An American Editor

December 30, 2013

A Musical Interlude: For the New Year

Filed under: A Musical Interlude,A Video Interlude — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am

I’ve decided to take some time off for the holidays. However, there is no need not to have some New Year fun. So I offer these flash mob videos to entertain you. I’ll be back next week. Until then, I wish you a happy and prosperous New Year and hope that 2014 is the best year of your life so far.

Let’s begin with this flash mob in Berlin. Be sure to notice the makeup of the orchestra.

What could be better to bring in the new year than this “futuristic” music?

In the down economic times, this group brought some sun to an unemployment office.

Here is one from New Zealand.

Here’s a happy new year flash mob in Armenia.

Finally, I wish you a happy and prosperous new year and end with this song from my favorite musical group, ABBA (unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about the ad that precedes ABBA):

Happy New Year!

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 25, 2013

A Video Interlude: Happy Holidays

For the Christmas holiday, I thought some music would be appreciated. The first up is a group called Straight No Chaser.

Straight No Chaser – 12 Days

Here is another from Straight No Chaser.

Straight No Chaser – Christmas Can Can

For something different (and not heard in decades) here is “Santa Baby” by Eartha Kitt:

Eartha Kitt – Santa Baby

It wouldn’t seem the season without the original —

Nat King Cole – The Christmas Song

What is Christmas without “The Little Drummer Boy”? A different version than usual, but quite good.

Pentatonix – The Little Drummer Boy

Although not a holiday song, I think this makes a great ending piece.

ABBA – I have a Dream

Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2013

Faux Controversies and the Singular Plural

On another forum it was asked whether authors should “push the grammar envelope” and embrace the singular plural. I think the wrong question is being asked when you ask whether authors should push the grammar envelope for two reasons: First, because it ignores the purpose of grammar, which is to ensure that there is communication between author and reader. Second, because to push the grammar envelope assumes that there are firm rules to be pushed. The first reason far outweighs the second, but neither is ignorable.

Regarding the singular plural, it is neither pushing the envelope to use it nor a violation of a firm rule nor a distraction from communication (in most cases; there are cases in which it is clearly wrong because its use is confusing). In other words, I think that editors, writers, grammarians, usage gurus, etc., make the proverbial mountain out of the molehill when they oppose the singular plural.

Consider what makes a great editor. A great editor is someone who ensures that a reader understands the editor’s author; that is, ensures that the reader does not leave the book thinking the author is in favor of, for example, genocide, when the author intends the contrary. An average editor can cite chapter and verse of why x is not to be done, but cannot explain why doing x makes the author’s point unintelligible. The amateur editor either blindly accepts the singular plural or remembers having been taught that the singular plural is incorrect and thus blindly changes it.

However, if the singular plural is incorrect, it is incorrect because it makes the author’s point unintelligible, not because a group of self-appointed grammarians have written that it is wrong.

English is difficult enough without making it impossible. Editors constantly twist and turn to apply “rules” of grammar in the mistaken belief that there are rules of grammar. What are too often called rules are really current conventions.

Be clear that I am not referring to spelling and whether the correct choice in context is “rain,” “reign,” or “rein.” Equating spelling with grammar is another common mistake; spelling and grammar are companions, not a single entity.

English lacks the singular plural pronoun. In my schooldays, it was easy to lose points on an otherwise brilliant essay by using the plural pronoun as a singular pronoun. The convention (i.e., “rule”) was that the singular plural was forbidden. Instead, you were expected to rewrite the sentence to avoid the singular plural, even if it meant twisting and turning an otherwise coherent statement into a convoluted mess. Style was more important than substance.

Today’s argument between propluralists and antipluralists amounts to both a faux argument and making style more important than substance. This is not to say that the singular plural is always correct or that a particular sentence could not be made better by avoiding the singular plural. Rather, it is to say that when arguing over the singular plural, we lose sight of what really is important: How well does the sentence communicate to the reader?

The difference between editors, especially between the professional editor and the nonprofessional editor, is the emphasis each places on evaluating each word and sentence on their ability to communicate the point accurately to the reader. Because we use the singular plural in common speech and understand it in context, there should not be a problem in using it in writing when its use eases communication.

