An American Editor

June 29, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing IV, Part I

by Carolyn Haley

As the final step in my exploration of subjectivity in editing, I conducted another experiment. The first experiment was to see what would happen when editors were asked to edit sample text with no direction beyond “Copyedit according to your own understanding of what copyediting means.” Seven professional editors volunteered, and their edits showed a range of approaches from light touching to heavy recasting. I discussed the results in Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing I, II, and III.

The second experiment took the opposite position, and asked a different set of independent editors for their specific definitions of copyediting. Nine volunteered. Their replies follow, continuing into Part II of this essay. Part I begins with an evaluation of their definitions filtered through my direct experience as an independent editor and author.

To give the editors’ responses some context, I requested data from each person, such as years of professional editing experience, clientele base, area of concentration, approximate percentage of business comprising copyediting, country of residence, variant of English used, and a sampling of editing-related software tools and reference resources. I also invited clarification of what copyediting isn’t.

As I expected, the respondents’ descriptions ranged from simple to complex. But all revolved around the common denominator I had hoped to see: a focus on the mechanical aspects of editing — spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, continuity, consistency.

The mechanical focus suggests that any author seeking copyediting can have the work done by any copyeditor. But as the nine descriptions show, there are variations in style and approach that make finding a good fit between author and editor more than just a spelling-and-punctuation game.

Elements to consider

For an author or publisher seeking to hire an independent copyeditor, the first line of distinction is the logical one of whether they edit fiction or nonfiction or both. Another selection criterion might be language bias — meaning, for writers in English, whether an editor works in American, British, Canadian, Australian, or some other variant of the tongue, or handles translated material, or works with people for whom English is a second language.

Authors and publishers might also consider an editor’s area of specialty and style of approach. These are, in my experience, the most common “match” criteria. Novelists often seek editors with experience in their genre. Nonfiction writers often seek editors knowledgeable about the topic of their book. Subject aside, authors divide in personality type. One author might want an editor who is superfocused on details and formal language, whereas another author might want an editor who is open to creative interpretation and won’t micromanage the author’s prose. The possible author–editor matchmaking combinations are myriad.

Some authors and publishers want to know about an editor’s toolkit. In my survey, all nine editors reported that they use only MS Word for electronic editing, with one editor still working primarily on hardcopy. Six editors use a mix of editorial software tools (e.g., EditTools, Editor’s Toolkit 2014, PerfectIt, macros) to enhance their accuracy and consistency. Everyone’s reference resources correlate with the publishing area they serve.

In the area I serve (mainly independent and especially first-time novelists), the topic of reference works rarely comes up. The authors seem to assume I’m working within universal and arcane parameters known to the publishing industry and will apply those “rules” to their work. Few authors are aware that there are different dictionaries and different style guides, and they don’t appear to care as long as the editing is consistent and editorial explanations make sense. My clients expect me to know what to do; that’s what they’re paying me for. Consequently, I don’t advertise my constantly growing reference library beyond a short statement on my website. I do, however, list on my style sheet for the project the reference works I consulted for the job. On the two occasions a client has shown interest, we’ve discussed and agreed to which reference works to employ.

Things are different when I work for publishers. The project editor specifies which dictionary and style guide the house adheres to, and often defines the copyediting tasks they expect me to cover. I duly comply.

In my survey, all the American editors named Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (MW11) as their primary dictionary (except one who didn’t answer that question), with the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., as alternate. All the Americans also named the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., as their general style/language guide, with some editors mentioning the AP [Associated Press] Stylebook, the AMA [American Medical Association] Manual of Style, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. The sole British and handful of American-British editors listed one or more of the Oxford and Hart dictionaries and style guides. Individuals then included a sampling of other works pertinent to their specialty. The fiction-only editors listed fewer reference works than the nonfiction editors.

The fiction-only editors were also less detailed in their copyediting descriptions than the nonfiction-only editors. Whether this represents a valid pattern can only be determined by a survey on a much larger scale. What matters here is that each editor gives potential clients a snapshot of their approach and personality. The information helps authors and publishers swiftly narrow down a wide field to a short list of candidates for their jobs.

Whether a given editor is a good editor, or the right editor, can only be determined through follow-up actions between author and editor: their dialogue, a sample edit, and, ultimately, the project itself. But editors who offer a profile help themselves and compatible prospective clients find each other, while reducing the risk of surprises that could negatively affect a project or relationship.

Nine definitions of the same thing

What follows is the survey respondents’ actual text, verbatim save for some condensing. It answers only the question, “How do you define copyediting?” I’ve included each editor’s years of experience, specialty, and English variant for context.

These descriptions, however, only have meaning when matched against an author’s expectations and desires. The number of possible combinations seems endless, so for this essay I’ve created a hypothetical scenario that views the editors’ descriptions from the perspective of a fiction and a nonfiction author, each independent and unpublished. The nine volunteer editors’ descriptions that I received through private solicitation are assumed for the scenario to be material on professional editors’ websites found through a Google search.

A view through the fiction lens

The editor-shopping fiction writer John Q. Novelist (JQN) is a software engineer and zealous science fiction/fantasy reader who has written his own sword-and-sorcery epic and thinks it’s ready for editing. His family and friends have told him the story is wonderful, and he dreams of great reviews and cash flow, especially if he expands the book into a series. All he wants from an editor is to correct his spelling and punctuation errors, point out any content goofs he’s unaware of, and help prepare his manuscript for publication.

Somebody in his writing group put a name to what he’s looking for: copyediting. So he uses that as a keyword in his online searches. He knows there are different kinds of editing but doesn’t fully understand the fine points of distinction between them. Since he’s researching a task, he doesn’t think to add “fiction” or “novels” to his keywords, so his search on “copyediting” returns an enormous list of websites and articles. The first three editors who offer a definition of copyediting are these:

Editor #1 (18 years, mostly fiction, U.S.)

