An American Editor

August 27, 2014

The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job

Teresa Barensfeld asked this question:

If a job is going sour, do you (a) cut corners, (b) tell the client and try to renegotiate time and/or money, (c) just grind through it even though you’re making no money and the rent/mortgage/bills are due, (d) something else?

I suspect that all of us have faced this problem in our editing career. I also suspect that each of us has a different approach to the problem. But let us start at the start of the problem: with ourselves.

When we took on this souring job, did we ask to see the manuscript or a sample before agreeing to do the editing? If we did, then why didn’t we see the problems that are now causing the job to sour? If we didn’t, why didn’t we?

In discussions, many editors state that they always ask to see a sample and that they instruct the client as to what they want to see. Other editors, like myself, never ask to see a sample unless it is a one-off project for a one-off client, which would be the usual case when dealing directly with the author. In the one-off instance, I ask to see the whole manuscript and I skim it. But when I am doing work for a packager or a publisher, I never ask to see a sample (sometimes they send me sample chapters).

Now that I have stated my blanket rule, let me state the “exception.” If the schedule is short in comparison to the client’s estimate of the manuscript size, and if the client also states that a medium or heavy edit is required, I do ask to see the entire manuscript. I want to do my own page count so I can determine whether the schedule is doable.

Aside from doing my own page count to evaluate the schedule, I pretty much rely on my rule of three, which we discussed in The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three. But I’m drifting from the posed questions, so let’s drift back.

Once I agree to undertake a project, I feel bound to perform the agreed upon job for the agreed upon fee and in the agreed upon time (assuming that is at all possible). So, given the choices Teresa outlined, I would adhere to choice c.

If I am not making money on a project, that is my fault, not the client’s fault. If I didn’t ask to see sample chapters, that is my fault. If I didn’t do my own page count, that is my fault. If I failed to determine how difficult the editing would be, that is my fault. Basically, the client has no fault in this transaction, so why should the client suffer any penalty?

If the client told me that the manuscript ran 500 pages and the client didn’t have all of the manuscript available for me to do a page count at the time I had to make a decision, and I have hit page 425 and know that I still have 10 chapters to go, and when I finally receive the remaining chapters I discover that instead of there being 75 pages to go, there are 500 pages to go, then the fault lies with the client (assuming I asked for the complete manuscript; if I didn’t ask, then none of this matters — it remains my fault) and I would advise the client that the schedule is not doable and needs to be renegotiated.

(Not asked and not addressed is the situation in which I have calendared for the 500-page manuscript based on the client’s representation and schedule, but subsequently discover the manuscript is much longer and needs more time, but I am already committed to another project for that time.)

What I would not do — ever — is cut corners or try to renegotiate the fee, unless the fee was a project fee based on the original representation of size. If the fee is per-page fee or an hourly fee, I would simply apply that same rate to the additional pages and time. If the fee arrangement was a project fee based on the manuscript being a certain size, and if the final size significantly differs, and if the client will not renegotiate the fee, then I think it is correct to return the balance of the project to the client, once I have edited the amount I agreed to edit.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to how much preparation we editors do when determining whether or not to take on a project. The more preparation we do, the less likely a project will go sour. Having said that, I realize that in evaluating a project I may not have looked at the most problematic chapters, the chapters that cause a project to sour. But if those chapters were available to me for the asking, then it is my fault and I live with my poor decision making; if the chapters were not available, then it is the client who is at fault and who needs to bear the consequences.

As the experienced editor, I should know whether I can do a medium edit of a manuscript written by nonnative English speakers and that is 500 pages within 10 editing days. If I say I can, then I need to do it; if I don’t believe I can, then I need to negotiate with the client before accepting the project. If I accept the project knowing that it will be very difficult for me to meet the schedule, then it is my fault and I need to figure out how to accomplish the task.

Which raises another side, but important, issue: editing days. When a client sends a project with a two-week schedule, the client counts every day in that two-week period as an editing day. In addition, the client thinks in terms of full days. I, on the other hand, do not count weekends and holidays as editing days and I recognize that quality begins to decline rapidly after about 5 hours of editing. That is, I calculate the maximum editing day length as 5 hours of editing.

The 500-manuscript page project is viewed by the client as requiring editing of 36 pages a day (2 weeks = 14 editing days) at a rate of 4.5 pages an hour. I view that same project as requiring 56 pages per day (2 weeks = 9 editing days) at a rate of a little more than 11 pages an hour. Consequently, the issue becomes do I think I can do a quality medium edit at the rate of 11+ pages per hour? If yes, the project can be accepted; if no, then schedule needs to be negotiated. If the client insists on the two-week schedule, then the fee has to rise because I will need to work weekends to meet it.

But once I have accepted the job, as long as any fault in the decision-making process was mine, I do not return to the client because the job is turning sour. I “just grind through it even though [I’m] making no money and the rent/mortgage/bills are due.” If any fault lies with the client, then I try to renegotiate the schedule, but not the fee (unless it was a project fee and the size of the manuscript has changed significantly). Unfortunately, that leaves me in the same position of grinding through.

