines, newspapers, blogs, and other information resources that cover the world outside editing all inform the world of editing, and the mindset, skillset, and overall ability of an editor.

What you read for pleasure is also a factor in self-education, whether it be fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Reading expands the mind and the imagination, as well as increasing your knowledge base. You never know when something you just read, even in a mystery or a novel of historical fiction, will inform and enhance your ability to edit a new project. And the more genres you read, the more types of projects you become eligible to edit.

Ongoing editing education also means being active in social media — on organizational and independent e-mail lists, and in LinkedIn conversations, web forums, and other environments where discussions of language and world trends and news can be found. We learn from each other as well as from more formal sources. Even Facebook can be a platform for learning about trends and events that could help you be a better editor.

We may not like all the changes in language and in the world around us, but we still have to know of them and deal with them on behalf of our clients or projects. The bottom line is that the more educated an editor is about editing in particular and the world in general, the better an editor that person is.

What do you consider essential to your ongoing professional education? How do you educate yourself to stay sharp and up to date about the craft and business of editing and the world in which you operate as an editor?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and desktop publisher who also owns Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for freelancers every fall.

January 20, 2014

The Business of Editing: Credibility

Filed under: Business of Editing,Professional Editors — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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For businesses, whether large or small, solopreneur or with employees, a key to success is credibility, and a cause of failure is a lack of credibility.

In the olden days of editing, credibility meant proven knowledge of subject matter and proven grasp of the fundamentals of language and language usage. I recall being both interviewed and tested before being hired as a freelance editor for a publisher. I also recall how difficult it was to get added to a publisher’s list of approved freelancers.

Over the ensuing years, I have noted a change. The staffs at publishers have diminished in numbers yet workload has increased. An early casualty of this numbers change was the interview. Increasingly, publishers relied on the resume and the test. With the rise of the Internet, some publishers added to the mix a quick look at the freelancer’s website. (Of course, it didn’t help that the people responsible for hiring freelancers had tenuous editing and interviewing skills themselves.)

Today, credibility seems to mean something different than what it meant in my early freelancing days. Today, credibility’s meaning seems to change like a chameleon. Credibility appears to mean different things at different times and for different reasons. I find that some clients are only interested in what books I have edited; others have scrutinized my website or read my LinkedIn profile or even the An American Editor blog; others want a test completed. These people, if they have not worked with me before, are contacting me based on my reputation, not on my credibility.

Credibility and reputation, although similar, differ in their audience. Reputation is addressed to the broader audience, which can include clients and prospective clients; credibility is what is built up with individual clients. Each includes the other, but which is in the dominant position depends on the audience. Prospective clients who are searching for editors search based on reputation; they lack the direct experience with an editor to test the editor’s credibility. Clients who have worked with particular editors before offer work to an editor among that group based on the editor’s credibility.

I have been contacted about editing because clients have looked at my website, especially the list of past projects, or read my LinkedIn profile, or this blog, which are advertisements for me, and decided that I would be a good fit for their needs. But what they do not do is interview me, and often do not test me. They are relying on my reputation without any sense of my credibility, except for that sense that can be garnered by looking at my past projects and equating the past projects with the notion that I must be credible.

With the rise of the Internet, substitutes for traditional methods of hiring have also risen. How well these substitutes work remains unresolved.

Years ago I hired freelancers based on their resumes and an interview. I rapidly discovered that not requiring a test, too, was a mistake. Today, whether I require a test depends on how well I know the freelancer and the freelancer’s work, which brings me back to the matters of reputation and credibility.

There are many types of freelance editors, but in broad terms, editors fall into two basic types: those who do everything that comes across the transom and those who “specialize,” focusing on narrower areas. Similarly, reputation and credibility come in multiple flavors, but in the broadest senses there are reputation as an editor and credibility in editing and credibility in subject-matter editing. My observation is that the greater opportunity to build credibility lies with the specialists who can build credibility in both editing in general and in subject-matter editing, but within a tighter knit community of clients and potential clients.

Credibility and reputation are important because of the strength they give me when I negotiate terms for a project. The stronger my credibility and reputation are in relation to the project under discussion and the client with whom I am negotiating, the greater the likelihood that my complaints, concerns, and objections will be considered seriously and dealt with in a manner satisfactory to me.

