An American Editor

January 4, 2016

On the Basics: A Tangible Expression of the Value of Editing

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Editors don’t always get to see acknowledgment of what we bring to the publishing process, but sometimes — oh, sometimes!

In November, I had the exciting experience of receiving a Big Pencil Award from Writers and Books, the literary center here in my hometown of Rochester, NY. The initial announcement said the award was for being “A teacher of adults who has inspired the creation and appreciation of literature” and someone who has “contributed significantly in the advancement, creation, and understanding of literature in the Rochester community.”

That surprised me a bit — sure, I’ve been presenting classes at Writers and Books for many years now, but I never thought of myself as in the literary side of the writing, editing, or publishing business in general. I see myself more as a journalist or a freelance generalist. I write nonfiction, and most of what I edit or proofread is also in the nonfiction realm. I did publish one piece of fiction way back in high school, in a regional magazine that no longer exists; I did launch and edit a literary magazine with friends at around the same time, after being turned down for the official school magazine; and I did get a 5 (the top score) on the AP English exam in part thanks to writing a poem in answer to one of the essay questions. The only “literary” project I’m involved with nowadays is “wrangling” the website of Gargoyle, a DC-based literary magazine, and its companion business, Paycock Press. Even there, though, my contributions are more on the practical side than the creative or literary aspect of the publications.

Then I thought, “Well, I do teach classes at Writers and Books on the basics of editing and proofreading, and on grammar (in addition to ones on freelancing and websites for writers), and those are essential to good literature. Maybe I’m entitled to this recognition after all.”

Going to the award presentation event was exciting, but I had no idea what to expect. I assumed the presentation itself would involve the head of Writers and Books repeating that language of the award that I had seen up to that point and handing each recipient — there were six of us altogether — a framed certificate. (A literal Big Pencil would have been neat, but I knew ahead of time that that wouldn’t be the expression of the award.)

To my surprise and delight, the presentation included this, from the director of education at Writers and Books: “Good grammar, editing, proofreading: these are practices that we often take for granted, but are also a necessary part to crafting our stories. For years, Ruth Thaler-Carter has been the generous, guiding hand that has helped individuals develop these habits.…Ruth has given writers the tools they need to succeed, and does so in a way that is clear and accessible.…She has been an important part of the writing community, providing essential services to so many people.…”

Rest assured, I’m still blushing over this, but I use it here not to brag. It illustrates how some people see the value of editing, so I present it in appreciation of having that value recognized; not just for myself, but for everyone who labors in this particular vineyard. So often, what we do is not acknowledged, even when we catch and fix what would have been our clients’ horribly embarrassing typos, turn sludge into interesting reading, make the difference in whether a piece of writing gets published, and more.

These words say it for me — the skills and knowledge that editors bring to publications in any and every genre are essential to work that is readable and publishable. Of course, plenty of garbage gets published nowadays, thanks to many factors, including the ease of digital self-publishing; decisions by many publishers and publications to dispense with copy editors; changes in the academic rigor in the editing “arts”; and the ability of just about anyone to hang out a shingle as an “editor” these days. A lot of self-publishing authors, as we’ve discussed in various posts here, don’t use professional editing services, either because they don’t understand our value or because they have no idea of how that value translates to the quality of their work or to dollars. I’m hoping that the wording accompanying my award may help open the eyes of potential clients in a variety of fields — not just ones for me to work with, but ones for any of us.

There’s more to this than the feel-good glow for me, or any colleague who gets a gratifyingly warm thank-you from a client. For those of us who do editing, obtaining and promoting compliments or testimonials from our clients is especially important, because we often can’t show prospective new clients the work that we’ve done. Many clients don’t want anyone to see the “before” versions of their material, and some ask us to work on projects that involved protected, proprietary information that can’t be shown to a general public as either before or after. We need to constantly remind current and prospective clients of our value, not just by participating in conversations about the importance of editing (and proofreading) but by our sharing the complimentary things that clients say about our work.

Our websites and other promotional material should emphasize that value — not just list our skills and the software programs we can use, but explain what we bring to a project and why it’s worth hiring someone with professional skills and solid experience. Compliments from satisfied clients can help bolster such information, so we also have to make sure to ask our clients for feedback that we can post as testimonials at our websites and recommendations at LinkedIn. I know that it can be hard for the more introverted of my colleagues to ask for testimonials, but doing so is important if we want to establish our editorial credibility and show the world that editing does have value and is valued.

Recognition of the value of editing serves another important purpose: It helps us justify higher fees. The more valuable a service is perceived as being, the more willing someone will be to pay a higher price for that service. Think of it like an automobile: We perceive that a Cadillac is more valuable than a Chevy Spark, and thus are willing to pay more for that Cadillac than for the Spark, even though both can take us from Point A to Point B at 65 miles per hour.

Because recognition of the value we provide can be rare, I’d like to see examples of how colleagues here have been complimented on what they brought to a project. Please feel free to share your kudos and compliments, how that praise came to you — whether spontaneously or by request — and how you are using it to enhance current and future clients’ understanding of why editing is important.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.


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