An American Editor

April 29, 2013

Business of Editing: Taking On Too Much

This past week, I was hired to help on a massive project that had been started by other editors who were now behind schedule. I was given a copy of the stylesheet the other editors had created in hopes that I could adopt it for the material I was asked to edit.

The project, as I said, is massive. The portion I received is nearly 5,000 manuscript pages and the client would like that material edited within 6 weeks in hopes of partially salvaging the schedule.

The first problem I faced was what to do about the stylesheet. As provided, it had numerous problems. First, there is no clear pattern to some of the decisions. For example, sometimes the suffix like is hyphenated and sometimes not. This is not a problem where the suffix is attached to, for example, an acronym (APA-like), but it is a problem when it is attached to a standard word that doesn’t end in the letter l (e.g., boatlike vs. tomb-like; why hyphenate the latter but not the former?).

The hyphenation issue didn’t stop with suffixes; it extended to prefixes as well. Sometimes a particular prefix is hyphenated and sometimes it isn’t.

To complicate matters, some of the decisions are contrary to the dictionary that governs the project and certainly contrary to the appropriate style manuals.

A second problem with the stylesheet is that it contains spelling errors. Not just one or two, but a significant number. These are errors that should have been flagged if the editors are using specialty spell-checking software. I do not mean to imply that an editor can rely on spell-checking software; rather, spell-checking software serves a purpose and an editor should use specialty spell-check software to flag possible errors at so they can be checked and a determination made whether they are in fact errors.

The first problem was readily solved by a discussion with the client. It was determined that the most important things for this project are chapters being internally consistent (which makes sense because some chapters are longer than many books) rather than consistent across chapters, and that the schedule be met if at all possible. Consequently, I need to have my team of editors do what they have always done and strive for chapter consistency first and cross-chapter consistency second (ignoring, of course, chapters we are not editing).

The second problem was also easily solved because my team uses appropriate software, including specialty software and EditTools, to help us with these projects. We are ignoring the stylesheet from the other editors for the most part.

However, this scenario does raise a few questions. First, am I ethically obligated to advise the client of the errors in the other editors’ stylesheet? If I do, I am questioning the competency of the editors previously hired and I am creating more work for the client who now has to either correct edited manuscript in-house or ask proofreaders to do it (or possibly just ignore them). I believe an editor’s obligation is to the editor’s client and thus in this instance believe that the correct course is to notify the client of the errors. I think, too, this holds true with my own stylesheets should I subsequently discover I have made an error. In the case of my stylesheets, I make it a practice to both update the stylesheet and to alert the client that I discovered an error (or more) made by me or another team editor, that I have corrected the stylesheet and the corrected version is now available for download, and I list the errors made and their corrections.

The second question that is raised is whether an editor has an ethical obligation to advise a client when a project is too large for the editor early enough in the project’s schedule for the client to attempt to salvage its schedule? A companion question is whether an editor has an ethical obligation to tell a client when the editor lacks the skill to properly edit the subject matter at hand of that lack of skill so that the client can hire an editor with the necessary skill?

Again, I think it is an editor’s obligation to let a client know when a project is too big for the editor to edit in a timely fashion. I also think an editor should decline projects for which the editor does not have the requisite skillset.

There is yet another issue involved in projects such as this one: having and using the correct tools to do the proper editing job. It is here that I think many editors fail.

The project in question is a medical tome, as I suspect you have guessed. Should not an editor have current medical spell-checking software and not rely on either one that is years out of date or on the general spell-checking software that comes with Microsoft Word? Should not an editor have current drug manuals or software? How about specialty word software (or books) and dictionaries? More importantly, shouldn’t the editor both have these resources at her fingertips and actually use them?

I also think that editors should have and use all of the tools that are available (and appropriate) to make the editor’s work more accurate and more consistent. Yet, I have been told by some editors that, for example, they do not use spell-checking software because they have a “sharp eye for misspellings and we all know that that spell-checking software is not always accurate.” I have also heard laments about how the software costs money. (I view such costs as investments in my business and profession, and as part of the requirements to do business.)