We all recognize the importance of reputation, but not necessarily the importance of credibility. How important is credibility? Credibility is the handmaiden of opportunity and reputation’s sidekick. As credibility increases, so does positive reputation. The greater one’s credibility and reputation as an editor, the more opportunities that will present to the editor, which means the greater the likelihood of meeting or exceeding one’s goals.

In addition, the greater one’s credibility, the less argument one gets about editing decisions. When I first started as a freelance editor, I had little credibility. As a result, many of my editorial decisions were questioned; I was asked to justify them, and my client would then decide whether my decision was “correct or incorrect.” As my credibility and reputation grew, such questioning decreased. Now I am rarely asked to justify a decision and am usually given broad instructions, with the application of those instructions left to my discretion.

In other words, I went from an editor whose work was to be watched and carefully reviewed to an editor who could be relied on to deliver high-quality work.

When I am asked if I am interested in undertaking a project, the client tells me what they are hoping for. When I review the project and say that, for example, the desired schedule cannot be met unless certain adjustments are made, my clients generally try to work with me rather than tell me that there is no latitude or that they will find someone else. This cooperation, which is good for both the client and me, is a direct result of my credibility with the client.

Reputation and credibility also serve as magnets to draw new business. As word spreads, the greater the likelihood that I will be on someone’s radar.

With every project that I undertake, my goal is twofold: to further reinforce my reputation as an outstanding editor and to build credibility with the particular client so that the client will turn to me first for all of its editorial needs. I know whether I have succeeded in attaining these goals by the quantity and quality of the requests I receive for my editing services and by how negotiations on new projects go.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 13, 2014

Evaluating Editors

Last week our dishwasher died. It had served us well for 14 years but finally gave a last gasp, which meant it was time to buy a new one. But what do I know about dishwashers? Not much. I know what features I want and what I expect it to do, but among brands and models, I don’t know good from bad and really have no way to test them in advance of buying one and subsequently learning whether or not I made a good decision.

In the very olden days, filling this knowledge gap was difficult. The primary resource was anecdotal evidence from family, friends, neighbors, and advertising. If my cousin was ecstatic about her new dishwasher, then I would have likely looked at one from the same brand — even though her dishwasher was already 7 years old and the model was no longer available.

Today things are a bit different. The Internet has made it so. But even today much of the consumer’s decision making relies on anecdotal opinion, with the difference being the number of opinions that one can access. The opinion universe is nearly infinite.

Although I did look at comments about dishwashers, I rapidly found that they were not all that helpful. Some were much too general and broad, some were gripes about “defects” that I wouldn’t call defects, many were about models no longer available. In the end, I relied on my primary standby, Consumer Reports, which tested, reported on, and rated 228 models of dishwashers. We looked at the top 10 models and bought one of the top 4 models.

This shopping experience made me think of editing. I can find information from reliable organizations that test and evaluate both expensive and inexpensive appliances, but if I want to hire an editor, it is a crapshoot. In some countries and in some specialty areas, it is slightly better than a crapshoot because there are certifying organizations. However, the value of the certification lies in how well recognized that certification is among the consuming populace. I suspect that in many instances, the organizations are not well known outside the profession.

All of this brings me back to the complaint that I have made before about the lack of licensing standards for editors. Many, if not most, editors are generally opposed to any kind of national governing body that would test and license editors. They do not see the value of making the editorial profession akin to lawyering, accounting, therapy, doctoring, and even hairdressing; that is, minimum education standards followed by testing and licensing and, perhaps, even continuing education requirements. Such a scheme is viewed as just one more financial roadblock designed to curb individual freedom and prevent the marketplace from deciding (the idea being that cream will always rise).

Twenty-five years ago I thought similarly; today I think differently. The world has changed for editors. Thirty years ago, when I started in this profession, an American book publisher didn’t consider offshoring editorial work. Consequently, the pool of competitors was limited. It was further limited because there was a close working relationship between the in-house editor and the freelance editor; poor work didn’t slip by. The Internet and the internationalization of publishing has changed that relationship. The pool of editors is now global, not local, and in-house editors handle so many more projects than they did 30 years ago that they do not have the time to work closely with the freelance editor.