[Copyediting is t]he correction of errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic facts/continuity.

Perfect, thinks JQN. He can send this person his manuscript for tidying up, then be on his way to fame and fortune. But Editor #2 offers more details, so, curious, he reads on.

Editor #2 (5 years, fiction, U.S./U.K.)

Copyediting is targeted at fixing elements of sentences, addressing correctness rather than artfulness of expression. Copyediting focuses on elements such as detail and description consistency (making sure the hero’s eyes stay the same color throughout, a house doesn’t grow an extra bedroom, if a character is standing on page 10 they aren’t said to be rising from a chair on page 11, etc.), grammar, correct word usage (such as die vs. dye), punctuation, adherence to a style guide or a publisher’s house style, fact-checking minor details such as business names and historic dates, formatting elements like text messages and letters, flagging potential copyright and legal issues, and more. The editor will make nearly all of the changes within the manuscript, not the writer.

Even better, JQN thinks. Exactly what he needs. This person must know what they’re doing. But, good grief, look at how long the next one is! What more could be involved?

Editor #3 (10 years, nonfiction, U.S./U.K./Can.)

I [derived these definitions]… from the Bay Area Editors Forum.… At all levels of copyediting… the copyeditor corrects errors, queries the author about conflicting statements, requests advice when the means of resolving a problem is unclear, and prepares a style sheet. The copyeditor may also incorporate the author’s replies to queries; this work is known as cleanup editing.

Light Copyediting (baseline editing)

  • Correcting faulty spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Correcting incorrect usage (such as can for may).
  • Checking specific cross-references (for example, “As Table 14-6 shows…”).
  • Ensuring consistency in spelling, hyphenation, numerals, fonts, and capitalization.
  • Checking for proper sequencing (such as alphabetical order) in lists and other displayed material.
  • Recording the first references to figures, tables, and other display elements.

A light copyedit does not involve interventions such as smoothing transitions or changing heads or text to ensure parallel structure. The editor checks content only to detect spots where copy is missing. A light copyedit may include typemarking.

Medium Copyediting

  • Performing all tasks for light copyediting.
  • Changing text and headings to achieve parallel structure.
  • Flagging inappropriate figures of speech.
  • Ensuring that key terms are handled consistently and that vocabulary lists and the index contain all the terms that meet criteria specified by the publisher.
  • Ensuring that previews, summaries, and end-of-chapter questions reflect content.
  • Tracking the continuity of plot, setting, and character traits, and querying the discrepancies, in fiction manuscripts.
  • Enforcing consistent style and tone in a multi-author manuscript.
  • Changing passive voice to active voice, if requested.
  • Flagging ambiguous or incorrect statements.
  • Typemarking the manuscript.

Heavy Copyediting (substantive editing)

  • Performing all tasks for medium copyediting.
  • Eliminating wordiness, triteness, and inappropriate jargon.
  • Smoothing transitions and moving sentences to improve readability.
  • Assigning new levels to heads to achieve logical structure.
  • Suggesting — and sometimes implementing — additions and deletions, noting them at the sentence and paragraph level.

The key differences between heavy and medium copyedits are the levels of judgment and rewriting involved. In a heavy copyedit, the editor improves the flow of text rather than simply ensuring correct usage and grammar; may suggest recasts rather than simply flagging problems; and may enforce a uniform level, tone, and focus as specified by the publisher or developmental editor.

Wow! That covers everything JQN could possibly want, and breaks it into clusters with different price tags. JQN now starts thinking about cost-benefit ratio and how far his budget will stretch. He’s sad that he can’t spring for heavy editing, it sounds so helpful, but at least he knows what his dollar will buy for light and medium. But wait — in rereading the page to evaluate his best choice, he notices what he missed on first scan. This editor only handles nonfiction. Drat! So he refines his search terms in hopes of finding a fiction editor offering the same level of detail and clarity.

Part II of this essay covers a nonfiction author’s response to the remaining six volunteer editors’ descriptions of copyediting, followed by a summary of the subjectivity studies.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

June 27, 2016

On Language: It’s Dead, Jim

by Daniel Sosnoski

A major portion of the editor’s job, when line editing, is to cull extraneous words and tighten up the text. This may be less relevant in the editing of fiction or poetry, but even in those cases, careful pruning is essential to facilitate the emergence of the writer’s voice and intent.

In practice, typically, 15 to 20 percent of the textual content you’re working will be deletable. Accordingly, if I want a 1,000-word story, I’ll assign the writer to give me around 1,200, as after the edit the text will be the right size.

The problem here isn’t that most authors are too chatty, but rather it’s the result of the writing process itself. To get into a good flow and rhythm, writers usually write the way they think and speak. It’s the advice I give to new authors: “Avoid trying to sound like a writer.” But spoken English contains a great number of words, phrases, and linguistic strategies that are performative discourse markers.

If you’re interested in the philosophy of language, Speech Acts by J.R. Searle (1969, Cambridge University Press) built on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas of language and game theory and J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words (1975, Harvard University Press; 2nd Revised ed.), and makes the argument that language isn’t merely used to talk about things, but it is largely used by speakers to do things.

A good portion of general speech guides the listener to understand the intent of a phrase or sentence. Thus, a speaker might say, “And then I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ and she was like, ‘Get out, shut up,” or might employ rhetorical tag questions such as, “You know what I’m saying?” Standard discourse is rife with “filler words,” such as:

  • “You see…,”
  • “The important thing is…,”
  • “At the end of the day…”
  • “Basically…”

These terms give the speaker time to consider what should follow, and the listener time to prepare for it. Such language can usually be cut to good effect.

