An American Editor

March 2, 2016

The Business of Editing: Saying Yes, Then No

This past week has been nightmare week for me. A couple of weeks ago, a long-time client asked me to take on two large projects. After dickering back-and-forth over price and schedule, we finally came to an agreement.

As we were getting ready to begin the two projects, the client wrote saying that its client wants faster schedules, essentially cutting the schedules in half. That began the downhill slide.

The only way these projects could be edited at the level requested and in the style required by my client and their client was to add additional editors to each project and for each editor to work longer than the standard editing workday and workweek.

Not only were these projects long and the writing problematic, but the one project had 6300 references and the second had 3000 references, none of which were in the correct format. And this became battle number one because the problem with the references wasn’t that they weren’t either in or very close to a standard style, but that my client’s client was insisting that they be wholly changed. For example, in the 3000-page manuscript, if the author had submitted journal names as N Engl J Med, that had to be changed to N. Engl. J. Med. I suggested to my client that its client should be persuaded to accept the author’s basic style, which is a standard style, and make sure that all references conform to that standard style rather than trying to redo all of those references.

That was complicated by how the author called out references in the text. The author used a numbering system but not of the style required. In addition, the references were not called out in order. Instead of 1, 2, 3, 4, it was 135, 17, 55, 1, which meant the references had to be reordered.

The troubles piled on.

It isn’t that each of these problems couldn’t be dealt with; they could be dealt with. The problem was that all of the problems needed to be corrected and the manuscript given a “medium” edit and everything completed in less than 4 weeks — and neither the client nor the client’s client would budge, even though this was 6 fewer weeks than agreed upon when I agreed to take on the project.

(The second project had similar, but not identical problems, and its schedule was cut from 6 weeks to 3 weeks.)

It is my policy not to accept work where the schedule and price do not relate. These projects had changed from ones where they did gel to ones where they did not gel. Consequently, I advised my client that we could not do the work under the new schedules without additional compensation and without my client doing some of the mechanical work inhouse.

I sent a proposal outlining what work needed to be shifted to my client and the new price I wanted. Negotiations ensued but in the end, neither my client nor its client were willing to pay more money. As a result, I said no to the projects.

Truthfully, I am perplexed by how clients think about freelancers. None of the people I deal with would donate their time to their companies, yet they expect freelancers to do so. How do they come to the conclusion that we will?

I guess the answer is that many freelancers are willing to do whatever is demanded in order to have some work. The result is that expectation becomes the expectation about all freelancers. This argument has gone on for decades, albeit usually in the guise of hourly or per-page rates, that when a freelancer accepts a low rate, the freelancer makes it difficult for other freelancers to earn a higher rate.

So far this year I have turned down eight projects because there was no balance between the fee and the requirements, including schedule. What bothers me is that I know that the projects I have turned down are being gobbled up by someone else, which makes me wonder how other freelancers earn enough to survive.

Over my 32 years as a freelancer, I have learned that it is not wise to undercut myself by accepting work that makes excessive demands and refuses to compensate appropriately. I realize that once I do accept such work, it is difficult to say no to that client on future projects.

In my early years, before I became wise, I once agreed to give a client a break. I thought I would demonstrate I was a “team player” and concerned about not only my own well-being but my client’s well-being. Foolish me. What I learned is that corporations have no soul, just bean counters. The one who made out was my inhouse contact. My client demanded the same break on the next project and told me that it was clear I could accept those terms because I already had.

That was a valuable lesson for me. I learned that if I didn’t watch out for myself, no one else would watch out for me. I also learned that how I deal with a client sets that client’s expectations for dealing with me. If I want my services to be viewed as valuable, then I must treat them as valuable. If I cheapen the value of my services, my clients will do the same.

When it comes to my clients, I need to be their leader and not be led by them. I know that some of my colleagues think I go into too much detail when I explain to a client why I require certain things or cost more than other editors. But I view that detail as education — education for the client who may not understand why a particular project needs to cost more than the usual fee; education for the client about why my services are valuable, perhaps much more valuable than that of my competition, to the client and to me; and education of the client as to how projects should be evaluated before offering the project to me or to any freelancer.

The bottom line is that we should not be afraid to say no to a project whose parameters have changed — we should not be afraid to say yes, then no.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. I agree with everything you’ve said, Richard, except for one thing.

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say “None of the people I deal with would donate their time to their companies yet they expect freelancers to do so.” Most people I know who have company jobs are paid yearly salaries, not hourly wages, and they do whatever it takes to get the job done. They don’t count the hours–they just work until they’re finished. They don’t bill their employers for overtime, either., Instead, they occasionally take time off later, when things aren’t as busy. This is what I did during my 25 years in house, and it’s what most (if not all) of my professional friends do in their respective fields..

