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?



  1. I am a 3/4 provider for our household of two with dependent animals. I started freelancing when I lost my regular job and had no options available, nor any financial cushion. We were already in trouble when the change came down. I have no education in business, no aptitude for it, and about zero interest. My only advantage was a lifetime of meeting deadlines, communicating regularly and openly, and employing both common and professional courtesies. What kept me from instant failure was love of the work and the lifestyle, which has given me strength to endure and motivation to carry on.

    Eight years later, I consider myself successful. I work steadily; have satisfied, repeat (or referring) clients, and 100% payment record; I enjoy (most of) the work; it exercises my peculiar mix of analytical and creative talents; I make my own rules of engagement and live according to my personal code of ethics; and I earn enough to keep the hounds at bay.

    Financially, however, I remain unsuccessful, because keeping the hounds at bay ain’t the same thing as making a living, never mind financial security. In many forums I have bleated about agents — why oh why aren’t there any for editors, only for people who produce creative content? We are a critical part of that content’s development, but are marginalized by both ends of the industry. The reason I lost my job in the first place was because I was “value added” not “core service/product.” It’s the same being a freelance editor. We make things better but we’re not required, so will always be an expense instead of an income-generator. So why should an agent, who lives on commissions, be interested in us?

    Yet I and others like me desperately need agents because we *don’t* have the kind of business savvy and discipline that AE both has and espouses, or the psychic wherewithal to manufacture it. It’s a terrible liability in the survival game, especially when what matters most to you is doing work that you love.

    Happily, time is manufacturing solutions. Enterprises that operate somewhere between brokers and temp agencies have been popping up all over. I guess you could call them packagers or networks, and they do marketing and some administration for groups of independent contractors in exchange for a fee roughly the same as agents charge authors. I finally got into one of these and it has quintupled my exposure, enabled me to up my rate, and filled my book of business without impairing my established relationships or interfering with new opportunities outside the network.

    I think groups of this sort are the solution for solo editors who don’t or can’t put business first. The huge changes in the general workplace over the past five years have left many other types of professional high and dry. Since organizers and marketers need somebody to organize and market, it’s natural that disparate yet complementary types will drift together. Eventually some of these will grow into formal companies, I’m sure.


    Comment by Carolyn — August 26, 2013 @ 6:33 am | Reply

    • Carolyn, there are indeed “agents” for editors. They’re called project managers, or sometimes project editors. They may work in-house at a publisher or be freelancers themselves. In either case, they develop rosters of trusted line and copy editors, proofreaders, fact-checkers, indexers, illustrators, and layout designers. They shepherd projects through the various stages of the production process and keep things organized, on schedule, and within budget. To stay busy, get yourself on the rotation of a handful of project managers.


      Comment by willeditor — August 26, 2013 @ 12:31 pm | Reply

      • I am on several such rosters and always on the lookout for more. One has to be on many in order to ensure a steady workflow; too often, projects come along with conflicting timeframes. I hate turning down good work opportunities but if I’m booked and the client has an inflexible schedule, there’s not much we can do except try again some other time. If timing conflicts happen often enough, one’s name sinks down the list. So I try to keep as many irons in the fire as possible, not only to keep work flowing but also to provide me with the stimulation that comes from diverse projects.


        Comment by Carolyn — August 26, 2013 @ 12:41 pm | Reply

  2. I’m glad there are editors who put money before enjoyment–that leaves more fun (and high-paying) assignments for me. 🙂

    I can’t imagine spending 40, 30, or even 20 hours a week doing work that wasn’t personally and emotionally rewarding. Nor would I bother putting in those hours if it didn’t pay enough to support my desired lifestyle. The two goals are not opposed to one another. (My only beef with the 40-hour work week is that I also do other work that is both personally and financially rewarding. Never enough time in a week.)

    So maybe I shouldn’t let the cat out of the bag. But I disagree with Rich’s premise that “elevating the creative function” most often means a reduced income. Never mind that no one can support such a claim without taking an inventory of thousands of editors across all genres and tallying their incomes, something I doubt anyone has yet done. A few anecdotal cases drawn from friends or colleagues is not enough to support such a stereotype. More to the point, it’s a false dilemma, similar to “jobs or the environment.” Such either-or attitudes are self-limiting and they tend to be habit forming. When you’re down deep in a rut, you see only two options: forward or reverse. Stay in the rut long enough and you forget that there are other points on the compass, other–likely more rewarding–possibilities.

