An American Editor

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?


  1. I have not yet reached the point in my career that I always have work and a constant stream of offers. Thus, I must sometimes take on jobs that are not a good fit. Nonetheless, there are things I won’t do even if the checkbook is lean, such as promise a deadline I’m certain I cannot make; perform work I’m confident I can’t do, or will do very poorly; or accept material that I hate, or from people I know are going to be a problem of some sort.

    When it comes to referral, I will solicit a handful of trusted colleagues, either directly or by steering the prospect toward them. More often, I offer to post the job on Copyediting-L, or suggest the prospect go to the EFA job site and list their project for the group. In this way the opportunity becomes open to the most people, thus creating a chance for the right person to nab it. Or else for someone who’s really hungry to have a chance for a paycheck. At the least, the prospect will almost always rapidly end up with many editors to choose from, giving best odds for the right match to happen.


    Comment by Carolyn — December 16, 2013 @ 7:31 am | Reply

  2. I agree with Louise – there are projects and clients that aren’t a good fit, and I turn those down, referring the client to colleagues where possible (and warning those colleagues if I turn it down because I perceive a problem). I’m lucky to be at a point in my freelance career where I can afford to say no, and my reasons are similar – I may not do my best work on projects I dislike or for clients who are difficult, and life is too short to waste it on problem projects. If I were desperate for work, I might not be as careful about the projects and clients I accept – but I’d be worried about my business focus getting skewed.

    I might hand off a potential project to someone who I know is a better fit because of the topic or genre. If I can’t think of anyone who would be ideal for something I’d rather not do, I either suggest that the client list it with the EFA JobList or I share the info with a bunch of colleagues. I just did that recently with something that paid far less than I aim to charge (and more colleagues than I expected wanted to be connected to the client).


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — December 16, 2013 @ 10:07 am | Reply

  3. “Fit” is critical in establishing a productive, rewarding, and enjoyable client-editor relationship. When the fit isn’t organic and comfortable, it only makes sense to guide the prospect to a colleague who can meet their needs. Pay it forward; it will come back ten times over.


    Comment by Aden Nichols — December 18, 2013 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  4. Oh boy. Good timing for me to read this post (I’m a bit behind in reading posts). A potential client wants a developmental editor, or a writing coach, or someone to help him with his outline while he writes, or something else entirely. I hope my phone call with him later today will clarify whether or not I’m a good fit for his needs.

    If not, I’ll pass and encourage him to post the job on the EFA Job List. I already decline poor-fit projects; now I’ll hone my discernment of which jobs are sorta-maybe-kinda fits and practice paying attention to that unwell feeling Louise mentioned.

    I’ve ordered Scott Norton’s book on developmental editing, a skill I’d like to learn. Wish I’d started on that sooner.


    Comment by Camille DeSalme — January 2, 2014 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

  5. I believe there exist editors who can do any kind of edit on any topic, product, or subject — but I’m sceptical of most such claims. Are those people like me when I started out? I knew everything.

    Learning the conventions and standards and facts in a new field so I can work quickly and efficiently at high quality would take a lot of work. I haven’t found a field that pays enough to be worth that effort; though I do have my eye on financial markets…


    Comment by Adrienne [scieditor] — January 12, 2014 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  6. […] The Business of Editing: Knowing Your Editorial Fit […]


    Pingback by It’s Fundamental & Professional, Too | An American Editor — May 13, 2015 @ 4:00 am | Reply

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