An American Editor

October 30, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Establish the Rules of Engagement Before Beginning a Project

In our continuing series on commandments for editors and authors, Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, contributes the following essay discussing what should be established at the beginning of an editor–client relationship and why it should be established.

(Ruth E. Thaler-Carter [www.writerruth.com] is a successful freelance writer/editor, the author of “Get Paid to Write! Getting Started as a Freelance Writer” and “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business,” and the owner of Communication Central [www.communication-central.com], which hosts a conference for freelancers every fall.

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Thou Shall Establish the Rules of Engagement
Before Beginning a Project

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

If anything should be a key guiding light for freelance editors, it is our third editorial commandment:

Thou shall establish the rules of engagement before beginning an editing project.

Those rules can cover a number of aspects of freelancing. Here are the ones I find most important to success as a freelance editor.

Define a “Page”

It doesn’t matter if you use 250 words, 1,800 characters or some other formula. What matters is to have a standard definition of a page, relay it to the client, and stick to it — or ask for the client’s definition — before accepting anything about a new project.

Why is this important? Because clients don’t always play fair when it comes to describing their projects. When you hear from a prospective new client about editing a manuscript of x number of pages, don’t assume you can rely on that page count. Whether through laziness, ignorance of the publishing process, or deliberate attempts to get more editing work for less money, many clients misrepresent the size of a manuscript and the scope of its problems.

You’ll be told a project is 25 pages, so you expect to receive 6,250 words and you promise to turn the manuscript around in five hours, knowing you can usually handle five or six pages per hour. You receive a manuscript that actually has 15,000 words because the client has formatted it single-spaced in 8- or 10-point type. You’ve just lost money and committed to a timeframe that is probably impossible to fulfill.

I have one client whose manuscripts include large photos. At first look, the page count seems higher than it really is, as an average photo takes up half a page. He thought his 70-page document would actually be something like 55 or 60 pages of editing. However, his documents are also single-spaced, so his 70 pages became 100, even after “discounting” the photos.

Let the client know that you define a page as 250 words (that’s what I use; Rich Adin, An American Editor, uses a character count), that you will check the word count when you receive the project, and that only then will you commit to a deadline and fee.

Define Your Fee

With many projects, it can be challenging to pin down a fair rate for our work. With new projects or clients, setting a flat or project fee can backfire — either the project is a lot bigger than expected, as explained above, or it’s a lot more demanding than expected.

With project rates, include language to protect yourself against “scope creep” — where the project ends up being much longer and more complex than expected, the client keeps adding to it, or the client doesn’t like what you did on a first go-round and expects you to redo the work again and again and again.

If being paid by the hour, protect yourself with a range, rather than a specific, limited amount of time. Usually it is better to use a page rate, so you benefit from working efficiently and don’t lose out if the project is longer or more complex than expected. Even with a page rate, however, be sure to include your definition of a page at the earliest moment in your negotiations.

It isn’t only the amount of the fee that is important. When you will be paid is also a factor. Be sure to state whether you require a deposit/advance, when your interim payments are to be made, and what will happen if a payment is late. Specify your late fee for those (ideally rare) occasions when a full or final payment doesn’t show up on time.

Define the Service

Many clients have no idea of what the difference is between editing and proofreading, or between substantive, developmental, and copy editing. You may have to explain the difference, and you may have to stand firm on doing a lesser level of work than the client would like to get for the agreed-upon fee.

Before you accept a project, be sure to establish what it needs, what you will do, and what effect that will have on the fee and deadline. Just as it’s risky to accept a page count before the manuscript is in hand, don’t commit to a “light edit” or “only proofreading” sight unseen.

You also may need to declare whether charts, figures, and other pieces of artwork are included in the fee. Notes can add significantly to the length of a work and the time needed to edit it (although there are tools to help you manage that process, as has been discussed by Rich many times).

Define Who Does What

As Rich has said, “Both the author and the editor should give careful thought to the division of responsibility before they begin the relationship and should recognize that such division is governed by the parameters set for the project. More importantly, authors should clearly state, in writing, their expectations and the services they want an editor to perform, and be prepared to pay for those services. … The responsibility for a manuscript is a shared responsibility.”

Let your clients or authors know whether you prefer, for instance, to receive a manuscript that is both complete and as final as possible. You don’t want to edit a first draft just to find out that the author is still rewriting and expects you to (re)edit the new version. Then again, some editors are comfortable with receiving only a few chapters at a time — the idea is that the author/client will learn from the early edits and incorporate that knowledge into subsequent chapters.

Establish the author’s responsibilities in terms of when you will receive the manuscript or segments of it, what format it should be in, whether the client wants you to use Track Changes (make sure the client understands how to use or respond to Word’s Track Changes), and timing of responses to your questions. Set ground rules early about things like phone and e-mail contact — when it’s OK for the client to call, how phone and e-mail discussions will be billed, etc.

Establish your responsibility for deadlines and for what you’re going to do with the project. Putting these details into writing, even by e-mail, makes the project go much more smoothly and the relationship between client and editor a much healthier one than otherwise.

It all comes down to this commandment: Thou shall establish the rules of engagement before beginning an editing project.

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Do you agree with Ruth? Would your commandment be different? Would the components of your commandment be different?

8 Comments »

  1. Shouldn’t that be “Thou shalt”? I do remember the Ten Commandments from school days.

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    Comment by AElfwine — October 30, 2013 @ 4:12 am | Reply

  2. I stand corrected (actually, I’m still sitting). “Shalt” is an archaic form, but it is the one I learned in the Ten Commandments.

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    Comment by AElfwine — October 30, 2013 @ 4:18 am | Reply

  3. I absolutely agree with Ruth, as I’ve learned some of these lessons the hard way. Wish I’d known all this a year ago.

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    Comment by Zarine — October 30, 2013 @ 6:12 am | Reply

  4. I kinda like “shalt,” but we’ve been using “shall” as the more contemporary version.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — October 30, 2013 @ 9:19 am | Reply

  5. I like “shalt” because of the subject “Thou.” “Thou shalt” sounds smooth and familiar, probably because I’ve heard it so often in school and church. Good article, Ruth.

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    Comment by Cecilia E. Thurlow — October 30, 2013 @ 10:10 am | Reply

  6. Excellent advice. I wish I had read this three months ago—it would have saved me some agony! Thank you, Ruth.

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    Comment by Christina Cary — October 30, 2013 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

  7. It is definitely important to define the parameters, especially when working with self-publishing authors. They can get stuck in the editing phase, leading to numerous passes with the editor–more than budgeted for–and never get to the publishing stage.

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    Comment by April Michelle Davis — November 8, 2013 @ 9:37 pm | Reply

  8. […] whatever way makes the most sense to you. As Ruth Thaler-Carter notes in a previous blog post (see The Commandments: Thou Shall Establish the Rules of Engagement Before Beginning a Project), Rich Adin uses a character […]

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    Pingback by The Practical Editor: Define Your Terms, Then Negotiate | An American Editor — April 28, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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