When an editor overreaches, both the editor and the client suffer. The editor becomes stressed and jeopardizes his relationship with the client, who is also stressed. In the end, the editor may well lose both the project and the client. I recognize that it is difficult to give up projects that will bring in money, especially a lot of money, but there are times when saying “No” or “I can’t” is the better strategy.

In the case at hand, the original editors and the project were a mismatch. Whether the mismatch was one of size or skill or both, I do not know. I wonder whether the client’s confidence in the original editors is shaken. I’d like to think that a professional editor would not have been swept up in this scene, that a professional editor would place the client’s interests before her own interests.

What would you do in a situation like this? What do you think an editor’s ethical obligations are?



  1. I agree with all your points, especially that an editor is “obliged to let a client know when a project is too big for the editor to edit in a timely fashion” and that an “editor should decline projects for which the editor does not have the requisite skillset”. I think it’s the task of an editor to fix some basic rules since the beginning and also to take care that the communication is good. If the client doesn’t respect some of them – like handing a manuscript that is bigger and different from what was agreed on – he has to accept some changes from the editor. In my experience being honest and clear during the whole editing-journey gives the best results. Obviously, every client is different and has his own way to work/write… About the spell-checking: I had to edit text in several languages (including old french, old spanish etc.) and you simply can’t have spell-checkings for all of them. But if a text is in one language, I would always get a spell-checking and then check the text myself. You never go through a text only once or twice, but more often. And the longer the text, the more time you need for it.


    Comment by expatsincebirth — April 29, 2013 @ 4:48 am | Reply

  2. An interesting post that raises lots of questions. As you point out, the mismatch may have been one of size or skill. It could also have arisen because of the lack of a clear brief from the client. Or perhaps the time frame was so tight that the previous team did the best they could under the circumstances – it may be that the client asked the editors to do a job that was “good enough” but, having realized this was not the best course of action, taken steps to rectify the situation by bringing in a new team.

    To someone assessing the results of this arrangement further along in the process, the revisions may appear sloppy, but without knowing the background it’s impossible to lay the blame. In view of this, my approach would be one of tact with regards to the previous team’s work – I’d get on with the job in hand according to the brief I’d been given, using the tools at my disposal. It’s easy to be critical of others’ work but evaluations of colleagues’ professionalism are difficult without knowing the full story.

    I do, of course, think that editorial professionals have an ethical obligation to decline work that falls outside their skill set. I also think we are obliged to discuss any potential delivery problems at the earliest opportunity. What’s unclear in this situation is whether the original team felt the work was within their skill set but were given an awkward brief, and whether they communicated scheduling problems but were asked to continue regardless.


    Comment by Louise Harnby | Proofreader — April 29, 2013 @ 5:27 am | Reply

    • Excellent points, Louise. Yet a question: Would you advise the client of the stylesheet errors? I do not mean style errors, such as choosing between to equally correct spellings of a word, but clear spelling errors that can be pointed to in the dictionary that both the editors and the client have established as the guide.

      The problem is not one of directly accusing anyone of lack of sloppiness or professionalism, but the implication is there when you point out the errors. On the other hand, if you do not point out the errors, thereby implicitly accepting them as correct, are you obligated (a) to adhere to the misspellings in your work or (b) just not say anything and use the correct spelling in your work?

      I also think that an editor’s professionalism can be questioned without knowing 100% of the story if you have sufficient previous experience with the client to know what the brief was very likely to be. For example, if you have done many projects with a client over the years and the brief was virtually identical in every instance, is there a reason to suspect that the brief altered for this project?

      Finally, as a proofreader, aren’t you implicitly grading an editor’s work when you return material to a client. If you correct a lot of grammar and spelling errors, do you really need to say anything about the quality of the editor’s work? Do you not expect the client to look at it and draw the conclusion?