The close relationship between the in-house editor and the freelance editor allowed for an evaluation of the freelance editor’s work that no longer occurs. It even allowed for informal mentoring. Although the ease of entry to the editing profession hasn’t really changed (it was easy then and it is easy now), the rigorous evaluation of an editor that occurred then has, for the most part, gone by the wayside today.

The result is that the profession of editing now faces more challenges than it is capable of handling. First is the challenge of ensuring basic competency. Although the topic of another essay, it is worth noting that education in America is in great decline, with Kansas being at the forefront of that decline and the other states watching Kansas and itching to mimic it. The trouble in Kansas is that the Republican-led government is defunding education, having slashed public education funding to 16.5% below the 2008 funding level, and working to slash even more. The consequence will be that future editors will be drawn from a pool of inadequately educated people. If the slashing were limited to Kansas, it would only be Kansas-educated editors who would be disadvantaged. But with other states looking to mimic the Kansas approach, the inadequacy will be much wider spread. Licensing and education requirements to be an editor would not solve the problem but would help to minimize it by assuring a minimum competency.

The second challenge is ensuring the ability of competent editors to earn a living, or at least having the opportunity to do so. If our profession remains as libertarian as it currently is, and if the ease of entry — just hang out a shingle and call one’s self an editor — remains, the consequences will be that better qualified and more competent editors will leave the profession because it will be too difficult to compete economically, which will lead to a further degradation in quality of the editorial product.

The third challenge is changing the decision-to-hire-an-editor driver from price to quality. As long as the decision driver remains or is dominated by price, the highly skilled editor will be unable to compete. We see this now with authors who talk about not having the money to hire an editor or who are willing to pay no more than $200 to edit a 500-page manuscript — and then expect, if not outright demand, the “perfect” edit. Editing is like most crafts in that it is a hands-on skill. Although some aspects can be automated, the reading of a manuscript word by word cannot be. Paying $200 for editing a 500-page manuscript amounts to $8 an hour, assuming the manuscript can be read and edited at a pace of 20 pages an hour; at a pace of 10 pages an hour, the pay is $4 an hour. How long do you think it would be before price drove highly skilled editors into other professions?

The fourth challenge is objectively evaluating editors in a fashion that is universally understood by the consumers of editing. Of all the challenges — those identified above and those left unidentified — this is the most difficult to overcome. Why? Reasons include resistance on the part of editors who are semi-successful today; a lack of editors willing to step forward and accept the mantle of leadership in this task; the number of part-time editors for whom editing is a way to earn vacation money; and editors (freelance and in-house) who have yet to enter the profession who are not being taught the basic skills they need to identify good from poor editing.

If editors could be more objectively evaluated, editing might well return to the state of being a respected, skilled profession that attracts highly skilled and educated people and allows them to earn a middle class living. I think raising the profession in this manner could turn the decision driver from price to quality, which would benefit both editors and the consumers of editing. I also think one way to accomplish these goals is to have standards, education requirements, and licensing. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 8, 2014

What? The Fundamental Question

The what questions are the formational questions that each freelancer needs to self-ask but rarely does. What questions are the fundamental questions. They are questions that have no universally definitive answer; each of our answers will fit our particular circumstances. Yet the what questions are the questions that freelancers need to ask and answer repeatedly throughout their career. They are the questions whose answers act as our business guide; they define our business persona.

The what questions are these: What do I expect out of my freelance career? What do I want out of my freelance career?

Expectations and wants are not the same thing. They can be formulated so that they are the same, but it is best if they are not the same, even if they have the same root concern. They should parallel each other; they are like identical twins — identical in every way except in the way they are individuals and different from each other.

The what questions go hand-in-hand with goals, which we discussed in “The Business of Editing: Goals.” What we expect and what we want help form our goals because our goals should be steps in achieving our expectations and wants.

When I began my career as a freelancer, I wanted to create a successful business, one that I could enjoy for decades and that would earn me enough money to do the usual middle-class things such as own a home, take vacations, send my children to college, fund my retirement. But I didn’t really have expectations, largely because I had little familiarity with editing as a career. In my case, my wants defined my expectations. After a few years, I expected my business to meet my wants.