I suppose this controversy is just another in the grammar wars between traditionalists and modernists. Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage 3rd ed.) falls into the traditionalist camp. He sees the rise of the singular plural as an attempt to avoid sexism (which it is). As he writes, “It is the most convenient solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language — the generic masculine [also, I would say, feminine] pronoun” (p. 179). His answer is to avoid it whenever possible.

Modernists tend to think in unisexual terms; that is, if it can be applied to both males and females, we need to avoid picking one as the example. Thus the use of the singular plural. Over the past 50 years, as a result of the cultural war on sexism, English speakers have become so accustomed to the singular plural as a “normal” part of speech, it seems foolish to make all possible effort to avoid the construction.

In many ways, this faux controversy reminds me of the split infinitive “rule” and the twisting and turning we had to put language through to avoid splitting the infinitive. Had we instead focused on the communication aspects, we would have recognized that rigid application of the splitting rule was wasteful and illogical. That same recognition should be extended to the singular plural. We should recognize the limitations of English as a language and compensate for those limitations in the most logical manner, as long as clear communication is not jeopardized.

Which brings us back to what I consider the fundamental rule, the fundamental arbiter of grammar: Does use of the singular plural detract from clear communication to the reader? If it doesn’t detract from clear communication, then leave it be as long as it is otherwise properly used.

Editors need to remember that language is fluid. They also need to remember that there really are no rigid rules of grammar except the rule of clarity. Grammar rules, with the clarity exception, are merely conventions or suggestions upon which a large group of society have agreed. They are not intended, except by the fanatical few, to be blindly adhered to and applied. Garner says to use the singular plural cautiously “because some people may doubt your literacy” (p. 179), but I think use of the singular plural is so common today that very few would raise the question. As long as the material is clear, I see little strength to the argument to studiously avoid the singular plural. If the material can be made clearer by avoiding the singular plural, then it is the obligation of the editor to do so. Otherwise, relax and flow with its use.

December 18, 2013

The Business of Editing: Opportunity Knocks

Filed under: Business of Editing,Editorial Matters — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , ,

In previous essays, I discussed how one should present oneself to the world at large as well as what one should be — solopreneur or company (see, e.g., Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I), Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II), and Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III)). As I pointed out in prior essays, being a “company” does not have to mean you actually have employees or subcontractors; you can be a solopreneur in company guise.

I am back to the topic for a limited purpose: to discuss opportunity. It has been approximately 9 months since the publication of the last essay in the “Solopreneur” series, and a lot has happened during that time that makes me believe we should be revisiting this question.

During those 9 months, I have had an opportunity to talk face-to-face with colleagues about the issues and I have had opportunities presented to me that would not be presented to colleagues who avoid the label “company.” The most recent example of an opportunity occurred a week ago when I was asked to undertake an editing project in the upcoming year that will run 16,000+ manuscript pages.

I understand that many editors (a) do not want to work on such large projects and (b) do not want to undertake projects in the areas in which I work. I also understand (c) that if your field is, for example, fiction, it isn’t likely that a novel will come along that runs that many pages (not counting, of course, some seemingly never-ending series). And I also understand that (d) many of you prefer to work on short pieces, such as journal articles or magazine articles. All of that is well and good and no one should think that large projects are better for everyone.

The issue is one of opportunity. The opportunity to say no or yes. I like the big projects because they provide a revenue stream that I can count on. They also mean I have less downtime between projects and that I have to spend less time, effort, and money on marketing. But the real reason why I think and act like a company and not a solopreneur is for the opportunity to decide that I prefer certain types of work or wish to shy away from other types.

I’m sure that some of you who prefer to work on short pieces, such as journal articles, are saying that this is not relevant to you. But it is. Just a few weeks ago, I finished a journal project that involved 109 articles that needed to be edited within a relatively short time frame. I think this was an opportunity that I would have missed out on had I not been a company.

While working on those journal articles, other opportunities came my way. The result is that I have several major projects already booked for 2014. However, at the same time, I turned down several opportunities. The key is opportunity.

But there is another aspect to opportunity that is a companion to the yes or no opportunity: the opportunity to change directions.

Consider my own story. I am a lawyer. I practiced law for a number of years before finding my way into publishing. When I found my way into publishing, it was with a law-book publisher. In other words, I hadn’t strayed far from my training and experience.

