An American Editor

September 24, 2014

The Business of Editing: The Key to Success

Every business has keys that lead to success, but only one is the key to success — all the other keys just open doors on the success pathway; this one key opens the door to success itself.

We all can identify many of these keys already; all we need to do is think about what makes for success. For editors those keys include honed language skills, management skills, computer skills, proper equipment, a library that supports our work, and so on. Every one of these keys is important to carry us along the path to success, but not one alone — or several in combination — is sufficient to bring success.

Of course, there is one problem with the foregoing, and it is a fundamental problem: What is success?

If you gather editors together and ask that question, you will get a variety of answers. But I think the answers, no matter how phrased, basically boil down to these propositions: job satisfaction and sufficient income that the editor can live independently on their own income. In my view, the latter, financial success, subsumes the former, job satisfaction, because if you do not have financial success, it is hard to focus on those elements of the job that bring satisfaction.

Consequently, I define success as financial success. Let me be clear, before the uproar, that financial success is a long continuum: for some it is earning enough to pay the rent and put food on the table; for some it is earning a “professional’s” income; for some it is earning a six-figure income year after year; for some it is earning enough each year to pay for one or two family vacations. In other words, what amounts to financial success is personal; there is no magic number that separates success from nonsuccess except as we each individually draw it. The only commonality is that we are speaking in terms of financial success and not job satisfaction or some other criterion.

So each of the many keys lead down this pathway to success but none of the keys opens the magic door — none are the key to success, except for one not yet mentioned: self-confidence.

I believe firmly that the ultimate key to success is self-confidence. Those of you who have suffered through my presentations at conferences know that I keep repeating throughout my presentations this bit of braggadocio:

Three things I alone am —
— I am the greatest
— I am the smartest
— I am the best

Needless to say, each ends with “editor” or “businessperson” but it could as easily end with proofreader, indexer, mother, father, surveyor, writer, publicist…the list is endless.

In the beginning, participants are annoyed. After all, who am I to proclaim myself the best editor; there are bound to be better editors somewhere in the universe. Eventually, it dawns on some participants that I am making a point: The key to success is self-confidence and you need to think of yourself in these terms.

If, and only if, you think of yourself in these terms can you convey this aura to a client. No client wishes to settle for second best and every client will shop around until they find the editor who convinces them — albeit subconsciously — that she is the greatest, the smartest, and the best editor and there is no need nor logical reason for the client to search further.

Think about repeat business. Why do you think you are getting repeat business or referrals from clients? It isn’t because you dye your hair (assuming you aren’t bald like me) or because you are 30 and I’m in my sixties or because your name begins with R (hmmm, so does mine) or any of the reasons why one wins a beauty contest that focuses on beauty. Clients return because you have convinced them that you are the greatest, the smartest, and the best.

You convince them by the work you turn out and by the air of confidence you display when you communicate with them. You have made an editorial decision and wonder how to convince the client that it is the correct decision and the decision that the client both should and needs to accept. Experienced editors know that simply saying “Chicago says” isn’t sufficient; it also isn’t sufficient to say “because I say so” — unless you have already convinced the client that you are the greatest, smartest, and best. Believing you are adds power to communication.

Essentially you are a salesperson and the product you are selling is yourself.

When you tell a repeat client that this new project will cost three times what previous projects cost, what happens? It depends, doesn’t it, on what the client thinks of you and your services. You may have a ready explanation (e.g., it would require me to work my normal days off or to give up my holiday), but clients have their own constraints and seek the path of least resistance, which in budgeting means looking elsewhere.

Yet when you have that combination of quality services and high confidence, and you send that message to clients, clients first want to try to come to terms with you, not take the path of least resistance. I know this from my own experience; I know this from more than 30 years of running a highly successful business. In not one of those years of freelance editing have I ever had to complain of no business or business that didn’t pay enough for me to be successful. Colleagues who I know who have similar histories all exude that key to success: self-confidence.

Self-confident colleagues, like me, never worry about what will happen if a client stops calling. Why? Because we have sufficient confidence in our abilities and our salesmanship of our abilities and ourselves to know that for every client who stops calling, there are several waiting for the opportunity to hire us. Importantly, they think we are the editors they must hire.

Last week I was offered eight new projects, seven at rates higher than my usual rate. Why? Because clients understand and believe that

— I am the greatest
— I am the smartest
— I am the best

Why do they understand and believe that? Because my work is superior and because I have the self-confidence to tell clients that the three words that best describe me and my services are greatest, smartest, and best.

Self-confidence is the key to success; everything else is just a key on the path to success. Do you have self-confidence? Do you exude it so that your clients believe it?

“If you don’t believe you are the greatest, who will?”

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. […] Self-confidence is the key to success; everything else is just a key on the path to success.  […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: The Key to Success | E... — September 24, 2014 @ 6:38 am | Reply

  2. Mantras! We have to convince ourselves that we are the best at what we offer and do. Once we’re convinced, we can convey that sense of confidence in every aspect of our business – querying, bidding, working, responding.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 24, 2014 @ 9:37 am | Reply

  3. I am confident in my skills, but I’m also constantly striving to improve and to learn more. We’ve all met people whose self-confidence wasn’t justified by the quality of their work. Remember this famous study:


    Comment by Christina — September 24, 2014 @ 1:19 pm | Reply

  4. I’ve sat through Rich’s presentations, and read this article, and seen variations of both on editing forums. I buy the logic, yet the mantra (greatest, smartest, best) *still* makes me squirm like I would upon hearing the screech of nails down a blackboard. What gets me is the superlative thing. I simply cannot present myself as the “-est” at anything, especially when I know for a fact it’s true.

    I’m a damn good editor. I have a way that works for many people — my slice of the clientele pie. I believe in my abilities and have the confidence to put myself out there, stand by my work, serve the client’s interests, which is reflected back through a stable of happy customers. But to think of, to call myself, the best? Nope, can’t do it. I have too much to learn, and expect to spend the rest of my life doing it, which disqualifies me from best-ness.

    More realistically, I’m in the top 1-2%. So I continue to resist the advice, while believing that I’m good enough and getting better all the time, meanwhile attracting clients and enjoying a steady increase in income and skill. I also continue to cringe away from people who pronounce themselves the best at anything, unless they can prove it with measurable performance. It seems inconsistent to be an editor, which requires constant evaluation of context and relativity and a flexible approach to authors’ works, while thinking/speaking in terms of superlatives. Best and worst are points at one end of the spectrum or the other, and most of us are in between.

    Then again, I get the point. Being positive and confident and professional and assertive will lead to success more than simply being capable.


    Comment by Carolyn — September 24, 2014 @ 8:22 pm | Reply

  5. Oops. Quick correction. End of first paragraph should read “know for a fact it’s *not* true.”


    Comment by Carolyn — September 24, 2014 @ 8:24 pm | Reply

  6. That’s true, Richard. In my case, I needed to wait 10 years for understand that. Today, I believe it.


    Comment by Ella Suárez — September 29, 2014 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

  7. […] The Business of Editing: The Key to Success […]


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

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