An American Editor

April 20, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 2

Geoffrey Hart

Things to expect during peer review

If English is not your author’s first language or if the author has a foreign-seeming name or foreign address, you may encounter language prejudice. This is less often racist than it is the result of such authors believing they don’t need to be edited and submitting poorly written manuscripts as a result. Publishers who receive large numbers of such manuscripts naturally seek shortcuts to reduce their workload, and may only glance quickly at the author’s cover letter or address to form an opinion. If they don’t like what they see, they may reject the manuscript or return it for revision without ever reading it, and not because it lacks merit. Thus, authors should always have their cover letter edited, not just their manuscript.

Peer review has certain recurring themes that authors must deal with, ideally with an editor’s help:

· Multiple revisions: Reviewers are chosen because they are highly educated in their fields, and because they are highly opinionated. Thus, they’re asked to be critical of manuscripts and may insist on multiple rounds of revision until they’re satisfied.

· Contradictory reviews: Reviewers have different backgrounds and biases, and this leads to very different critiques by different reviewers. You can expect reviewers to agree on major problems, since such problems are hard to miss, but you’ll often find that something one reviewer loved is anathema to another reviewer.

· Academic politics: Academic fields have many theological disputes over different points of belief (e.g., the value of social construction), and it can be difficult to satisfy a reviewer who comes from a different academic sect.

Helping authors respond to reviews is something editors do well, since we have long experience with getting inside an author’s head, and that skill translates equally well to understanding what bothered a reviewer and what changes will remove that irritation. Editors are also skilled negotiators, and can help authors find ways to reach a consensus that satisfies both the author and the reviewer. Being aware of the prevailing dogmas in a field will help editors to guide authors around the worst minefields and to build bridges over holes that would otherwise trap the unwary author and provoke a reviewer. As you gain experience in a field’s language, ways of framing arguments, and standards of evidence, you can increasingly help authors revise their work to avoid these problems.

The review process can take a long time, and if you don’t submit the best-possible manuscript, a potentially important contribution to the literature may be rejected by a prestigious publisher without the option to resubmit. Thus, one important tip is to persuade the author to work with their colleagues before they submit their manuscripts for review.

There are two good reasons for this. First, the review is likely to be done faster. Second, a rigorous and critical review by a colleague may sting, but it has no consequences other than the need to rewrite. Solving those problems before a publisher sees the manuscript means it won’t be rejected because of those problems. (It may, of course, still be rejected for other reasons.) A publisher’s reviewers are also more likely to respond positively to a manuscript that has been edited professionally.

Academic vs. non-academic audiences

Early-career academic authors tend to have a laser-like focus on writing for their peers, since they know that their peers determine how successful they’re going to be in their chosen field. However, over time, authors may gradually expand their publishing efforts beyond their circle of fellow specialists. Often, they aim to turn many years of peer-reviewed publications into something a reasonably intelligent but non-expert reader can understand. They may be writing to funding agencies to beg for money, producing op-ed pieces for the general public in newspapers or on websites, or crafting textbooks for students. Yet unless they are professional writers and well-trained in writing for different audiences, they’ll need an editor’s help to make their thoughts comprehensible to an audience that isn’t dominated by their peers. I often joke that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to communicate with the general public without adult supervision. It’s funny specifically because it’s so true.

Editors understand that different audiences require different writing styles, and can help an author learn and use the most-appropriate style or modify their approach to account for a given audience’s unique characteristics. For example, academic readers expect and are skilled at interpreting formal, jargon-heavy writing that relies on many assumptions about what readers already understand — because the readers are experts in the author’s field. In contrast, non-academic audiences require less-formal writing styles, with less jargon, and assumptions must be explained — because general audiences are experts in a wide range of things, most of which are not the author’s field of expertise.

Note: Although most academic publishers now accept manuscripts in the first-person point of view, some are reluctant, particularly when they rely on older and more-conservative peer reviewers who haven’t yet entered the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Passive voice is no longer required, but you may be called on to help an author defend the choice of first-person. An acceptable compromise is generally to emphasize active voice wherever possible and minimize the use of “I” and “we” constructions; for instructional or procedural material, imperative voice is another good alternative.

That being said, one thing remains true for almost any audience: Write simply, concisely, and clearly. Although I once (true story!) had a manuscript rejected because “it was too well written,” that’s rare these days. Even the most turgid and constipated fields of study are increasingly willing to accept a well-written manuscript. The argument and conclusions may be complex and nuanced, but the writing never should be.

Responding to peer reviews

The end of the most-difficult stage in publishing an academic manuscript comes when your author receives the comments from the reviewers. These generally fall into three main categories: acceptance with minor revision, which will mostly require minor tweaks of the text; acceptance with major revision, which requires significant additional work (e.g., more lab research, more library time, reorganization) before the publisher will even consider reviewing the manuscript again; and rejection, which may be absolute or which may (if the author has a strong argument and a sympathetic publisher) be considered the equivalent of major revision.

As an editor, I’ve helped many authors persuade the publisher that a rejection really only requires major revision, or that an acceptance with major revision really only requires minor changes. A common reason for the latter is a reviewer who says, in effect, “I know that you wanted to write about dogs, but you really should have written about cats, so I reject your argument,” Most publishers will accept a counterargument along the lines of “No, I really can’t write about felids in an article about canids that was written for a journal that publishes only shaggy dog stories,”

Note: There is a thus-far theoretical fourth response, which is “acceptance without revision.” In more than 30 years of editing, I’ve never seen that response from the reviewers for a reputable publisher, largely because reviewers often go to heroic lengths to ensure that the publisher believes they rigorously reviewed the manuscript. To prove this, they will find ways to list some specific problem, however minor, that must be fixed.

Reviewers almost always have the final say — if your manuscript represents a hill they’re willing to die on in defense of some point of dogma. Because peer review is unpaid work, experts can easily refuse a request to review a future manuscript if a publisher irritates them — and ignoring their recommendation can be very irritating to a reviewer, especially one with an agenda. If enough authors stop agreeing to work with a specific publisher, that publisher will soon find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having no more peer reviewers, and thus, will no longer be able to refer to themselves as a peer-reviewed publication. They might even (horror!) have to pay experts to review their future publications.

Thus, publishers are reluctant to overrule a reviewer out of fear the reviewer won’t work with them again in the future, and may even warn their friends and colleagues to do the same. Sometimes you just have to accept a publisher’s verdict and move on. Fortunately, there are a great many academic publishers.

Most reviewers and most publishers are reasonable people who are willing to listen to an author’s responses and counterarguments. Although academic authors who have survived their thesis defenses tend to acquire a certain measure of skill at explaining and justifying their subject and responding firmly to critiques, for some reason, they completely lose that skill when it’s time to respond to a publisher’s review. Editors can be remarkably valuable allies when it comes time to respond to review comments, which is why I always offer to help my authors write their responses.

There are several things to keep in mind.

· Authors take their writing seriously, and are often offended or even enraged by critical comments. Although this is perfectly understandable, it’s unprofitable, because expressing those emotions to a reviewer is like throwing catnip to a cat: It only encourages a strong response. Help the author take a step back and seek ways to treat criticism as a means of improving their manuscript rather than a personal attack.

· Similarly, it’s unprofitable to argue with a reviewer, particularly if that argument can be seen as an attack. Instead, help the author find ways to acknowledge the reviewer’s point, explain what they were hoping to achieve, find a way to incorporate that point in their revision, and provide a persuasive response that satisfies both the reviewer’s objection and the author’s goal.

· Where possible, help the author find ways to implement each suggestion. The more suggestions they accept, the more willing a reviewer will be to listen to counterarguments for other points. For example, if a reviewer asks the author to cite five additional references, ensure that they have cited those five references. If the reviewer asks them to cite a specific journal paper (often one written by the reviewer), ensure that they have cited that paper. It costs the author nothing, particularly if the reviewer is correct that the references are relevant and worthy of citation.

· Never cave in on important points! If the reviewer is simply wrong, and won’t accept any argument to the contrary, move on and find somewhere else to publish. There are many, many publishers. If the manuscript has merit, some publisher will eventually see its value.

· Always thank the reviewers politely at the end of the response letter, even if you disagree with them. One standard wording that has worked well for me and that I encourage you to copy and modify to meet your needs: “Thanks for your efforts to improve my manuscript. I hope that my responses and the resulting changes will be satisfactory, but I’ll be happy to work with you to resolve any remaining issues.” This acknowledges the reviewer’s effort, and attempts to shift the review process from confrontational to collaborative.

· Only thank each reviewer once, at the end of the responses, other than for particularly important comments. If you repeatedly thank a reviewer for insulting your intelligence, critiquing your upbringing and moral character, and savaging your writing style, thanking them for each body blow quickly becomes seen as sarcasm, and that tends to make the reviewer more critical.

