An American Editor

August 23, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Nondisclosure Agreements

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on November 12, 2012.)

Have you been asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement? In recent months, I have been asked three times to sign such an agreement, and three times I have declined to sign the agreement as provided.

If you have been asked to sign such an agreement, how carefully have you considered its terms, what those terms mean, and what effect those terms might have on your business? Based on conversations with colleagues, I suspect that most of the time the agreement is just signed and considered a requirement of doing business. For the most part, I would think the agreement is meaningless — after all, exactly what trade secrets are editors being made privy to? — but because such agreements could return to haunt me years down the road, I am careful about what contracts I sign.

These agreements are particularly problematic when they are with an offshore company. Citations to foreign laws and provisions to litigate in foreign (to me) courts are red flags — these are two things that I simply cannot agree to. I imagine having a dispute with a client whose NDA agreement requires me to litigate in Indian courts. I have no doubt that Indian courts will fairly apply Indian law, but what do I know about either Indian law or the Indian court system? And based on what I read about how long litigation takes in India, I’d likely be buried before any dispute was resolved, after having spent many thousands of dollars prosecuting or defending an action.

It is bad enough when I am asked to sign agreements that are governed by U.S. law and courts. My pocketbook isn’t unlimited; it is paltry compared to that of the company that wants me to sign the NDA.

Interestingly, none of the NDAs I have been presented with have ever really defined what I am not supposed to disclose. They use terms like “trade secrets” but they never clarify what that means. I make it a point — before signing — to ask for an exhaustive list of what constitutes a trade secret. I want to make sure that (a) it is information to which I am privy and (b) that I agree that it is a trade secret. More importantly, I don’t want to be ambushed. How can I know what not to disclose if you don’t tell me specifically that the information is a trade secret?

The NDAs also usually include a very broad clause that is a mother clause to another, somewhat subsidiary, broad clause. The first says that anything you invent or improve upon becomes the company’s intellectual property. The child clause says that you give the company permission to execute your name to any paperwork it deems necessary to lay claim to your inventions. Together, both clauses cover everything you have done from the day you were born and everything you will do to the day you die (when read in conjunction with the clause that says the NDA will continue in force even after your relationship with the company ends).

I suspect that no reasonable court would uphold such clauses, at least based on my knowledge of American courts, but the truth is, I have no idea what a court in India or Germany or Spain or Tunisia or Brazil or anywhere but America is likely to do — and even with American courts, all I’m doing is “educated” guessing. To find out what a court would in fact do, I would have to initiate a lawsuit, an expensive proposition.

Also missing from the NDA is any benefit to me. There is no guarantee of work; there is no payment in exchange for my signature; there is no reciprocal agreement that the company will not disclose my trade secrets. What is usually said is that they cannot hire me without the NDA, but that is not the same as saying they will hire me if I sign the NDA. And there is certainly nothing in the NDA that says that should they hire me, they will pay what I consider a reasonable rate. The NDAs are decidedly one-sided.

I have certain rules by which I conduct my business. First, any disputes have to be settled in the American judicial system under American law. I am an American editor with an office in America.

Second, I will not sign any agreement that gives the company the right to execute documents of any type in my name. I have no idea who these people are. My signature is one of the most valuable things I own; giving it away seems to me not to be a smart idea.

Third, I will not sign broad agreements. Agreements must be specific and limited. All of the NDAs are written for consultants who are going to come to the company and examine its books and procedures and make recommendations and improvements or who are being hired to create something specific to improve the company’s workflow. I’m not doing anything even remotely close to that. I edit books. I have no idea what the contract terms are between the companies I work for and their company or author clients. I make sure sentences end with punctuation and that flippant is spelled correctly. I don’t determine whether a book is worthy of publication or how many units to print or how large the marketing budget should be or whether the book should be digitized or anything else that remotely could be called a trade secret by a reasonable person. Thus the danger of these broad clauses and why extraneous/inappropriate clauses must be stripped from the agreement.

Fourth, I will not sign a contract that is so one-sided that it should be titled “Certificate of Indenture.” I must get something in return, something much more than a future promise of possibly some work. I will offer to sign an NDA for a specific project with the NDA limited to the specific project.

Fifth, I will not sign an agreement that gives a company the right to lay claim to things I create, invent, or improve upon that facilitate my doing my work. I have spent, for example, many thousands of dollars developing EditTools and my (patent-pending online) Max Stylesheet. EditTools makes my work go more smoothly and quicker; the Max Stylesheet both makes it easy for multiple editors to work closely on a project and for clients to access a book’s stylesheet years after I edited it. Both are tools for my business and marketing points. Yet under the presented NDAs, the companies could lay claim to these items and could execute documents to take title to them without compensating me.

I understand the need for NDAs. Afterall, no company would like to give a consultant access to its databases to find that the consultant is selling the data to the company’s competitors. But companies need to look at who they are asking to sign NDAs and not simply have a blanket rule that requires everyone to sign one. An editor like me who has no access to company information is not really a candidate for an NDA.

More importantly, I need to carefully read and consider any agreement presented to me. What are its implications? What if something does go wrong? What if nothing goes wrong but the company sues me anyway? How important is this company’s business to me?

The bottom line is this: The company doesn’t trust me enough to give me work without signing an Orwellian NDA but expects me to trust it to do what is correct and honorable when it deals with me. A handshake will serve me, but not the company. Doesn’t sound like a very promising relationship to me.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 21, 2017

From the Archives: Business of Editing: Liability Insurance — Nyet

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on May 22, 2013.)

One problem with working as an editor for large organizations is the contract that the organization wants you to sign. Some of the clauses have validity, others I wouldn’t sign regardless of the promised fee (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: Contracts — A Slippery Slope and Editors and Contracts: Editor Beware!). Recent discussions on various lists have focused on another requirement: the requirement to carry liability insurance (an errors and omissions policy) for such things as defamation and other events that have nothing to do with editing.

These contracts are boilerplate and prepared by attorneys who rarely have a clue about what an editor does for the express purpose of covering all of the possible arcane matters that can affect a publisher. As editors, we need to say “Nyet!” to these inapplicable clauses.

When I am faced with a demand for errors and omissions insurance, I ask the client to specify clearly and precisely against what risks I need to insure myself and against which the client will seek indemnification. I point out, for example, that defamation is not something an editor does; it is something a writer does. I make it a point to educate the client as to what precisely an editor does and does not do, after which I ask the client whether I am being hired as an editor or to perform some other function, one that has the potential to make me wish I were insured.

If the client expects me to undertake tasks that could make me liable for such things as would be covered by an errors and omissions policy, I know I need to decline the job — because it is not an editing job. Copyeditors don’t decide dosages or medicines, don’t determine whether a beam’s angle is correct, do not determine whether a street is a dead end or a highway on-ramp, or whether a named person is properly described.