When I became a freelancer, I fully expected my business to be focused on legal publications, and that was who I marketed to. But one of the first responders to my marketing was a copyediting supervisor for the medical division of a publisher offering me an opportunity to edit medical books, something I had never done. We talked about it and I decided that maybe I should give it a try and pursue a different course than to focus on law-related books. That opportunity to change directions is what put me on the path that I still follow today.

Even then I was portraying my services as a company, and it was the thought that I could handle multiple projects simultaneously and relieve her of the supervisory burdens of handling several editors that drew the supervisor to contact me initially.

Opportunity comes in many guises. Whether we decide to grab an opportunity when it appears is secondary to whether we are afforded the opportunity to make a decision to grab or not grab.

I learned early in my career that I needed to make opportunity knock on my door before it went knocking on a colleague’s door. It is difficult to say yes (or no) if I am not even asked. Getting asked is key in our business.

Over the past year, I have been offered many opportunities that would not have been offered except that I am viewed as a company with more capabilities than a solopreneur can offer. For example, only a few months ago I was asked to submit a quote for the editing portion of a project bid. I was asked to quote an editing price for quantities of 5,000, 10,000, and 15,000 manuscript pages per month. My client assumed that I could either handle that amount of workflow or could/would hire enough editors to do so. The client’s assumption was based on my presenting my business as a company.

Again, what we are talking about is how we present ourselves. We can have the trappings of a company without having any employees but ourself. It is how we invoice, how we answer telephones, our signatures, our domain names, etc. that give us that aura.

I know I repeat myself, but I want to emphasize that the issue is one of having opportunity knock on our door, not of being forced to do work of the type that we do not want to do or of being required to hire or contract with other editors. It is the opportunity to say yes or no to projects that we otherwise would not be asked to do or to change directions. Today we may love editing large manuscripts without having to deal directly with authors; tomorrow we may discover through a presenting opportunity that we really would like to work on smaller projects and deal directly with authors. Without opportunity knocking on the door, how would we ever find out?

I’ll close on a humorous note. Here is opportunity knocking in action. 🙂 Relax and enjoy “Opportunity Knocks — The Honeymooners.” It is well worth watching.

December 16, 2013

The Business of Editing: Knowing Your Editorial Fit

Recently, in The Business of Editing: Standing One’s Ground, I discussed turning down work. Today’s guest essay by Louise Harnby provides another perspective on accepting or referring work. As Louise points out, knowing when to say no is as important as knowing when to say yes.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby, Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn.


Knowing Your Editorial Fit

by Louise Harnby

The biggest reward I’ve received from my comprehensive marketing strategy is that I get a lot of offers of work…not just from publishers, but also from independent writers, students, business professionals, and individual academics. Being in a position whereby I have the opportunity to turn down work—either because I can’t fit it in or because I know of a particular colleague who can do a better job—is something I’ve striven for since I set up my professional proofreading business in 2005. Why? Because taking on work that I don’t have the required skill set for is a lose–lose for me and the client. I don’t want to do a mediocre job.

At the very best, “mediocre” doesn’t bring the client back asking for more, doesn’t generate solid testimonials, doesn’t lead to referrals from my client to his or her colleagues, and brings me a huge amount of stress. At the very worst, it could lead to complaints, a lack of confidence on the client’s part, damage to my professional reputation…and did I mention stress? And those were definitely not on my “strive for” list back in 2005!

Only a few days ago, I received an email from a Dutch academic based at a prestigious UK university. He’d found my website by googling “academic proofreader sociology.” Given that I appeared on the first page of Google’s search results he took a peek and liked what he saw—he told me he loved my profile, my extensive online academic proofreading portfolio, and the page of testimonials from academic publishers. He thought I was a great fit. Money wasn’t an issue so would I be interested in proofreading and editing his presubmission sociology and demography journal articles and his grant proposals on a regular basis? The text would include a lot of data analysis and stats, but nothing too technical.