A final comment

I’ve been helping authors for more than 30 years by using these techniques, and as a result, have facilitated the publication of more than 6,000 journal manuscripts and scientific monographs, so it’s clear that these techniques work. Interestingly, they’ve also helped me greatly when I served as a peer-reviewer or as a journal’s review coordinator. The same approaches help me put my head in the right space to work with both authors and reviewers to achieve consensus and to change the review process from confrontational to a mutually supportive way to improve the quality of an author’s contribution to the literature of a field.

Reference

Hart, G. 2021. Creating truly effective outlines. NAIWE website (https://naiwe.com/).

Geoff Hart (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories so far. Visit him online at www.geoff-hart.com.

April 7, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 1

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:18 pm
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Geoffrey Hart

[This article is a revised and expanded version of a November 2005 guest lecture I gave to Dr. Saul Carliner’s graduate seminar in instructional design at Concordia University.]

Many clients and potential clients are writing academic papers that must undergo the Darwinian struggle known as peer review. The purpose of this struggle is to select only the fittest papers by improving the quality of the information. Academics being civilized beings, this doesn’t inevitably have to be “nature, red in tooth and claw,” but when the review is done well, reviewers provide insightful, focused critiques that help authors compete more strongly in the community of knowledge by improving the quality and clarity of their message.

Of course, academics being human, some reviewers see themselves as wolves, not helpers, and see their role as running behind the pack so they can pull down the slowest and weakest. They then scatter the bones of their victims upon the ground for all to see as a literary kind of memento mori.

It takes all sorts, I suppose.

Overstretched metaphors notwithstanding, academic discourse benefits greatly from peer review because the peer reviewers are chosen for their expertise in the author’s field, and most recognize that publishing is a collaborative effort in which everyone agrees on the same goals: to maximize the quality of knowledge that gets published and to improve the conversation. Quality is the first goal, both because of how important the published literature should be for guiding practitioners and future authors by providing a body of knowledge that enriches an entire field of study. The second goal is to make authors look good in print, which means helping them communicate their key ideas concisely and clearly. Third, and less-often mentioned, is the “they did it to me, so I’m going to do it to you” school of review — I’ve heard PhD thesis supervisors admit, off the record, that their supervisor made them rewrite their thesis 10 times even after it was long ready to publish, and that they were going to demand the same suffering of their grad students. Sadly, many carry this philosophy to the task of peer review.

There are many ways the peer review process can fail, including authors who recommend peer reviewers who owe them a favor and will give a favorable review, even if it’s not justified, or who promote papers that support their particular biases. On the whole, though, most participants take the process seriously and work hard and with integrity to help authors publish manuscripts they can be proud of.

You may have noted that most of what I’ve described sounds very similar to what editors do, so why do we need editors when we have peer review? (Alternatively, why do we need peer reviewers when we have editors?) There are three main reasons.

First, peer reviewers are unpaid volunteers, and it’s a poor and disrespectful use of their time to send them unclear, error-ridden manuscripts. Second, unless the manuscript is about editing, the reviewers are rarely editors, and therefore aren’t best suited to the job of editing a manuscript for clarity, even if they had the time — and most don’t. Third, eliminating all the many infelicities to which a text is prone makes it easier for reviewers to understand the author’s key points and identify subtle flaws that should be fixed, but that (without editing) might be invisible beneath a sea of typos, false cognates, and other problems.

That being said, how can editors help authors prepare their manuscripts for peer review?

Note: The approach described in this article works equally well for journal articles, monographs (e.g., a report series
published by a research institute), and books.

The review process

Writing for peer review begins with an understanding of the peer-review process. Fortunately, this is more similar to than different from other forms of nonfiction writing. The process generally follows these steps:

· The author completes their research, whether in a laboratory or a library, and analyzes the knowledge they acquired to create an overall mental image of their findings and where these fit within the larger context of a field’s collection of knowledge. Developmental editing can be very helpful at this stage.

· Based on this review of their subject, the author creates a strong outline to guide their writing (Hart, 2021). Again, developmental editing can facilitate this stage.

· Next, the author must choose an appropriate publisher — one that will be interested in the manuscript and will provide access to an interested audience. Based on that publisher’s requirements (usually made available via their website), the author writes a first draft that follows those guidelines. If the publisher lets authors develop their own style guide, developmental editing can produce a guide that eases the task of writing consistently.

· With help from colleagues and (ideally) a substantive editor, the author revises the manuscript to produce the most-polished story they can before they submit it to the publisher.

· The publisher hands off the manuscript to one or more peer reviewers. After some time has passed (often months), the author receives the review comments and the publisher’s verdict, and must then revise the manuscript to answer any questions or address any criticisms raised by the reviewers. Substantive editing and copyediting are often required at this stage.

· The author repeats the revise/resubmit/review cycle as often as necessary, with an editor’s help, until they either satisfy the publisher that their manuscript is worthy of publication, or they give up and send it to another publisher (where the whole process might start over again!).

Choosing the right publisher

Deciding where to publish a manuscript is a complicated task, since there are many criteria, some of which are contradictory or very subjective.

Publishing in a prestigious journal or with a prestigious academic press is important for an academic’s career because the publisher’s prestige is one criterion for evaluating an author’s work. The downside of prestigious publishers is that everyone wants to publish with them, which gives the publisher enormous freedom in choosing only the best of the best submissions. It’s not quite the writer’s equivalent of buying a lottery ticket, but the chances of success sometimes seem equally low. A less-prestigious but still perfectly respectable publisher may be a better option, particularly for authors who are still early in their careers and don’t yet have name recognition that would get them through doors that are shut to new authors.

Another decision is whether the author should write for their peers, which usually means a smaller but more-expert audience, or for a wider group of readers who are outside the author’s area of specialization, which usually means a larger but less-expert audience. The former may be important when an author is trying to make a name for themselves in their field; the latter may be more important when they have something to say that will be of broad interest to readers both in their field and out.

Note: Academics face an interesting challenge: Their work may be very important for the general public, but publishing general-interest manuscripts gains little respect from colleagues, and sometimes gains their contempt. One solution is to publish first in academic publications, and then recast that work for a broader audience later.

Editors who specialize in certain areas gradually acquire a sense of which publishers are a good choice. If, however, you (as an editor) are unfamiliar with a field, there are tricks you can use to help the author find a suitable publisher. First, examine the bibliography in the manuscript. If the author repeatedly cites papers from a specific journal or books from a specific publisher, than that journal or publisher is likely to be a good candidate because these citations prove the willingness of those outlets to publish similar manuscripts.

On the other hand, the lack of a specific publisher, such as a science journal, in the list of citations may be a sign that the author’s subject has not been published by that journal even though its readers would clearly benefit from learning more about that subject. Another way editors can help authors is by helping them argue for the relevance of a manuscript by explaining (in a cover letter) how it will benefit the publication’s readers.

Neither author nor editors should hesitate to ask colleagues for suggestions, both for publishers they’ve worked with and that have been helpful and have provided effective reviews — and publishers that are best avoided. Many publishers, and particularly peer-reviewed journals, report their rejection ratio at their author guidelines web pages. If they have a high-impact factor (i.e., if many of their publications are cited by other authors), they’ll report that prominently, too.

Publishers with the highest impact factors tend to have the highest rejection rates, so choosing a balance between impact and risk of rejection is important. This is a judgment call and a deeply personal decision, and editors can provide advice on the pros and cons of a given publisher, but in the end, the author must choose.

Note: Chapter 3 of my book Writing for Science Journals (http://geoff-hart.com/books/journals/journal-book.htm) provides a detailed discussion of this subject.

Style guides

Most academic or scholarly publishers receive more manuscripts than they can ever hope to publish, and as a result, they use a variety of screening criteria (some that are not so good) to eliminate the least-suitable manuscripts. One of the first and easiest is to check whether an author followed their style guide. An author who can’t be trusted to follow a simple, clearly stated set of instructions suggests the author will be more trouble to work with than the publisher desires. (That being said, having worked for more than 30 years in academic publishing, “simple” often strikes me as a one-word oxymoron.)

At a minimum, this suggests that the publisher will have to spend more of their tight budget on copyediting the manuscript than they would with an author who takes more care. Thus, editors should start first with the publisher’s stated style guide, then expand to other style resources if necessary. If the publisher doesn’t have a style guide, then — as I noted earlier — editors can help authors create a customized style guide during the developmental editing phase.

Note: Chapter 8 of my book Effective Onscreen Editing (http://geoff-hart.com/books/eoe/onscreen-book.htm) discusses how to create and use style sheets in considerable detail.

