An American Editor

August 21, 2013

Implied Promises & the Professional Editor

Previously, we discussed the demand for perfection (see The Business of Editing: The Demand for Perfection) and the disconnect between expectation and reality. Not discussed then, but of equal importance, is the question of an editor’s implied promises.

An implied promise is just that: a promise or warranty that the buyer — in our case, an author or publisher — can reasonably infer from statements or actions made by the editor. It is not something that the editor expressly says to the client. For example, if the editor said to the client, “Your manuscript will be error-free when I am done editing it,” the editor would be making an express promise (or warranty) to the client that, in fact, the manuscript will be error-free.

I suspect most of us are shaking our heads and saying to ourselves that no editor would be foolish enough to make express promises like that, but, alas, I see comments all the time from editors who make such statements. Sometimes I think I should hire them and, if they do not deliver, hold their feet to the proverbial fire.

But what worries me more are the implied promises. These are the promises that we do not expressly say to a client but which a client can reasonably infer. Perhaps we use a slogan, such as “Making manuscripts perfect!” or “Nothing slips by my eagle eyes.” Maybe it isn’t a slogan but a company name that there is an implied promise, as in “Roseanne’s Perfect Editing Service” or “The Perfectionist.”

As editors, we know that words have meaning and that, if we use a word, it is reasonable to expect the reader to draw a conclusion or inference. This is the ultimate purpose of advertising: the use of words and images to steer an observer down a certain path.

Words carry implied promises. When we hold ourselves out to be professional editors, we are not defining exactly what makes us professional, but we are implying that whatever professional means in the context of editors, that meaning includes us. And it is reasonable for a client to do what we have not done — define professional in the context of editing and apply it as the standard against which the client will judge us and our editing efforts.

It is this vagary that concerns me. I do not wish to imply that I am not guilty of exactly the same vagueness, because I am. But because we all do it does not mean it is not worrisome.

Clients have certain expectations about what an editor does. That, in fact, we may or may not do those things doesn’t matter. Because we rarely define the parameters of our work and because we have no universal working definition of what exactly is a professional editor, we subject ourselves to clients drawing implied promises from our calling ourselves editors.

In prior posts, I have discussed contract terms and how some clients try to take advantage of us with terms that are onerous, such as subjecting us to laws that govern a country in which we do not live and most likely have never even visited. The terms of such contracts are both express and implied standards. It is express in that (assuming we agree to the proffered terms) we subject ourselves to the laws of the foreign country; it is implied that we understand our responsibilities under those laws, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t agree to the terms.

And so it is with clients who hire professional editors. We express that we are professional and imply all that professional encompasses; we imply that both we and the client understand the limits of what professional editor means. That we and our client understand the term differently is both our fault and dangerous for us, because, in the marketplace of opinion, it ultimately will be the client’s interpretation that will prevail.

We work with words, so we need to step back and look at the words we use to promote ourselves and to obtain business. What implied promises are we making? Are we implying that we will deliver an error-free manuscript? Or that our rates are the lowest? Or that we are equally skilled at editing science fiction as we are at editing engineering texts? Or that we are masters of the “standard” style guides and usage books applicable to the area of the manuscript?

We need to deal with author/client expectations just as we would have our expectations dealt with; that is, we need to eliminate as many areas of disharmony as possible by being upfront about what the client can expect when we are hired. We need to explain to the client exactly what role we will play and what the client can expect us to accomplish with the client’s manuscript. We must avoid leaving it to the client to imply.

When we choose our business names and slogans, we need to carefully tread the fine line between puffery (“I am the best”) and the implied promise (because I say I am expert in the Chicago style, you can expect your manuscript will conform 100% to the Chicago style). A failure to live up to the implied promises as the client sees those promises could be disastrous for our business reputations and our pocketbooks.

The point is that we need to look more carefully at our interaction with clients to be sure that we are defining terms carefully and minimizing the potential effect of any implied promise. We need to define professional, just as we need to define what constitutes a page and what constitutes an error. We need to prevent the client from developing unwarranted and unreasonable expectations as for the measures against which our work will be judged.

Consequently, we need to stop rushing forth with offers that a potential client can accept to our chagrin. For example, when a client tells us that a manuscript is 450 pages, before we rush to quote a price for the project, we need to verify that it is in fact 450 pages and not 900 pages. Because when we make our quote based on the client-provided information without verifying it, we are impliedly accepting that the manuscript is that long — even if the client used quarter-inch margins with 7-point type to get that length — and that we can, and will, do the work in the time and at the price we think is appropriate for a 450-page manuscript.

It doesn’t matter if you define a page as 250 words and I define it as 1800 characters; it matters that you have a definition and base your response to the opportunity on that definition, which might well be very different from the reality of the manuscript. That is, it matters if you define a page as 250 words and the client’s manuscript shows a page as 600 words.

2 Comments »

  1. I had to chuckle a bit when I read this . . . AE’s background as a lawyer comes through loud and clear! But this kind of thinking is so helpful to those of us of different mental types, because it brings us face to face with things we need to think about as businesspeople. It’s been well discussed how many of us became self-employed not by choice, or else by choice but unprepared. This particular subject is timely for me, personally, because I’ve been considering changing the tagline on my business cards and website. Not sure yet whether I will, or what I’ll replace it with, but now I have a new concept to filter the choices through that would not have crossed my mind.

    Like

    Comment by Carolyn — August 21, 2013 @ 6:39 am | Reply

  2. Rich’s legal background does come through on topics like this, but so does his business sense or approach. It can be hard for new entrepreneurs/freelancers to develop that business-like approach to what we do, because it often feels counter to our self-perception as creative/artistic types or wordsmiths who do the work because it’s what we love to do. There has to be a combination of personal pride in our editorial skills and professional pride in our business ones.

    Like

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 21, 2013 @ 1:38 pm | Reply


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