I also ask the client whether the client truly believes that anyone would issue an errors and omissions insurance policy that protects against subjective decisions. What I mean is this: What insurance company will insure against my choosing to refer to people as “that” instead of “who” (as in “the patients that” vs. “the patients who”) or will reimburse the client for my use of “followup” (which the American Heritage Dictionary 5e says is OK, along with “follow-up”) as opposed to “follow-up” (which is the only form accepted by Merriam-Webster Collegiate 11e)?

“And what,” I ask clients, “if I use recur when it should be reoccur” (in case you are wondering, except, for example, in medicine, recur means to occur repeatedly whereas reoccur means to occur again once; in medicine, recur is used for both meanings)? “Do you really think an insurance company is going to pay a claim for my using one over the other?” What if I don’t use serial (Oxford) commas or if I do use them and the nonuse/use changes meaning (as in the infamous “eats, shoots and leaves”)?

Every editor knows that issues of language and grammar are rarely right-wrong matters; rather, they are matters of opinion in the sense that both sides of a language and grammar question can be, and often are, correct. How do you insure against making a decision that can be correct but just doesn’t tickle a client’s fancy? Perhaps spelling is in a separate category most of the time, but as followup versus follow-up illustrates, spelling is not in a separate category all of the time.

Clients are intelligent; what clients are not is omniscient. Consequently, when I am faced with a contract clause that requires me to obtain errors and omissions insurance, I endeavor to educate the client. First, I ascertain what the client thinks my job is. Then I educate the client as to what my job really is. If we cannot come to agreement on the parameters of the job I am being hired to do, I say thank you and walk away. To do otherwise is to bring me trouble.

A fundamental rule of editing is that client and editor must agree on the parameters of the job or the client needs to find someone else to do the job. Any editor who fails to grasp and embrace this rule is bound to have unsuccessful client relationships.

After I educate the client about what my job is, I undertake to educate the client as to why the insurance clause should be stricken. The usual response by a client is that if the clause has no relevance to my work, then we’ll leave it and ignore it. Alas, to agree to leave and ignore is to invite danger (for me) into the client-editor relationship. Meaningless clauses need to be struck, not ignored, because once a contract is signed, the unstruck clause is no longer meaningless. It may be that I cannot be held liable for defamatory text written by the author, but I still need to buy the insurance or be in breach of the contract. And do I really want to incur the expense of defending against a client’s attempt to make me liable for not catching that the dose should be 12 mg, not 120 mg?

If the client insists on retaining the clause, I send a revised estimate for the project. I take my original price and add to it a price for the purchase and administration (i.e., my administration) of the insurance. I submit that revised price to the client and explain that my other clients do not require such insurance and that it will be a special purchase just for this client, thus the additional charge. In addition, because the purpose of the insurance is not to protect me but to protect and indemnify the client, the only beneficiary of the insurance is the client, so it is only fair that the client pay the cost.

My experience has been that at this point the client is willing to strike the clause. But I am prepared for when the client simply says sign or go. I always will (and have occasionally had to do so) choose go and refuse to sign.

The only insurance I carry specifically for the benefit of clients is Worker’s Compensation. I maintain such a policy because it proves to the IRS that I am an independent contractor and clients who worry about proving that I am not an employee accept the certificate of insurance in lieu of all other items of proof, such as copies of tax returns or lists of clients, that they would otherwise require (and which I do not wish to divulge).

Part of being a businessperson is drawing lines that I will not permit clients to cross. Those lines are important. They form the basis of the relationship between me and my clients. One of my lines is that I will not sign contracts that contain terms that are not applicable to what I am hired to do, especially if those terms will cost me money.

What do you when faced for a demand for an errors and omissions insurance policy for your copyediting work?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 16, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Discounting Rates

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on January 7, 2015.)

It has been asked: Is discounting your rate ever justified? The answer is “yes, but not usually.” We have all been faced with the dilemma: Should we offer a discount in order to get the job? Or because the potential client is a student? Or [fill in the blank]? The answer is not easy. I begin where I always begin when it comes to rates — with the effective hourly rate (EHR). Discounting a rate is like setting a rate in that you must first know how much you have to earn to keep yourself afloat. It is neither very smart nor does you any good to earn less than your required EHR.

Many years ago I would have said that it is better to have some income than no income. That was in my days of not applying business practices to my business and not realizing the potential of my business. The truth is that it is not better to have some income than no income. It is only better if that income meets your required EHR. Note that I am speaking of required, not desired, EHR. I learned quickly that rather than take on work that was below my required EHR I was better served spending my time marketing myself, trying to find work that would meet my required EHR. This is also true when it comes to discounting my rate.

I never discount to a rate that is below my required EHR; I want to be able to pay my bills, which is something I will not be able to do if I do not meet my required EHR. There are several factors at play. First, before discounting my rate, I need to be earning overall more than my required EHR, and preferably close to my desired EHR. It is that difference — the difference between my earned EHR and my required EHR — that is the negotiable area.

Second, the client needs to be a repeating client. It does me no good financially to provide a discount to a one-off client, even if I think that client will tell friends and neighbors how great I am. The reason is that the one-off client will also tell friends and neighbors what he paid and the friends and neighbors will be expecting a similar discount. For repeat clients, especially institutional clients, I am willing to consider a discount because I know I can make up for the loss on the particular project on future projects or because it is worth my while to charge a little less in exchange for a larger volume of work. Which brings me to the third point.

Third, volume discounting is reasonable as long as the discount does not go below my required EHR. In the case of a volume client, I always keep in mind my Rule of Three (see “The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three“) as it will do me no particular good to have a lot of business that I am losing money on. But volume clients are what I want because such clients assure me year-round profitable work. In a sense we have gone full circle. Discounting one’s rate is acceptable in the circumstance that doing so does not bring the rate below one’s required EHR.

Where most of us part ways is with the other requirements. Usually the argument is that

  • it is a new subject area for me that I want to explore
  • the client is poor
  • the subject matter of the project is one that I am very interested in

and other similar “reasons.”

The first question to ask yourself is this: Are you a business or a charity? If you are a charity, then these reasons have some merit; if you are a business, these reasons have no merit. As a business, you need to earn enough to stay in business and even to earn a profit. Why remain in a business that cannot provide income sufficient for your needs?

The second question to ask yourself is this: If I undertake this project, will it preclude me from taking on a higher-paying project? If it will, then it should be avoided. Why take on a project that costs you both money and opportunity?

The third question to ask yourself is this: If I take on this project will I have the time and money and energy to market myself to better-paying potential clients? If no, then don’t take on this discounted project. Discounting is fine when you are in a position to do so, when your business is such that whatever loss you will take can be made up for. It is also fine when it is connected to volume. But under no circumstance is it fine to discount below your required EHR, which means you must have calculated your required EHR beforehand. (To calculate your required EHR, see the five-part series “Business of Editing: What to Charge.”)