On paper we do look like a great match—he’s an academic researcher looking for an experienced academic editorial freelancer. What’s the real story, though? The facts are as follows:

  • I’m a proofreader not a copyeditor. They’re different jobs.
  • Most of my academic proofreading work has already been through a round of professional copyediting (arranged by the publisher’s in-house project manager).
  • I work primarily on books, not journals. They are different products with different requirements.
  • The last time I looked at a grant proposal was back in the late 1980s, when I applied for tuition-fee support prior to embarking on my university degree.
  • The words “editing data analysis and statistics” make me feel, well, a tad unwell.

Certainly, I could have secured this job, and the healthy fee that would have come with it, by confirming the client’s initial response to my online profile. But having bagged the work, I know I would have done a mediocre job. Reading between the lines, the client needed someone with a richer skill set than mine. And I knew just the person. One of my colleagues is a former academic researcher and has worked as a scientist in a commercial environment. He’s written for journals, sat on journal editorial boards, and been active in the peer-review process. He’s evaluated research grant proposals and been involved in the writing and submission process. And he’s both an editor and a proofreader who specializes in working on journal articles written by authors for whom English is a second language. This colleague can bring something to the table that I can only dream of. The job he’ll do for my Dutch academic will be richer than anything I can offer. And not just because of his editorial training. Rather, his research background and career experience will enable him to add value in ways that can’t be taught to me.

Furthermore, referring my Dutch academic (with his refreshing focus on quality rather than the lowest price) elsewhere didn’t hurt me one bit. I don’t have the stress of knowing I’ve bitten off more than I can chew; I’ve been honest with the client about exactly what’s required and who can deliver the necessary outcomes; one of my colleagues has (I hope) secured a productive relationship with a new client; and I’m free to continue to use the hours in my working day to bill for work that I am qualified for—work that I can do a really, really good job on, not a mediocre one.

It can be tempting to take on work that one can’t do a really great job on, especially when opportunities aren’t coming thick and fast. That’s why an effective marketing strategy is so important; it helps to put us in the position where we’re able to get enough of the work that we’re excellent at instead of taking risks with jobs that we’re not trained for, or don’t have an aptitude for. It gives us choices so that we can put all that we’ve learned into the place it needs to be. And if we do want to expand into editorial work that requires another skill set (one that can be taught), it gives us the space to generate a regular work stream while we pursue the relevant training.

Few of us are good at everything. Certainly we can diversify, and we can (and should) continue to develop as professionals by educating ourselves. But there are some things that can’t be taught. With the best will in the world, I will never have the research background or journal experience that some of my colleagues have. That’s their bag. I have mine. For each of us, knowing where we fit, and how best to exploit and communicate that fit, is central to commonsense editorial business ownership.

Do you agree? If you were me, would you have taken on the job I turned down or would you have referred it to a colleague? Was this out of choice or necessity?


The issues that Louise raises also reflect on the informal code of responsibility that governs professional editing. Do you include this informal code in your decision-making process?

Louise cites the factors she considered, but we should not forget that there are other factors to be considered, such as whether we think we are capable of working under a tight deadline. What factors do you consider when deciding whether to accept or refer a job? How do you decide which colleague to refer the client to?

December 11, 2013

The Business of Editing: Self-Discipline & Work Acquisition Costs

For most freelancers, especially solopreneurs, I think the most difficult aspect of being a freelancer is self-discipline. There are simply too many other things we would rather be doing.

The challenges to a disciplined workday come from many quarters. If the weather is particularly nice, we want to take advantage of it. If we have children, we want to attend their activities. If we feel a little lazy today, we want to relax. These are the often thought of types of challenges to the disciplined workday, but they are not the only types of challenge.

Also challenging is the need to socialize — the water-coolering need. Even more than the activities above, this need or desire is, I think, more problematic for the average freelancer than any other work-related need. Our need to have contact with others manifests itself by the amount of time we spend at online water-coolers like LinkedIn, the Copyediting-L list, and other similar places.

We easily justify the time we spend as “marketing” — as getting our name out there, letting people know we are available, doing the things that will make us memorable so when services like those we offer are needed, we come to mind. And I have no doubt that the justification is legitimate.

Discipline doesn’t mean not doing those things that keep our name in front of potential clients. Instead, it means regulating the time we spend doing such tasks so as to maximize the marketing and minimize the wasting of time. That balance is difficult, especially for the solopreneur, probably because these are the social outlets that are available to the isolated freelancer and which are needed to prevent unhealthy isolation.