    I certainly don’t advocate treating freelancers the way your client tried to treat you. I simply offer another perspective–one that may help explain why we sometimes get (unreasonable) requests like this.



    Comment by Anne Brennan — March 2, 2016 @ 5:36 am | Reply

    • Anne, I agree as to management-level salaried workers. When I was a management-level salaried worker, I, too, worked the hours required. But freelancers aren’t salaried workers and the people I deal with are low-level employees who almost always are not salaried either. I would also note that (at least back in my day 40 years ago) the labor department determined who was entitled to overtime not only by whether the person was salaried, although that counted, but by a combination of the salary amount and by how much management power they had. In the sixties companies put secretaries on salary thinking they could avoid paying overtime. That thinking didn’t last long. My first jobs as a salaried employee still got me time-and-a-half when I worked more than a 40-hour week. Management-level salaried employees do work unlimited hours without additional compensation, but not all salaried employees are management level.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by americaneditor — March 2, 2016 @ 6:26 am | Reply

  2. Sorry to hear about that, Richard. It’s sad that so many clients have such unrealistic expectations. I completely agree that we shouldn’t be afraid to turn down work when the parameters are changed so dramatically. The key is ensuring that we have enough cash flow and enquiries coming in to make sure we aren’t left in a weakened position for having done so, of course.


    Comment by Sophie Playle — March 2, 2016 @ 5:51 am | Reply

    • That, Sophie, is the key. I admit my response was different 32 years ago when I began freelancing, but then I didn’t have the wisdom of experience. What experience taught me was that even if I didn’t have another job to take up the slack, it is better to say no and devote the time to finding new clients and new work than to continue with the job. One never knows what tomorrow will bring. I like to think it is another rainbow with another pot of gold. 🙂


      Comment by americaneditor — March 2, 2016 @ 6:29 am | Reply

      • ‘it is better to say no and devote the time to finding new clients and new work than to continue with the job’ – Very much agree!


        Comment by Sophie Playle — March 2, 2016 @ 11:45 am | Reply

        • “it is better to say no and devote the time to finding new clients and new work than to continue with the job”

          Although I wholly agree with this in principle and practice it to the best of my ability, the days are still too raw in my memory of when I had to take whatever work I could get, at whatever rate, in order to keep the lights on and food on the table. Had I not done so, I would have not been able to build my credentials and solve my problems — and likely would not be an editor today, because I would have had to drastically change my location, marriage, family, and source of income. In other words, saying no to crummy rates and work would have sunk my editorial boat to the bottom of the sea. Now, instead, I am bobbing happily on the surface.

          IMO, successful people too often dismiss folks in more difficult straits as being unwilling to help themselves. Having been in dire straits, I’ve never taken kindly to the accusation that freelancers without choice were dragging down rates and circumstances for all the other freelancers. Larger forces are at play than just that. The low-rate clients I depended on back then are still low-rate payers, and that won’t change because of their own financial circumstances, plus a never-ending supply of people who can afford to work for them — or can’t afford not to.

          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Carolyn — March 2, 2016 @ 12:15 pm | Reply

          • You wrote “IMO, successful people too often dismiss folks in more difficult straits as being unwilling to help themselves.” I do not view people that way. I, too, have taken low-paying work in my career. What I do think, however, is that it is one thing to take low-paying work to gain experience and quite another to continue to accept such work once you have gained the experience. Not that there aren’t acceptable tradeoffs. For example, I have accepted lower pay in exchange for a guaranteed minimum number of pages — what would be called a quantity discount if I were selling widgets. But even in those situations, there were set parameters regarding the work to be done and the appropriate schedule.

            I also consider it unacceptable to not actively market for higher-paying clients during the period when you are accepting low-paying work. And I very much consider it unacceptable for a freelancer not to explore ways to turn low-paying work into higher-paying work by using efficient editing methods. As I have said many times, one of the reasons I invest as much money as I do every year in my EditTools is that when properly used its macros positively affect my effective hourly rate (EHR). Finally, I find it unacceptable for editors to not track the data necessary to determine whether they are profitable.

            It isn’t a matter of it is wrong to accept low-paying jobs; it is a matter of considering accepting low-paying jobs as OK and not trying to either convert them into higher-paying jobs or moving toward higher-paying jobs. Too many editors are “happy” at starvation rates because they have other-source income or are afraid to ever say no, believing it is better to have some work than no work.