Because I didn’t have truly distinct expectations, my early years in business were not all they could have been. However, because of the convergence of my wants and my expectations, I was able to define a success measure that suited my needs. That measure helped formulate my yearly goals. Interestingly, my expectations and wants have not changed much over the decades.

Wants and expectations are intertwined and they both come about from answering the two what questions. Yet when I speak with colleagues about what they expect from their career and what they want from it, many of them have given little thought to the questions. The answer is often as vague as “I want to be successful” but without a real measure of what will constitute their success.

Some measures are more difficult than others. Financial measures are easy to calculate and apply; measures related to quality, competency, and similar intangibles are much harder to apply. Even so, there is nothing wrong with saying “I want to be the editor who is recommended first” or “I want to be the best of the best editors.” The problem is in defining how to achieve that goal.

Our wants and expectations are often used as fallbacks, as defenses to explain why we are not as successful as we really want to be. I know editors who never say they want success measured financially because they are not financially successful and to use that measure would be to question their skill. These editors should be thinking, instead, about how using that measure could help them achieve the financial success goals; that is, they should view the measure as an aid, not as a hindrance.

We need to ask these questions of ourselves and we need to answer ourselves honestly, because our honest answers need to be our guides in running our businesses. Honest answers lead to honest reflection on what we need to do that we are not doing to meet our expectations and wants. Honest answers lead to honest decision making when we face business choices.

For example, if we know that we want greater financial success and we know that we want to edit only mystery novels, we then also know that we need to find a way to alter what we are currently doing to engender that increased financial success. But if we think that our want is simply to be recognized among mystery novelists as one of the top ten mystery editors in the country, the way we achieve that goal will be significantly different than were we directing our efforts toward financial success. It is not that they cannot go hand-in-hand, it is how we focus our efforts to accomplish our wants.

Why (another very important question and a topic for another day), you are asking, the focus on what questions today and on goals previously? Because every business owner should determine if her current business model is sustainable and whether she should remain in the current business (or even enter it) or should move in a different direction. Every business owner should have confidence in the business choices she has made, which means there must be something to measure those choices against.

Many of us “fell” into freelancing. Perhaps we worked for a publisher and got laid off. Or we didn’t know what to do with ourselves after college. Or we thought editing was a “romantic” profession at which we would be good. Or…

Many of us entered the profession without really knowing what we wanted from the profession or knowing what to expect. (One former editor told me that he became a freelance editor because he thought it would be easy to get business and make money. He said he quickly discovered otherwise.) Now we are struggling and have no clear path to ending our struggles.

Answering the what questions will help to focus our efforts; establishing goals will give us benchmarks that can help us decide whether this is really the career for us — or, more importantly, whether the career is fine but our direction is wrong and needs changing. Answering the what questions and establishing appropriate goals may help bring us to the decision that we need to broaden our opportunities and not be so adamantly certain that we are not interested in pursuing particular opportunities.

The key is to use the what questions, combined with setting goals, to map our future course so that it better aligns with our wants, expectations, and needs. We need to be the drivers of our future, not passengers. It is hard to know if we are successful if we do not know what we want and what we expect from our career choices.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 23, 2013

Faux Controversies and the Singular Plural

On another forum it was asked whether authors should “push the grammar envelope” and embrace the singular plural. I think the wrong question is being asked when you ask whether authors should push the grammar envelope for two reasons: First, because it ignores the purpose of grammar, which is to ensure that there is communication between author and reader. Second, because to push the grammar envelope assumes that there are firm rules to be pushed. The first reason far outweighs the second, but neither is ignorable.

Regarding the singular plural, it is neither pushing the envelope to use it nor a violation of a firm rule nor a distraction from communication (in most cases; there are cases in which it is clearly wrong because its use is confusing). In other words, I think that editors, writers, grammarians, usage gurus, etc., make the proverbial mountain out of the molehill when they oppose the singular plural.

Consider what makes a great editor. A great editor is someone who ensures that a reader understands the editor’s author; that is, ensures that the reader does not leave the book thinking the author is in favor of, for example, genocide, when the author intends the contrary. An average editor can cite chapter and verse of why x is not to be done, but cannot explain why doing x makes the author’s point unintelligible. The amateur editor either blindly accepts the singular plural or remembers having been taught that the singular plural is incorrect and thus blindly changes it.