The internet has changed the dynamics of people interaction and has become the method by which water-coolering occurs for freelancers.

But in the absence of a disciplined workday, it is difficult to take on work and make the level of income we desire. Regardless of how we classify our time online, most of it is not financially productive. Sure we may turn up a client or two, but for most solopreneurs the income earned from those clients does not translate into a high effective hourly rate if we count the time we spent trying to lasso those clients.

Which, in a roundabout manner, brings us to this point regarding self-discipline: tracking our time spent “marketing” or “socializing” online during the workday. Most freelancers only track the time they spend working on a project. But that gives an incomplete picture of the workday, the effective hourly rate, and the freelancer’s real earning power. If our workday is 8 hours and we spend 4 hours socializing and 4 hours editing and bill for $200 for the day’s output, our hourly earning power is not $50 ($200 ÷ 4 hours editing time) but is $25 ($200 ÷ 4 hours editing + 4 hours socializing).

If during that 4 hours of socializing we get a new project that can be directly attributed to some of our socializing/marketing time, then we need to add that attributable time to the time spent on the project to determine what is our real earning power. If it takes us 40 hours of socializing time to get one new project, and if our effective hourly rate in the absence of socializing is $50, then we have spent the equivalent of $2,000 (40 socializing hours × $50 EHR) to gain one project whose value may be less than, equal to, or more than the acquisition cost.

And that is really the concept we are slowly getting to: acquisition cost. The less discipline we have as regards our workday and the more time we spend each day water-coolering, the higher the acquisition cost of each project. A key to business success is to keep work acquisition costs low.

Marketing time needs to be targeted time. It should be focused and carefully oriented toward a business goal. And it should not devour the workday when there is billable work at hand.

Some thought should be given as to how best to tame runaway water-coolering. For me, one way I do that is by not receiving emails or email digests from forums. For example, on LinkedIn, my setting for every group of which I am a member is no email. I allocate 15 to 20 minutes a day to visit LinkedIn and I am choosy about which “discussions” I participate in. Similarly, I do not receive emails from the Copyediting-L list. I check it once a day online.

I schedule a maximum of 90 minutes of my day for online activities — and I stick to it (the one exception is the time I take to write this blog). I often am able to do all I need to do online in less than an hour; then I turn to billable work.

I have built my business so that if I do not discipline myself and keep my online time to a minimum, I will fall behind on my billable work and not meet deadlines. Not meeting deadlines is a sure way to lose clients, which acts as an incentive for me to keep focused. By eliminating emails from groups of which I am a member, most of the emails I receive are work related — inquiries about availability, questions about current projects, offers of new projects. It is not that I don’t get some spam as well, but I get very little email that is not work related.

The consequence is that my cost of acquiring work is low and most of my time is billable. There are times when I would like to be water-coolering, and occasionally I indulge, but I have trained myself over the years to be disciplined with my time.

As I noted earlier, this is the hardest thing for freelancers to do; we are already isolated because of our choice to be a freelancer and now we need to impose self-discipline on our time. We need find that balance that works well for us. But when we seek that balance, we need to not forget that there is a cost to water-coolering. That cost may be worth paying, depending our personal needs, but we need to account for it so that we understand the true cost.

December 9, 2013

The Miseducation of the Next Generation

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On Language — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, as part of the language learning experience we read the New York Times. I still remember the very first lesson, which was devoted to teaching us how to fold the Times so that it was both holdable and readable. Every school day time was devoted to reading something in the Times.

The teacher assigned one article that everyone had to read and then we were free to pick another article that interested us. The reading was followed by a discussion, not only of the content of the article we all had to read, but of the grammar. We also had to mark words that were unfamiliar, look them up in the dictionary, rewrite the dictionary definition in our own words, and then write five sentences that used the word. The teacher collected those words and found ways to incorporate them into our other classwork.

The Times was a teaching tool. It taught grammar and spelling; it made us aware of the world around us; it taught us to read something other than the dime novels that were surreptitiously passed around for their “eroticism” (which were, by today’s standards, not even worthy of the label “erotic” but were great treasures to us). The Times was admired by teachers for its “literary” quality.

Just as generations change, so did teaching change and so did the Times change. By the time my children were in elementary school, the practice of daily reading of a newspaper had disappeared. Teaching had changed as a profession, but more importantly, newspapers had changed. Copyediting of articles was in the decline; where once there were very few grammar and spelling errors in a newspaper, now they were plentiful, with some newspapers much worse than others.

In addition, the 1960s brought about a philosophical shift. If a newspaper was going to be used in the classroom, it was more likely to be the New York Post or the New York Daily News (or similar paper) than it was the New York Times or the Herald Tribune. Schools became more politically nuanced.

The decline in newspaper reading mirrored a decline in time and effort spent learning the fundamentals of good written and verbal communication. In my school days, we had two languages: the more formal, proper, “good” English that was to be used in the classroom, when talking with adults, and when writing, and the informal street language that was used to communicate with peers. Schools enforced the separation and focused on teaching us to master the former; the latter was strictly for use off school grounds and among peers. Even parents insisted on the more formal language usage at home. But this changed with the next generation.

When my children were in school the two heretofore separate languages became one. As my children rose in grades and the teachers became younger, I noted that even the teachers didn’t separate the languages. We had moved to the era of a single language. Trying to enforce the separation at home was impossible because the children had little exposure to the more formal language. And with this change, came the demise of what had been the method of teaching language in my school days.

Part of this change is a result of changes newspapers instituted in order to better meet shareholder and Wall Street demands. Editing has always been invisible and doesn’t become visible in its worst forms until after the product is bought. There are no recalls for poor spelling or grammar; there are no refunds. Consequently, editorial staff reductions could be made with impunity, unlike writing staff reductions.

Where once newspapers could be held up as the everyman’s grammar, spelling, and usage guide, they no longer can. Newspapers were once inexpensive, current, daily relevant language guides for young students; today they cannot be held up as examples of good language. Consider this quote from a recent op-ed piece in my local newspaper:

Some folks balk at public financing of campaigns, but if we think that taxpayer dollars are not already being expended and public funds grossly wasted in our current pay-to-play system, we are fooling themselves.

In the issue that this quote ran, I found a dozen similar errors. If newspapers “speak” like this, is it any wonder that people speak and write like this? Websites are no better.

In the beginning, websites were written with care. Then came the need to get a website up quickly and worry about errors later. Websites were followed by short messages (think Twitter) that require compressing as much as possible into as little as possible.

In all of these instances, language skills changed and the messenger services lost the mantle being language teachers. And this is where the next generation is being miseducated: There no longer is an inexpensive, ubiquitous, broadly recognized teacher of language. In my elementary school days, every school district had access to, and most took advantage of, very inexpensive school subscriptions to the Times, which was accompanied by teaching guides. (I remember paying 25¢ a week for the Times and taking it home with me for my parents to read.) The Times was recognized for its language quality and thus was a teaching tool.

Today’s students and tomorrow’s students are not being similarly exposed to correct grammar and usage because there is no broadly recognized language teacher. I see the effects of this change in the manuscripts I edit, in the job applications I receive, in the tests job applicants submit and I review. Our profession’s future may be less than glorious as our ranks fill with editors who need remedial language education themselves. That there may not be anyone capable of providing that remedial education is also a concern.

What, you may be asking, has brought about this doom and gloom view. The answer, I am sorry to report, is an application I received from a veteran (9 years) English teacher who was looking to supplement her income by doing some freelance editing. She misused, as examples, “your” and “there.” When I pointed this out, her reply was, “You understood me, didn’t you? That should be the criteria.” (I didn’t point out that it is criterion, not criteria.)

Perhaps she has it right. What difference does it make if it is “there” or “their” as long as the message is understood? No, she is wrong, because knowing the difference between the two words is part of understanding the message. If I didn’t know what the correct word was, I might not recognize the message’s meaning.

I see the demise of proper language in newspapers as a reflection of the demise of understanding grammar and spelling in the halls of academia. Do you see it that way, too?

December 4, 2013

Is Editing Teachable?

There are two aspects to an editing career: business and editing itself. The business side of editing is clearly teachable. Its fundamentals are the same as for any business. The business side is not a craft; it is the application of rules and principles that stretch across trades even if modified to meet the needs of a particular trade.

The business side includes such things as record keeping, calculating rates, determining the services to provide, advertising, etc. — in other words, all of the same things that every other business has to do. The twin goals of the business side are to be profitable and to be efficient (see The Commandments: Thou Shall be Profitable and The Commandments: Thou Shall be Efficient).

Editing is different. It is a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught. Computers can be “taught” these tasks, even if they perform them rigidly and are unable to distinguish between “rain,”  “rein,” and “reign” in context. But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

True there are “editing” courses. But what is it that they teach? They teach the mechanics; they have to because it is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor. If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.

Editing is art with words. Every artist knows how to mix colors and how to apply paint to canvas, but few artists master the craft of art. Every generation produces a handful of Vermeers and Rembrandts and Gauguins; every generation would produce millions of them if the trick to their artistry could be taught.

Editing is similar. There are many very good editors; there are few elite editors. Editing is a skill that can be nurtured and developed but which cannot be taught. How does one nurture and develop that skill? Are such high-level skills even sought in the market?

Unlike a painter whose contribution to art will last centuries, the contribution that an editor makes lasts until the next edition at best. Artists are not anonymous whereas editors are anonymous by design; it is the author who receives credit for the well-edited manuscript. Rarely does the editor’s name even appear, and when it does appear, it is difficult to ascertain what the editor’s contribution to the work was.

So does it matter (except to editors) whether an editor is highly skilled or average skilled? The market seems to think it doesn’t matter. A free market economy is based on the principle(s) that demand will cause prices to rise and fall and that greater skills will command greater money and greater demand. Perhaps that is true of some professions, but it doesn’t seem to be true in the editing economy.

Within the editing economy there is a narrow range of pricing and a broad range of requirements that accompany that range of pricing. Editors set a price for their services, but if the price is too high, find few takers. If anything, the free market acts as price depressor because the editing market does not value skills, it values price.

If editing skills were teachable, perhaps the market could be taught to value the skills. Because such skills are neither teachable nor transferable, the market views and reacts to what it considers average. It has no way to measure or see the differences in skillsets and apply different metrics to each of the skillsets. It is because these skills are not teachable that we cannot separate ourselves into tiers and demand pay equivalent to our tier. Nor can we rise from tier to tier as we gain experience and skills as no tiers exist.

When someone hires an editor, they have no realistic way of knowing whether they are getting the Michelangelo of editors or the average editor. We can proclaim our skills but each project provides its own challenges and how well an editor does changes with each project. On some projects an editor will demonstrate outstanding skills; on other projects, the same editor will struggle to be average.

It is the nature of editing.

Consequently, when we look for an editor, we ask the editor to pass a test or demonstrate mastery over grammar and spelling and usage. What we cannot and do not test for is that skillset, that spark of mastery or genius, that something that raises one editor above another. We look for and test for those things that are teachable. Perhaps that is a disservice to ourselves, to the editing profession, and to authors.

But the free market does not reward — and is not designed to reward — greater editorial skills, especially intangible, nondemonstrable skills. We need to remember that because of the ease of entry into the editing profession, dilution of the skills required to be an editor occurs. More importantly, ease of entry means that “everyone knows” what constitutes editing and what makes an editor a “good” editor.

How many times have we heard that so-and-so had to be a good editor because they teach English to fifth grade students? In the absence of “knowing” what makes a good editor, there would be no way to correlate teaching English with being a good editor. Similarly, it is also assumed that a degree in English Arts is the necessary educational background for a successful editing career. Yet professional editors know that neither teaching English nor having an English Arts degree assures that the person will be (or is) a good, let alone great, editor.

Editors favor independence and the solopreneur work style. Perhaps if we were less independent in our approach to the profession we could establish minimum “guild-type” requirements for entry into the profession and figure out a way to teach (or at learn) what is currently unteachable. I think that will be the only way to receive acknowledgement that, like with painters, there are levels of skill and mastery and the higher levels of skill and mastery require higher pay. Of course, in the market economy, especially when controlling and minimizing costs is a governing principle and editing remains a hidden benefit, this might be tomfoolery because few will be willing to pay for high-skill editors when average will do.

What do you think?

December 2, 2013

The Business of Editing: Standing One’s Ground

There is nothing I like more than to be overwhelmed with offers of work. There is nothing I dislike more than having been offered work and having to turn it down.