One thing we haven’t considered is the worth/value of your editing. I consider myself a highly skilled professional. My services can make a difference. How valuable are those services? The more valuable they are, the less willingly they should be discounted. I differentiate my services by the price I charge and the quality I provide; discounting takes away that differentiation. And it becomes a slippery slope: If I discounted today, why not tomorrow? The consumer will neither understand nor accept the fine differences we use to distinguish among projects and clients; if my price was $x yesterday, the consumer expects it to be $x today and on both days expects high-quality service.

Are there times you can discount? Yes. Are there times when you should discount? Yes. The way your  recognize those times begins with knowing your required EHR and evaluating whether giving the discount will further a legitimate business interest. In the absence of either, no discounting should be given, and under no circumstance should a discount result in an EHR below your required EHR.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 14, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: Contracts — A Slippery Slope

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on May 7, 2012.)

When I first began editing as a freelancer, I never was offered a contract by a client. I was hired to copyedit or developmental edit, and it was understood that I would do my best and the client would pay me for my work. Even the structure for payment was understood to be what constituted a billable (i.e., hourly or a page, which consisted of x). It was a “handshake” agreement.

For the most part, even today, this is how I conduct much of my work. Yet, increasingly, I am being asked to sign a contract. This has occurred since the last time I addressed this issue, in Editors and Contracts: Editor Beware! In the prior article, I talked about a contract from India. Today, I am talking about a contract from the United States.

Because this is the “client’s” standard contract, I have to wonder how many editors either read the contract that is proffered or if they do read it, understand it; or if they simply sign it and consider doing so a necessity to have any business. I also wonder how many, if any, editors simply reject a burdensome contract.

As some of you know, my background is as a lawyer. Before becoming a professional editor, I practiced law for a number of years and learned early on in that career that business-to-business contracts really do need to be read and understood, and not just blindly signed.

The latest contract that I received simply reinforced that learning. It would almost be impossible to write a more one-sided and unfair contract short of one that says I would be responsible for the other party’s financial losses should the stock market decline for the next 100 years.

Good editors are language-smart, but sometimes not business-smart. Sometimes the need or desire to have work outweighs the common sense that dictates “do not sign the proffered contract.” But it shouldn’t, because some contracts are so exploitative that you have to wonder about the company that is proffering it. Would you trust the dog that bites the hand that feeds it?

Essentially that is what a contract is — an expression of distrust. The question is how much distrust is tolerable. I find that the more onerous the contract, which indicates that the offeror really distrusts the people with whom it “wants to work,” the less worthy the profferor is of being trusted. And thus I prefer not to sign.

Consider statements that say you will be paid “for satisfactorily rendered services.” What exactly does that mean? Who decides? How long do they have to decide? Is it satisfactory to leave “due to” in a manuscript? Is it satisfactory to not distinguish between “since” and “because”? Suppose you think a series of items should be a bulleted list rather than a run-on sentence. Is that okay?

What about a clause that says the client can audit your books? Are you an independent contractor or an employee?

Or consider the attorney-in-fact clause, which says that you appoint the client as attorney in fact to sign your name to any necessary applications for intellectual property protection for any reason. The only thing missed is taking possession of the bathtub.

One of the strongest methods to ensure payment is the availability of the lawsuit remedy. Yet the contracts insist that any claims be arbitrated and that doing so be at your expense. Back in the beginning of time, arbitrators had a reputation for lack of bias and for fairness; that reputation is long gone. I would be hard-pressed to voluntarily give up my right to sue.

The contract I was most recently offered also stated that my work product was a work for hire and that I waive any claim to ownership in my work product. Period. End of story. The waiver doesn’t come about because I have been paid or even because the client is obligated to pay me. No, it comes about because I unconditionally waive all my rights (which I’ll do immediately after the cheese the moon is made of is placed for sale in my local supermarket).

When you receive a contract to sign, do you look at the limitation of liability clause? You should. Invariably, the client has no liability. There is no mention of your not having any liability, which means that you might have some.

My favorite clause is the one that reads similar to this: “This agreement shall be interpreted as written and negotiated jointly by the parties.” Rarely is a client willing to negotiate any term of the proffered contract; it is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. But this clause has a great deal of legal significance should a dispute arise.

Finally, I love when I get a contract that incorporates the material in an attached exhibit and the attached exhibit is not filled out. An early learned rule is never to sign a contract with blanks. Good luck proving it was incorrectly filled out after you signed, not before.

The list of objectionable clauses and why they are objectionable can go on, but simply listing them doesn’t answer the fundamental question: What can I, the editor who is offered such a contract, do about it? What should I do about it?

I usually send a note back saying I cannot agree to the contract as submitted and give reasons paragraph by paragraph. Usually there are a couple of unobjectionable paragraphs, but, for the most part, the more wrapped in legalese the contract is, the less likely I am to sign it.

I usually begin by noting that the contract has little relevancy to the services for which I am being hired. What relevance does a clause about patents have to copyediting? I suggest that, if a contract is necessary, we should discuss realistic terms that are relevant to what I am expected to do as an editor. I also make it clear that, contrary to the assertion in a contract, there are no universal, objective standards to which either party can look as measures of quality for editing, so it is necessary that client define precisely what standards the client will apply to my work product.

I go through this exercise knowing that it is futile; with rare exception, these contracts are nonnegotiable. But I want the client to understand that I do pay attention to detail, and this is a subtle way of enforcing that message.

In the end, it usually comes down to either signing the contract as submitted by the client or passing on the work. Given that choice, I decide how trustworthy I think the client is. If I think I can trust the client, I will sign the contract; if I have any doubts at all, I will not. There is little sense in inviting trouble.  Usually — but not always — my refusing to sign the contract means no work from the client. Several times in recent months, however, the client has simply worked with me as if nothing about a contract had ever been discussed. In these cases, the work with the client has been ongoing, not just a single project and then no more.

Regardless, editors need to be careful about the contracts they sign. It is better to not sign and lose the work than to work for a client whom you can’t trust. Just as you have a minimum acceptable fee for taking on work, so you should have a standard for contracts below which you will not descend. At the very least, never sign one before reading it carefully and assessing its potential impact on you and your business.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 9, 2017

From the Archives: Editors and Contracts: Editor Beware!

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on December 5, 2011.)

My editing world is, admittedly, fairly narrow. Years ago, I decided that I would only do a certain type of work (subject matter-wise) and only for select clients (i.e., publishers, not authors). Consequently, the following discussion is shaped by 28 years of that narrow world and is focused on contracts between freelancer and publisher/vendor.

Over my editing career, I have been asked to sign a contract less than six times; I have never asked a client to sign one. Until recently, the last contract I was asked to sign happened a decade or more ago. I’m not sure why this is the case, except that I think my clients view the situation as I do — a contract isn’t necessary between companies.

Also until recently the purpose of the contract wasn’t really to detail the relationship’s obligations but it was to establish that I am not an employee and cannot be construed to be an employee of the client. In other words, it was to protect the client from my claiming that I was an employee of the client and entitled to employee benefits. The contract was designed to establish my relationship with the client should the Internal Revenue Service come knocking on the client’s door.