      Comment by americaneditor — April 29, 2013 @ 6:41 am | Reply

      • Yes, but… Isn’t that what a style sheet is FOR? – To record deviations from the selected dictionary and style guide. – The poor DE who put “muther” on the style sheet may well know it is a misspelling, but have lost that argument with the author after dragging it up Everest and back. As for “inconsistencies”, what if they’re complex rules rather than sloppiness? I have seen such style choices, and spun as they were explained to me. The system I’m remembering echoed of African tribal rhythms: I’m told they are highly complex (sophisticated), even though they just sound like a jumble of noise to my rock ‘n roll ear.

        I am in no position to question your judgement of said project. Could I see all of the materials in question, I might be your greatest champion. It’s just that I have seen the opposite, too.

        As for Louise’s comment, I agree. I was brow-beaten (with a big stack of money) into editing math texts. The publisher literally called me 4 times. Three times, I declined. Finally, I agreed on the condition that they acknowledge that this was (nearly) my weakest area. (After a dozen or more math titles, I think I’ve attained the level of “decent”, but not specialist in that field. And my math skills are now the envy of those around me, save for my siblings who have Master’s degrees in math.)

        On another occasion, I “rescued” a project that had been declined by 6 other editors because it involved 28 authors, an absurd deadline (2 months _ago_), and blah-blah-blah. Like you, I promised to do the most good possible. Yes, other editors judged that work as poor. This will always remind me to consider the parameters and conditions under which my predecessors (colleagues) have worked. In fact, after writing a teacher guide for a text full of massive errors (e.g., captions didn’t match images), I called the editor and just said, “So, what was that project like?” And let her vent.


        Comment by Adrienne (scieditor) — May 2, 2013 @ 7:45 am | Reply

        • Yes, one purpose of a stylesheet is to note deviances. In the case of a deliberate misspelling or deviance from a standard (expected) style decision, my policy is that if the decision was made by the author or publisher, it must be noted in some manner on the stylesheet so that proofreaders and subsequent editors know that I and the editors who work with me are aware of the misspelling or style deviance. BUT, a medical text such as the one discussed in the post, cannot have deliberate misspellings — alternate spellings, yes, but not misspellings. A misspelled drug name, for example, can lead to disaster. Nor can it deviate greatly from standard styles.

          I think a good editor makes it a practice to note on the stylesheet as author- or publisher-made decisions regardless of whether they are contrary to standard practice or could be construed as erroneous by a proofreader or editor of a subsequent edition. Just as editors have to accept responsibility for their editorial decisions, so must authors and editors.

          I grant that my experience is relatively narrow in that the vast majority of my work is on nonfiction in areas that are less tolerant of misspellings and style decisions that flay alive standard practices. However, from my perspective, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, it is the editor’s responsibility to make sure that future users of the stylesheet understand why a decision to deviate from what would otherwise be expected was made. This is for both self-protection of the editor’s reputation and to ensure that the subsequent stylesheet user doesn’t try to undo what cannot be undone.


          Comment by americaneditor — May 2, 2013 @ 8:07 am | Reply

  3. I agree with all points, while cringing from familiarity. I try to say no when something is over my head; the real problem is not realizing it’s over my head until well into the project. I recently made this mistake and was fortunate in having a project editor willing to work it out.

    As a generalist editor, I receive a wide range of work and don’t always see trip-ups coming. My suite of tools serves well for general copyediting but falls short as things get more specialized. I find it hard to decide in advance what I need to stock up with; and, on a perpetual tight budget, I struggle with justifying a business expense to help with a specific type of work if the likelihood is low that I’ll ever see an equivalent job again. (Sometimes once is enough, and I learn to not accept any more of that type of work, which is makes it nice if I haven’t spent the money on an investment that proves unnecessary.)

    A related problem follows the acquisition of helpful software tools: figuring out how to use them! Self-training time is its own investment, and the diversity of my work means that some tools don’t get used, or I have to apply more time to making them genuinely helpful than I do performing the same tasks manually.

    So it’s a constant flux of decision making and learning and prioritizing. The real skill is being able to recognize when you need a resource, and acting on it.


    Comment by Carolyn — April 29, 2013 @ 6:04 am | Reply

  4. I think we’re ethically obligated to advise a client if we see errors and inconsistencies in existing stylesheets. There are tactful ways of doing so, but errors are errors. Those of us who are skilled enough to notice them should make it possible to fix them. If a previous editor introduced or overlooked them in a stylesheet, everything that client publishes is at risk of being inaccurate and/or inconsistent. If pointing out errors implies that a previous editor screwed up, well … s/he did. S/He’s probably been paid by now and may not have been used again, so the damage to that person could be minimal – but the damage by the person would be ongoing if the stylesheet isn’t fixed ASAP.

    I also think an editor does have an ethical obligation to advise a client when a project is too big, as soon as the editor realizes that fact; that is, as early as possible, so the client has a chance of salvaging or revising the schedule. And that an editor absolutely has an ethical obligation to tell a client if s/he realizes s/he doesn’t have the necessary skills for that project, so the client can hire someone more appropriate in time to meet the schedule. If you can suggest someone, so much the better.

    These are not just ethical issues; they are business issues. If you accept a project with a faulty stylesheet, the project will suffer. At the least, that project will require more time and effort in dealing with every problem in the stylesheet individually. If the project is too much or beyond the editor’s skills, trying to handle it anyhow will result in failure and make the editor look unprofessional and even less skilled than if s/he had admitted the timing or skills problems in the first place. A client might get upset over being told you can’t handle the project, for whatever reason, but will be a LOT more upset if that happens when it’s too late to do anything about it.

    I fully agree that we should use all the tools we can to make our work more efficient and accurate. I think of things like spellcheck as back-up; I don’t rely solely on it, but I do use it to support my sharp eye. It’s a tool, not a solution, but it can be an invaluable tool when used appropriately.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 29, 2013 @ 9:21 am | Reply

  5. I think I have experienced everything in Rich’s post! A few years ago, I worked on a huge manuscript that had been started by others (I suspect in-house editorial assistants) and received a style sheet that didn’t have the kind of blatant errors that Rich mentioned but did turn out to have some errors and unnecessary hyphenation. It was for a technical field that uses many terms that are spelled or hyphenated in a sometimes illogical way, but because they’re accepted terms in the field and the style sheet had been given to me as the authoritative spelling, I had no reason to question it — until I got more into the editing. I found some errors on my own and then the feedback I got on the first chapter I sent in was that this and that term didn’t need to be hyphenated. When I replied that I was using the terms from the client-supplied style sheet, they decided to scrap that style sheet and have be create one as I usually do.

    The other big problem is with the time limits set for big projects. I’ve learned to not be afraid to discuss time issues with clients — their needs differ, and I won’t know unless I talk to them. Sometimes they’d much rather extend the deadline to get a high-quality edit, and sometimes they rather hold the deadline and say just do what you can. I don’t like the latter jobs, and try not to take on such jobs, but they are sometimes a reality in publishing, unfortunately.

    And regarding spell-checkers, I can’t understand the attitude of some editors not to use them! Are these editors so perfect that they would never miss, not to mention introduce, any spelling errors? Yes, they don’t catch all errors, especially errors in usage, but they are another tool that helps us find typos that are all too easy to miss. I have even created an exclude dictionary (in MS Word) for words that are not misspelled per se, but are often misused, so that Word’s spellchecker will flag them. Yes, it’s sort of a pain to hit ignore many times, but I find misuse enough that it’s worth it. You don’t want to send in an edit on a business book, for example, that has “mange” instead of “manage.”