Some procedural language indicates how the listener (or reader) should interpret what follows; for example, “In order to…” “It is important that…” “Be sure to remember that…”

Editors routinely remove these, along with the words

  • really
  • very
  • simply
  • extremely
  • quite
  • awfully
  • utterly
  • totally
  • so

You remove all of these needless words, unless they are vital to the meaning of the text. Usually they aren’t, but the writer was talking to the reader and that’s likely how so many of these fillers slip in. Sometimes an entire paragraph or two will be a digression and you’ll mark it for wholesale deletion. The writer’s point was already made. No need to belabor it.

The death certificate

In some cases, however, the text must lose more than the expected 15 to 20 percent. Perhaps in the editing more than half has been deleted and you’re still cutting. Possible reasons are that the author didn’t have a good idea — or any idea — before sitting down to write. The result is a long meandering text that goes nowhere.

It might be that the text is inappropriate for the publication, or that it’s offensive in some fashion. I was once given a manuscript that concerned the journey of a band of elves and dwarves, led by a fair maiden and a wizard (sound familiar?). Each chapter consisted of a day in the journey, a tedious, slogging affair; characters were introduced with extensive laundry-list descriptions that began with the tops of their heads and proceeded vertically down their bodies.

There isn’t much to be done with a derivative, badly executed work. If you try to correct the structure, you still have a duplicative text. If you try to revise the plot from a structural standpoint, the mechanics are still so lacking that your only available move is to recommend that the author start over from scratch.

In any of these cases, in your judgment the work is unsalvageable and it isn’t worth your time and labor. Even if you need the money, you might deem it unethical to work on a text that you know has no chance whatsoever of being an acceptable read. In such cases, you’ll have to deliver the bad news.

I’ve found that rejecting a novel is difficult given the time and effort that went into it. So a cover letter explaining your rationale is a wise move. Try to point out anything that did work (if such exists), offer helpful comments, and guide the writer to your conclusion as gently as possible. Some might argue here for “tough love,” yet I’d counsel sensitivity to the author’s ego, which is going to take a major blow. There’s no reason to make it worse than it has to be.

When you think the author of the item in question might succeed at a full or major rewrite, offer (if you can) some samples of a possible approach: “Instead of describing the character in detail, consider saying, ‘She was fair of face and of shapely form,’ and let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. As the story progresses, you can add a detail or two at a time; for example, ‘She shook her golden hair as she refused.’”

With minor criticisms, the “hamburger strategy” is a standard approach; namely, you “sandwich” your suggestions for repair between two positive statements; for example, “The topic is timely and of interest, and you found a good angle. The material needs further research and support, however, as it’s purely conjectural at this stage. That said, ample sources exist to buttress your argument and the end result should be highly effective.”

But when the patient is dead on the table, you’ll have to deliver the bad news as best you can, knowing the usual approach is largely unavailable to you. Today, given the ease of indie publishing, we are awash in texts written by people who toy with the idea of writing a book, but are lacking the skills to actually accomplish the task.

In some cases, you may be able to save a work that is in severe distress, and in others what will be most needed is your professional advice that nothing helpful can be done with the work at hand:

Elliot, following the first read of this story, I was able to see where you are trying to go with it. I made notes on the text and also in a separate document, which is attached for your review. While at first I was planning to indicate the range of adjustments this story needs to work effectively, it became apparent that there are some fundamental issues that need to be resolved that lie beyond the scope of a general edit….

As you get stronger at your craft, you may widen the scope of what is salvageable, but prepare yourself for those occasional times when your only possible recourse is to bury the body.

Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.

June 24, 2016

The Countdown Continues: Just 7 Days to Go

Filed under: A Good Deal,Worth Noting — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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If you have already decided to attend but still need to register, go to the special registration page for An American Editor subscribers now and lock in your AAE rate! (Remember to use the password: AAE-CC16.)

The AAE special discount ends June 30, so register now to save big.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 22, 2016

On Ethics: The Ballpark Quote in the Macrocosm

We’ve been discussing the ethics of ballpark quoting here on An American Editor. My two previous essays offer up my views on the subject. In her rebuttal (see On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting — A Rebuttal) to my second essay (see On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting), Louise Harnby defends ballpark quoting. And she is convincing — as long as one accepts the micro view of ethics.

The micro view of ethics essentially boils down to this: Because I can do something ethically, what I am doing must be ethical. If we were discussing a morality topic like killing, the defense would be: Because killing in my circumstances is justifiable, then killing must be justifiable.

We all know that this is incorrect.

The moral principle is “Thou shalt not kill.” But as with every moral (and ethical) principle, there are micro and macro perspectives. In the macro perspective, killing is unethical; in the micro perspective, it may be ethical, depending on the circumstances. This is the weakness of the micro view of ethics and of ballpark quoting.

Louise’s argument is that because she has experience and years of data, knows her required effective hourly rate (rEHR; for a discussion of EHR, see Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I)), doesn’t underquote to show her competitiveness, and uses ballpark quoting to start a conversation about proof-editing with a client, her version of ballpark quoting is ethical and therefore ballpark quoting is ethical. But ethics are (or if not, should be) viewed in macro, not micro, terms.

Consider this: How many times have you seen the following question (or a variation of it) asked and discussed on editorial forums? “How much should I charge?” If the asker and the respondents had calculated their rEHR, they would not be bothering with the question, because they would know the minimal answer (which is “not less than your rEHR”). Yet this is a frequent topic among editors. More importantly, the reason that even editors who do know their rEHR keep asking this question or following the discussion is that they want to be sure that whatever they are charging is close to what their competitors are charging.

What is the purpose of a rate survey if not to establish a baseline that clients can rely on as a guide and that editors can use to justify their rates? That the rate surveys are invalid and misleading doesn’t stop editors from using them to support what they charge. And if competitiveness were not an issue, there would be no rationale for asking, “What should I charge to edit an 80,000-word romance novel?”