For the most part, once a client realized it was issuing payment to a company rather than to an individual, and once the client realized that I have payroll obligations, something employees of the client wouldn’t have, I think the necessity for a contract disappeared.

But recently I was asked to sign a contract.

The story begins with a publisher who asked me to edit a book that will run between 7,000 and 9,000 manuscript pages. The book has a “fussy” author (that’s fussy in the good sense of being both knowledgable about and caring of the use of language, not in the negative sense of being troublesome) and a short deadline of 12 weeks. Manuscripts of this size are what I commonly deal with and the short deadline just raises a challenge, not an obstacle that can’t be overcome. (And it is projects and deadlines like these that make investing in macros invaluable!)

Although I was asked by the publisher to take on the project, the work and payment would come through a third-party vendor. The publisher would simply tell the vendor that I was to be hired to do the editing and that the rate had been agreed on. I was to work with the vendor and not the publisher.

That arrangement is not unusual in today’s publishing world. It is more common, perhaps, at least in my niches, for my name to be on a list of preapproved editors from among which the vendor can choose and negotiate a rate. I admit that I rarely find that to be good for me.

So the project is agreed to and the procedure agreed to and the work starts. Nothing more occurs until I submit the first batch of edited chapters and an invoice. That is when the vendor tells me that there is a contract that the vendor requires every freelancer to sign. The purpose, I’m told, is to ensure confidentiality. (I wonder who would want to see the edited manuscript for one of these books other than the author, but I also have no problem with agreeing to confidentiality.)

So the standard agreement was sent for my signature.

Let’s start with a few questions to set the stage: How many editors read such agreements? How many understand the agreement? How many editors are willing to say no and refuse to sign absent significant changes? How many editors are fearful that if they do not sign the agreement an avenue of work will dry up and leave them in dire straits? How many editors would say to themselves “although I don’t want to sign I better because I’ve already completed x% of the work and I want to get paid”?

Okay, you have the idea as to the stage-setting questions and undoubtedly can add more to the list, yet it is the answers that matter.

The contract I was offered was wholly one-sided. I had all of the obligations and none of the benefits. I wasn’t even assured of receiving the project I had been hired for if I signed the contract. In addition, the contract was riddled with grammar and spelling errors, which would leave the terms of the contract in a state of flux. But the worst clause of all — and there were many candidates for this honor, not least of which was the clause that required editing perfection and set the vendor up as the sole judge of whether the editing was perfect  — was that any dispute arising from the relationship between myself and the vendor had to be resolved in a court in India! The contract even mentioned Indian labor laws, as if I would have any idea of what Indian labor laws permit, do not permit, or require. Interestingly, the contract was open-ended; no work was promised and no specific project named — the contract remained in force until explicitly terminated by the vendor. Does indenture sound familiar?

I have nothing against India but I have never visited the country, I have never worked in the country, I have no plans to either visit it or work there, and I know nothing about Indian labor laws. Why would I sign such a contract? More importantly, why would any non-India-based editor sign such a contract (perhaps it shouldn’t even be signed by an India-based editor)?

And consider the perfection clause I mentioned earlier. Professional editors know that there is no such thing as perfect editing. There are very few rigid rules in editing that apply universally and never change, which is why we have, for example, 16 editions of The Chicago Manual of Style and 11 editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and 3 editions of Garner’s Modern American Usage.

I offered to sign a modified contract, but that was rejected. A colleague, Ruth Thaler-Carter, suggested to me that at the very least I should insist on a clause that reads along these lines (with additional modifications by me): “Freelancer cannot be held responsible for changes made by the Vendor once freelancer has submitted his/her/its editorial work to vendor and that should Vendor make changes that result in any form of liability to Freelancer, Vendor agrees to indemnify and hold harmless Freelancer at Vendor’s expense.”

Editors face a dilemma. They want and need the work that comes to them via third-party vendors, yet they really shouldn’t sign open-ended, one-sided contracts, especially ones that require them to use a foreign court system to resolve disputes. What editor could afford to go from the United States to India to enforce a claim for $500?

There is no easy solution to this problem. In my case, it was resolved to my satisfaction, but that was because of the intervention of the publisher, not because the vendor wanted to be reasonable. The vendor’s position was that you either sign the agreement as presented or you get no work. The vendor is really in the catbird seat because there are thousands of editors from which it can choose, but there are, by comparison, few vendors.

Could you walk away from such a job? Most editors cannot, which brings me back to a topic I’ve mentioned before: Professional editors really need a professional guild, at least a national one but preferably a worldwide one, whose focus is on protecting the member editors and finding the member editors work.

Even if you believe you have no choice but to sign on the dotted line, you should take the time to carefully read and evaluate any proffered contract. In addition, you should try to negotiate the more onerous clauses. Under no circumstance should you sign a contract like this that is open-ended. If you must sign such a contract, limit it to the project at hand. You never know when an open-ended contract will come back to bite you.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 7, 2017

From the Archives: Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on May 20, 2010.)

Editors rely on lots of “professional” resources to guide their editorial decisions when working on a manuscript. In addition to dictionaries and word books, we rely on language usage guides and style manuals, among other tools. [To learn more about the professional editor’s (and my) bookshelf, see The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf.]

But it isn’t unusual for an author (or publisher) to have a different view of what is appropriate and desirable than the “professional” resources. And many editors will fight tooth and nail to make the client conform to the rules laid down in a style manual. As between language usage guides like Garner’s Modern American Usage and style manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, I believe that editors should adhere to the rules of the former but take the rules of the latter with a lot of salt.

The distinction between the two types of manuals is important. A language manual is a guide to the proper use of language such as word choice; for example, when comprise is appropriate and when compose is appropriate. A style manual, although it will discuss in passing similar issues, is really more focused on structural issues such as capitalization: Should it be president of the United States or President of the United States? Here’s the question: How much does it matter whether it is president or President?

When an author insists that a particular structural form be followed that I think is wrong, I will tell the author why I believe the author is wrong and I will cite, where appropriate, the professional sources. But, and I think this is something professional editors lose sight of, those professional sources — such as The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association — are merely books of opinion. Granted we give them great weight, but they are just opinion. And it has never been particularly clear to me why the consensus opinion of the “panel of experts” of CMOS is any better than my client’s opinion. After all, isn’t the key clarity and consistency not conformity to some arbitrary consensus.

If these style manuals were the authoritative source, there would only be one of them to which we would all adhere; the fact that there is disagreement among them indicates that we are dealing with opinion to which we give credence and different amounts of weight. (I should mention that if an author is looking to be published by a particular publisher whose style is to follow the rules in one of the standard style manuals, then it is incumbent on the editor to advise the author of the necessity of adhering to those rules and even insisting that the author do so. But where the author is self-publishing or the author’s target press doesn’t adhere to a standard, then the world is more open.)