    When two goals seem polarized, replace the “or” with “and” to generate a broader range of more productive possibilities. Jobs *and* a healthy environment. Creative *and* high-income work.

    Characterizing creative vs. business-savvy as though the two are mutually exclusive strikes me as unwarranted and unhelpful anyway. Do both, and do both well. Why confine yourself? My whole life, when someone has asked me whether I’m right or left handed, I hold out my two hands and say, “Both.” Really, I have two hands, why would I disparage one of them? (As a toddler, I learned to write right handed, but I naturally threw left handed. At the dinner table, fork and knife routinely switched hands. Then a career as a professional juggler taught me the benefits of being ambidextrous, of learning things with both hands. The same holds true for our attitudes about many of life’s apparent dichotomies.)

    Yes, it can be useful to acknowledge when and how things diverge, but keeping a mind open to commonalities and synergies is more often the best way forward.


    Comment by willeditor — August 26, 2013 @ 11:48 am | Reply

  3. Rich, you have outdone yourself this time. Wow, what a great article. You wrote: “What truly gives me pleasure and satisfaction in life lies outside those [business] confines.” Exactly so. We may take pleasure in work well done (which I do), but in the end it is still just work. Ultimately, it is our relationships with family and friends that really make life worthwhile.


    Comment by editorjack — August 26, 2013 @ 12:31 pm | Reply

    • “…but in the end it is still just work.”

      I mean no disrespect, but I find this truly sad. And a continuation of false dichotomies.
      In my work, I get to help produce books about nature, outdoor recreation, cooking, and history, all subjects I care about personally and to which I also devote many hours of non-billable (i.e., non-work) time. Also, there’s no division between my work and my circle of friends. The people I work with–fellow editors, designers, illustrators, photographers, publishers, and authors–*are* my friends, an extended family.

      I know what it’s like to do an unpleasant job just for the paycheck. As adolescents or young adults, most of us go through a round of menial jobs just to pay the bills. But a *profession*–of our choosing ,after all, and how we spend our too-short life–should be more than “just work,” shouldn’t it?


      Comment by willeditor — August 26, 2013 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

      • Will, I think you misunderstand. No one has said that they get no joy or pleasure or satisfaction from the editing work they do. In fact, if you read my original article carefully, you will see I explicitly stated “…I always get personal satisfaction from every book I edit.”

        The point me and Jack are making is that there are lots of things in life that give us satisfaction and we, as do most people, accord those things a ranking. In the ranking of pleasures, editing is not number 1; we have lives outside our editing jobs, lives that our editing jobs make possible.

        The conclusion I would draw from your comments is that if you had to rank playing with your grandchild versus editing a nature book, you would put the book first. Jack and I would do exactly the opposite. But that does not mean — in either your case or ours — that what is number 2 is not also pleasurable; it just means that our priorities are different.

        As I also wrote, in the sentence immediately following “…I always get personal satisfaction from every book I edit”, “If I didn’t, I would have long ago found a different career.” Editing is not an “unpleasant job just for the paycheck.” Rather, it is a pleasant job but it is a job no matter how you describe it. I do not consider playing with my grandchild a job; it is not something I must do or suffer the consequences. It is something I do because it brings me and her pleasure, which is its own reward. Editing is a job because if I didn’t do it, I would have to do something else in order to get the reward of income to pay my bills. There are consequences to not having a job.


        Comment by americaneditor — August 27, 2013 @ 5:50 am | Reply

        • Rich, you seem to think you really understand people. You frequently claim to know exactly how and what they’re thinking, such as that “most people” rank the things they like to do, and most people who emphasize creativity over business don’t earn as much money as they’d like. You even knowingly conclude that I would rather edit a book than play with my grandchild. And also that, despite my nearly three decades as a professional editor, I need to more carefully read your original post because I’m the one who lacks understanding.