However, if the singular plural is incorrect, it is incorrect because it makes the author’s point unintelligible, not because a group of self-appointed grammarians have written that it is wrong.

English is difficult enough without making it impossible. Editors constantly twist and turn to apply “rules” of grammar in the mistaken belief that there are rules of grammar. What are too often called rules are really current conventions.

Be clear that I am not referring to spelling and whether the correct choice in context is “rain,” “reign,” or “rein.” Equating spelling with grammar is another common mistake; spelling and grammar are companions, not a single entity.

English lacks the singular plural pronoun. In my schooldays, it was easy to lose points on an otherwise brilliant essay by using the plural pronoun as a singular pronoun. The convention (i.e., “rule”) was that the singular plural was forbidden. Instead, you were expected to rewrite the sentence to avoid the singular plural, even if it meant twisting and turning an otherwise coherent statement into a convoluted mess. Style was more important than substance.

Today’s argument between propluralists and antipluralists amounts to both a faux argument and making style more important than substance. This is not to say that the singular plural is always correct or that a particular sentence could not be made better by avoiding the singular plural. Rather, it is to say that when arguing over the singular plural, we lose sight of what really is important: How well does the sentence communicate to the reader?

The difference between editors, especially between the professional editor and the nonprofessional editor, is the emphasis each places on evaluating each word and sentence on their ability to communicate the point accurately to the reader. Because we use the singular plural in common speech and understand it in context, there should not be a problem in using it in writing when its use eases communication.

I suppose this controversy is just another in the grammar wars between traditionalists and modernists. Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage 3rd ed.) falls into the traditionalist camp. He sees the rise of the singular plural as an attempt to avoid sexism (which it is). As he writes, “It is the most convenient solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language — the generic masculine [also, I would say, feminine] pronoun” (p. 179). His answer is to avoid it whenever possible.

Modernists tend to think in unisexual terms; that is, if it can be applied to both males and females, we need to avoid picking one as the example. Thus the use of the singular plural. Over the past 50 years, as a result of the cultural war on sexism, English speakers have become so accustomed to the singular plural as a “normal” part of speech, it seems foolish to make all possible effort to avoid the construction.

In many ways, this faux controversy reminds me of the split infinitive “rule” and the twisting and turning we had to put language through to avoid splitting the infinitive. Had we instead focused on the communication aspects, we would have recognized that rigid application of the splitting rule was wasteful and illogical. That same recognition should be extended to the singular plural. We should recognize the limitations of English as a language and compensate for those limitations in the most logical manner, as long as clear communication is not jeopardized.

Which brings us back to what I consider the fundamental rule, the fundamental arbiter of grammar: Does use of the singular plural detract from clear communication to the reader? If it doesn’t detract from clear communication, then leave it be as long as it is otherwise properly used.

Editors need to remember that language is fluid. They also need to remember that there really are no rigid rules of grammar except the rule of clarity. Grammar rules, with the clarity exception, are merely conventions or suggestions upon which a large group of society have agreed. They are not intended, except by the fanatical few, to be blindly adhered to and applied. Garner says to use the singular plural cautiously “because some people may doubt your literacy” (p. 179), but I think use of the singular plural is so common today that very few would raise the question. As long as the material is clear, I see little strength to the argument to studiously avoid the singular plural. If the material can be made clearer by avoiding the singular plural, then it is the obligation of the editor to do so. Otherwise, relax and flow with its use.

December 16, 2013

The Business of Editing: Knowing Your Editorial Fit

Recently, in The Business of Editing: Standing One’s Ground, I discussed turning down work. Today’s guest essay by Louise Harnby provides another perspective on accepting or referring work. As Louise points out, knowing when to say no is as important as knowing when to say yes.

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.


Knowing Your Editorial Fit

by Louise Harnby

The biggest reward I’ve received from my comprehensive marketing strategy is that I get a lot of offers of work…not just from publishers, but also from independent writers, students, business professionals, and individual academics. Being in a position whereby I have the opportunity to turn down work—either because I can’t fit it in or because I know of a particular colleague who can do a better job—is something I’ve striven for since I set up my professional proofreading business in 2005. Why? Because taking on work that I don’t have the required skill set for is a lose–lose for me and the client. I don’t want to do a mediocre job.