Each field tends to have a core set of style guides. For example, academic fields outside the sciences tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style; the sciences tend to use the Council of Science Editors style guide, Scientific Style and Format. There are likely to be more-specialized guides for specific disciplines, such as the APA Style Guide for psychologists or the Associated Press Stylebook for journalists. Learn which guides are most often used in a field, and use them to guide your editing. If you can’t find a sufficiently subject-specific guide, Google is your friend. Many professional associations publish their own official style guides for members, or provide recommendations of reputable guides produced by others.

Last but not least, always read an example of something published by the publisher. Whatever the stated preferences in their style guide, publishers tend to slowly diverge from their published guidelines. This may be because their acquiring or managing editors choose to follow a different authority (including their own preference), but neglect to inform their website manager that the guidelines should be updated. Unless the published guidelines have a current date and specifically supersede older guidelines, the proof of the pudding’s in the most-recent publication.

Geoff Hart (www.geoff-hart.com) (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories thus far.    

April 5, 2021

On the Basics: How networking can enhance success for an editing business

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 2:31 am
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Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A lot goes into launching a successful editing business, and networking can be one factor in that success. I’ll be talking about the practical aspects of such a venture in a May webinar for the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE). This post is about networking from an editing perspective and is adapted from a post I wrote for my NAIWE blog that focuses on writing and networking.

Editors might not think of networking as an element of their new businesses, but that could mean losing out on valuable ways to learn about craft and business, and to develop connections that could not only improve those aspects of what they want to do, but also lead to a greater likelihood of finding — or being found by — clients. It can also help editors help their clients.

All editors probably share a common goal: for our clients’ words, thoughts and perspectives to find audiences and outlets. Regardless of their stage of creativity, visibility or success, every writer wants — even needs — to be seen and heard. For the editor, helping a writer client make that first sale or be published in that first outlet can be almost as exciting as it is for the writer, and networking is one way to help them get there.

Whether your client is writing a novel or a press release, a poem or a white paper, a play or a case study, a how-to book or a personal blog post, an academic article or a memoir, and whether your client is an individual, company, nonprofit organization, university, government agency or publication, you want what they write to be seen and appreciated. Beyond being seen, we also want everyone who sees our clients’ writing to understand it, respond to it positively by publishing reviews or acting on it somehow, recommend it to others, and read or buy the next piece we write. Skilled editing and networking can help that happen.

Where networking comes into play is in finding and sharing resources for learning to edit better by joining professional groups and taking classes; identifying colleagues to learn from, advise and share opportunities or referrals with; avoiding scams and bad clients; getting paid; and related details of an editing business or the editing life.

Through networking, in essence, you can meet colleagues who will provide advice, insights and resources, and who might refer you to editing projects and clients. And you can be one of those helpful, respected colleagues.

It’s important to remember, by the way, that networking is a two-way process. In fact, that might be the most important aspect of networking. An editor needs to create a net of contacts and colleagues who can help them do their work better and enhance their likelihood of finding clients. One of the best ways to do that is to be a useful strand in the nets of colleagues.  

And don’t let being new to editing or networking make you feel that you can’t contribute to the networking process. You can! Don’t forget the old saying that there are no dumb questions. You might ask the one thing about grammar, usage, structure, client relations, payment, etc., that dozens of other editors have been wondering about, but didn’t dare bring up because they were afraid of looking foolish. By raising that question and eliciting responses, you help everyone learn something.

If you can’t answers colleagues’ questions yet, look for resources you can share — books, courses, blogs, organizations, etc., that you have found useful or have seen in your real-world and online activity. Keep in mind that we all had to start somewhere, first by actually editing something, next by seeing it get published (and paid for), and then by becoming visible and active in some corner of the editing world.

Even extroverts like me had to learn the ropes of networking effectively; it isn’t just a matter of paying dues and using the resources of an association to enhance our own work. If you ask questions and get helpful answers, look for ways to provide answers to other people’s questions. If you join a group, whether an online community or a formal association, be active and visible, not just what I call a checkbook member: someone who joins and then sits back silently, contributes nothing and waits for the group to hand them success.

In the continuing pandemic era, we can’t do much networking in person, so the introverts among us don’t have to worry as much about fitting in at events as in the past (and, we hope, the future). Nowadays, you can use the virtual world to your networking advantage by “lurking” in online communities and professional associations for a while, to take the temperature of the environment and decide whether it will be helpful, and you’ll be comfortable, before you spend money on a membership or speak up with your questions and suggestions. Oh, and as the owner of an editing business, anything you do invest in joining an organization is a tax deduction!

Learn and profit from networking, and try to give as much as you take. Your reputation will blossom as a result, along with your editing business and efforts.

How has networking helped you launch and build an editing business? Have you overcome a fear of interacting with colleagues through networking?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is a widely published freelance writer/editor and the creator of Communication Central’s annual Be a Better Freelancer® conference, now co-hosted by NAIWE and the An American Editor blog. Through her active participation in a variety of professional associations, she is often called the Queen of Networking, and she’s the Networking member of the NAIWE Board of Experts.

March 19, 2021

For Rent to Publishers: One Pistol with Bullet to Shoot Yourself in the Foot (or Why Good Editing Matters)

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 12:59 pm

Richard H. Adin

I never thought I would say “Gosh, I am glad I am retired,” but I am. Being retired has done many things for me, not least of which (aside from having the time to play with my granddaughters before their school and other diversions make me uninteresting and obsolete before my time) is that I now have time to devote to pleasure reading and building a library that my children wish I wouldn’t and my granddaughters are glad I am.

As part of doing so, I not only buy books as if there will be no more books for sale, but I also subscribe to dedicated book review magazines (New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, and Book Pages, to name a few), as well as numerous more general interest magazines that include book reviews worth reading (e.g., The Nation, The New Republic, Atlantic, The Economist, and Harper’s). It is not too often that more than one or two of magazines review the same book (one of the exceptions recently has been Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, which, surprisingly to me, has been reviewed by most of the magazines I subscribe to). Having all these book reviews available means that my to-be-read (TBR) pile of books never diminishes; it just keeps growing like the blob in the old horror movies.

In addition to these magazine sources for books that draw my interest, I also tend to scan online sources like Fantastic Fiction (www.fantasticfiction.com) and certain categories of interest at Amazon, like biography, philosophy, history, language, science fiction/fantasy, and mystery. At Amazon, I use filters to narrow my searches. For example, I will filter for biographies, English language, and hardcovers (always hardcovers; I do not buy paperbacks) and then sort the list by publication date, which enables me to preview books yet to be published to see if there are any that I want to preorder. (I preorder a lot of books; as of this writing, for example, in 2021, I have preordered about 90 books so far. That includes books for me [the vast majority] and the books I send each granddaughter every month. In 2020, I ordered more than 275 books for myself and my granddaughters. I select at least three hardcover books, and sometimes more, to ship to each granddaughter each month.)

(I know this has been a long introduction, but soon I will pivot to focus more narrowly on the point of this essay.)

As a result of one of my biography searches, I came across Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes (Bloomsbury Press, 976 pp., September 2020 in UK, December 2020 in US). If you look at Amazon, the reviews and quotes make this book look like it is a definitive biography, well-written, and worthy of both reading and being added to a library of biographies. Alas, it appears that the book is not so worthy. Bloomsbury, a respected publisher, rented my pistol and shot itself in the foot.

Rarely do I read a review that takes a book to task for errors and omissions that are so bad that they need to be pointed out so as not to mislead a potential buyer. A reviewer will occasionally note that a book is missing certain material, has a bias, is dully written, whatever. Rarely does a review take a publisher to task for doing a poor production job. Yet that is what happened in the case of Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel.

Within a few paragraphs of the opening sentence of “Worth the Upbringing” by Susan Pedersen (London Review of Books, vol. 43 No.5, March 4, 2021) (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n05/susan-pedersen/worth-the-upbringing), an in-depth review of Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, the reader is told:

Rachel Holmes’s new biography of Pankhurst rightly gives equal weight to the three great causes — feminism, left internationalism and anti-imperialism — to which Pankhurst devoted her life. Almost a thousand pages long, and weighing in at three and a half pounds, it is clearly intended to be the definitive life. Disappointingly, it isn’t. It is digressive, repetitive, and rife with typographical and factual errors, but that isn’t the main problem. (Emphasis supplied.)