When answers such as $1 per page or $25 an hour are given, the readers of these answers are getting an informal survey of what their competition charges, and if they adopt such rates for themselves and incorporate them into their ballpark quote calculation, rather than using a number based on their rEHR, we might reasonably conclude that they’re trying to appear price competitive so that clients will consider hiring them. Look at it another way. If the purpose is not to be competitive, or to appear competitive, why ask others what they charge? What others charge is irrelevant if competitiveness does not matter or is not part of the decision behind ballpark quotes.

Thus, in the macro view, the purpose of ballpark quoting is simply to make a client consider engaging your services.

Louise does require that a message be sent to her personally before she submits a ballpark quote. Her rationale is that this gives her an opportunity to initiate a conversation with the client. But what about those editors or proofreaders who use a software application to generate an instant ballpark quote (i.e., the potential client will enter the requested information into various fields, click a button to generate a quote, and instantly see the quote)? How does that method of quoting generate a conversation with the client?

Yet there is an even more fundamental flaw — in my opinion — with the micro view. If one of ballpark quoting’s purposes is to have a conversation with the client about what the manuscript truly needs and what the real price will be, why have an intermediate step? Why not ask for all of the information you need to give a firm quote upfront? Why not say to the client, “I will edit your manuscript for $X”? Or, perhaps, say this: “Your manuscript requires these services. Based on my past experience, I believe it will take me Y hours to edit your manuscript. I charge $X per hour. To allow for the possibility that I have underestimated how long it will take to edit your manuscript but to limit the cost to you, the maximum it will cost you for my editing services is $Z. The reasons I anticipate it will take Y hours are as follows: [insert reasons].”

If the purpose is to have a conversation with the client, why not have the conversation from the get-go by asking for all the information needed to provide a firm quote?

The answer from those who use ballpark quoting tends to be that to provide a firm quote requires more work and that ballpark quoting weeds out those who want to pay less. My problem with this is that the client is making a decision that the editor is too expensive without having been given all the facts necessary to create an informed opinion. For example, if your ballpark quote is $500 and your competitor’s ballpark quote is $300, even though you both charge the same hourly rate, what justifies the gap? Why is it that you think it will take 10 hours to edit the manuscript — not having seen it yet — but your competitor thinks it will only take 6 hours?

The client facing these two numbers sees only that she gave both of you the same information and that you are significantly more expensive than your competitor. There are lots of possible explanations for the disparity, ranging from deception to the extent of the services included, but the psychology of comparison shopping indicates that the client will focus on the $300 quote while assuming that your editing services and those of your competitor are identical.

The micro viewers assume that the client will either go to the next step and have a conversation or decide that the quote is too high — outside the client’s budget. But the reality is that there is no assurance that the client will go to the next step when there is such a gap. Nor can you know that the reason the client didn’t engage in a conversation is because your quote is outside the client’s budget and not because the client incorrectly assumed that the quotes were for identical services.

The macro view recognizes that ballpark quoting is based on inadequate information, both received from the client and given to her. Yes, clients ask for ballpark quotes, but does the client understand that when an editor or proofreader provides these quotes, the client might well be unwittingly comparing apples to oranges, not apples to apples? Just as clients rarely understand what copyediting means, and just as editors define the term differently — no single set of services is universally understood as copyediting — so a ballpark quote from one editor is not truly comparable to a ballpark quote from another editor. On the other hand, firm quotes with a detailed explanation of what is included and what is excluded can be properly and usefully compared.

By its very nature, a ballpark quote, unlike a firm quote, is not comparable across editors. If you accept a micro view of ethics, then ballpark quoting is ethical even though it is an information-challenged process. If you accept a macro view of ethics, ballpark quoting is unethical because it doesn’t provide enough information to the client to make the quote meaningful or to enable the client to comparison shop. The micro view looks to the singular experience, whereas the macro view looks to the broader experience and purpose.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 20, 2016

On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting — A Rebuttal

by Louise Harnby

In On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting, Rich Adin posed the following questions:

  1. Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them?
  2. Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes, because they can mislead a client about the real cost?
  3. If the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark price?

1. The ethics of inducement

Rich states: “The ballpark quote has two purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison shop and (2) to let the editor demonstrate her price competitiveness, which means the editor — consciously or subconsciously — wants the price to look as low as possible.” Rich’s concern is that ballpark quoters use an unrealistic (low) price, based on limited information, to induce the client to hire them.

He concludes that “to give a ballpark quote for copyediting a manuscript is unethical unless the editor is willing to stick to that price — that is, the quoted price is the maximum the client will have to pay. It is unethical for an editor to angle to be hired by using ballpark quoting to demonstrate the editor’s price competitiveness.”

I think Rich is missing the point regarding how the ballpark price works.

The ballpark price is just that — a ballpark, an approximation. It’s a rough guide, a preliminary quick quote that enables my potential client to decide whether they’d like to continue the discussion during the comparison-shopping stage.

It certainly is not binding — and it can’t be precisely because it’s a ballpark price based on limited information. It cannot be the maximum price a client will have to pay at billing stage because I haven’t seen the files. In order to provide the client with a price that will appear on the invoice, I must acquire this information. And that’s exactly what ballpark quoters like me do. We start with the ballpark price, then move onto a conversation, and then evaluate the project and firm up the parameters of the project; finally, we provide a confirmed quotation. That confirmed quotation, not the initial ballpark quote, is the price to which, ethically, we must be willing to be held.

In my view, the ballpark quote has three purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison-shop; (2) to save me time by eliminating lengthy discussions with potential clients whose budgets are below my fee scale; and (3) to enable me to start a conversation with a potential client (whose budget is in accordance with my fee scale) about what the project looks like, what’s required, and what the true cost will be.

Rich states: “I am aware of very few editors who will quote a price to which they are willing to be held without having the manuscript in hand.” I agree. And if the editor supplied a ballpark quotation and, after that, failed to take the opportunity to evaluate the project before agreeing to be hired, completed the project, and submitted an invoice that was higher than the ballpark quote, justifying that higher fee on the grounds that more work had been required than anticipated, yes, that would be an unethical scenario. But it’s also an absurd scenario. That’s not how ballparking works.

