An American Editor

February 28, 2018

On the Basics: Making the Best Use of Interaction with Colleagues

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Networking and Etiquette

It seems to occur almost every day — someone in a Facebook group or on an e-mail discussion list says they’re available for projects and asks colleagues in the group to send work to them. They might ask for referrals or recommendations or say they’re available for overflow or projects, that they’re starting out and need work, that they’re having a slow period or just lost a major client; some even ask group members to share contact information for clients. It doesn’t matter exactly how they phrase the request, but the basic message is “Please give me work.”

These messages invariably are from people who have never been seen or heard from before. They haven’t introduced themselves, haven’t asked any questions, haven’t contributed anything useful in response to other group members’ questions. Some are new to editing or freelancing, with little or even no training or experience; some have been working for a while, but have hit a dry spell.

Just this past week, a new member of a professional association showed up at its discussion list with the fast-becoming-classic “Hi, I’m new here, please give me your contacts or overflow work and recommend me to your clients and colleagues” message as his first post to the list. He did present his credentials, but still — he posted the same information about his background (essentially his résumé, which is not considered de rigueur on a list) — six times in an hour or so. This did him little, if any, good in terms of respect or interest from listmates.

As with most online communities, it is important to understand that people we “meet” in these collegial environments can be generous with advice and insights into our craft — both editing and freelancing — but that there is a certain etiquette for becoming part of these communities. It is becoming clear that we can’t say it too often: Not only is networking a two-way street, but newcomers should listen, read, and contribute before asking to be referred, recommended, hired, or subcontracted with.

Perhaps even more important, newcomers should remember that established colleagues, both freelancers and in-house workers, are invested in their contacts and clients, and in their reputations. We have put many years into building up our relationships and reputations by providing skilled, high-quality work and respecting the privacy of those we work with. Most of us are more than glad to offer advice and resources, but are not going to risk our reputations, and our relationships with clients or employers, by handing off contact information to strangers.

Keep in mind that there’s a difference between saying “I have openings in my schedule,” “I’m looking for new clients,” “Expected payments are running late and I could use some new projects” versus “Give me your contacts” and “Send me your overflow work when you don’t know anything about me.”

Some editors (and freelancers in other aspects of publishing) may list our clients and projects at our websites. That is not an invitation for others to contact those clients to offer their services, although we have no control over whether someone might do so. We can only hope that anyone who does take advantage of that information doesn’t pretend to know us in the process, or suggest that we’ve referred or recommended them.

With this as a basis, how do we make the best of getting to know each other either in person at meetings and conferences or online in discussion lists and groups without ruffling feathers and crossing lines?

Newcomers to a group can (some would say should) sit back and observe — “lurk” — after joining to develop a sense of what is appropriate for discussion, the tone of the community, and more. Once that is clear, ask questions about the profession, the skills needed, worthwhile resources for enhancing one’s skills, how to break in (most of us love recalling and recounting our early years in the field or in business).

Look for opportunities to establish a professional image and be helpful. Answer colleagues’ questions (if you can). Suggest new resources that haven’t been mentioned or vetted. Relate experiences that demonstrate skills in doing editorial work or dealing with difficult clients. Announce good news about new training you’ve taken, clients and projects you’ve snared, even kudos from clients who are happy with your work. Dial down any boasting, but let colleagues know how your work and business are progressing.

It takes time to gain the trust, confidence, and respect of colleagues. Once you’ve done so, it might be appropriate to ask for referrals and recommendations. Before doing that, though, stop and think about how you would feel if someone you don’t know anything about were to ask you for the contacts and clients you have worked so hard to build up. Use that insight to influence how you word your requests, whether one-on-one or in a group setting.

On the Other Side of the Fence

For colleagues who have established successful editing careers and businesses, today’s culture can be annoying, but it can’t hurt to provide some kind of response to pleas for help.

I try to live by the good ol’ Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — and “What goes around, comes around” (or, as Billy Preston sang it, “Nothing from nothing leaves nothing”). When I was ready to start freelancing, I figured out most of what I needed to know on my own, but I also had some very generous colleagues. I tried not to take advantage of their time and knowledge, but it was so reassuring to know that they were available if I needed them.

Nowadays, even established, experienced editors and freelancers need help with the occasional sticky language, client, or technological matter, or even with financial dry spells. No one is immune. It makes sense to give back when possible, because we never know when we may have to ask for help ourselves.

I keep a list of useful resources to offer when someone asks for help in finding work. I also have a boilerplate response for people who ask — whether privately or in a group of some sort — for my client contact information, and for referrals, recommendations, “overflow work,” and other elements of my editorial business.

Helping colleagues feels good — and is an investment in karma: It might seem selfish, but you never know when helping someone out, even with just a list of resources, will come back to help you out in the future. I aim to enhance that karma through avenues like the An American Editor blog (both my own posts and those of our wonderful contributors), participating in lists and groups of colleagues, hosting the Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference, referring colleagues whom I know for projects outside my wheelhouse for any reason, and even hiring or subcontracting to colleagues I know and trust.

The operative phrase, of course, is “colleagues I know and trust.” I might not have met some of them in person, but I’ve learned enough about them to feel comfortable with referrals or projects.

How do you respond to people who make what you feel are unreasonable or inappropriate requests for client contacts or business leads?


  1. I have faced this situation so many times, particularly in my Indian Copyeditors Forum Facebook group.


    Comment by Vivek Kumar — February 28, 2018 @ 4:23 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for this, Ruth. Yes, for those of us who have painstakingly built relationships with clients that have stretched for years because we’re conscientious, work hard, and deliver quality product, it can indeed be irksome to confront folks who seem to want the shortcut, and don’t seem to realize they’re asking us to sacrifice to help them leapfrog. As you rightly say, it’s when you don’t know the quality of their work (be they familiar or a stranger to you) that it’s startling that they would ask you to risk your professional reputation and even your livelihood by just handing over work.

    I encouraged a family member who wasn’t working and would benefit from a flexible work-from-home scenario to try his hand at what I do, starting with proofreading, but was astonished when his response was, “Then send me your client contact info, along with any projects, and I’ll take it from there.” I didn’t know whether to recoil or laugh. Instead, I sent him info on a few freelance platforms where I’d gotten my feet wet (and paid my dues), and he never even looked at the sites.

    I’ve also had acquaintances who, upon learning that I work from home as an independent editor, exclaim, “I’ve often thought about doing that! I’m the person who always notices the misspelling in restaurant menus…” and “Can I partner with you?” But the minute I suggest they at least start by getting themselves an editing certificate (if they have no background), join a few associations, and share with them some marketing tips, the appeal abruptly dissolves. That’s too much work. They want to start earning now, without having to invest time and effort first. So why, I often think, would they think I would share my hard-earned client list with someone who really isn’t dedicated, who, again, I know nothing of in terms of work quality, and thinks (as many do who are either unfamiliar with what we do or are first-time writers) that there’s nothing at all to this editing gig and that we instead get paid to stay at home and do laundry or walk the dog?

    I read that exchange you referred to (in a venue where I often lurk via the digest, but due to time constraints I read weeks of them in one sitting, if I can, so any response I might make would generally be just more of the same and therefore unnecessary) and I smiled and shook my head. His request was earnest but, as you point out, he’s a complete unknown to the group.

    Initially, I spent a great deal of time giving personal pointers and explaining at length, in writing, how wannabe editors and proofreaders might get their foot in the door. Nowadays, like you, Ruth, I have more of a boilerplate response that shares information on how to get started but puts all the onus on the one asking. To date, no one who’s asked has made any attempt to get started. And if you’re going to be a successful freelancer, self-motivation is key. I think I might make sharing the link to this post part of my boilerplate response… Again, thanks for the thoughtful column. I always enjoyed Rich’s columns and I’m enjoying yours just as much. (Now give us your secret as to how you juggle it all!)

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Siobhan — February 28, 2018 @ 5:13 am | Reply

  3. I’ve never been approached for leads or help unreasonably or inappropriately by a colleague. The ones I know who are active in forums and conferences seem to share the “Golden Rule” mentality and swap favors or information in both directions, paying forward or paying back.

    The only thing close to “taking advantage of” that I’ve experienced has come from clients or prospective clients, trying to get free help before or after a paid-for edit. For these, I provide suggestions or resources they can follow through with on their own.


    Comment by Carolyn — February 28, 2018 @ 5:28 am | Reply

  4. Terrific advice all around, Ruth! I also know about the interactions you spoke of here and was involved with the last one. Nice summary.

    Another piece of advice for newcomers to a discussion list…ANY discussion list…is to READ THE RULES before posting! Almost every list has them…what’s not allowed, etc. Mayhap a rule should be “Do not ask for other members to give you their contacts.” I’m actually not kidding, because it’s happened now three times that I remember. Three strikes and you’re out? Or, three times and it’s made into a rule?

    Something to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Elaine R. Firestone, ELS — February 28, 2018 @ 10:24 am | Reply

  5. Thank you so much Ruth for the advice and I can directly correlate …I got all you points and especially Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.


    Comment by sanjiv — February 28, 2018 @ 11:03 am | Reply

  6. Related: Don’t send LinkedIn requests using the default “We kan haz connect” message, unless you know I’ll know you (like, we just chatted and said “Let’s connect”). LinkedIn doesn’t make this easy–there are too many places where they either give you no way to customize the message, or at least semi-hide the option–but if you send me a standard request, I’m 100x more likely to ignore it.


    Comment by Greybeard — February 28, 2018 @ 11:59 am | Reply

  7. Great advice as so much of it rings true to what I have seen too much of, essentially people wanting work but not doing the marketing properly to get the work. Over the years I have gotten work from other freelancers and vice versa; however, when I recommend someone for a project I know about them and their work. I have vetted people I do not know when necessary before sending their name to someone looking for a freelancer and I am not available.

    To my surprise one time a freelancer I admire greatly commented about my posts to an email group that she thought were really good and helpful to others. Then when she needed a proofreader for a project she contacted me. Another useful saying for this topic is: “Give and you shall receive.”

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Jacqueline (Jacqui) Frances Brownstein — February 28, 2018 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  8. Great article; thank you! I haven’t received an excess of inappropriate requests, but I only recently left onsite corporate editing and have just begun to freelance. I do find it challenging to establish solid, reciprocal relationships with other editors. One problem is that many of us specialize (legal, medical, technical, or fiction editing, for example). Another problem relates to your comments. How do I find editors I can trust to take up the slack for me (or share their own overloads) when I’m not familiar with their editing skills and work ethic? I hope that participation in forums and membership in organizations such as ACES and EFA will help. It’s much more difficult to establish personal/professional relationships when working remotely.


    Comment by marym500 — February 28, 2018 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

  9. (Reposting as myself) I’m so glad that colleagues have found this helpful! As for establishing good relationships with other editors, being visible in discussion lists, LinkedIn groups and here can help. Similarly for finding colleagues to trust – in addition to “meeting” them in these venues, you can go to their websites and LinkedIn profiles, ask them for testimonials, and even ask for work samples (as long as that doesn’t violate client confidentiality). I’ve thought about creating an editing or proofreading test for when I need a colleague’s help, but haven’t gotten around to it. I usually rely on people I’ve met both at conferences (especially, um, Communication Central!) and online; I like having that personal connection.


    Comment by Ruth Thaler-Carter — March 3, 2018 @ 11:48 am | Reply

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