Perhaps if that had been the end of the production criticism, I might view this book differently, but later in the review comes this:

Here,​ in its final third, Holmes’s book improves dramatically. It’s still baggy and repetitive, but the final three hundred pages are fresher and more engaging than the preceding six hundred, probably because Pankhurst did not write obsessively about her life during these decades, so that Holmes has had to piece the story together from more prosaic sources.*

That doesn’t look too bad until you note the asterisk denoting a footnote, and what a footnote it is:

*I am sorry to labour this point, but Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly. Holmes’s factual errors and interpretative choices are obviously her own, but surely someone might have noticed when Amy Ashwood Garvey (750) turns into Amy Ashmore Garvey (751), or when Emmeline’s sister Ada Goulden Bach (624) reappears — without having married some other Pankhurst — as Ada Pankhurst (628), or when garbled sentences have simply migrated uncorrected into the text (121, 650). Need we be told twice that Sylvia reminded Emmeline Pethick Lawrence of a young Russian student revolutionary (189, 197), twice that Norah Smyth could afford to keep Sylvia’s East End ventures afloat ‘since she managed her investments well’ (353, 359), twice that during his state visit to Britain Selassie reminded Sylvia of his invitation to her to move to Ethiopia (745, 775), twice about the importance of folk dancing to the women’s movement (182–3, 267–8), three times about the wonders of the eucalyptus tree in Ethiopia (760–1, 783–4, 834–6), half a dozen times (at least) that Sylvia hated porridge, and twice that Harriot Stanton Blatch tried to persuade Emmeline to stop making Sylvia eat it when she was a child (41, 284)? Key events are often recounted twice: Sylvia’s first trip to Ethiopia in 1944 once on pp. 721-2 and again at greater length on pp. 758-66; the story of her breach with her mother and sister over Richard’s birth once in Chapter 5 and then again in Chapter 30. I would not have wanted the job of paring this manuscript down, but surely a publisher employs people for this purpose.

The first words of the footnote — “Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly” — are the crux of the matter.

Bloomsbury is a highly reputable publisher. It has a long history of publishing important books and rarely is quality discussed; in fact, I can’t recall the last time I read a review that so keenly criticized the quality of a Bloomsbury book, and I have been an avid review reader for 60-some years. Consequently, when the quality of a Bloomsbury book is questioned, savvy readers need to take notice. Not just readers, however. Professional editors and all publishers need to take notice. Why? Because the problems for which Bloomsbury is being scolded seem to be problems that are growing within the industry.

We have all noticed the trend since the 1980s, if not earlier, as publishers merged and consolidated and shareholder dividend became more important than nearly anything else, for costs to be reduced. There are few places in the publishing world where costs can be reduced. In-house staff can be reduced (done!), greater reliance can be had on outsiders to make publishing decisions (done!), and lower production costs can be achieved by seeking the least-expensive ways (and people) to edit and produce a book (done!).

The industry can’t tell in advance how well most books will sell. A prime, and very famous, example is the Harry Potter series. It was rejected by many publishers and was originally brought out by a small, independent publisher. What publisher wouldn’t have grabbed that series had they been prescient enough to know what a worldwide seller it would be? Yet, it is this lack of prescience that causes problems like “Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly.” Bloomsbury doesn’t have a bottomless coffer from which to draw funds and so has to allocate its resources.

The real issue is whether publishers like Bloomsbury are sufficiently analyzing their options and making the best choices. It increasingly seems that the only option is “cheapest.”

In the last decades of my active editing career, I made it a point to insist on certain terms. I established a minimum price below which I would not go (this was kept internal and not shared explicitly with clients or potential clients; I determined this floor by the process I outlined in previous An American Editor essays that are available in the An American Editor archives). I set a specific and nonnegotiable way for establishing a page count (I always charged by the page and never by the hour; for my reasoning, you can search the An American Editor archives for my essays discussing the pluses and minuses of the various ways to charge); and I set a firm payment-due-by policy — if payment in full was not received within my timeframe, I stopped work.

These key things (and some others) were nonnegotiable — either the client agreed and I did the work or the client didn’t agree and I passed on the job.

I was being paid for my expertise and the quality of my work. Clients always had the option of finding someone willing to work for far less than me; of finding someone who would accept the client’s page count instead of doing their own (I always do my own page count; I never accept the client’s); and of finding someone who was willing to wait an eternity to be paid. (I recall one short-lived client who started at payment within 30 days, then went to 45 days, then to 90 days, and finally to when the book was published. I never did get a satisfactory answer to what happened if the book was not published for a year or perhaps was never published). But my expertise and work quality were not available to clients who wanted that person.

To find editors who would do as they wanted, publishers created an intermediary level. When I first started work as an independent editor, I was hired by the publisher, my work was reviewed by the publisher’s in-house editorial staff, and I was paid by the publisher. As time passed and cheapness became the requirement, “independent” full-service production houses were created, often as subsidiaries of the publisher, and located in developing countries where costs were low. In the beginning, only production, not editorial, work was done by these companies. But as dividend demands and competitiveness increased (and pressure from companies like Amazon built), these service companies expanded into the editorial realm.

That is when trouble began — “good enough” became the standard, eventually devolving to “it was edited” without mention of or regard for the quality of the editing. I do not intend to rehash that history or delineate the problems beyond saying that editorial quality declined greatly. Much of the problem was that having a grasp of formal language is not the same as having a grasp of the nuances and localisms of a language, and the editors who were hired were formally fluent but informally naïve.

The other major contributor was that to be competitive, more books had to be published, yet publishing more books meant more fiscal failures. The book industry relies on hits to support both failures and what is referred to as “literary masterpieces”; that is, books that deserve to be (if not need to be) published as part of a debt to society and to the future, but that will never be wildly profitable (or even minimally or barely profitable).

One way to help keep a company afloat is to control costs. Editorial costs are easy to control because many readers can’t discern between good and bad editing and, more importantly, most people buy a book and put it on a shelf until they get around to it, by which time the book can’t be returned. In addition, of the great number of books being published each year, only a handful will be reviewed by knowledgable reviewers.

But all of this brings us back again to the Bloomsbury problem: Does having a bad review for editorial reasons sink a book’s prospects? If yes, then when publishers seek the least-expensive editing instead of the best editing, are publishers shooting themselves in the foot? If no, then why bother with editing at all? How many books and publishers can survive repeated reviews that state, “[publisher] deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly”?

The Bloomsbury problem is exacerbated by us editors in that there is both an overabundance of editors (largely because of the ease of becoming an editor and the belief that not only can anyone be an editor, but “that I caught the half-dozen misspellings in the book proves what a great editor I am”) and an overabundance of editors willing to cheapen the value of their work so they have work, like the editor who says she can charge 50 cents a page for a heavy edit of an engineering tome because she is retired, receives Social Security, and views her editing earnings as popcorn money. (I have often thought that editing is one of those trades that probably should have remained a guild craft, but that isn’t how capitalism works.) Bloomsbury could publish Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel because it had no one to advise it that the book should not be published until edited better (assuming it was edited at all).

Bloomsbury, like most publishers, wears blinders when it comes to editorial services — it simply does not want to understand the value that a high-quality, highly professional editor can bring to the table. Adding to the problem is that few editors understand the importance of their role, or even the parameters of their role, in preparing a book for publication. Ask most people what an editor does and the answer is “Correct the spelling and grammar.” I’d bet that few editors reading this have ever told a publisher (or even an author) that a book should not be published in its current construct, detailing why and what steps are needed to make the book publishable.

Most editors see a production schedule and know that by x date, they have to be done editing. Their goal is to meet that schedule for fear of not getting another project from the client. The fear is legitimate, but also often hampers the editor by keeping the editor from doing the best professional job the editor can do. Publishers like Bloomsbury also look at the production schedule and see that the editing has to be finished by x date to meet the printing date so the book will be available for a specific release period. The publisher does not think it possible that the book would greatly benefit from delay, because the publisher does not equate high-quality editing with higher sales and better reviews.

And so we have the Bloomsbury Sylvia Pankhurst problem. How many more books would Bloomsbury sell if instead of writing, “It is digressive, repetitive, and rife with typographical and factual errors” and “Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly,” the reviewer had written, “It is authoritative and free of typographical and factual errors” and “Bloomsbury deserves kudos for the high-quality editing and proofreading this book received, which makes this an outstanding contribution to the Pankhurst literature”?

Imagine being the editor of Sylvia Pankhurst, knowing that Bloomsbury definitely saw the negative London Review of Books review. If I were the publisher, I would want to know the editor’s name and put out the word within Bloomsbury (which would soon leak externally) not to hire that editor again. In contrast, had the review been positive, thereby enhancing Bloomsbury’s reputation as a publisher, Bloomsbury would want to know the editor’s name so it could hire that editor again for future projects. And if I were the editor, I’d be blasting the positive review everywhere.

Publishers and editors earn reputations. Too many reviews like that of Sylvia Pankhurst hurt a publisher’s reputation; readers will be cautious about buying books with that publisher’s name attached. Similarly, editors associated with reviews like that of Sylvia Pankhurst tend to be avoided by knowledgeable publishers; it is very difficult to regain a positive reputation for editing in today’s social media world once a negative one has been earned.

Both publishers and editors need to remember that an important key to success is reputation.

Richard Adin is the founder of the An American Editor blog, author of The Business of Editing (with Jack Lyon and Ruth E. Thaler-Carter), owner of wordsnSync, and creator/owner of EditTools.