Ballparking isn’t an alternative to confirmed true-price quoting — it’s an additional preliminary stage that occurs beforehand. It’s an invitation to a conversation that may end up in a confirmed booking or may end up with either party deciding to walk away before hiring takes place. It’s not unethical to invite a conversation.

2. The ethics of realistic quoting

In the second part of his analysis, Rich says: “The truth is that ballpark quotes for copyediting are deceptive and are structured to mislead the client as to the ultimate cost. Editors will not deliberately overquote (i.e., quote a price the editor knows will be higher than the real price), because the competition does not overquote.”

I reject this statement that ballpark quotes are designed to mislead. As I said above, the ballpark quote is designed to provide an approximate price that will enable the potential client to ascertain whether it’s worth spending additional time having a more detailed conversation about what’s required.

Editors (I use the term broadly) who have tracked their project data carefully will have a bank of rich data on which to base their ballpark quotes so that the prices are realistic (particularly if they’ve followed Rich’s invaluable advice about determining their effective hourly rates).

The proofreading I carry out for publishers (usually on copy-edited page proofs) is rather different from the so-called proof-editing I provide for independent fiction authors. The proof-editing I do for independent fiction authors is rather different from the proofreading I do for students whose second language is English. I have 5 years’ worth of Excel spreadsheets containing nearly 500 projects. With only a little filtering and formula-creation, I can tell you how long it takes me on average to proofread a 20,000-word politics dissertation, proof-edit a 40,000-word fantasy novella written by a self-publishing author, and mark up a 90,000-word PDF of economics page proofs supplied by a publisher. Since I know what I want to earn, working out the price isn’t that difficult. I’ve developed a little phone-based Excel tool with an array-based formula that can work out a price that takes into account the type of client, the type of project, and the economies of scale for larger projects. One of my Canadian editor colleagues has a website-based widget that works in a similar way.

Here’s the thing. My ballpark prices are pretty darn accurate. So when I provide a ballpark price (based on very little information) for proof-editing a novel for an indie author, and that author decides to get in touch to continue the conversation, and ends up sending me the project file for review, I’m almost always able to say, “Yup, the price I gave you will stand as a confirmed price. Let me know if you want to make a booking.”

What if the project needs a different level of intervention than anticipated and therefore requires a price that is higher than the one I ballpark quoted? Well, remember, the client still hasn’t hired me. So I can tell the client that, having now reviewed the project in detail, I feel that the service I was asked to ballpark quote for (e.g., proofreading) is not appropriate. If I supply the service that I think is required (e.g., copyediting), I can explain why, and provide a revised realistic quotation, or I can guide the client toward alternative suppliers. Either way, we’re still having a conversation — both parties can still walk away.

Here’s another thing. I don’t underquote. I don’t overquote. I just quote. I know what I want to earn. Either the client’s budget is within the range of my fee scale or it’s not. If it is, the ballpark quote might turn into a conversation that in turn becomes a confirmed booking further down the line. If it isn’t, the client and I won’t get beyond the ballpark quote — she asked for a price. I gave her a price. She considered it too high and she never contacted me again. Or she thanked me, told me it was too high, and said she was going elsewhere. Or she thanked me, said it was too high, and asked me to lower my price (and I said no).

I think that it’s unethical for an editor to provide a quotation that she knows is unrelated to the ultimate cost and then accepts a commission on the basis of that misleading quote. I also agree that it would be a public relations disaster. But the notion as applied to a ballpark quote is unrealistic precisely because it’s premised on the assumption that the ballpark quote is given instead of a review-based confirmed quote, rather than in addition to it.

I have a price. The client has a price. Either we fit or we don’t. The ballpark isn’t about misleading the client into hiring me for work that I’ll later charge a higher price for. It’s about enabling the two of us to start talking or start walking. That’s not unethical; it’s sensible.

3. The ethics of the final price

The final section of Rich’s essay asks: “Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote?” His answer is, “Yes, there is. That limit is zero; clients should not be asked to reward editors for their unwillingness to bear the burden of underquoting.”

I disagree. Again, Rich’s view is based on a misunderstanding of how editors like me use, and justify using, a ballpark-quoting mechanism. My final bill is not based on a ballpark quote, and I suspect that’s the case for most ballparking editors. Rather, my final bill is based on a confirmed quote that I provided after the ballpark quote.

Just so we’re clear — the process works as follows. The client contacts me to ask for a ballpark quote. I provide one. If we’re on the same page financially, the client and I then begin talking. As part of our more detailed conversation about what’s required, I ask for a substantial sample of the work (perhaps even the whole project). If all goes well, we firm up a price (mine usually stays the same as the ballpark, but it could change). The price that’s signed off — one that’s realistic and based on work that both parties agree is required ­— is not the ballpark price, but the follow-on confirmed price.

Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote? No, there is no limit because the final bill is on a different price, one that was agreed after the ballpark quote. Of course, if the editor agreed to be hired for a project without asking for any detail about the project and without asking to see what the project entails, and offered only a ballpark price, and the client accepted this ballpark price but didn’t realize that it was still approximate, and then the editor billed a higher fee on the basis that the price was only a ballpark, then that would be unethical!

The scenario is surely unrealistic, though. It’s unfathomable that I (or any other ballparking editor) would end up in such a situation. I’ve never had a client say, “Hey, Louise, I’d like to confirm a booking. Take your time. Do what you need to do. Money’s no object. Whatever it costs is good with me!” They always want a confirmed top-line price. (I have previously tested offering a confirmed ranged price — one that came with a guarantee that the invoice would be between £X and £Y — but I’ve abandoned that now).

