An American Editor

August 26, 2013

Personal or Emotional Satisfaction & the Job of Editing

On a freelance list to which I subscribe, Carolyn Haley asked me, “Rich, do you get any personal or emotional satisfaction from your work?” The question was asked in followup to a posting I had made to a thread-opening question asking whether any editors had a “joy client or project,” that is, a client or project that brought especial pleasure to the editor. Some responders talked about clients, some projects, some teachers.

My response was as follows:

The clients who bring me joy are those who

  1. pay my asking price on or before the invoice due date
  2. do not disturb me while I’m editing
  3. tell me and all their friends and colleagues that I’m the greatest editor ever
  4. insist that their publisher hire me to edit their book
  5. have my telephone number and e-mail address memorized so they can contact me quickly and often
  6. submit manuscripts that are so clean they require minimal effort to conform to the chosen style (particularly those whose reference lists run hundreds of references with 99% of the references in perfect format)
  7. call me before calling any other editor to see if I can fit their project into my schedule, and especially those willing to wait for me to fit them in
  8. want my services so much that they are willing to accommodate my schedule at the expense of their schedule
  9. do not ask for herculean efforts in exchange for slave wages, do not write in jabberwockyese, and have a great sense of humor
  10. pay my asking price on or before the invoice due date (a trait well worth repeating :))

On the list, I responded to Carolyn’s question as follows:

…I always get personal satisfaction from every book I edit. If I didn’t, I would have long ago found a different career. Of course, there is also the personal satisfaction of running a profitable business, finding ways to beat the constant push to suppress prices, finding ways to become more efficient, etc.

I also get satisfaction at seeing the number of subscribers to my An American Editor blog increase and to the number of times my articles are liked or tweeted.

But the truth is that should my business or my blog cease tomorrow, I would not feel any less satisfied — personal or emotional satisfaction — because what truly gives me pleasure and satisfaction in life lies outside those confines.

Bottom line is that I view what I do as a job, and the reward for doing a good job is making money. My personal and emotional satisfaction quests go toward my children and grandchildren — toward such things as making a cranky baby smile, playing catch with my 15-month-old granddaughter, helping her unload all the plastic containers from a cabinet and throwing them on the floor (although the subsequent rewashing and restoring isn’t so satisfying), seeing my son admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, sitting with a book on location while watching my wife create a new painting, and the like.

I do not view my editing as anything more than a job/business that I like and at which I am qualified and good. I look forward to going to my office and working, but I look elsewhere for personal and emotional satisfaction. I would find no satisfaction whatsoever in knowing that I did a magnificent editing job, turning a book from junk into literature, [only to find] that I have to struggle to get paid or to pay my bills. Editing is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

The question about personal and emotional satisfaction made me wonder about how colleagues view their work and whether there is a correlation between personal and emotional satisfaction and financial success as a freelancer. (I do recognize that each of us has our own definition of success and that not everyone counts financial success as the most important measure of success.)

I have wondered about this before. Years ago, when I was a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, we had discussions on whether editors are artisans or business people. In those discussions, I was in the very tiny minority — many times a minority of one or two — who said we should be business people first, artisans second. Twenty years later, the discussion appears to not have abated.

Think about painters, actors, writers, photographers, and other artists. How many do you know who are making a comfortable living solely from their art? Don’t most of those we know have either another job or a significant other who provides financial support? Think about why that is. Is it because their priority is personal and emotional satisfaction from producing their art rather than the business aspects of the art world? Consider, also, how many of them hire agents to handle the business aspects.

Editors aren’t different. We make conscious choices to elevate one aspect of our work over another. There is nothing inherently wrong with this as long as we are willing to accept the consequences of those choices. For most editors, elevating the creative function over the business function means less income.

Why? Because it becomes difficult to make appropriate business decisions. Do we give a manuscript a second pass, knowing that if we do we will find errors that we missed on the first pass, when that second pass will be at our expense, not the client’s expense? The artisan says “Yes, I make that second pass” because it is more important to reach perfection (the personal/emotional satisfaction) than to be adequately paid; the business person says “Not unless I am compensated for the additional work” because in the business world, decisions are made on a profit-loss basis.

This is not to say that creative satisfaction does not play a role in the business-first approach or that business does not play a role in the creative-first approach. Rather, it is which is dominant and which approach forms the basis for decisions we make.

I find it interesting that many of the editors who struggle financially are those who are unwilling to place personal and emotional satisfaction from editing second to sound to business practices. They tend to refuse work because it doesn’t appeal to them, ignoring the financial considerations. There is nothing wrong with such a decision as long as the editor understands the tradeoff.

And, yes, I do know some editors who successfully place artisan values above business values and succeed. But for every Tom Hanks there are hundreds of unsuccessful actors. In editing, it is no different — for every successful editor who places artisanship first, there are hundreds who are unsuccessful. If we could all be exceptions, there would be no rule.

Every morning I look forward to my editing day — even those days when I am editing a book on colonoscopies — because I know that every day brings me satisfaction. I know that I am an excellent editor, that clients are very rarely displeased, and that my services are in demand. I can look at my bank account and not worry. And I know that at the end of the day, I will be able to indulge in those activities that bring me personal and emotional satisfaction without worrying about how I will pay my bills.

For me it is the business approach that has to dominate my editorial services. I need to be able to objectively evaluate clients and manuscripts based on financial return, not on whether a topic appeals to me. The very last thing I want to do is worry about meeting my obligations; the very first thing I want to do is face each day knowing at the workday’s end, I will be indulging in those things that bring me satisfaction.

I would add one more “wondering.” I wonder how many editors who place creative above business have a family for which they are the sole financial provider? I suspect that it is easier to choose the creative over the business approach when there is a safety net of some sort or when the only person relying on your efforts is yourself. I admit I have never been in such a situation, which probably partially accounts for my business-first approach.

How about you?

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