An American Editor

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?



  1. I recently turned down two projects for similar reasons. Both were memoirs. One was for a friend and had typos of all kinds in pretty much every single sentence – and that was just the basic copyediting/proofreading aspect; it needed substantive or developmental editing as well, which I prefer not to do. The other was for someone who found me through my being mentioned in a colleague’s book. I didn’t ask for her ms.; it just wasn’t the kind of project I want to do.

    I suggested that the friend invest time in a critique or writing group; he’s still deciding what to do and I’ve offered to recommend colleagues if he wants to proceed further. I recommended other people to the other author.

    It felt good to stand my ground in both instances. Of course, I don’t know if I would have done so had I been desperate for income, but I think I still would have. I’ve learned that some income just isn’t worth being driven crazy by, or simply not enjoying, the project.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — December 2, 2013 @ 9:56 am | Reply

  2. Thank you both, Rich and Ruth.

    A prospective client has asked me to look at a project. I’ve read the writer’s e-mails but not the sample of the project itself. (Been busy editing another project—yay!) Unless the language in his project is clearer than in his e-mails, I believe an editor fluent in American English and in Spanish is called for. I’m not that person.

    Reading this post and comment helps me plant my feet more firmly, ready to pass on this work if that seems best.


    Comment by Camille DeSalme — December 2, 2013 @ 11:51 am | Reply

  3. I save many of your posts, but feel the need to save as well as respond to this column. This was so helpful. I recently completed a project which I should have refused. I didn’t see some of the potential flaws and suffered for it. The client said most of the book had been previously published, and the editor was reputable, so I thought it would be much cleaner — by a huge magnitude. Thank you for your support and advice.

    Elaine (Hooker) Jackson

    Date: Mon, 2 Dec 2013 09:01:16 +0000 To:


    Comment by Elaine Hooker — December 2, 2013 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  4. This was such a timely post. Just yesterday, I stood my ground against a client who would not answer simple questions regarding his project, but instead insisted that he would pay me right away, as long as I gave him my physical address (No PO Box).

    He wrote to me out of the blue. He had a US-sounding name, but his writing style was distinctly ESL. He had a good subject matter, an exact word count, and a sensible deadline. It seemed like a good job. I gave him my price, my start date, and my PayPal address. I also asked some questions about the kind of publication he was planning to submit his work to and the kind of audience he was targeting.

    He sent the manuscript right away, and said that he wanted to pay via cashier’s check. He claimed that he had already been scammed by a translator, so he wanted to be careful. I thought this was unusual, but I gave him my business PO Box and asked a couple more questions about his manuscript.

    He wrote back insisting that I provide him with a physical address so he could mail the check as soon as possible. He mentioned that my price was very affordable, and he implied that he had rich backers and human rights activists who were anxious to hand over buckets of money a soon as this was edited. He did not answer any of my questions about the work or the expectations.

    I asked one more question, “WHY does it have to be a physical address? I use this PO Box for business and it is perfectly legit” (only in more a professional tone). He said only, “We prefer to send mail to a physical address.”

    Well, I prefer to use my P.O. Box. And who is “we” all of a sudden?”

    I was beginning to feel a bit snippy, but I managed, after several attempts, to compose a professional email that would assure him that I am not going to run away with his money, and I am not going to give him my physical address. I talked about the work we would be doing together and how important it is. I gave him links to all my internet profiles, letters of reference, and my cell phone number; I gave him specific times during which I would be accepting phone calls. I then stated very plainly that I would not give my physical address to someone I do not know.

    I have not heard anything back from him since that last email.

    It seems like an awfully odd kind of scam and very specific. For me, the two biggest red flags were the push for my physical address and the refusal to discuss the manuscript. Another flag was the fact that he did not have any kind of internet presence and he would not answer any of my questions, whether about the manuscript or about how he found me. The mentioning of wealthy backers seemed kind of odd, as well.

    Have you ever had to give up your physical address to a client in order to get paid? Is that normal?

    So, yes, I stood my ground against a client who pushed my boundaries, but I don’t know if I was just being as suspicious as he was or if I had a good reason for my refusal. I do, however, feel better about myself because I did not let him bully or bribe me into doing something that made me uncomfortable.


    Comment by Veronica — December 2, 2013 @ 4:36 pm | Reply

    • I do not use a PO Box, so giving up the physical address has never been an issue. I do understand the request for a physical address. I do not like dealing with businesses whose only contact is via e-mail or a PO Box. Real businesses have physical addresses and knowing a physical address gives me one more clue as to the legitimacy of a business.

      I have known several editors who have been reluctant to disclose their physical address; you are certainly not alone. In most instances, it is probably not a problem. I have had institutional clients who were willing to make payments to a PO Box but who would not hire me in the absence of a verifiable physical address.

      To disclose or not to disclose is a business decision. There is no correct answer.


      Comment by americaneditor — December 4, 2013 @ 5:14 am | Reply

      • Thank you for answering, I appreciate that. I live in a world of “there are no right answers.”

        I think that I would have been more willing to give him my physical address if he had answered a single one of my questions about his manuscript or if he had disclosed any actual information about himself. All I knew about him was a name that did not seem real and a paper that seemed to have been written by someone else.

        When I read his first email, my very first thought was, “This isn’t real. This sounds like one of those Nigerian Prince things.” Then he sent the manuscript and started pushing for my physical address, and it just felt very off. That combined with him ignoring my questions about his audience and intentions for the work, something I need to know while I am working, set off multiple alarms for me.

        Working from home makes things like giving up a physical address feel more risky, especially when you have vultnerable people in your care.


        Comment by Veronica — December 4, 2013 @ 8:41 am | Reply

  5. Thanks for this post…you’re so right about knowing which jobs to take on and which ones just aren’t worth the bother. I had a job last year which I’d mistakenly thought would be a ‘medium edit’ from the sample text sent to me. But, once I’d started on the m/s, it turned out that it could have done with a complete rewrite. I ended up doing much more than I was getting paid for, although I wasn’t prepared to rewrite it for so little money, hence the book (in my humble opinion) was not of a standard I’d like to put my name to. Oh well…we learn from our mistakes! And if you ever get a job which needs a British editor – look no further!! I’ll happily return the favour….:)


    Comment by Alice Bowden — December 3, 2013 @ 6:24 am | Reply

  6. […] in The Business of Editing: Standing One’s Ground, I discussed turning down work. Today’s guest essay by Louise Harnby provides another […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Knowing Your Editorial Fit | An American Editor — December 16, 2013 @ 4:03 am | Reply

  7. […] The Business of Editing: Standing One’s Ground […]


    Pingback by So, How Much Am I Worth? | An American Editor — April 29, 2015 @ 4:01 am | Reply

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