Even if the client was prepared to agree to such approximate pricing terms, I wouldn’t agree to them! It’s a recipe for disaster (as Rich pointed out). I don’t want to waste a minute of my working day arguing with a client over the invoice I’ve submitted because it’s higher than the one-and-only approximate price I’d provided. Such an invoice may as well have “Don’t rehire me” emblazoned on it! I don’t confirm a booking from any client without knowing the clear parameters of a project, and without having discussed and agreed to those parameters (including price) beforehand.

Summing up

The ballpark price is an approximate price. It’s a conversation starter, another (initial) stage to the quoting process. It’s a way of increasing customer-engagement by enabling the client to comparison-shop quickly and efficiently. And for those of us with plenty of work offers, and a determination to reduce the amount of time we spend engaging with people whose pockets don’t fit our fee scales, it’s a time saver. The ballpark price is an effective tool that can, and I believe should, be tested by those editorial freelancers who have the necessary data to do so with accuracy. Those that don’t have that data should start collecting it.

Rich is right that behaving unethically is a PR disaster — that applies to pricing as much as to any other aspect of business practice. But there is no reason why the ballpark price has to be unethical as long as it’s used appropriately — as the starting point of the pricing discussion, which is exactly how I use it, and how every other ballparking editor I know uses it.

Can ballpark pricing ever be used unethically? Of course it can, just as confirmed quotations can be handled unethically. It can be handled honestly but badly, too, in the same way that other elements of editorial business practice can be handled honestly but badly. It would be wrong of me to deny that there are unethical and poor practices in our industry. But there is much good practice too. And where there is bad practice, I’m inclined to blame the individuals, not the mechanisms.

The discussion reminds me of scissors. In the hands of a tailor, they’re a superb tool; in the hands of a toddler, care and supervision are required; in the hands of a torturer, they’re a dangerous weapon.

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

June 15, 2016

On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting

In The Business of Editing: Ballpark Quoting for Copyediting, I discussed the logistics of giving a ballpark quote. The essay raised these questions, but left the answers to another essay:

  • Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them?
  • Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes because they can mislead a client about the real cost?
  • If the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark price?

This essay discusses these questions.

Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them?

What is the purpose of ballpark quoting if not to induce a client to hire you for a project by demonstrating to the client your price competitiveness? No other purpose is served by quoting. The client wants to compare your price to the prices of other editors. Recall that the information a client needs to give is limited in this situation. (If you ask to see the manuscript before providing a quote, you are not giving a ballpark quote. A ballpark quote, by definition, is a very rough guess as to the expected cost based on very limited data.) The provided information is generally the word count, the subject matter/type (e.g., children’s nonfiction), plus the hoped-for schedule.

The ballpark quote has two purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison shop and (2) to let the editor demonstrate her price competitiveness, which means the editor — consciously or subconsciously — wants the price to look as low as possible. And there’s the rub. The ballpark price may well have no close relationship to the ultimate, true price, and that gap between the ballpark quote and the real price will be a result of multiple factors, not the least of which is the editor’s desire to be hired.

It is certainly ethical to quote a price for a project; editors do that every day. But there is a great difference between quoting a price when the editor has all the necessary information to form a solid quote and making a quote when the editor has such minimal information that she knows beforehand that the ballpark quote will not withstand the test of editing.

I am aware of very few editors who will quote a price to which they are willing to be held without having the manuscript in hand (or at least a satisfactory portion of the manuscript). Yes, editors do have agreements with clients that act as a limit, but even then whether they accept or reject the project requires seeing the manuscript. The key to ethicality, I think, is to quote a price to which we are willing to be held. We are all willing to quote a price to which we will not be held.

In my view, to give a ballpark quote for copyediting a manuscript is unethical unless the editor is willing to stick to that price — that is, the quoted price is the maximum the client will have to pay. It is unethical for an editor to angle to be hired by using ballpark quoting to demonstrate the editor’s price competitiveness.

Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes, because they can mislead a client about the real cost?

As noted, the purpose of ballpark pricing is to show that you’re not overpriced in the editing marketplace, not to place a ceiling on what the client will ultimately be billed. The lack of a clearly stated ceiling can mislead a client, even if the quote is accompanied by disclaimers (caveats, if you prefer).

The disclaimers are a problem in and of themselves because they both delegitimize the ballpark quote and fail to stand out in the same way as the price number does.

Of what value is a quote of $500 accompanied by a disclaimer such as the following?

Price subject to change once the manuscript is received and reviewed for clarity of writing style and amount of editing work actually required. Price also subject to change based on what editorial tasks client requires as part of the copyediting; the extent and number of references, tables, and figures; the style to be applied; …

The disclaimer’s list can go on and on to cover all contingencies, and it needs to go on and on to avoid locking the editor into the ballpark price. (It is worth remembering that if a disclaimer is left unstated, the client will, justifiably, assume that it is inapplicable.)

But think about how we act as consumers. When we ask for a quote for repair work or a product we want to buy, our minds focus laser-like on the number we are given, not on all of the caveats that accompany the number. Should the work be done and the number then go up, we argue that we were quoted $X and shouldn’t have to pay more. (Of course, if the final number is less than $X, we think we are getting a bargain and do not argue to pay the higher quote price.) Studies show that the conditions get lost and the consumer only hears — and remembers — the quote number. The consumer loses the idea that the quote number was intended to be ballparkish and thus subject to upward revision as more foundational data is accumulated.

The editor who insists that the quote was only ballparkish is fighting a losing public relations battle. The client will tell everyone that the editor uses deceptive practices. The truth is that ballpark quotes for copyediting are deceptive and are structured to mislead the client as to the ultimate cost. Editors will not deliberately overquote (i.e., quote a price the editor knows will be higher than the real price), because the competition does not overquote; the competition often underquotes in hopes of getting hired. Editors know that in many cases the ballpark quote for copyediting is an underquote, which is why they attach disclaimers.

