An American Editor

February 1, 2012

The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three

I’ve decided to start a new occasional series called The Business of Editing. In this series, I will share with you my thoughts about the business aspects of being an editor. My 28 years of experience as editor were preceded by 14 years in the business world in various capacities, which gives me a more diverse perspective than you might otherwise expect. However, my experience as an editor is perhaps more limited than yours in that I only work on long-form nonfiction for publishers; that is, I do not work on, for example, journal articles and similar short-form material, and I do not work directly with authors.

On the other hand, one lesson I learned early in my career as a freelance editor is this: business is business. There are certain fundamentals to running a business that remain true across all business types, just as there are things that are unique to the editing business. When the discussion centers on something that seems inappropriate to your editorial business, don’t dismiss it. Think about it and think about how it can be made to apply to your business. A good example of this is today’s topic — what I call “The Rule of Three.”

My Rule of Three applies generally to two things in my business: whether I should keep or fire a client and whether a client is profitable for me. The two are intertwined. My Rule of Three is one factor in the answer to whether I should keep or fire a client, but it is the determinant in whether a client is profitable for me. If a client is not profitable for me, the client is fired; if the client is profitable for me, I may keep or fire the client based on other factors that I consider.

So what is the Rule of Three?

The Rule of Three is this: I never make a decision about a client, especially about the profitability to me of a client, until I have edited three manuscripts from that client. Experience has taught me that one or two manuscripts are not necessarily indicative of the types of manuscripts I can expect to receive from a client. The first manuscript may be so problematic that I am lucky if I earn minimum wage, let alone my desired effective hourly rate. (For a discussion of the effective hourly rate, see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand.) Or it may be so deceptively easy that I surpass my goal easily. Or it may fall somewhere between the two extremes, which is what usually happens.

But wherever the first project falls on the continuum, I need to look at additional projects to determine how typical/atypical this first project was.

When I first started my editing career, I was advised that I needed to review manuscript from any job offered before I accepted the job, and if I accepted a job that turned out to be much more complicated than I expected, I needed to be wary of taking on more projects from that client. I was given this advice by several experienced colleagues and I followed it for a few months — until I realized (a) how much time I was wasting on attempting to evaluate the difficulties of manuscripts and (b) how many clients I was considering firing because their manuscripts were not as “advertised.”

It was at this point that I implemented my trusty Rule of Three, and I have never looked back. I stopped trying to evaluate manuscripts in advance. I discovered that the bits and pieces of what I previewed were not necessarily representative of the manuscript as a whole. Look at it this way: I typically work on multiauthor books, where each chapter is written by a different author or group of authors, that run 3,000-plus manuscript pages. When I was sent sample chapters to evaluate, sometimes I got chapters that were well-written, sometimes I got chapters that were problematic because English was not the author(s) native language, and sometimes I got a little bit of both. But what did three chapters out of 130 chapters really tell me? Nothing very useful.

So I took the path of the Rule of Three and now I simply say I’ll do the project. By keeping careful records, especially of the time I spent editing, I found that I could make a reliable general conclusion about a client by evaluating my records after having edited three manuscripts. Three manuscripts seem to give a good balance of what I can expect to receive from a client over the course of time.

This is not to say that I do not occasionally “lose my shirt” on a project or run into a manuscript that is so troublesome I would like to make the authors and the in-house production editor run with the bulls, but I can look back over my 28 years and say that the clients with whom I have stayed (and who have stayed with me) are profitable for me and let me exceed my goal effective hourly rate over the course of the year.

Like most businesses, editing has a rhythm. Once you find the rhythm with a client, it can be made to work for the editor rather than against the editor. Regular readers of this column know of my praise for macros (see, e.g., The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online IV — Mastering Macros). Macros let you take advantage of the rhythm. The Rule of Three lets you find a rhythm and macros let you take advantage of having found that rhythm.

When you think about the Rule of Three, also think about this: Just as you are evaluating a client, a client evaluates you. Clients continuously evaluate editors. Similarly, I apply the Rule of Three on a continuing basis; after all, clients and manuscripts do change. The key is keeping careful and accurate records and not being misled by one manuscript (or part of a manuscript). You need to look at and for patterns and trends. You need to stay ahead of the curve, and when a good client becomes a bad client, you need to be willing to cut your losses.

Similarly, just because a client was unacceptable three years ago doesn’t mean the client isn’t acceptable this year. Try again and apply the Rule of Three again before automatically declining work.

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