It seems to me that if there is such a divergence of opinion as to warrant the publication of so many different style manuals, then adding another opinion to the mix and giving that opinion greater credence is acceptable. I am not convinced that my opinion, or the opinion of CMOS, is so much better than that of the author that the author’s opinion should be resisted until the author concedes defeat. In the end, I think but one criterion is the standard to be applied: Will the reader be able to follow and understand what the author is trying to convey? (However, I would also say that there is one other immutable rule: that the author be consistent.) If the answer is yes, then even if what the author wants assaults my sense of good taste or violates the traditional style manual canon, the author wins — and should win.

The battles that are not concedeable by an editor are those that make the author’s work difficult to understand and those of incorrect word choice (e.g., using comprise when compose is the correct word).

A professional editor is hired to give advice. Whether to accept or reject that advice is up to the person doing the hiring. Although we like to think we are the gods of grammar, syntax, spelling, and style, the truth is we are simply more knowledgeable (usually) than those who hire us — we are qualified to give an opinion, perhaps even a forceful or “expert” opinion, but still just an opinion. We are advisors giving advice based on experience and knowledge, but we are not the final decision makers — and this is a lesson that many of us forget. We may be frustrated because we really do know better, but we must not forget that our “bibles” are just collections of consensus-made opinion, not rules cast in stone.

If they were rules cast in stone, there would be no changes, only additions, to the rules, and new editions of the guides would appear with much less frequency than they currently do. More importantly, there would be only one style manual to which all editors would adhere — after all, whether it is president or President isn’t truly dependent on whether the manuscript is for a medical journal, a psychology journal, a chemistry journal, a sociology journal, or a history journal.

Style manuals serve a purpose, giving us a base from which to proceed and some support for our decisions, but we should not put them on the pedestal of inerrancy, just on a higher rung of credibility.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 2, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting

Filed under: From the Archives,The Business of Editing Redux — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on June 27, 2012.)

I recently received an e-mail from a long-ago client who lost my services when they lowered their payscale to substarvation rates and began offshore outsourcing nearly 100% of their production process, the exception supposedly being proofreading, for which they paid sub-substarvation prices. Their e-mail stated:

We are a new team with a new process, but still need qualified readers for our books, so I hope you don’t mind that we are contacting you at this time.

We now do all of our composition and copyediting in India. However, we do put all of our books through a cold read using US-based freelancers. Our readers work on first proofs (PDFs)….

The assignment involves checking grammar, style (APA 6th Edition), punctuation, consistency, and poor phrasing. Rework awkward sentences only if confusing or very awkward. Feel free to query the Editor or Author. We realize there will be a lot of questions  with this test and perhaps the first few assignments. When in doubt – make the change and add a query. We want to see your “stuff.”

Needless to say, the rate of pay is very-very-low. They attached a PDF “test,” which they would pay me to take at the lowest rate they offer. The former client deserves a few kudos for at least offering to pay for the test taking.

This is an interesting ploy for obtaining copyediting from American-based editors. Calling it a rose doesn’t make it any less copyediting. It is worth noting that by requiring it be done using PDF rather than in Microsoft Word, the client is implying to most editors that it is not copyediting but proofreading, because experienced editors will tell you that the trend is to do proofreading in PDF. Very few publishers, especially when dealing with book-length projects, will ask for copyediting to be done using PDFs. It is much more difficult to edit a PDF than it is to edit a Word document, as many of the tools that editors use in the editing process are simply unavailable, including specialty spell-checking and the myriad macros that editors use.

The attached “test” was a PDF of composed pages. But if it was already satisfactorily edited (which I would assume because why would a publisher knowingly send manuscript out for editing to incompetent editors?), the “cold reader” — also known as a proofreader — should not be checking “poor phrasing” or “rework[ing] awkward sentences.” Those are editing tasks; they require decision-making skills, knowledge of grammar, and specialized subject-matter language, all of which are why the editor creates a stylesheet that is supposed to accompany the manuscript when it is sent for proofreading.

But call it what you want — rose, stinkweed, proofreading, cold reading — it doesn’t matter: The service they want is copyediting and they want it at substarvation pay.

The e-mail follows a recent trend among publishers. The trend is to offshore outsource copyediting and then ask the local people who the publisher previously hired to do the editing, to “proofread” at a rate that matches what the publisher is paying its offshore editors while simultaneously demanding that the “proofreader” correct all of the errors not fixed or introduced by the offshore editors. Publishers are squeezing local editors by taking away the work and then trying to get the same work after the fact under another guise, one that has always commanded a lesser fee.

In an attempt to lower costs, proofreading is now the new copyediting and copyediting is now the new typesetting/composition. Yes, I know that traditionally typesetting/composition meant simply putting the tendered manuscript into a WYSIWYG form that was called pages, and for the most part, that is what is happening with outsourced offshored copyediting. Publishers are banking on the local proofreaders to do the copyediting.

Not only is this sneaky, but it is also difficult to do well. Traditional proofreading meant comparing the typeset pages to the edited and coded manuscript that had already been copyedited, developmental edited, reviewed by in-house production staff, and reviewed and approved by the author to make sure that the typesetter didn’t introduce new errors.

Much of this changed when publishers switched to electronic editing, as electronic editing reduced the likelihood of typesetting errors. Such errors weren’t eliminated, merely exponentially reduced. With today’s bean counters unwilling to assign much value to editorial skills, publishers are trying to squeeze more editorial work out of freelancers for less pay. As many authors have complained in recent years, this is a recipe for editorial disaster.

Copyediting (along with other forms of editing) is a skill set that becomes honed over the course of years. One doesn’t simply hang out a shingle calling oneself an editor and suddenly become a highly competent editor. As with other skills, copyediting is a collection of myriad skills learned and honed over years of work and learning. It is not a wholly mechanical process; rather, it requires educated judgment calls.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that causes books that have been edited to seem as if they have never met the eyes of an editor. It is this loss that distinguishes a professionally edited, well-edited book from the amateur editor who is doing the editing for a neighbor as a favor.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that publishers seek to regain at a cheaper price by renaming the service they want as “cold reading” rather than copyediting. You can call a rose by another name, but it is still copyediting. It is this ploy that editors need to be aware of and need to say thanks, but no thanks to the “opportunity” being offered — especially if the opportunity is to do the editing in a software program that is really not designed for the task, such as editing in PDF format/software.

As the competition wars heat up, by which I mean as the ebook world with its lower profit margins overtakes the pbook world with its relatively higher profit margins, this ruse by publishers will gain momentum. The result will be increasing numbers of published books that make the literate reader grimace, with yet further squeezing of profit margins as readers rebel at paying high prices for poorly edited books.

Although bean counters have yet to grasp the notion, long-term the survival of publishers will depend as much on quality editing as on changing strategies to deal with ebooks. Editors do provide value but need to receive value in exchange. Smart editors will just say no to opportunities disguised as roses that are really stinkweed.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 31, 2017

From the Archives: Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on September 23, 2015.)