If the editor expects the ballpark quote to be accurate within, say, 10%, then the only disclaimer needed is to say that “the final price might be as much as, but no more than, 10% higher than the quote, based on the actual time and effort required to copyedit” or “the final price will not exceed the quote.” But editors rarely attach one of these disclaimers to the ballpark quote.

Because editors know, or should know, that ballpark quotes are misleading, how can it be ethical to provide such a quote?

If the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark price?

We all know that editors will disagree about ballpark pricing; their opinions on its ethicality are largely based on their own practice. The editors who think it isn’t unethical give ballpark quotes (or approve of giving ballpark quotes). Each of us is smart enough to rationalize that the ballpark quote we give clients is ethical even if we believe that the quotes given by our competitors are not.

Which brings us to the question of limits to underquoting, or the limit to how much the final price can exceed the ballpark quote. Copyediting has so many variables, it is, in my view, impossible to give an accurate or nearly accurate ballpark quote.

When I am asked to provide a quote, I always provide a “firm” quote, never a ballpark quote. But if I were to stray outside my subject matter areas and types of clients — for example, were I to wander into fiction editing and dealing directly with authors — my quotes would be “softer” than the firm quotes I currently give. Because my experience dealing directly with authors and copyediting fiction is limited, it is likely that any quote I would give would be an underquote. Who should bear the burden of that underquoting?

I am of the conviction that the editor who makes the quote should bear that burden. If editors have sufficient experience to give a firm quote, they should stand by the quote and use it as a learning tool for future quotes. If they have the experience but deliberately choose to underquote, then they should be held to the quote, as there is no legitimate reason to have underquoted.

If the client has provided all the information asked for, then it is the editor who should bear the burden of an underquote, not the client. If the editor failed to ask for vital information, that is not the client’s fault. If the editor failed to define what she meant by copyediting, that is not the client’s fault. The bottom line is that when an editor is asked for a quote, it is the editor’s responsibility to ask for all the needed information to calculate that quote; it is not the client’s responsibility to guess what information the editor needs. It is also the editor’s responsibility to not give a quote in the absence of essential information. And it is the editor’s responsibility to take the information and create an accurate quote. The only responsibility the client has is to provide the information that the editor asked for.

Note the balance of responsibilities: All but one falls on the editor’s shoulders. Consequently, if a quote is an underquote, it is the editor’s fault. The editor should bear the burden of the underquote, and the quote price should be the maximum price that the client pays.

Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote? Yes, there is. That limit is zero; clients should not be asked to reward editors for their unwillingness to bear the burden of underquoting. The client who asks for a quote is asking the editor to set a price; a professional editor does so and tacitly agrees that the quote price is the maximum price the client will pay. To do otherwise shifts the burden of underquoting from the editor to the client, which is both unethical and, in my view, impermissible. The one exception is when the quote has a disclaimer like that discussed earlier (“the final price might be as much as, but no more than, 10% higher than the quote, based on the actual time and effort required to copyedit”).

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 13, 2016

On the Basics: So You Want to be an Editor (or Proofreader)

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Someone recently posted to an editors’ group on Facebook:

“I’ve read the official list on how to become an editor:
“1. Call yourself an editor.
“2. Start editing.”

We know that it takes a lot more than those two steps! In the poster’s defense, she followed that “list” by asking how colleagues got started in editing, and might have intended it as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but social media is full of people who say they want to work as editors or proofreaders, either in-house or freelance, with no clue about what it takes to be such a professional.

Being an editor is a laudable goal; editors are essential to finished works — whether in print or online, books on paper or electronic devices, magazines or journals, newspapers or newsletters, articles or essays, blogs or websites, even ads — that readers can follow and understand easily. However, it does take more than a degree in or teaching English, noticing errors in your daily newspaper and the books you read, or just saying “I am an editor” to be a skilled professional who adds value to someone’s writing work and deserves to be paid well for that work.

Most of the subscribers to An American Editor are probably already experienced and working as editors, but equally probably often get those classic “How do I get paid to edit?” or “How do I get started in editing?” inquiries. Here are some tips and guidelines for yourself or for those who ask you what it takes to be a professional editor or proofreader, along with resources for training, finding work in the field, and more.

Important Skills

It takes a number of skills and characteristics to be an editor (most of which also apply to proofreaders), including:

  • An excellent knowledge of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage, so ingrained that you rarely have to double-check such aspects of a document — but also so realistic that you know when to stop and check. That is often a result of strong training back in grade school or high school, or self-training later on in life.
  • A sharp eye for consistency and accuracy, even if you aren’t doing fact-checking (that’s a separate step or process, although some editors include fact-checking in their services and most will flag items of fact that seem a bit off for the author or client to check and fix). Some of us seem to have been born with this skill, but it’s also something you can train yourself in.
  • Detail-oriented — what some people might call nitpicky, but professionals know is essential to catching errors and inconsistencies.
  • Organized — both for yourself, in terms of following a regular process or approach, and for the client or project, in terms of doing or suggesting what a document needs to ensure a logical flow of information.
  • Self-effacing, because the author’s voice rules; if your ego needs the visibility of bylines, be the writer.
  • Tactful in dealing with authors or clients, some of whom can be difficult to work with and some of whom may have delicate egos where their projects are concerned. It takes skill and tact to ask the right questions or point out problems in a way that doesn’t upset the author/client. Authors with hurt feelings won’t respond well to edits.
  • Tolerance for jargon — knowing when it has to remain in a document, which can be the case in some fields or professions; some jargon is a term of art.
  • A good memory — for new facts, cross-pollination of information, style guidelines, and the ways things are done in different parts of a manuscript. The sharper your memory, the less time you’ll have to spend on checking and looking up things in a manuscript.