March 17, 2021

Thinking Fiction: The Book as an Object

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:40 pm

Carolyn Haley

Writing a novel has often been likened to having a baby. The analogy is apt, in terms of gestation, obsession, pain, thrill, frustration, and all that goes with the long-term development of a new life.

Less often discussed is what happens later in the process, when it’s time to push the fledgling out of the nest.

In literary terms, this translates to finishing a book and letting it go to flop or fly. Some writers can’t do that, for any of three reasons:

1) Insecurity. They fear they will fail, or be laughed at, or put down.

2) Perfectionism. They can’t stop fine-tuning, because they believe a state of perfection can be achieved.

3) Brainwashing. They’ve been drilled by gurus to make their work “the best it can be” and believe that anything less is undeserving to be published, so their book is never ready.

The reverse also happens — some writers rush their books out the door in eagerness for publication, and don’t give their work the time and attention it deserves (including not budgeting money or time for editing and proofreading).

Either way, there’s a mental transition that has to occur between writing and publishing. A novel’s natural lifecycle is to transform from a private idea to a publicly exposed product. Along the way, it takes on a life of its own and the author is progressively edged aside.

Transformation phase 1

During draft composition, a story belongs exclusively to its author. Once the manuscript is completed and somebody else reads it, however, the transformation from idea to object begins.

Many authors test their ideas through beta readers to get their first sense of how their material can be perceived outside their own head. The more beta readers, the more different ideas and opinions push against the author’s sensibilities and imagination. What the author initially conceived starts to change in their own minds as well as on the page.

When the book reaches an editor, the real transition begins. Professional editors have no personal connection to the author. Their relationship is a business one, and their concern is only the material the author has created. This is not to suggest that the author-editor relationship is or should ever be indifferent or adversarial; rather, most editors get fully engaged in the material and devote themselves to helping the author cultivate it into a product that will draw readers.

But to the editor, the book is a “thing” — a narrative to be analyzed and polished and, if necessary, reformulated, until it is solid enough to go out the door and connect with its readers. For editors, working on a manuscript is a job as well as a calling, and the manuscript is weighed and measured against standards including, but also extending beyond, the author’s own criteria.

Transformation phase 2

Once a manuscript has been polished, it’s presented to one of three types of people: agents and acquiring editors (traditional publishing), or directly to readers (self-publishing). For the first two, the agent/editor evaluates the book as something they love and can commit to, or don’t love and reject for taste, or love but reject because it can’t be sold in enough quantities to justify the cost of producing it. In other words, the book has become a commodity and is subject to an accounting sheet. The author may still be in the equation, because with agents and publishers, contracts are involved, but at that point, author control and preference start sliding to the back seat, and what has been lovingly carried by their own hands is transferred to someone else’s.

When an author self-publishes their book and promotes it directly to readers, the disassociation happens more slowly but still becomes real. To self-publish, an author must turn a manuscript into a product people can buy. That process involves making all kinds of decisions about style, format, category, distribution, cover design, tagline, blurb, and so forth. These decisions force authors to look at their work as a thing that has to appeal to readers outside their own sphere.

Often, especially with first-time authors, submitting a book to the wider world is fraught with angst, discouragement, and confusion. It’s particularly galling for those who go the traditional-publishing route and submit, get rejected, submit, get rejected, for what could be dozens of times over many years. It’s hard for authors to realize that it’s not themselves being rejected, when what they conceived in passion, and invested a big chunk of their lives into expressing and molding, brings no positive result.

Even when the big day comes and the book is finally accepted, the process becomes more depersonalizing when contracts come into play. Suddenly the “baby” morphs into intellectual property involving rights and licensing, then gets kicked around like a soccer ball during further stages of editing and all the choices and compromises involved in turning it into a purchasable product.

Sooner or later, authors have to detach emotionally from their work and share the publisher’s perspective, whether they are working with a traditional house or producing the book themselves. The book must become an object to get into readers’ hands, by whatever tools and techniques work.

Transformation phase 3

After all the transitional tasks are accomplished, and the book is published, then come sales and reviews — and a new wave of learning just how many different ways the product can be perceived. By then, it’s difficult for an author to remember the once-upon-a-time when the challenge of the day was wringing words out of the soul and getting them into the right order to capture the author’s vision and feelings. The book has flown from the nest, destined for a fate that depends on myriad factors mainly beyond the author’s control.

The weirdest experience some authors have is meeting their readers, through signings or conferences or interviews (online or in person), when their personal self who created the book faces the results of what the book turned into. Depending on their personality type, this can be the most fulfilling part of the process, or the most alienating.

Regardless, the path to publication involves transformation inside the author as well as within the work itself. That’s why it’s important for authors to decide early what they want from publishing.

The best practice is to ignore the question during drafting the book, so the intense, private creation experience can proceed uninhibited. Then, when revising, but before showing the work to any beta readers or editors, authors can dream about what they want for success, and consider what they’re willing to settle for and what they don’t want at all. Understanding their goals and boundaries helps them direct their feedback readers on the best way to revise the book without wasting time, energy, and emotion on dead ends and sidetracks.

It comes down to authors owning their work. Ownership becomes literal once the book has turned into a thing, but while getting there, it’s a psychological state that reduces emotional distress and eases the transition between art and object.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

February 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Does Spelling Really Matter?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:18 pm
Tags: , , ,

Carolyn Haley, Columnist

When it comes to creating books, there are three answers to the question of whether spelling really matters: yes, no, and “it depends.” Usually all three come into play over the course of a book’s life.

At the draft and revision stages of composing a book, spelling doesn’t matter. That’s when authors focus on content — organizing ideas, devising plots, developing characters, turning sentences, building worlds. Prose changes constantly during composition, and only the author (and perhaps a personal support team) sees the work in progress.

By the time a manuscript is submitted for professional consideration, however, or released to public readership, spelling has come to matter a lot.

In between composing and publication lie the variables and decisions that fall under “it depends.”

It depends on the author, the editor, the publisher, the country in which all or any of them live, and the countries in which the book will be distributed. It also depends on which resources the various parties use for reference and guidance. In English alone, alternatives abound.

Most authors expect editors to be expert spellers, grammarians, and evaluators. Most editors are, which is why authors and editors have long formed a yin/yang balance that results in great books. Editors are expected to recognize not only a true misspelling (typo), but also a word that is legitimately spelled in different ways.

What authors may not know is how editors determine which variant is correct. Fanning through any few dictionaries shows that not every authority agrees on how to spell a particular word. It often happens that an author refers to Dictionary A, which spells something like non-disclosure or e-mail with a hyphen, while Dictionary B, used by an editor, spells both words solid (nondisclosure, email).

Even within an individual dictionary, one or more variations may be allowed, such as ax and axe. Nowadays, with online dictionaries available, there might also be differences between a print edition and an online edition of the same one, owing to the online version’s ability to update faster. Thus, for example, the initial cap in Internet, shown in the latest print edition, may appear in lowercase in the online edition. Common usage drives changes in caps and spellings as well as meanings, and even coins new terms (e.g., some dictionaries now allow Google the company name to be used as a verb, to google). Changes are likely to appear in the next edition of a print dictionary, but that might not be published for several years and so will always be a step behind its rapid-response online version.

Meanwhile, different countries favor different spellings. Sticking with English, there are American, British, Canadian, and Australian variants, as well as local and regional versions within each country.

Editors understand this, and recognize that it’s not so much “correctness” that matters but consistency and context. For instance, American editors working on American authors’ novels will draw upon American-English dictionaries and style guides, whereas Canadian (etc.) editors will refer to dictionaries and style guides preferred in their country. In crossover situations, such as an American editor working on a British writer’s book, the editor normally consults with the author or the author’s publisher to determine which standard to apply.

That’s why we see American books with favorite and color and British books with favourite and colour, along with differences like gray and grey, check and cheque, while and whilst, toward and towards, plus prefixes and suffixes added to root words with and without a hyphen.

None of these are wrong unless they switch around in an individual manuscript, or appear in an inappropriate context, such as an American novel released in the United States using British spellings, or vice versa. Most books are reedited (or re-edited) before being published in other countries, and often retitled (or re-titled). Conversely, self-published books that are globally available online (or on-line or on line) the moment they come out tend to be edited in the author’s native English, and stay that way.

Editors on staff at a publishing house generally use the preferred house spelling and style guides for editing manuscripts. Likewise, independent editors working in a narrow niche use the guides that dominate in their arm of the industry. Independent editors working with independent authors have free rein in their choices, but most educate themselves in the guides that are predominant in their channels, and stock their reference libraries accordingly. Editors by nature are inclined to load our libraries with all the reference works we can get their hands on, so we can almost always accommodate whatever language issues come our way.