I won’t keep you in suspense. The two books are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

I was reading Diane Johnson’s review of Go Set a Watchman (“Daddy’s Girl,” The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015, pp. 22–26) when I realized that Harper Lee’s two novels should be read by everyone who touches — no matter how peripherally — on the editing process. The two books provide a stark contrast of the value of editing. Johnson wrote:

According to its editors and Harper Lee herself, To Kill a Mockingbird had profited from extensive editing at R.B. Lippincott by the late Tay Hohoff, who said she and Lee worked for two years on the project. (p. 22)

The result was the production of a classic that continues, 50-plus years later, to sell 1 million copies each year.

Contrast that with Go Set a Watchman, which was published as written — without editorial input. Although Watchman has sold a phenomenal number of copies, those will be one-time sales and they came about because of the high expectations readers of Mockingbird had. The consensus seems to be that Watchman is a disaster and a blight on the reputation of Mockingbird; its primary value is to demonstrate what should not be done if one values one’s writing and reputation as an author.

Authors & Wannabe Authors

Watchman was the parent from which Mockingbird was spawned. Yet it is as different from Mockingbird as night is from day. What it demonstrates, however, is how a good editor can help an author.

Too many authors on too many lists promote self-editing or no editing or friend editing. The complaint is that a good editor costs too much and there is no reason to hire one when the author can do it herself. Too many authors also say that they would like to hire an editor but editors are too expensive; they cannot afford an editor.

If you believe you really have a good story to tell and that people will buy it, then shouldn’t you figure out a way to get that editorial help? Your book will not sell like Watchman has sold because you do not have the reputation that Harper Lee has been trading on for 50 years. And it is expected that sales of Watchman will fall precipitously now that the book has been seen. What Watchman does demonstrate, however, is that the editorial investment made in Mockingbird has paid off doubly: first, by creating a phenomenal bestseller that keeps on selling, and second, by creating a reputation that allowed the author to sell drivel, which is what Watchman amounts to. Watchman would not have sold except for Lee’s reputation built on Mockingbird.

It is hard to convince authors (and readers) of the value of good editing because editing is an invisible hand — but these two books, a before and after, should clearly demonstrate what a good editor brings to the table and why authors need editors.

The two books also offer one other insight that I think authors need: They graphically demonstrate the difference between — and value of — developmental editing and copyediting, as well as the value of each. Watchman was neither developmentally edited nor copyedited; Mockingbird was both. Could you self-edit both developmental editing and copyediting?

Skilled and professional authors know that it is almost impossible to edit one’s own work because we see only what we meant to say; we cannot be objective enough to see where our work might be unclear, clunky, disorganized, or simply grammatically lacking (suffering from misspellings, wrong or missing punctuation, close-but-not-quite-right word choices, missing or doubled words, poor transitions, and more).

It is true that a very few authors have the skills to self-edit, but those are the rare authors. Most, if not all, of the most successful authors did not self-edit. Either they or their publisher hired a professional editor. As an author, you may have spent years writing your book. You know every word, every nuance, but you do not know where you are going wrong, because your book is “perfect” — you have said so.

As did Harper Lee when she originally submitted Watchman. What a difference a skilled, professional editor made for Harper Lee — and could make for authors and wannabe authors today.

Editors

Editors should read these two books to see what a skilled editor can do. This is not to suggest that you are not a skilled editor, but to suggest that rarely are we given the opportunity to see a before and after of such radical dimension as in the case of Watchman and Mockingbird.

Even more importantly, however, these books give us the opportunity to create an explanation of the value of our services. They also give us the opportunity to graphically demonstrate the differences between developmental editing and copyediting, and what each does for a manuscript. How many of us would reread Watchman or call it a classic or even want it taught in our schools? I know I struggle to envision a movie based on Watchman or caring about the characters or the storyline.

But Mockingbird remains a highly praised novel, 50 years after its publication. It is still discussed in schools and in conversations about race relations. The movie is considered a classic that is still shown. The novel still sells a million copies each year with no advertising to speak of. And all of this is because the original version, Watchman, was developmentally edited and then copyedited by professional editors to become Mockingbird.

Editors should use these books as teaching experiences for clients. They illustrate the benefit of not creating an artificial schedule and of taking the time needed to properly develop the story and to do the editing the story requires.

Editors have looked for years for a way to clearly illustrate why they are worth what they are asking and why editing is a valuable service that is ignored or avoided at an author’s and a publisher’s peril. Watchman and Mockingbird graphically demonstrate the value of editing and editors.

Publishers (& Packagers)

Today, publishing is run largely from the accounting perspective, not the art perspective. Schedules are artificially imposed without regard for the true needs of a manuscript. Editors are asked to do more of the mechanical work and less of the judgmental work; in my earliest years as an editor, for example, the emphasis was on language editing, not on applying styling codes. We did macro-level styling at most, and left micro-level styling to designers and typesetters. But in today’s editing world, the emphasis has switched 180 degrees to emphasize micro-level styling and a deemphasize language editing.

Yet Watchman and Mockingbird can provide a useful lesson for publishers, too. Sure, HarperCollins reaped a quick influx of cash with the publication of Watchman, but if I were the publisher, I would rather have the year-after-year sales of Mockingbird than the one-time sales of Watchman. Watchman will have no lasting value in the marketplace except as an illustration of what publishers used to provide authors versus what they no longer provide authors.

Today, the mantra is “how low can I go”; that is, how little can I, the publisher, spend to take a book from manuscript to bookstore? And the first services publishers squeeze are those that are deemed “invisible” — editorial services. Instead of two years of developmental editing, as was done for Mockingbird, two weeks of copyediting may be provided today (even if the book requires two months of copyediting, let alone additional months of developmental editing).

Watchman and Mockingbird, however, demonstrate the value of the editorial process. Good editing changed a book with no potential into a classic that sells 1 million copies each year and has done so for more than 50 years, with no end in sight. Whatever the editing cost for Mockingbird, it was recouped decades ago, yet keeps on giving. Quality editing is the Timex of publishing — it is the service that keeps on giving.

Publishers and packagers should read these books and use them as guides and reasons why changes to the current editorial and production methods need to be revamped and more attention and money needs to be given to editing. Editing has to be seen today as it was in the early days of publishing. Isn’t it a shame that the books that we treat as classics and must-reads, decade after decade, were nearly all published several decades or longer ago — before accounting supplanted editorial as the decision makers?

Perhaps it is time to rethink the current model. Certainly, Watchman and Mockingbird make that point.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 26, 2017

From the Archives: Relationships & the Unwritten Rules

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on July 22, 2013.)

Every relationship is governed by rules. It doesn’t matter whether the relationship is between spouses, parent and child, government and citizen, rock and a hard place, or authors and editors. If there is a relationship, there are rules that govern it.

Some of the rules are written. The relationship between spouses is partially governed by the rules (laws) enacted by their place of domicile or even by a prenuptial agreement. Similarly, sometimes some of the rules that govern the relationship between author and editor are written, such as when there is a contract between them.