Tools of the trade

To work effectively and professionally as an editor, you need:

  • Internet access, because editing today is a global business and because the Internet is how most of us will be found, receive and send back projects, communicate with clients and colleagues, do research, double-check style elements, etc.
  • Microsoft Word (Mac or PC), which is the leading word-processing program of the day, no matter how many of us hate it. Just remember not to rely exclusively on its spell- and grammar-check functions, because they are not foolproof. Spellcheck will not flag correctly words that are the wrong choice or an inadvertently repeated phrase, and the grammar-check is infamous for its inaccuracies.
  • Adobe Acrobat or other “PDF” maker/editor, since an increasing number of clients expect editors to work on documents in that format.
  • Style manuals as appropriate for the types of documents you might edit — not just having the manual at hand, but knowing it well, and knowing when to check either the book or the online version, whether to refresh and confirm your instincts or defend a change to a client. (Anyone who doesn’t know what a style manual is has a ways to go before being able to say “I’m a professional editor.”)
  • Dictionaries, even if you’re a skilled speller, because you never know when a new word might pop up, a client might question one of your corrections, or you might suddenly draw a blank on the correct spelling of a word.
  • Guides to grammar and usage, to provide refreshers or reminders and, again, defend changes to clients as needed.
  • Memberships in professional organizations and/or online forums like Copyediting-L and the Editors Association of Earth group on Facebook, for access to colleagues and resources you might need when projects present especially knotty problems or you just could use some encouragement and advice.
  • Productivity resources, for automating much of the editorial process (especially for academic or large projects), so your brain and eyes are more free to focus on substance and you can work more quickly, which is especially important if you plan to freelance: Jack Lyon’s Editor’s Toolkit Plus 2014 from The Editorium, which contains The Editorium’s most widely used macros in a single package; Daniel Heuman’s PerfectIt from Intelligent Editing; Paul Beverly’s macros; and Rich Adin’s EditTools from wordsnSync Ltd.

Optional but still useful: Fax capability, because some clients still like to send or receive projects that way or use faxing for contracts, and knowledge of proofreading marks and clear printing/handwriting, for those projects that clients ask to be edited on paper. Again, these requests may not arise often, but they do still come up, as I know from current experience. Proofreading marks also can be used as stamps when editing or proofing PDFs.

Who Goes First?

One of the cardinal rules of editing is to respect and retain the author’s voice. The author comes first. An editor has to learn to subsume his or her personality in the editing process and often has to live with invisibility or anonymity (although there are authors who thank their editors, either in formal acknowledgments or online in forums such as LinkedIn). If your ego needs the visibility of a byline or your own voice predominating a work, step away from editing and do the writing yourself.

Resources for Training

You may be relieved to know that many skilled, successful editors don’t have formal training as editors. In a recent Facebook group conversation, for example, more than 40 people in just a day or two said they had either no degree at all or none related to editing. This can be seen as a drawback for our field, as Rich has discussed here a number of times, but it’s an advantage for those who have learned on the job and developed strong skills on their own, without formal training or coursework.

That doesn’t mean someone can leap into editing as a professional without some training or experience, no matter how many untrained, inexperienced people hang out their shingles and fool clients into thinking it’s worth hiring them.

Useful resources for training in editing include the following.

General

Specialties

Further listings

That First Editing Job

Once you have the skills, tools, and resources in place, be sure to read Bernadette Cash’s “Getting That First Job: Advice from a Technical Recruiter,” which provides tips for finding an editing job in the tech field that can be applied to other kinds of editing.

Words of Wisdom

One of my Facebook editing colleagues reported recently that Ann Goldstein, copy editor at the New Yorker magazine and also a translator, recently told an audience at a writers’ conference in Auckland, New Zealand, that “if you want to be a good editor, the most important thing is to read. Read a lot!” I would concur. The more you read, the better you will edit. Reading in a wide range of fields and a variety of publications, from books to magazines to newspapers to blogs and newsletters, will expand your sense of what works in written material, as well as add to your general knowledge of trends and events that might crop up in the works you edit.

How have you developed your skills — what kinds of training and education have you used to become an editor, or evolve into a better one? What do you consider an essential skill or ability for an editor?

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

June 11, 2016

Worth Reading: Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer” by Christopher Jencks (The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2016, pp. 15-17) is a review of the book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Jencks is the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard and author of Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass and The Homeless.

I found the essay both interesting and disturbing. It illustrates the problem of political social thinking since the 1990s. If you combine that thinking with how politicians today, especially Republican politicians, want to reduce social welfare programs, you can see how the thinking is to shift from a “War on Poverty” to a “War on Those in Poverty.”

Regardless of how you view social welfare programs, this essay is worth reading. It provides a different way to look at how social welfare policy has evolved since the 1970s. I know I hadn’t looked at social welfare programs from quite the same perspective — not even when I was a social worker.

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer
by Christopher Jencks

After reading the essay, I have added Edin and Shaefer’s book to my To-Buy list.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 10, 2016

Breaking News: Is the Period Going the Way of the Serial Comma?

Should we start getting prepared for the funeral of the full stop? It looks like its time as a vital part of grammar and language is coming to a close. Check out this front-page article in today’s New York Times bJune 9, 2016 , p. A1):

Period. Full Stop. Point.
Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style

If the full-stop period is no longer used, will it matter how obtuse or poorly constructed a sentence is? Will we even be able to identify a sentence? Will need for editors decline in tandem with the lack of use of the period?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

The Countdown Continues: Just 20 Days to Go

Filed under: A Good Deal,Worth Noting — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags:

Just 20 days remain to take advantage of the AAE discount for the upcoming Be a Better Freelancer™ — Profiting in Publishing conference. For more information see “Worth Noting: A Super Deal for AAE Subscribers.”

If you have already decided to attend but still need to register, go to the special registration page for An American Editor subscribers now and lock in your AAE rate! (Remember to use the password: AAE-CC16.)

The AAE special discount ends June 30, so register now to save big.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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