            Comment by americaneditor — March 3, 2016 @ 5:13 am

  3. AE said: “When it comes to my clients, I need to be their leader and not be led by them.” This was the single biggest lesson I had to learn before I could function successfully as a self-employed person. I spent 30+ years in the soulless corporate world, which is indeed ruled by bean counters and prohibits employees below a certain level from ever saying “no.” It took about three years of self-employment to break out of the psychological conditioning of subservience and learn to think in terms of “This is my business, and I control all my choices.” Sometimes “no,” or “yes then no,” is the correct choice. I have never regretted walking away from an opportunity that would milk me. And ever since I built my boundaries and believed in myself enough to maintain them, my business has steadily improved.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by Carolyn — March 2, 2016 @ 7:59 am | Reply

  4. I agree that there comes a time when you need to value your own experience and your own work as a freelancer or you will be constantly undervaluing yourself. However, I think it is more of a general attitude of people trying to get cheap labor than the fault of other freelancers who are working at a lower wage. Breaking in, or even just changing your specialty, can be a difficult process, and many editors find that the only way to break the circle of “you need experience to get work/you need work to get experience” is to offer a lower wage. The trick is not to get caught in a downward spiral of never raising your rates because your clients always expect to pay your initial rates. As you said, Richard, don’t be afraid to say no.


    Comment by Janell — March 2, 2016 @ 4:24 pm | Reply

  5. Looking over the previous comments and taking Richard’s article into account…

    To me, if you cannot say ‘no’, you cannot maintain a viable business. In my world of freelance editing and copy writing, I say ‘no’ whenever a project threatens the financial balance of my business. Every project has the potential to turn into something much different than the original specs; however, that fluidity means that I must be equally fluid in my response and actions regarding every project.

    My last ‘straight’ gig of 15 years involved billing multi-million dollar construction projects. Every moment of the project is billed. Every nut, bolt, piece of steel, and instant of equipment usage is billed. Before this billing happens, an exacting bid is crafted that explains what will be done, why it will be done, and how much it will all cost. These documents might be 50+ pages long, not including drawings and charts.

    Once a build was underway, any change had to be in writing, with an agreed upon additional cost. This meant there was always room to say ‘no’ or to assign a cost or to move the work responsibility back to the client or a subcontractor, with appropriate costs outlined.

    As an independent business owner, why should I think any differently than this? Why should I accept substantial changes by a client without assigning additional cost or refusing the project?

    You’re so right, Richard, about the debate of low rates, etc…to me, this is a debate that never should have existed. People who perform as a freelancer should not be viewed or thought of as people who are unskilled or unprofessional; however, if you charge a low rate, you risk the possibility of a client perceiving you as someone lacking in skills or professionalism.

    If you are currently inexperienced at copy editing and wish to enter the world of freelancing, why not take one of the many courses on copy editing? Once completed, you can begin freelancing with some educational backing, and not feel like you need to set ‘hobbyist’ rates. The people who decide to enter into freelancing without education or direct experience project their insecurity into their rates and willingness to do ‘anything’ to get work.

    Forgive the tangent — but to me, it’s directly tied to the issue of your article. An independent professional must be confident that their business decisions are backed by a solid perspective of their professional worth. There should be no need to ‘prove’ one’s self by taking on more work than originally agreed upon, for no additional compensation.

    Corporate American business ideologies do not have to shape the business practices of independent professionals, regardless of the field of endeavor. Just because you are an independent doesn’t mean you are ‘less’ of a professional — especially as compared to corporate populations.

    Thank you, Richard — I rarely post, but apparently you pricked more than one pet peeve it seems. 🙂


    Comment by TigerXGlobal (@TigerXGlobal) — March 3, 2016 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  6. I’m always astonished by how my previous vocation, nursing, correlates so closely to the vocation I now want to adopt, editing. No one really knows what we do or what we actually bring to the table. Our services are undervalued, but most strikingly, our services are taken for granted. It’s not necessary to really delve into what we do, or to put a dollar amount on it, because what we do anybody can do. In no time at all.

    I find it interesting that you refer to “its client” in regards to your client’s client. Wouldn’t it be (their) client? Or does “it” in this context refer to a corporation?


    Comment by Irma — March 4, 2016 @ 10:31 am | Reply

  7. I am in total sympathy with your course of action. I recently backed away from a promised, long delayed job that I really would have wanted to do. Further delay meant that timescale was now too short for me to work in comfort and experience on earlier parts of this project demonstrated that the fee would be nowhere near enough to compensate for all the aggravation and extra time that I would have to put in. I suggested the client engage someone else, and spelled out in detail why I was not prepared to take it on. I value my own health and well-being.


    Comment by Doreen Kruger — March 4, 2016 @ 11:01 am | Reply

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