Consistency is the aspect that really counts in spelling. When there are multiple variations for a word, the editor’s task is to decide which one to use and stick with it. This level of detail grooming usually occurs during copyediting (or copy-editing or copy editing). Many copyeditors (or copy editors) prepare a style sheet for each project in which they specify the reference works guiding their decisions, and use the style sheet to note any variations used in the manuscript. This shows the author what was done and why, without the editor having to load the manuscript with explanations or extra markups.

Authors who have preferences that they care about deeply — regarding either the reference resources they want used or specific personal preferences like that e in axe or grey — need to let their editors know before work begins so misunderstandings don’t occur, and work doesn’t have to be undone or redone. In the absence of author direction, most editors will follow the dictionaries and style guides they’ve determined are suitable for the project.

The purpose of consistency and correctness in any aspect of a book is to present a clean and professional product to the people destined to read it. Typos and irregularities distract readers from content, and in some cases cause negative reactions. Manuscripts being considered for publication might be rejected if the material is sloppy and inconsistent, because those issues give the impression the author hasn’t done their homework and the work isn’t ready to be published. Sometimes sloppiness means rejection simply because the extra work required to bring the material up to the publisher’s standard will cost too much time and money to warrant accepting the book. Other times, manuscripts are winnowed out of contention without even being read, solely because of errors and irregularities that are visible in a quick scan — and spelling errors are very easy to spot. An agent or acquiring editor whose desk is piled high with submissions might reduce that pile to manageable proportions by automatically rejecting any manuscript that looks messy or amateurish, as much due to spelling issues as to presentation (but that’s a topic for another time).

Readers on the consumer end judge books by their interior presentation as well as by their covers. Many a book has been skipped over by potential readers in response to reviews dissing it for sloppiness. Even Amazon, which opened doors to so many self-publishing writers, has responded to reader complaints by instituting quality standards that may result in a book being removed from Amazon’s site until the problems are fixed. The most brilliant, creative, informative content can be unappreciated or unread if it’s riddled with misspellings or other issues. Readers want and deserve the respect that’s signaled by material as well written and well edited as the parties involved can make it.

So, yes, spelling matters in the end.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

February 3, 2021

On the Basics: Should we work for free?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Disclaimer: This post expands on a conversation I’ve participated in on LinkedIn, so some of you may have seen parts of it already.

Like many of us here, I’m often asked to do writing, editing, proofreading, website or speaking work for free. When such a request comes from organizations or causes I believe in, I’ll consider it and sometimes say yes. From people who aim to profit from the project or my potential role, I find polite but firm ways to say no, and explain — if necessary — that I do this work as my profession, so I expect to be paid. I don’t talk about my need to pay a mortgage or buy groceries; I simply present myself as a business. With newbie authors, I suggest that they start saving so they can afford to hire professional editors or proofreaders, designers, etc. With startup companies, I suggest that they get back in touch once they’re funded/established and can pay for professional services.

While it can be challenging to stand up for ourselves in terms of being paid, I find it easy to talk to people about pro bono or free work. If we don’t value our services, skills and experience, no one else will. I wish people would realize that someone like me does the work as my profession, my living, or at least respect that — I think it’s pretty clear that I write, edit, etc., as something other than a hobby. People probably know that, if they have any sense; they just don’t want to accept or respect it.

It does help that I’ve been in the communications field for long enough that I don’t have to do free work to become established, prove myself, earn paying projects or making a comfortable living. If I were just starting out, my perspective might be different — but I would still put limits on the scope of pro bono work I would do.

The lawyers I work with in editing or proofreading for law firms do pro bono work for charities/nonprofit organizations as part of their and their firms’ commitments to service to their communities. Pro bono is expected in their profession. They also might get awards for such contributions. We in the editorial field don’t usually get such recognition; we do pro bono as a personal service, and sometimes to get established.

The difference is probably that the lawyer or accountant usually has a regular income, so doing pro bono work doesn’t cut into their business the way editing someone’s ms. for free, for instance, would interfere with a freelancer’s income-generating time. I wouldn’t give away editing an entire ms. unless the author were a relative, very close friend or colleague who had done something similar for me — but I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that substantial for me without compensation. Maybe a skim and an opinion, but not actual work.

Good reasons to donate our time

It should be noted that there are good reasons to do some editorial work for free.

If you’re new to the field, it makes sense to do a few projects for free to get established, build a network, create visibility and prove your skills. If you’re in a rut and want to expand into new types of editorial work or start covering new topics, it might take doing some work for free to get your feet wet and establish yourself on those new levels.

One example of writing for free is, of course, blogging. I don’t profit from the An American Editor blog, much as I enjoy writing here, and many of our subscribers have their own blogs on all kinds of topics that they don’t get paid to write about. These projects are everything from a service to colleagues, or friends and family, to soapboxes to therapy of a sort. Blogs are a great outlet for opinions and insights that you can’t share elsewhere and don’t have a paying client for, and can be an excellent way to get noticed. Even posting to someone else’s blog can be beneficial by creating greater visibility for your work and voice. (Some blogs do make money — there’s a lot of advice about “monetizing” blogs, and bloggers have been known to get book or other paying offers based on their posts.) However, working for free in return for visibility or “exposure” can be iffy. Just keep in mind that exposure can get someone arrested, or killed. 🙂

One of the hardest work-for-free requests for me is speaking. I love to talk, I love to share information, I love to be of help to colleagues, I love to be around people at conferences and similar events. I don‘t love to travel or stay in hotels on my own dime, which is often what’s involved with speaking at out-of-town events. Some organizations even have the chutzpah to expect speakers to pay to attend the events where they’ll be speaking, which I don’t accept. I believe that when someone is providing expert advice, they should get something out of it. That’s why the Be a Better Freelancer® conference that I host (now with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, and AAE) covers speaker accommodations, conference fee and meals at the very least, and often has paid for speaker travel as well.

I often recommend that colleagues put limits or deadlines on the pro bono work that they do, but I’ve never come up with a standard for setting the amount of time I might give to such projects. Some of them have involved a couple of hours, some have been ongoing for a long time; it depends on the cause or organization and my connection to it.

Setting boundaries is also unpredictable. Sometimes I say I’ll be available for X hours or Y months; sometimes I just see how I feel after a while to decide it’s time to stop and devote my energy to something else. How long you work pro bono and for whom is a personal decision that you probably have to make on a case-by-case basis; there might be no one-size-fits-all rule. Just be sure to give adequate warning when you reach that point of no more freebies so the recipient can fill the gap quickly.

When it comes to speaking, I often make my decision based on event location: If a conference will be held somewhere that I like or want to visit, especially because I have friends or family there, that tends to tilt the scale toward yes. If you’re an author with books to sell (or an artist or photographer, etc., with works to sell), speaking engagements can lead to onsite sales, which can offset the expense of getting to the event and make the free speech worth doing. Some of my colleagues consider the travel points they accumulate from speaking at out-of-town events as a worthwhile swap for being paid to present.

Doing free writing, editing, proofreading, indexing and other types of editorial work can be fulfilling. It can even be profitable: The connections you make and the work can take you from volunteer to employee or paid contributor. Before you turn down or accept such requests, look at them closely, think about how acceding to them will feel and act accordingly. Set your own limits and go from there.

Have you done any pro bono editorial work? For whom? How did you respond? How did it turn out for you?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers and companies worldwide. She created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

February 1, 2021

On the Basics: Coping with — and heading off — problems

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Once again, I’ve been inspired by recent posts in various places, this time ones that focused on complaints — either how a writer or editor can respond to a client’s complaint about their own work, or how an author or their editor can respond when someone else creates problems with a project.

Heading off problems before they arise

Of course, the best way to eliminate client complaints is to do great work, regardless of your niche — writing, editing, proofreading, layout, production, etc. Just be very careful about what you offer. Guaranteeing or promising perfection is a landmine. Many of us do turn around essentially perfect work most of the time, but we’re all human, and mistakes happen — our own, on occasion, and by people farther along the publication process whom we can’t control. There also can be differences of opinion about style and voice that create appearances of imperfection in the eyes of clients, readers and others who see the work.

One preventive option is to use your website, and maybe even your e-mail sigline, to say that you don’t guarantee perfection. Most of us provide results that qualify as perfect, but I never guarantee such a level of performance — I promise excellence, but I don’t guarantee perfection. Too many things can interfere with achieving perfection on every single project, no matter what your editorial niche might be and how excellent your skills.

Depending on the editorial service(s) you provide, it’s also smart to include contract or agreement language saying that you do not guarantee perfection, and are not to be mentioned in a dedication or acknowledgment unless you’ve seen the final-for-release version of a client’s document and are assured that it won’t be changed after that point. Being thanked for work that gets changed for the worse after it leaves your hands can be horribly embarrassing.

