An American Editor

January 18, 2012

The Professional Editor: Artificial or Arbitrary Schedules

As I’ve noted before, I am now in my 28th year as an editor and I like to think I am as professional an editor as any of my colleagues. Yet there is one thing that always sticks in my craw when it comes to dealing with clients: the artificial schedule.

I call it an artificial schedule, but it could as readily be called an arbitrary schedule; the problems arise when compliance with the artificial schedule is rigidly demanded by the client. Occasionally, I have such a client.

Generally, when I have been handed an artificial schedule by a client, I write back and thank them but advise them that my goal is to meet the project end date, not the interim dates, and that to meet the end date and keep a project flowing, I will return edited material on a weekly basis (with an invoice, of course :)). Whether as a result of such weekly returns the artificial interim dates are met will be a matter of luck and chance, not calculation.

I should note that the projects that I work on and which come with interim artificial schedules are large projects, thousands of manuscript pages (my projects generally run 2,500 to 12,000 — or more — manuscript pages, often requiring more than one editor). Small projects, that is projects of fewer than 1000 manuscript pages, usually come to me with just an end date.

The problem with the artificial schedule is that it fails to consider (a) the quality of the author’s writing and how much work needs to be done to the writing, (b) the complexity of the manuscript coding that needs to be applied, (c) whether all or just some of the authors are native or fluent English speakers, (d) whether all of the manuscript has been supplied or there are outstanding chapters, (e) the number and type of charts, graphs, and figures, (f) that the first chapters go much slower than subsequent chapters as I try to “get a feel” for the project and learn what “common” errors are made across chapters, (g) the number and condition of the references, and (h) the myriad other problems that do not surface until a chapter is being edited. (This is where I thank heaven for the Microsoft Word macros I use: Editor’s Toolkit Plus from the Editorium, EditTools from wordsnSync, and PerfectIt from Intelligent Editing.)

Consider just one of the named stumbling blocks, item g. I recently edited a chapter that had 504 references of which only a handful were even close to being correct. Most had to be looked up because the author submitted, for example, author names like this: “Young, GM, YV AS, Trimble T, Excuse, R, al et,” and journal names like this: “Joint Quality Comm –  Safety.” Not only did punctuation have to be fixed, but YV AS had to be deciphered and the journal name checked and corrected. Imagine my consternation when I discovered that not only were the author names mostly wrong, but the article title was incorrect, as was the journal name (thank goodness, however, for my Journal macro which corrected many of the journal names before I began editing the references; see The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online IV — Mastering Macros for more information). Fixing the reference list took a considerable amount of time, yet an artificial schedule doesn’t allow for this.

It is the nature of an artificial schedule that it is often difficult to meet. The schedule is often created mathematically — x number of chapters divided by y number of weeks = z, the number of chapters expected weekly (or, instead of number of chapters it may be number of pages [which generally excludes figures] or some other calculable item) — but without regard to the real content. And because the client is a corporation, it lives or dies by schedules; it can’t live with the uncertainty that is inherent in a schedule-less world.

Another problem with the artificial schedule is that if enforced, it may well require the editor to work long days and weekends to meet it. While the inhouse person who sent the schedule relaxes on the weekend, the editor is working away just to meet an artificial deadline. I did not become self-employed to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I value my leisure time.

As I noted earlier, I try to dissuade clients from establishing interim schedules. I do understand, however, that they are often required. In those instances, I accept them with grace, yet make certain that my client understands that I consider the interim dates as very broad guidelines and that the only dates on which I fixate are the end date and the weekly submission dates. Alas, that does not get through to all of my clients.

One client wanted the first batch of 15 chapters by x date. I was able to complete 14 of the 15 by the set date, but that was not good enough. The client wanted to know how soon the 15th chapter would be completed, was I going to be able to meet future dates, should the client find another editor to work on this project? I think I would have been more sympathetic to the client had this not been the first batch of chapters and were I behind by some significant number of chapters as the end date loomed closer.

We got past this kerfuffle as it became clear by the third or fourth weekly submission that I really did have a handle on the project and as the client began reviewing submitted chapters and noting the author-created problems and the high quality of the editing. But there are two points I wish to make:

  1. To the editor: Remember that you are a professional and you must take charge of the project and the schedule. You should not be intimidated into accepting a schedule whose only connection to reality is that it exists. You need to educate the client about problems encountered and why the schedule won’t work, yet ever mindful that you agreed to meet a certain end date. Be professional; take charge.
  2. To the client: Remember that the date that ultimately matters is the end date. It is not possible to tell, at least on a large project, from a first or second submission by an editor whether an end date is in jeopardy. Consider all of the things that may be imperfect about the material and make allowances for those imperfections and the time it realistically takes to correct them. Keep in mind that you and the editor are really a team with the same goal in mind. And remember that earlier chapters often take longer to edit as the editor becomes familiar with the author’s “style” and the kinds of problems that exist in the manuscript, some of which may lend themselves to, for example, the writing of a macro for use in subsequent chapters. (In such an instance, a macro can change a problem from a major headache to an inconvenience.)

When all is said and done, the professional editor will meet the client’s end date with a well-edited manuscript, which is the ultimate result wanted by everyone concerned with the project.


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