But the majority of the rules that govern relationships are unwritten. They come about as a result of the values we have absorbed each day that we live. We begin as a blank slate and with each day that passes we gain a little bit more of our moral compass. It is these unwritten rules that are the more important rules.

In the author–editor relationship, it is the unwritten rules that are most important. I do not disagree with the notion that a written agreement that says author shall pay editor $x on y date is not important; rather, I believe that the moral compulsion for the author to actually make the payment is the more important part of the relationship. As I used to tell clients when I practiced law, an honest handshake was much more valuable than a dishonest signature on a contract.

One unwritten rule (really, a group of rules) in the author-editor relationship addresses responsibilities. Who is responsible for what. Left unsaid, just like the rule is left unsaid, are the reasons why the author has certain responsibilities and the editor has others. But these unwritten rules, which are often the basis for controversy between the author and editor, are the rules that form the foundation of the relationship. In their absence, chaos reigns; in their presence, a foundation for dispute resolution is available.

What brings this to mind is a recent experience I had with an author. Let me be clear about several things. First, I did not have a direct relationship with the author; my direct client was a third-party who hired and paid me. Second, the parameters of the work I was to perform were negotiated between my client and the author. My client relayed the decisions made between the author and them to me.

Even though there was no direct relationship between the author and me, the unwritten rules of responsibility are still applicable.

The parameters of the job were to copyedit the author’s 400-page manuscript on specialized financing within 8 workdays. The edit was specified as “light,” a term that really has no meaning but which indicates that neither the author nor the client thought there were major problems with the manuscript. (For a discussion of light, medium, and heavy as descriptors of the level of editing, see Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?)

It is important to note that my company was hired to perform a copyedit, not a developmental edit (for a discussion of copyediting versus developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) and that there was a rush schedule. The normal process, and the one I expected to be followed, was copyediting, return to author to accept or reject copyediting, proofreading, publication.

After the book was printed, reviewers began panning it. Complaints about content, editing, and proofreading arose, with some complaints about comprehensibility. The author was incensed and decided that all the fault was with the third-party and the author demanded that my client, the third-party, insert author corrections into the manuscript and reprint the book. The author provided a PDF of the book with author corrections added. Needless to say, my client was not happy.

I was asked to review the author’s complaints and the editing and advise my client. My client provided me with the reviewer’s comments, the printer file, and the author-corrected files; I had my own copies of the edited manuscript that I had submitted to my client. (I make it a point to keep copies of what I submit to clients for years.) Let me say upfront that I have an excellent relationship with my client and have edited numerous books for them. This kerfuffle has no effect on our relationship; the question is how to respond to the author.

I spent some time going through the author’s complaints. Two of the author’s complaints regarding mistakes in spelling that we missed were justified. We probably shouldn’t have missed them. On the other hand, there were more than a dozen errors surrounding those missed spellings that we did catch, including one that resulted in an AQ (author query) regarding the word immediately adjacent to one of the missed spelling errors.

The reviewer specifically quoted a sentence that the reviewer found incomprehensible. The reviewer was certainly correct, but the evolution of that sentence is what intrigues me. It turns out that the copyedited version that we submitted differs from the version that was printed. The author rejected one of the editor’s suggested changes to the sentence and made a couple of additional changes that we knew nothing about.

Another complaint was that a theory name was misspelled (the name began Sho when it should have been Scho) and the editor didn’t catch the misspelling. I searched the entire book and discovered that the name appeared twice in the book, both times spelled the same way by the author (i.e., spelled incorrectly), with more than 200 pages separating the two appearances.

I think you are getting the idea.

I then looked at the author’s corrected files to see what corrections were being proposed as necessary because of editing errors. This was revelatory. Some of the corrections were rewrites that added additional information that could not be gleaned from any of the surrounding material. There was nothing particularly wrong with the sentences before the additions, but the additions did add clarification. The question is, “How would the editor know to add the clarifying material?”

Other corrections made incomprehensible what began as poor writing; that is, the corrections would do more harm than good. Importantly, a large number of them were simply wrong, such as adding commas where no comma belongs, deleting a word or two so that a sentence went from poorly written to incomprehensible, adding a misspelled word or the wrong word to an otherwise difficult sentence, and so on.

Bottom line is that most of the author’s proposed corrections would make things worse, not better.

One other thing I noted is that some of the errors the author complained of should have been caught by a proofreader. Whether the manuscript was proofread or not, I do not know, but I do know that if it was proofread, the proofreader was not a professional, or at least not one I would consider professional. More importantly, the author should have caught these errors during the author review.

The author also refuses to accept that there is a difference between a developmental edit and a copyedit, that separate fees are charged for each service, and that the author paid only for a copyedit.

The question is the unwritten relationship rules. Who has responsibility for what. It is not that there weren’t some editor errors; there were. However, all of the editor errors could have been and should have been caught by the proofreader and the author during their review. It is one reason why there are proofreading and author reviews.

More important, however, is that the responsibility for a manuscript is a shared responsibility. This author insists that the responsibility lies solely with the editor. The author refuses to accept the idea that the author–editor relationship is a partnership and that the editor’s responsibilities are limited by the parameters imposed, ultimately, by the author; the author denies the commandment we discussed in The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners.

Ultimately, my client has to make a political decision: Should they appease the author or stand their ground? I think they have a solid basis for standing their ground. The book desperately needed a developmental edit, but no one wanted to spend the money to have it done. The author did not determine in advance what was needed and expected by way of a copyedit. For example, the author assumed that fact checking was automatically included, yet did not specify that as one of the tasks, did not pay for it, and did not allot sufficient time for it to be done (remember that the editing schedule was 8 workdays).

Realistic — and knowledgeable — division of responsibility is important in the author-editor relationship. As an unwritten rule, however, division of responsibility is so fluid that it is easy for one party to attempt to shift what should be their responsibility to the other party. Both the author and the editor should give careful thought to the division of responsibility before they begin the relationship and should recognize that such division is governed by the parameters set for the project.

More importantly, authors should clearly state, in writing, their expectations and the services they want an editor to perform, and be prepared to pay for those services.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 24, 2017

From the Archives: The Business of Editing: The Art of the Query

(The following essay was originally published on
 An American Editor on December 8, 2014.)

Over the years (31 years in another month), I have had the privilege of working with a lot of colleagues and being on the receiving end of a lot of job applications. That has given me an insight into how editors view aspects of their job and how they go about applying for work.

In a previous essay, Business of Editing: Losing the Chance, in “Error 6” I discussed the copyediting test and how it is possible to tell whether an applicant passed or failed the test within one minute. One way to tell is to look at any queries. (Of course, the lack of any queries can also be very revealing.)