Recently, I had two offers that, had I looked no further than the gross amount of money I would receive, I would have accepted and would have turned into nightmares. What looked good on the surface was very bad for me underneath. And so I had to choose whether to stand my ground and insist on “thanks, but no thanks” or accept the work.

The first offer was perfect in every way but two. I had done similar projects before and so already knew what was expected. The price was acceptable based on my past experience with this type of project. The bugaboos, however, were schedule and language.

I am an American editor. My skillset is geared toward American English. Asking me to “translate” from British English to American English is fine; it is certainly something I can do. But to ask me to edit in British English, regardless of the amount of money being offered, is to ask me to do something I cannot.

I am aware of my limitations. Every successful and professional editor has limitations and is aware of them. I know that I do not have sufficient familiarity with British English grammar, spelling, structure, usage, and idioms to undertake a project that requires application of British rules.

The second bugaboo with this particular project was schedule. I was asked to do this project on a Saturday; the due date was the following Friday. The problem was that the week in question was Thanksgiving week, which meant that only Monday and Tuesday were available workdays — my office was closed for the holiday the rest of the week.

The client, to my pleasure, was persistent, but the reality was that I was not going to cancel long-ago-made plans for the holiday for my normal fee and I was not going to agree to work that I could not assure my client I could do professionally and successfully.

I tried to explain to the client that professional editors are generally busy and cannot simply set aside work for other clients that is also subject to a schedule, especially not for the standard fee. I also tried to get the client to understand that my language limitations are real limitations that if ignored could and would reflect badly on both of us.

With effort I convinced the client that I was not the right person for the job and that even if I was the right person, I couldn’t do it within the needed schedule. I believe that one difference between a professional editor and a nonprofessional editor is that a professional editor knows her limitations and will not let either a client’s cajoling or proffer of money induce her to step over that line. The professional has pride in her abilities and her work product — her reputation — and is unwilling to jeopardize it. So, I stood my ground and turned down this work.

The second opportunity I passed on was more problematic. In this instance, I was well-suited to the task and the schedule was one that I could work with. The problem was a lack of balance. We have discussed balance in prior posts, including “The Business of Editing: Expectations.”

This offer had a somewhat different history. There were three parties involved: myself, my client, and my client’s client. The saga begins with the relationship between my client and their client. My client was asked to bid on certain work. It decided to bid based on its doing the editing in-house. After doing some of the editing, it sent completed work to its client for review. Unfortunately, the review was not positive, the bottom line being the client’s client suggesting that the client needed to find more skilled editors to do the work.

This was a rare instance when my client did not have the in-house expertise to do the editorial aspects of the project; however, this project should have been earmarked for outsourcing from the beginning. That it wasn’t created the problem my client now faced: My client bid an editing price that was far too low for the type and amount of work involved. When they came to me, my price was nearly five times that my client had bid and that was accepted by my client’s client.

Unfortunately, I cannot lower my price enough to come close to what the original bid price was. The demands are simply too great. Ultimately how this will be resolved remains to be seen, but there are several lessons to be learned.

The first lesson is to be sure that you understand exactly what demands are going to be made on you before you price a project. In this case, I asked to see already edited material, knowing that I would see what edits were made and what the reviewer thought of those edits. Even in the absence of seeing that edit of an edit, I was familiar with what my client’s client would expect because I had done this type of work for my client’s client in the past and stopped doing it because there was no balance between demands and pay.

The second lesson is to be certain that you are capable of doing the work. To say that I have edited Roman history many times so therefore I can edit this Roman history is to ignore the unique features and demands of each project, author, and client. A project needs to be evaluated on many levels before it is priced and accepted.

The third lesson is to make sure that the quoted price is sufficient to earn you a profit even if some snags are hit. There is no sense being in business if you cannot make a profit.

A fourth lesson is to be ready, willing, and able to say no and to do so firmly. I understand the argument that it is better to have some work that pays poorly than to have no work that pays nothing. The problem with that argument is that it becomes a trap. If you did a similar job for next to nothing yesterday, why would I pay you more today? Experience tells me that you will lower your price. One must be willing to stand one’s ground and risk losing the job and/or the client.

Are you ready, willing, and able to stand your ground?

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