    Specialty spellcheckers aren’t always expensive, either. I just bought a combination legal-scientific-medical spellchecker that is reasonably priced. For my work, this one works great. Even if a specialty spellchecker is expensive, I agree with Rich that we need to invest in the tools of the trade for whatever kind of editing we’re doing. As the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — April 29, 2013 @ 10:41 am | Reply

  6. Regarding blatant errors on style sheets that I’ve been given or style sheets that I’ve created (I’m not perfect), I always inform the clients. I’ve even found errors in general in-house style guides and have notified the client. They’re usually very grateful that someone pointed out errors in their house guides (and actually read the style guide!).


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — April 29, 2013 @ 10:46 am | Reply

  7. That’s some tome!

    You have a difficult decision to make, but if I know you, it’ll be the right one.


    Comment by Vicki — April 30, 2013 @ 6:26 am | Reply

  8. […] I wrote in my previous post, Business of Editing: Taking On Too Much, I have been hired to help edit a portion of a very large project. My portion runs to 5,000 […]


    Pingback by Business of Editing: The Logistics of Large Projects | An American Editor — May 1, 2013 @ 5:04 am | Reply

  9. I agree that an editor has an ethical and moral obligation to only take on work that they can complete to a professional standard, however there is only so much that an editor can do to ensure that those criteria are met. For example if you are given a manuscript that is significantly larger than initially agreed, your responsibility only extends to informing the client and renegotiating. If they insist on keeping the same schedule, the only decision you can make is whether to continue or to decline. You can’t force them to agree to give you more time, or to reduce the size of the file. The best you can do is ask.

    Regarding style, that is an interesting question. Is it your obligation as an editor to point out inconsistencies in the style guide? Or should one just follow the rules they are given? If you do follow the rules as given and knowingly make corrections in error, how does that sit with your conscience? Editing according to an in-house style guide can be a nightmare, and one I personally dread. There is a lot to be said for a client adopting a standard style guide – after all they have been designed by professionals for this very purpose!

    I have my own experience to relate here that I hope is relevant to your situation. I was recently given the task of editing a translated religious manuscript and series of biographies. The two tasks came as a pair and were considered by the client to be the same type of work, yet my experience of working on them was completely different. When editing the biographies I was given free rein to be creative and to use vocabulary that I felt improved the English. The client loved my work. However when working on the religious manuscript, despite having exactly the same brief, my experience was awful. The client questioned the precise meaning of every word, we went round in circles over what was and was not “proper” English grammar and idiom (they frequently lectured me on English grammar!) and it reached the point where they wanted to dictate which words I could alter and which I could not, yet they still wanted perfect English. All in all they hated the work I did on that project and I dreaded working on it.

    What was so revealing was that the difference in my experience – and in my client’s perception of my ability – was entirely down to my client’s grip on the project. On the one hand I was set free to do as I saw fit and they loved my work; and on the other they clung tightly to their vision of what they wanted and despite recognising the need for professional input they refused to accept it when I gave it, and ultimately they hated the work I did.

    In the end I declined to do any further work on the religious manuscript with the effect that they ceased all contact. I presume that they want to offer the biographies to their next editor as a sweetener, yet still cling to the fallacy that the two projects are the same.

    All of this is to say that it is not just money to be taken into account when considering turning down a project. On paper the pay for my project was double my usual rate, yet ultimately with all the back and forth and endless negotiating it wasn’t worth my time.


    Comment by Rebecca Wood — May 3, 2013 @ 8:14 am | Reply

    • One of the challenges in managing one’s workload, at least in my world, is client schedules that change midstream. I might have everything all laid out well within my production capabilities, but then something happens on the other end; and, in the interest of maintaining the good business relationship, I’ll shift if possible to accommodate. More than once I’ve gotten myself very bollixed up by this.


      Comment by Carolyn — May 3, 2013 @ 10:44 am | Reply

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