An American Editor

February 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: Are Editors to LinkedIn Like Oil is to Water?

Today’s guest article is by Ruth Thaler-Carter. Ruth is a freelance writer and editor and is the owner of Communication Central, which sponsors each year a fall multiday conference for freelancers.

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The Business of Editing:
Are Editors to LinkedIn Like Oil is to Water?

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

I spend a lot of time – some colleagues would say too much time – participating in more than a dozen LinkedIn discussion groups, as well as several e-mail discussion lists — the Copy Editing List (CEL), a Google Group for freelancers that I manage, a Yahoo Group list for DC-area publishing professionals that I co-own, the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) members-only list, all of which are pretty active, and a few others that are more sporadic or occasional in nature. Not to mention Facebook!

I’m not sure that the relationship between an editor and such online activity is the same as that of oil and water, but they do mix, even as they also can separate.

I could easily spend entire days doing nothing but reading and responding to online discussions. I’ve joked with my husband that these groups make it much too easy to stay glued to the computer, even when my better instincts and extrovert nature say to get off my duff and out in the real world, or at least get a little exercise.

In some ways, social media are like reading the newspaper, both in (some) content and how they become part of a daily routine. My husband is retired and gets up later than I do, so checking e-mail and social media sites is my first-thing-in-the-morning routine these days; I read the newspaper with my second cup of coffee, when he’s up, and the rest of it still later in the day, when we have dinner together; anything I haven’t finished by then, I read in the evenings.

From a business perspective, my online activity has two sides. The negative is that it can be a timewaster or distraction — it takes time away from consciously and organizedly prospecting for new clients; it could take time away from doing work; and it could be considered economically foolish, because I’m giving advice or answering questions without getting paid for doing so.

The positive side is that I’m increasing my level of visibility and status as an expert in writing, editing, proofreading, and freelancing in general; I’ve gotten some new, well-paying clients through my activity in most of these environments; I’ve made wonderful friends and gained valuable colleagues; I’ve learned a lot, especially from CEL; I’m usually up to date on breaking news, both in my profession and in the world at large; and I like to think I’m helping people do things better and more professionally than they might otherwise. That’s a mitzvah — a good deed, a service to other people — and I do believe in networking from a helping perspective, not just for promoting or getting something for oneself.

The important thing is that I don’t let this activity interfere with actually getting my work done, no matter how much fun, and occasionally how rewarding, it is to participate in these online communities. Work comes first.

I do get frustrated at some LinkedIn discussions. So many of the people in these groups aren’t at a level of expertise, experience, skill, or professionalism for me to consider them as equals, but that can make someone with actual editorial experience and knowledge an important member of a group. And it can be annoying to see the same questions and comments come up again and again and again. It is incredibly frustrating to see accurate information be argued against by people with no training who have no idea what “professional” means in terms of writing, editing, proofreading, or other aspects of the editorial business, much less what it means to be a professional freelancer.

A recent LinkedIn discussion, for instance, started out by posing this question: “Would I be burned as a witch if I were to posit that all style guides are worthless?” and added: “Especially since I’m not a professional in the field of publishing?”

For one thing, you get burned at the stake for fiercely upholding a conviction, and somehow this scenario doesn’t fit (I can’t quite pin down why the image doesn’t work; I just know it’s off somehow). For another, and more importantly, why is someone who isn’t even in publishing pontificating about whether style guides are worthwhile? And — perhaps even more importantly — why should those of us who are in publishing care what someone like that thinks or says?

It seemed worth responding if only because style manuals are so basic to our work as editors that their role and value should be defended whenever and wherever possible. The asker might be one of the thousands (millions?) of people who want to publish their precious ideas these days and considering whether to hire an editor, so it could be worth trying to make him understand why a professional editor would use a style guide. Most of the other participants in the discussion agreed that style guides and manuals are important to professional-level writing and publishing, especially in nonfiction work. It became clear that the original poster really didn’t want to be convinced or educated, though, and I finally left the discussion in annoyance at myself for spending more than five minutes’ time and one answer on it.

In a LinkedIn group for self-professed “grammar geeks,” some discussions answer grammar and usage questions accurately and interestingly, but many of the responses are from people who know even less than those asking the questions. It’s especially funny — albeit a little aggravating — to see non-native speakers of English present themselves as experts and give erroneous answers to fairly basic grammar questions. I chime in to make sure no one takes such answers as gospel. Someone has to provide accurate information.

One LinkedIn irony of the past week was seeing someone called a “top influencer” and knowing that was because she was unusually active over several days with increasingly incoherent and inflammatory posts complaining about being moderated (censored, in her words) in several groups.

Answering questions in various online forums often does help me fine-tune my own thinking about a topic, and has given me ideas for articles to write and conversations to have with my real peers – colleagues at CEL and my Google Group e-mail and Yahoo e-mail lists, and members of the EFA, American Copy Editors Society, Society for Professional Journalists, American Independent Writers, etc. I much prefer e-mail lists for discussions of the editorial profession and the freelance life, but LinkedIn adds a different dimension — and can be a good way to reach and educate people who need either editors or insights on how to be better ones.

The trick to making smart use of these online forums is to use some discipline. I have colleagues who are also active in discussion lists and online groups, and many of them find the volume of messages overwhelming. They are time-takers, even when they provide useful information.

Some people set aside certain times of the day to participate in online conversations – first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening; I like to start the day by clearing out the overnight accumulation of forum and list messages, but will post responses only if I’m not on deadline for a current assignment.

I have a sorting process: First to be read in e-mail are messages from real people — clients, colleagues and friends; then my various discussion lists; then, and only then, LinkedIn; Facebook once in the morning and then at the end of the day or in the evening.

Some colleagues only check on e-mail at certain points during the day; I keep my e-mail program open throughout the day in case some of my on-call clients want to reach me for fast-turnaround assignments, but I’ve trained myself to take a quick glimpse at incoming messages and not respond to them if I’m in the middle of a writing, editing, or proofreading project, because work comes first. If I’m immersed in a project and need a short brain-break, though, I’ll stop and respond to a couple of list messages or group posts as a way of refreshing my brain — after I’ve gotten up and jogged around the apartment for a few minutes, that is.

It’s tempting to receive discussion lists as individual messages, because then you get to be the first person to answer someone’s question. However, constant individual messages from a busy list are overwhelming, so I receive my livelier lists in what’s called digest mode — batches of messages that arrive together a few times a day, instead of dozens or a couple hundred that flow in individually throughout the day. That’s a good way to manage the influx of information and messages.

As long as I can enforce some discipline on myself, I’ll stay involved with my online groups and lists with the goals of adding to my client list and making the world a better place for editors and those who use us. For this freelance writer/editor, LinkedIn, other online activity, and editing do mix like oil and water — in a good way!

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