          This snippet is particularly patronizing and grossly oversimplifies (and completely ignores some of) the points I made in previous posts. Rich says: “The conclusion I would draw from your comments is that if you had to rank playing with your grandchild versus editing a nature book, you would put the book first. Jack and I would do exactly the opposite. But that does not mean — in either your case or ours — that what is number 2 is not also pleasurable; it just means that our priorities are different.”

          That’s an outrageously inventive mis-read and twisting of my words. Coming from an experienced editor, it’s seriously troubling. I would not want such flawed deduction applied to my manuscript, or any words I’ve written.

          Are you then suggesting a chain of “either-or” thinking:? Which is better–(1) playing with my grandchild or (2) editing a book? Number 1? Okay, then which is better–(1) Playing with my grandchild or (2) eating a delicious, nutritious lunch? Well, now that’s more difficult, because I’m really hungry and I must eat to live. But I must choose between them. I can’t possibly play with my grandchild AND eat lunch….

          Thank goodness I don’t rank my life this way. It’s not even a reasonable premise for discussion.

          In the course of an average day I typically do a lot of things that are each important and rewarding to me. They unfold over the course of time–time to eat, time to edit and write, time to go for a bike ride, time to play with my family, time to love, time to sleep. Each of them is essential–in different ways–to a “good” day and a life well and fully lived. There’s no need to rank them, or to even force a choice of one over another. They often overlap–e.g., preparing and eating a meal with your family can be a form of play and love, even as it accomplishes the necessary work of cooking and ingesting nutrition.


          Comment by willeditor — August 27, 2013 @ 11:29 am | Reply

  4. I love my work, but I’m thinking there is an inverse relationship between fun and pay — at least in the creative world. I’m working on enjoying the higher pay more. 😉


    Comment by Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) — August 27, 2013 @ 11:59 pm | Reply

  5. I would like to at least like what I’m editing and be able to be proud of it. Right now I have an office job where I make decent money and have good benefits, but it’s boring and there’s no satisfaction. The lack of satisfaction leaks over to my non-work life no matter how hard I try not to let it. In freelancing, I need to enjoy it and have some satisfaction. Personally I don’t need to absolutely love my work, but I would be happy if I like what I’m doing, make enough to pay the bills, and have some extra time left over to enjoy life. Right now I don’t have the first or last. I am concerned about the business aspect of it though. I know what I should be doing, but (and I think this is probably true of many people), I’m not sure if I’ll be able to implement the business practices. It’s something I’m trying to work on.


    Comment by JennaT — August 29, 2013 @ 8:27 am | Reply

  6. For me, job satisfaction is a combination of earning a good living and doing interesting work. I lean a bit more toward finding more satisfaction in having a thriving business versus enjoying the actual work, but again, it’s still a combination of the two. I’ve found a paradoxical, yet happy, result of focusing on the business part of my editing business: I am getting more work both that I enjoy and that pays well. Putting energy into the sometimes mind-numbing aspects of freelancing like marketing, timekeeping, and bookkeeping, I’ve been able to build up my client base to the extent that I can say goodbye to low payers and to work I really don’t want to do. Fortunately, I have a pretty broad definition of work I like to do, and I find most of it interesting, even subject matter that others may see as dry or uninspiring. That might also be part of my job satisfaction.

    I also try to earmark some of my gross receipts for professional development. This past summer I took an online course, and the skills I learned from it will enable me to further expand the type of work I do. I’ll soon be able to market that (after a bit more practice). I suggest that anyone who feels that they are not getting enough job satisfaction try taking a class or some other way of learning or enhancing a skill or type of knowledge.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — August 31, 2013 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

  7. I love editing (and writing and training and…) and I like to do the best job I can. But like you, Rich, I’m not making a subsequent pass if I’m not getting paid for it. I run a business to earn money for my family. I bring in half of our income; by doing so, we can choose to do things we value, like send our children to private schools. Editing et al may be in my nature, making me well suited to it, but I’m a businesswoman first. I work to live, not live to work. I have no issue with those who live to work, who are artisans who will do a subsequent pass on their own dime, and so forth, it’s just not me.


    Comment by Erin Brenner (@ebrenner) — September 6, 2013 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: