An American Editor

November 16, 2016

The Order of Things (An Occasional Series): I

This essay inaugurates a new series, The Order of Things. The idea of the series is to discuss the steps necessary for a long-term successful editing career. Needless to say, much of this series will be based on my experience and the experiences of close colleagues. I like to think I have had a very successful long-term editing career, but then success is relative. What is success to me may not be success to you.

Consequently, we begin with what I consider to be the first step in launching a successful career, a step so fundamental that it is rarely discussed, even more rarely thought about, and yet is the driver of for many of the decisions we make. The first step is defining success.

Success has always been a part of the editorial vocabulary, but usually a hidden part. Editors rarely think about it but are quick to claim their success to clients and colleagues, who also do not ask the bottom-line question: What do you mean by success?

Success can have any number of meanings. For some editors, success is editing a New York Times bestseller, even if they made no money on the project. For other editors, success is defined by money, that is, by an income that exceeds $x. Some editors define it by a mixture of steady work and a reasonable income. It really doesn’t matter how it is defined; what matters is that success is defined because it is that definition against which you evaluate your career.

Working for a company usually results in success being defined as climbing the corporate ladder, gaining increasing power and income as one rises. We tend to measure our corporate success against that of our colleagues. We can see who rises, who falls, and we can know what perks accompany the rise or fall.

But as an individual proprietor of our own company of one, we do not really have that ability to measure our success (or failure) against that of our colleagues. Over 32 years I have found very few colleagues willing to really discuss the ins and outs of their business, especially not their incomes. More importantly, it is hard to verify any statements colleagues make about their income or clients or workload or, really, just about anything involving their editing business.

Thus success for editors is measured against self-definitions.

I can tell you that for 29 of my 32 years as an editor, I have earned a six-figure income and that it has generally been at the high end of the low end (a little confusing isn’t it). And I can point to my being the primary (and often sole) source of income for my family, my having bought a house and paying $2,000 a month on a mortgage, and having bought health insurance, and having paid for college, and so on as proof of my statement — but that really doesn’t prove how successful I am. Because I have not yet defined what constitutes success for me, and, perhaps more importantly, it may not be what you consider success. So, we each need to define success for our self and measure our self against that definition.

Why is definition important? Because if we do not have a goal or something to measure against, it is impossible to know if we should continue following our current course.

Let’s accept that success means financial success and that financial success means earning a minimum of $100,000 a year, every year, beginning in 2017. Somewhat like a New Year’s resolution, but one we will strive to attain and keep.

As we begin our journey toward that goal, we can constantly evaluate how we are doing. With that goal, we can determine whether we have enough work, or if we have enough work to keep us busy for the year, is it the right kind of work from the right kind of client. Having that goal also allows us to evaluate what we need to do to attain the goal. Do we need to advertise? What kind of advertising? Where? How often? Focused on what type of client?

“Ahhh!” I hear you say. “The beginnings of a business plan” (for an excellent introduction to business plans, see Louise Harnby’s “Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers” or, better yet, her “Omnibus: Editorial Business Planning & Marketing Plus“). Fundamental to every business plan is knowing your goal, knowing what constitutes success.

Yet defining success encompasses much more. It gives you the opportunity to evaluate many of the business concepts that you are unconsciously employing in your daily business. After all, one facet of attaining the success we defined is wrapped in the cloak of the price we charge for our service. It is not possible, for example, to earn $100,000 if you charge $10 an hour. If you work 80 hours a week and charge $10 for every one of those 80 hours and do so for 52 weeks, your income will be only $41,600 or less than 42% of what constitutes success.

The result of defining success is that you are forced to face and address those things that most editors usually ignore. For example, when setting their rate, most editors ask colleagues questions such as, “What is the going rate?” or “What do you charge for copyediting?” or other uninformative, unhelpful albeit similar questions, when the correct question is, “What is my required effective hourly rate?” and the correct “colleague” to ask is yourself. (For guidance on the effective hourly rate, see the five-part series “Business of Editing: What to Charge.“)

When you ask a colleague about what to charge, you are doing so in a vacuum. Without knowing their goals, you cannot know whether they are charging correctly or how it compares to what you should be charging. Unless a colleague’s goal is the same as your goal and unless the colleague and you are taking the same path, including focusing on identical markets, to that goal, the answer you receive is interesting, making for great “water-cooler” gossip, but not what should guide you.

So, the first step necessary for a long-term successful editing career is to define success. In the absence of setting your goal, you have no yardstick against which to measure your progress and when your path forks, you have no clues as to which fork to take. If you have yet to define success, now is the time to take that first step.

(There are lots of little things that matter in establishing a successful editorial business. My book, “The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper,” is an excellent guide to many of the things that create a successful editorial business. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and from the publisher, Waking Lion Press.)

Richard Adin, An American Editor


  1. I’ve never consciously defined success for my freelance writing, editing, proofreading and speaking business, but I think my subconscious definition has been to “Earn enough on projects I enjoy doing to *more than* cover expenses and serve as sole supporter for myself and – once married – my husband (even though his income has been substantial), and to increase that income and client base every year.” I was basing my fees on a version of “effective hourly rate” long before I met Rich! (I think in terms of being the sole support of our little family so I don’t get complacent about income.)

    As for what to charge, I’ve always told people that what I charge isn’t relevant to what they charge, because we have different levels of experience, skill and chutzpah, as well as costs of living.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — November 17, 2016 @ 11:00 am | Reply

  2. I also think that one element of success, if we’re talking about a sequence that leads to a successful editing business, is understanding what kinds of skills and training are needed before leaping into the fray and calling oneself an editor.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — November 19, 2016 @ 10:22 am | Reply

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