When the complaint goes against you

Many writing, editing, proofreading and other publishing-world colleagues wonder about how to handle client complaints. Some say they can see themselves “firmly yet politely providing an explanation,” and possibly offering a (reasonable) refund or a discount on a future project if they were responsible for the problem. If the issue appears to be major and the client is furious, though, then what? And what if the error is someone else’s doing?

First and foremost, don’t panic. We all make mistakes, and many complaints are much less major than they seem at first. And the problem might not be your fault.

Sometimes all the client wants is your acknowledgment that you goofed, so it makes sense to apologize — but without offering anything until you have a better sense of what happened and what the client wants. A response might also depend on what the client thinks went wrong; the problem might have been caused by someone other than you (including the client!) or not even be a real deal, merely a difference in perspective or definitions.

Once you’ve identified the problem or issue, you can respond effectively. If you missed a couple of misspellings or similar somewhat minor errors in a document, apologize and consider offering to give the manuscript one more look at no cost, assuming it hasn’t already gone out into the world.

If the piece is already in print, the apology and refund or discount might do the trick. With some projects or publications, it also might be possible to redo the material and give the client a new version to republish or reissue. Bigger issues call for bigger approaches.

There have been plenty of instances of self-publishing authors finding a lot of errors in their published books, or being alerted to or criticized for errors by readers. One of the most-common reasons: Somehow the author, or someone on their behalf, uploaded the wrong file for publication. Maybe the author didn’t know how to accept an editor’s input and changes. Maybe the author misfiled the corrected, final version of the manuscript.

Another common reason for errors in published work is that a well-intentioned layout person or designer made changes in the text that introduced errors. Or that the author didn’t have the project proofread before publication.

That doesn’t only happen to independent authors, by the way, although it’s more rare in traditionally published books. I bought an expensive hardcover traditionally published book a few years ago that started with a missing map and was rife with typos on almost every page. It was so egregious and outrageous that I contacted the publisher and author, who were mortified. The publisher said the wrong version of the manuscript somehow got into production and publication, and that they’d reissue the correct version. (They sent me a different book by the same author to make up for it, and I have no idea whether they ever did a reprint of the messed-up one.)

Of course, readers find and comment about errors in published works because many independent authors don’t pay for editing or proofreading before leaping into print. That’s why it’s important for us to identify the actual problem and who was responsible for it — not to mention whether there even is a real error — if we do get a complaint.

When errors aren’t your doing

An editing colleague recently encountered a problem with work on a client’s book that had nothing to do with the editor. The colleague had completed a copyedit for a client who then used a book designer to complete the final layout and files for self-publishing on Amazon, and the designer made changes that created errors in the published version. The errors weren’t in the original draft that the author gave the designer, nor in the first proof. The copyeditor thought they were the result of a sloppy find/replace by the designer, and wanted to know how “egregious” this was.

My response:
“VERY!”

(Please note that I know a lot of talented, skilled designers who would never do something like this.)

I suggested that the author tell the designer something like: “I am very upset that you made changes to my book that introduced a substantial number of errors. This is not acceptable. I expect a refund for your services or a revision at no charge.”

I would advise an author to ask such a designer for a refund rather than a redo. Asking them to redo it at no cost is a big maybe, because that designer clearly can’t be trusted, maybe even with very clear, firm guidelines about not making any changes that you and the author don’t see. It would probably be smarter to find a new designer, and to insist on seeing the final version before letting it go into production and release.

If such a designer has control over the files of the error-filled edition, tell them to send the files to you (so a new designer can handle the new edition), but don’t say that you won’t use the designer again until you have the original files in hand or know whether the files will be provided. If they refuse, you and your author will have to correct the first edition and do the new edition yourselves from scratch, but that might be safer than trusting it to someone who has proven to be problematic. 

If you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure that (a) you and your client(s) don’t use that designer again and (2) all future projects include language requiring that you and your client(s) see any versions that a designer has changed before publication! 

No one should have to search for errors in their publishing projects caused by changes they don’t know that someone made. 

Other people’s errors in our work are painful. I recently had to explain to someone I wrote about for a newspaper profile that the typo in the article’s headline was introduced in production, when someone changed it from what I submitted; at least it could be fixed in the online version, but it lives on in the print copy. And I still bristle over a misuse of “its/it’s” — something I would never get wrong — that someone else introduced years ago in a big, bold callout quote for one of my favorite magazine projects back in the days before digital publishing; I felt that I couldn’t use it as a portfolio sample because there was no way to let prospective employers or clients know that it wasn’t my mistake.

Possible responses

When colleagues ask for strategies for dealing with upset clients, I’ve responded along these lines:

“I tend to work fast, so I consciously slow myself down and give everything a second look before sending projects back to reduce the likelihood of upsetting my clients by missing something. I also take time to go over details before I start on a project, ask about or check for style preferences, etc. In more than 35 years of writing, editing, proofreading and freelancing, I’ve only had a couple of bad experiences that were my fault. If an issue were to come up, I would remind the client that I promise and provide excellence, but don’t guarantee perfection.” 

If a client wants a refund or discount, look at the context very, very carefully before responding or acquiescing. I’d rather not set a precedent for a refund or a discount. If something really were my fault, I’d consider providing a partial refund that represents a reasonable response, or offering a discount — again, on a reasonable level — for a subsequent project. Some of us will provide a refund at a few cents per error; others offer a discount (I wouldn’t go higher than 10%) on a new project.

A sad reality

Today’s online world makes moments involving client or reader complaints very challenging. It can be difficult — sometimes impossible — to respond to allegations of poor performance, and some complainers won’t stand down even if you can show that an issue wasn’t your doing. We also can’t always know where someone is complaining or even attacking us; there are so many platforms where these things can appear that it might not be possible to counteract every instance of a problem. Engaging with complainers or attackers also can make them escalate their behavior; even when we’re right, we might not win.

It’s smart to do occasional online searches of your name to see if there are any issues “out there” that you might want — or need — to respond to. Testimonials at your website from clients whose projects went smoothly also can help balance out baseless complaints or criticisms.

In whatever role anyone here might play in a publishing project, we can only do our best and network together to maintain our reputations. Complaints might be one of those inevitable, but ideally rare, headaches that come with being in business and living in the current era of online visibility, with all of its unpredictable aspects — some that are scary, but many that are beneficial.

Have you encountered complaints about your work, or that of anyone else who’s part of one of your projects? How did you respond? What would you do differently in the future?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She also created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

January 15, 2021

On the Basics: Who’s the bravest of the brave in publishing?

      

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

We don’t usually think of writers as brave (unless they’re investigative reporters or pioneering authors whose work puts them at risk of reprisal from dangerous people), but I was reminded of the Wicked Witch in “Snow White” asking the mirror, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” when a social media post made me realize that independent authors are among “the bravest of them all” in the publishing world.

What makes indie authors brave? Just the fact of trying to get published.

Indie authors often have solid experience in an area of business or a profession that is worth sharing. Some have gone through challenges in life that taught them lessons that are also worth sharing — memoir is a popular genre these days. Many have fascinating ideas — they can create entire worlds! — or skill in translating real life into fictional versions of what they’ve experienced or seen happen to people around them.

But indie authors are frequently, maybe even usually, not trained in writing. They haven’t worked in publishing, or in a job in some other field that included the kind of writing they aim to publish. They haven’t taken classes in writing. They don’t have mentors. They might have written blogs, but those are often disorganized and only semi-coherent. (Not all, mind you; there are aspiring authors whose blogs are well-written, readable and interesting.)

Many indie authors are operating without a net. They’re trying to get published without solid skills or professional help in the basics of spelling, punctuation, grammar or usage, much less plot and character development, consistent style, structure or organization, coherent voice, and more. They don’t belong to writers’ or critique groups. They don’t have beta readers (many don’t know what those are). They have something to say — and it’s often something worth reading — but no experience to guide them in how to get it said and, once said, into the hands or before the eyes of readers.

Please be aware that these authors are not stupid, although some might be less than skilled as writers. They’re simply new to the process.

From what I see in various internet groups of writers and editors, some indie authors don’t seem to read enough of other people’s work to have a good sense of what makes a “good” book in a given genre. They ask for help with one aspect of a sentence or paragraph, but it’s the aspect of that sentence or paragraph that is the least important or least problematic; they don’t see the actual problem.

I have a lot of respect for anyone with the discipline and focus to do long-form writing, whether a book, essay, journalistic investigation, blog post; fiction or nonfiction; fact or opinion — whatever the work might be. I’ve done plenty of long-form writing, although not quite at book length, so I know what it takes, even though most of my training is in journalism, where shorter is often better. Long-form writing is involving, fulfilling, and enthralling, even when it doesn’t go smoothly.