At the very best, “mediocre” doesn’t bring the client back asking for more, doesn’t generate solid testimonials, doesn’t lead to referrals from my client to his or her colleagues, and brings me a huge amount of stress. At the very worst, it could lead to complaints, a lack of confidence on the client’s part, damage to my professional reputation…and did I mention stress? And those were definitely not on my “strive for” list back in 2005!

Only a few days ago, I received an email from a Dutch academic based at a prestigious UK university. He’d found my website by googling “academic proofreader sociology.” Given that I appeared on the first page of Google’s search results he took a peek and liked what he saw—he told me he loved my profile, my extensive online academic proofreading portfolio, and the page of testimonials from academic publishers. He thought I was a great fit. Money wasn’t an issue so would I be interested in proofreading and editing his presubmission sociology and demography journal articles and his grant proposals on a regular basis? The text would include a lot of data analysis and stats, but nothing too technical.

On paper we do look like a great match—he’s an academic researcher looking for an experienced academic editorial freelancer. What’s the real story, though? The facts are as follows:

  • I’m a proofreader not a copyeditor. They’re different jobs.
  • Most of my academic proofreading work has already been through a round of professional copyediting (arranged by the publisher’s in-house project manager).
  • I work primarily on books, not journals. They are different products with different requirements.
  • The last time I looked at a grant proposal was back in the late 1980s, when I applied for tuition-fee support prior to embarking on my university degree.
  • The words “editing data analysis and statistics” make me feel, well, a tad unwell.

Certainly, I could have secured this job, and the healthy fee that would have come with it, by confirming the client’s initial response to my online profile. But having bagged the work, I know I would have done a mediocre job. Reading between the lines, the client needed someone with a richer skill set than mine. And I knew just the person. One of my colleagues is a former academic researcher and has worked as a scientist in a commercial environment. He’s written for journals, sat on journal editorial boards, and been active in the peer-review process. He’s evaluated research grant proposals and been involved in the writing and submission process. And he’s both an editor and a proofreader who specializes in working on journal articles written by authors for whom English is a second language. This colleague can bring something to the table that I can only dream of. The job he’ll do for my Dutch academic will be richer than anything I can offer. And not just because of his editorial training. Rather, his research background and career experience will enable him to add value in ways that can’t be taught to me.

Furthermore, referring my Dutch academic (with his refreshing focus on quality rather than the lowest price) elsewhere didn’t hurt me one bit. I don’t have the stress of knowing I’ve bitten off more than I can chew; I’ve been honest with the client about exactly what’s required and who can deliver the necessary outcomes; one of my colleagues has (I hope) secured a productive relationship with a new client; and I’m free to continue to use the hours in my working day to bill for work that I am qualified for—work that I can do a really, really good job on, not a mediocre one.

It can be tempting to take on work that one can’t do a really great job on, especially when opportunities aren’t coming thick and fast. That’s why an effective marketing strategy is so important; it helps to put us in the position where we’re able to get enough of the work that we’re excellent at instead of taking risks with jobs that we’re not trained for, or don’t have an aptitude for. It gives us choices so that we can put all that we’ve learned into the place it needs to be. And if we do want to expand into editorial work that requires another skill set (one that can be taught), it gives us the space to generate a regular work stream while we pursue the relevant training.

Few of us are good at everything. Certainly we can diversify, and we can (and should) continue to develop as professionals by educating ourselves. But there are some things that can’t be taught. With the best will in the world, I will never have the research background or journal experience that some of my colleagues have. That’s their bag. I have mine. For each of us, knowing where we fit, and how best to exploit and communicate that fit, is central to commonsense editorial business ownership.

Do you agree? If you were me, would you have taken on the job I turned down or would you have referred it to a colleague? Was this out of choice or necessity?


The issues that Louise raises also reflect on the informal code of responsibility that governs professional editing. Do you include this informal code in your decision-making process?

Louise cites the factors she considered, but we should not forget that there are other factors to be considered, such as whether we think we are capable of working under a tight deadline. What factors do you consider when deciding whether to accept or refer a job? How do you decide which colleague to refer the client to?

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