I remain a firm believer that a deal is a deal and maintaining that deal is the ethical way to do business. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor


  1. In general, I believe in and operate according to the same principle: a deal’s a deal, and if I flubbed something that led to me into a lousy situation, I’ll endure it and learn the lesson. That’s often how lessons are learned. (If I had a penny for every bad judgment call I’ve made, I’d be a rich woman!)

    I also believe there are times when something goes sour and the best solution is to get out of it. I won’t try to list possibilities, because there are many and they will differ with each person and context. But sometimes you have to terminate a situation to prevent it from escalating. This is usually a self-preservation choice. Such situations are rare, and involve much soul searching. After all, life is full of surprises, and nobody is perfect.

    If sour jobs happen with any frequency, then the problem is likely to be you. A person close to me (in another trade, but also self-employed) keeps blowing jobs because of extremely poor communication and time management skills, then refusing to see himself as a contributing factor. That kind of blindness guarantees bad outcomes. So does persevering through a bad situation — regardless of its cause — when that endangers your ability to keep going productively and successfully in everything else.


    Comment by Carolyn — August 27, 2014 @ 7:02 am | Reply

  2. If I misunderstood how much effort a job required, failed to properly estimate the time needed, or underestimated the obnoxiousness of the client, I would suck it up and finish the job without comment. However, if the client changed the scope of work midway through a project (e.g., added pages or increased the level of edit), I would try to renegotiate the estimate.


    Comment by Samantha Enslen — August 27, 2014 @ 7:40 am | Reply

  3. You do have to define a “page” before being able to calculate the time involved to edit a ms. and thus the money involved. As an example, I’m in the midst of editing what started as a 989-page ms. (as part of the initial process, I’ve fixed formatting throughout, which knocked it down to 877 pages!) for an individual author who thought I should be able to get through at least 100 pages a day and get it back to him in less than a week. ! The first thing I had to do was point out that I define a page as 250 words, by which definition his single-spaced, 11-point ms. came to more like 1,800-2,000 pages. The next was to say that getting through even 50 of my pages, much less his, a day was unlikely, even though the material needed only a light edit.

    If I find a job going sour because it’s taking more time to do than I anticipated, I go for Teresa’s option b, and try to talk to the client before continuing. If the problem is that the client keeps adding on more material beyond what we agreed upon initially, I make sure it’s clear that additional pages from the client means additional time for, and money to, me.

    I’m not sure I know how to cut corners (a); it would go against my grain even to try. If I had to keep going even though I’m “making no money” (c), I would remind myself that I *am* going to make some money, just not as much as I think I should. I also would look at the preliminary and early aspects of the project to see how I can protect myself against similar problems in the future. I suppose an “other” (d) would be to hand it back unfinished with apologies or find a colleague to refer or give it to.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 27, 2014 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  4. Ruth, do I read this correctly: “If I find a job going sour because it’s taking more time to do than I anticipated, I go for Teresa’s option b, and try to talk to the client before continuing.”? Are you saying that if the client sent you the manuscript and asked for a price and you estimated it would take 50 hours to do the job and give a price based on that estimate, and then find, even though the client has done nothing in the interim, that it is likely to take 100 hours, you try to renegotiate because you underestimated? I understand if the client adds tasks so that the job changes from what was originally estimated, but I do not understand why a client should be responsible for your error.


    Comment by americaneditor — August 27, 2014 @ 1:54 pm | Reply

  5. Yes, a deal’s a deal and if I misunderstood the job before agreeing to do it, then that’s on me. There are other ways jobs can go bad, however. For example, all of us have had the experience of a client changing the parameters of a job or revising the content midstream. Thus what began as three things suddenly becomes five, then seven. This is a separate sort of problem and perhaps one that Rich can address in a future column.


    Comment by theraven11879 — August 29, 2014 @ 9:12 am | Reply

  6. If a client sends me a manuscript and asks for a price, and I give an estimated price based on looking at the ms. but then find, even though the client has done nothing else, that it is likely to take 100 hours, I might try to renegotiate because I underestimated, but probably not. If it’s my bad, I eat the difference. That’s why I skim through every project before estimating. If someone wants a bid too quickly for me to get a good sense of what the document might involve, I’ll say that the estimate may require adjustment as I get farther into the document.

    Because so many people invest most of their energy on the first few pages or chapters of a ms., I never give firm estimates (is that a contradiction in terms?) based on skimming only part of a ms. And I try not to accept anything that isn’t yet finished. On the one hand, sending back an edited first part of a document could help the author make the rest of it better, but on the other hand, I like to be able to surge through the whole thing and not have to stop and start on a project. Sometimes it’s hard to decide which is the best approach.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 2, 2014 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

  7. As for clients who change the parameters of a job once we’ve started: Include language in your agreements about an estimated fee being based on the ms. as received or project scope as discussed initially, and that changes outside that scope may/will incur additional charges. I say “may/will” because some of us aren’t comfortable with saying something will cost the client more money; using “may” makes it seem less, oh, strict and still protects you against doing three times the expected amount of work for the original fee.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 2, 2014 @ 12:56 pm | Reply

  8. […] has been a while since the last discussion on ethics (see “The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job“) and I thought it is time to return to the topic of ethics in editing. Today’s first […]


    Pingback by The Ethics of Editing: Padding the Bill | An American Editor — January 5, 2015 @ 4:00 am | Reply

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