Next steps toward publication

Once the writing is — or the author thinks it is — done, the idea of taking the next steps into publishing can be daunting, and requires another kind of courage. I admire the bravery of any not-yet-published author who asks for advice from colleagues (both writers and editors). Admitting ignorance of the process and opening themselves up to possible rejection or criticism of the work is scary. It takes courage to put time and effort into creating a book, especially one that reveals difficult or painful events in the author’s life, and try to navigate the world of publishing with no experience, contacts or knowledge of what to do.

An unpublished writer might think it’s easier to seek traditional publishing than to self-publish, because the traditional path means having an agent who does the work of finding the ideal publisher for a book, and someone at the publishing house who shepherds the book through revision (agents sometimes help with that process before trying to find a publisher), editing, design, production and distribution. Essentially, all the writer has to do is … write.

However, entering the world of traditional publishing means learning how the business works, starting with the value of having an agent. Then there’s finding an agent, and developing the patience of waiting for the book to be accepted by a publisher and make its way through the next steps before publication. That can take a year or longer, and by then, some books are no longer timely or get bumped by a new star in the author’s genre.

In today’s world, even traditional publishing also means that an author has to take an active part in promoting a book. Speaking of bravery, that’s a new role, and one that not only takes an author away from writing their next book, but also makes some authors quite uncomfortable.

The bravery factor is more noticeable for indie authors — those who opt for self-publishing — than for those who opt for traditional publishing. Beyond the challenge of writing with little or no experience and training, an indie author often finds out that they need more money than they realized might be involved in bringing their baby — book — to life. As an independent, the author is responsible for costs such as editing, proofreading, cover and interior design, printing (if they want “hard copies” on hand), and marketing or promotions. They have to learn — sometimes by bitter experience — to distinguish between the skilled professionals and the hacks in editing or proofreading, and in design. They also have to learn, again sometimes from experience, the difference between legitimate publishing services and vanity presses. Just finding ways to learn about these aspects of the process can be challenging as well.

Some indie authors just blast through writing their books and do their best to self-publish without professional editing, proofreading or other assistance. Those are usually the books that get called out in social media and reviews for errors in everything from the basics of grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage to consistency and accuracy in character names or event places, as well as sloppy writing in general. The author has demonstrated bravery in getting that book out there, but bravery doesn’t always guarantee success.

The editing aspect

Submitting work to be edited takes another type of courage, especially for a first-time author. It can be scary to ask for editing help. The average indie author has never worked with an editor who helped them organize ideas and fine-tune drafts, so they often don’t understand the editing process. They also are — understandably  — protective of their work. They might worry that an editor will be critical and tell them to make changes that they will not want to make. They might have worked on their books for years and be deeply reluctant to change a single word. They might even be afraid that an editor will steal their work.

A colleague who is both a novelist and an editor of fiction tells me that she frequently sees evidence of indie author courage: She works on “books [by] first novelists with terrific story ideas that were badly executed.” She finds that “[t]heir courage to put these out to somebody’s critique is significant, and the challenge to me to do them justice — encouraging them emotionally while advising them of what they need to deal with — has been high level and difficult at the same time.”

Editors who work with indie authors must be prepared to use more tact than they might need when serving professional writers. An indie author who has not been trained in writing and never tried to be published before might not understand the reasons for some of an editor’s changes. A good editor will be sensitive to the author’s feelings and handle the editing process with respect.

It should be noted that even experienced, well-published writers can be nervous about being edited. I’m always a little worried about what will happen to my words once I’ve submitted them to an editor or client, because I’ve seen my work changed in ways I dislike. Some of those changes have been outright wrong — a misspelled word, a grammar error introduced by the client — and some have been different perspectives or minor annoyances. Just this past month, a publisher changed my headline to use the wife’s nickname in it for a profile I had written of a couple whom I’ve known all my life — I only included the nickname because the husband used it in several of his comments; none of their friends would be likely to use it. As authors/writers, we can sometimes ask to see what will be published under our names, but not always.

Once in publication

When an indie author’s book is done and published, more bravery is called for. For many indie authors, this is the hardest part of the process, because indie publishing means the author has to handle promotions, marketing, fulfillment and related tasks. If their book is available through Amazon or other major online sources, they don’t have to do all of the fulfillment, but they still are responsible for letting the world know about their book.

That might mean creating a website, which would be another challenge. It could mean trying to arrange for book signings and tours — also a demanding process, and that doesn’t even include actually showing up for those events. It probably means blogging on their own, and getting guest posts on other people’s blogs. Oh, and trying to find reviewers who will say good things about their book.

All of these tasks require interacting with people — mostly strangers — and that is scary for the classic introvert writer. Facing up to handling those tasks takes courage. It goes against that ingrained personality and requires braving not only a demanding environment of communicating and interacting with other people, but the possibility of criticism and rejection.

Guts, glory and publishing success

Any way you look at any part of the process, writing and publishing take courage, and the indie author needs extra buckets of bravery. Consider this a tribute to their guts and a helping hand to their glory.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial (writing, editing, proofreading, etc.) and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

January 13, 2021

On the Basics: The long and the short of it

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Contrary to the classic Mark Twain quote (“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one”), long-form writing doesn’t necessarily mean rambling, disorganized or even easy. To be effective and worth reading (even simply readable), long-form works need structure and revision, and as much attention to clarity, meaning and other aspects of good writing as short works. Lots of people can — and do — write at length without much effort, and many publish nowadays without taking the next step of self- or professional editing, but no one writes a well-reasoned, coherent work of fiction or nonfiction without investing time and effort in making it flow smoothly, have a distinctive voice, retain a consistent style, complete every thought and reflect some effort in the process. Long doesn’t automatically equal good.

Of course, a writer doesn’t always have a choice when it comes to the length of their piece of string. Newspaper and newsletter journalists almost always have to make their work fit a certain limited amount of space, even when a topic cries out for greater detail and length. Magazine writers usually have more scope for writing long, but even they have word limits to meet. Editors are not happy when they assign an article of 1,000 words and receive one that’s 2,000 or more!

Sometimes we can convince an editor to let us go over an assigned word length (but that still means doing some careful self-editing before submitting the work). And the ask has to be made before that deadline; again, editors don’t like surprises — in either direction, especially at the last minute: fewer words than assigned, which leaves a hole in the layout, or more words than assigned, which means extra work for the editor in either cutting down the submitted version or finding more space for it than originally planned.

Reducing an article that’s too long can be fairly easy: Get rid of the adjectives. Then the adverbs. Leave the bare, but clear and coherent, bones to stand on their own without any padding. The problem is that can result in a piece that’s abrupt and choppy, with none of the descriptive elements that give it life and emotion. Not a problem with a breaking news article or some kind of alert, perhaps, but a concern in other contexts.

Expanding a piece that’s too short can be harder, but it’s usually possible to do some research on the topic and find material to quote or paraphrase for greater depth and detail. Sometimes all it takes is finding one more person to interview and include. It doesn’t mean adding fluff just to meet an assigned word count, though. If greater length is needed, it should be substantive and meaningful.

There are times when reaching the assigned word count for a long-form piece of writing is torture, and times when cutting down a piece that’s too long is just as hard. Sometimes I’ll have a lot of great material after interviewing someone and doing the appropriate background research, including colorful quotes and essential facts, and it’s easier to just write it all up (or out) without worrying about a restrictive assigned word count. Then I’ll edit myself down to the required word count — but I’ll save the longer version in case I can repurpose it later. That might mean it gets posted to the client’s website while their print version uses the shorter version, or I resell the long version to another outlet.

It’s also often possible to break up a long article into a series if the client or publication is willing to go that route.

The advent of the internet and the wild proliferation of blogs and other online outlets has made it easier for longer pieces of writing to get published, but long doesn’t necessarily mean good. Long can mean rambling, confusing, disorganized, even incoherent.

As I mentioned, I often write long and then edit myself down when I have more material than fits an allotted word count. And sometimes I write short and struggle to bump up a piece to say more, whether to meet a higher assigned word count, perhaps to impress readers or simply to satisfy my sense of providing a complete picture of the topic.

That always brings back a high school moment when my favorite English teacher assigned an in-class analysis of the poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” (Yeats, 1917). She provided several questions to be answered in essay format, and I usually wrote several pages worth in response to such assignments. For that one, though, I got stuck after two or three paragraphs and simply couldn’t think of anything else to say. I finally gave up and took my seemingly inadequate offering up to the teacher’s desk, admitting that I couldn’t come up with anything else. She looked it over and said, “You’re fine. You’ve said everything it needs. Sometimes shorter is better.” I don’t remember a word of that poem, but I remember that lesson.

The long and the short of this is that some topics cry out for more depth and length than others, and some assignments can only be handled with a short piece of writing even if they could be written longer. The trick is to know when to go long and when to write tight. Both have their place in literature and journalism; both have their own limits and demands — and rewards. Those who do either format well deserve our readership and our praise. And, speaking as a freelancer, our clients’ respect by way of decent pay for our work!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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