Most editors do not understand the variety of roles that queries fulfill. If you want to kill future prospects, a quick way to do so is with poor, no, or little (when more than a little is expected) querying. Queries should be viewed as playing these roles, at minimum:

  • to ask the author a question
  • to demonstrate to the author and to the client (assuming your client is not the author) that you are knowledgeable
  • to explain
  • to market your skills
  • to make the author and client comfortable with you
  • to demonstrate why you are the editor that the author and client should always seek out

Each of these roles is linked to your success as a professional editor.

To Ask a Question

Editors get tired of writing the same query repeatedly, chapter after chapter, even project after project. Repetition is deadly but let’s face it, many of the queries we need to ask remain the same author to author, client to client, and project to project. After a while, there is a tendency to scale back on the query because it is tedious to retype. This is where a tool like EditTool’s Insert Query macro is a solution to a problem.

What I have seen is repeat queries being truncated. The first time, maybe the second time, the editor will write:

AQ: There is no section by this title in this chapter. Is this the correct section title? Please either provide the correct section title or modify the incorrect section title.

But it isn’t long before that query becomes “AQ: Please provide the correct section title,” which shortly thereafter becomes “AQ: Need correct section title,” which soon becomes “AQ: Section title?” — or, which also often happens, the query starts and finishes as “AQ: Section title?”

The first query identifies the problem, asks the question, and offers alternative solutions — it shows that you are a professional editor. But the pared down versions show laziness and a lack of understanding of how to communicate with an author. More importantly, the message you are sending your client — whether the client is the author or the publisher — is that you are not a professional.

The pared down versions also suffer from being incomplete. How do you expect the author to understand what the problem is and the solutions are from a cryptic message? (The worst queries I have ever seen were “AQ: ?” How can one form a response? My initial reaction was to reply “ED: !!!”)

To Demonstrate Knowledge and Explain

We all have lots of competition. One way we convince clients to hire us again or to recommend us to colleagues is by demonstrating our knowledge, whether it be of the subject matter or of something else appropriate.

For example, it is common in books that I edit for authors to confuse “recur” and “reoccur.” Consequently, where I think they may have confused the terms, I ask:

AQ: Recur/recurrence mean to happen again repeatedly; reoccur/reoccurrence mean to happen again but only once. Which do you mean here?

This query demonstrates my knowledge of language and raises an important point, because it does matter greatly whether something happens repeatedly or just once again. (And I make my life easy by having this as a standard query in my EditTools Insert Query dataset so I only need to select it and insert it, not type each time I want to use it.)

Two additional examples of queries that I routinely use in my editing work are:

AQ: Should “/day” be changed to “/dose” or should “divided” be added before “bid”? As written it appears that the daily dose is to be given multiple times a day. Please make clear the frequency.

and

AQ: Do you mean “e.g.” rather than “i.e.”? When the items are only examples and the list is not all inclusive, “e.g.” is used. If the listed items are all the possibilities, then “i.e.” is used. If “i.e.” is correct, consider moving the material from the parens and making it a proper part of the sentence.

Notice the messages I am communicating. First, I identify the problem; the author does not have to guess. Second, I explain why it is a problem. Third, I provide solutions. Both the author and the client can see that I am carefully reading the manuscript, I am thinking about the manuscript (i.e., I am focused), I care about the manuscript and the author, and, above all, that I am knowledgeable about editing — that is, that the editor’s primary role is to help the author communicate clearly and that one tool in the editor’s toolbox for doing that is for the editor to communicate clearly with the author.

The point is that queries can serve multiple purposes and I want all of those purposes to reflect positively on me.

To Market and to Comfort

Every author is anxious about the editor. After all, the author has invested time and effort into the manuscript and wants it treated with respect. For those of us who work indirectly with authors, the author’s anxiety about us is even greater. And because we work for publishers or packagers, the publishers and packagers also experience anxiety albeit at a much lesser level than authors. Their concern often revolves around how the author will perceive and receive the editor.

You put everyone at ease when you demonstrate your skills and communicate effectively. Perhaps more importantly, if you view queries as your opportunity to establish your credentials with the author and client, you will be more cautious in how you write them, which means that you are less likely to antagonize either the client or the author.

I recall a book I was asked to review after it had been edited because the author was angry over the editing and had spent a considerable amount of time both berating the inhouse production staff for having hired the editor and in correcting what the author perceived as editor errors.

As I went through the editing it became pretty clear that the editing was well done; the problem was the queries. They were written in such a manner as to convey the editor’s contempt for the author. I admit the author was somewhat lazy and that had I been the editor, I, too, would have been cursing the author — but the difference is that I would not have let those feelings permeate the queries: neither the author nor the client should ever think that I have anything but admiration for the author’s work.

The editor hadn’t comforted the author or the client nor had the editor marketed herself well. The author’s anger might be ratcheted down a bit, but both the author and the client will hesitate to use the editor again, and the author will let fellow authors know as well.

To Demonstrate Why I am The Editor

Presumably we are all well-skilled, well-qualified professional editors. Put us in a bag, shake us up, and pull one of us out at random and you should get a good quality editing job. But that doesn’t bring me any business, and bringing in business is the name of the game. (If you haven’t read it, let me recommend my book, The Business of Editing. It is not enough to have editing skills, you must always be thinking and acting like a business.)

I always have the need to bring in future business in mind, so when I edit I look at the editing as a way to impress my client, and I look at queries as the way to both impress and communicate what makes me The Editor — the editor to hire for future projects and the editor to recommend to colleagues. Well-crafted, informative queries (just like emails and online posts) are like a billboard advertising my skills. Cryptic, curt queries undermine the image of professionalism that I want to project.

This does not mean that every query needs to be five sentences long or a dissertation on grammar. It does mean that every query must satisfy these criteria:

  • be on point, not meandering
  • identifies the problem and offers an appropriate solution
  • reinforces my skills and expertise as an editor
  • reinforces the correctness of the decision to hire me
  • declares clearly my status as a professional editor

Every query that I write that fulfills those criteria sets me apart from my competition and says I am The Editor.

EditTools’ Insert Query Macro

Because writing queries can be time-consuming, it is a good idea to build query templates that require minor modification based on the circumstance and project. That is the premise behind EditTools’ Insert Query macro. I have numerous “standard” queries that are saved to a dataset and that I can call up and modify for a particular project. In addition, each project has its own custom queries. By using the Insert Query macro, I can minimize the time I need to spend inputting a query and the opportunity for inputting error. It also means that I can use more detailed queries because I do not have to retype the same query innumerable times.

Consider this query:

AQ: Using this type of time reference allows the time to shift. The shift occurs because the reference was made when you were writing the text but doesn’t allow for either editing and production time until publication or for the book’s expected several-year shelf-life or for the passage of time between the writing of the text and when it is read by a reader. It would be better to write, for example, “since 2000” (substitute the appropriate year), so that the time reference always remains static.

How long would it take you to type this query? How many times would you care to do so? With EditTools’ Insert Query macro, I typed it once into the dataset and now can either use it as is or modify it as needed, taking seconds rather than minutes and avoiding typing errors.

To get the most out of queries, think of queries as marketing tools.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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