An American Editor

August 5, 2020

On the Basics: The power of saying no as a reputation-builder

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Owner, An American Editor

As editorial professionals, whether in-house or freelance, how do we build our reputations for not only what we do, but how we do it and who we are?

It may seem self-evident that doing good work is the first and most-important element of establishing a reputation of someone worth hiring, recommending, referring or subcontracting with. There’s more to it, though.

How we do business contributes mightily to an editorial professional’s reputation as well. And a huge factor in that process is knowing when, and how, to say no.

Saying no

It might seem odd to think of saying no as a way of establishing or solidifying your professional reputation, but it can work. Saying no to projects or clients means you know what’s right — or wrong — for your editorial business.

It’s hard to say no to a client or project, especially when you’re just starting out or funds are low and you’re worried about how you’ll pay the mortgage or rent, but doing so can be essential to the health of both your editorial business and your reputation. Saying no means you’re standing up for what you need from your business and what you expect from the people you work with or for. It means you have standards for, and limits on, how you do your work, and are willing to enforce them. Having the chutzpah to say no when appropriate gives you power.

Those standards or limits, and how saying no relates to them, can include:

Hours when you’re available — and saying no to requests (or demands) that you work outside those hours.

Type of projects you will accept and work on — and saying no to projects that aren’t right for you.

Rates you will work for — and saying no to rates that are too low.

Deadlines you will accept — and saying no to ridiculous ones that would make you crazy.

Treatment you expect from clients — and saying no to rudeness, unreasonableness, demandingness (is that a word?) and any other behavior that disrespects you as a professional.

Getting the message across

You can use your website to present your policies on these kinds of topics, as well as creating a template for responding to messages so you’re prepared to deal with challenges when they occur instead of feeling as if you’re a deer in the headlights of an unreasonable, confusing or inappropriate request. Here are a few suggestions for relaying your “just say no” message without actually saying no (at least, not upfront).

Posting work hours

The best way to head off client calls or messages at hours when you prefer not to be available is to put your “office hours” at your website (you do have your own website, of course). Many colleagues use their websites to let potential and current clients know that they aren’t available on weekends or outside specific hours.

Some people will still push that envelope, but posting your office hours means you have a way to push back. It’s also possible to set up a form of autoresponse that says something like “Thank you for your inquiry. I will respond at 9 a.m. of the next business day to discuss your project.”

You also can still do work outside those posted hours if and when you want — or need — to do so. That can mean saying no to the client but yes to whatever you have to do for a project or deadline to work in your favor.

Choosing your projects

Many colleagues prefer not to work on projects with content that is erotic, violent, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or involves some other aspect that might be difficult to read. That’s our right. Some of us also have specific preferences for the genres we want to work on: fiction vs. nonfiction, young adult vs. adult or middle grade, fantasy, sci-fi, memoir, etc. You can make those go/no-go decisions as your business policy, post them at your website and incorporate them into your e-mail template for responding to potential clients. Like posting your office hours, that can say no for you.

Again, some people just don’t read such material and might contact you anyhow with the offer of work you don’t want, for whatever reason. You don’t even have to quote a reason, but it’s immensely helpful to be able to couch your no in terms of “Thank you for your inquiry, but as you can see from my website, I don’t work on projects such as this.”

Standing up for your rates

Most of us start out charging at the lower end of rates or accepting salaries at the low end of the bar for a variety of reasons, from lack of experience to lack of confidence. If you haven’t had any formal training or experience in your corner of the editorial world, are just launching a freelance business, want to try working in a new genre or topic area, or have no way of confirming that you’re good at what you do (or want to do), it makes sense to charge less rather than more. That goes for salary levels when you’re job-hunting in the traditional work world, as well as for freelancing.

Keep in mind that if you under-charge, you run the risk of spending so much time on low-paying projects to generate enough income to pay your bills that you won’t have the time or energy to find better-paying work.

Just be sure to, first of all, research rates through professional organizations and resources (such as Writer’s Market information, the Editorial Freelancers Association chart of common rates, conversations with colleagues, etc.) for a sense of what you might be able to charge based on your training, experience and skills.

Second, look for ways to defend what you want or need to charge. Your rates or salary should reflect that combination of training, experience and skill level with the added factor of what you need to cover your expenses and have something left for fun. An American Editor founder Rich Adin calls this your effective hourly rate: the income you have to generate to live your life on a level that is not just sufficient but rewarding; a rate based on you, not on someone else, whether a colleague or a client.

If you’re low on training, get some. Look to professional associations, college certificate programs and business resources to do two things: improve your knowledge and skills, and bolster your credibility. If you’re low on experience, look for ways to do more editorial work, even if it’s on a volunteer basis or at a starting-out rate. If your skills seem below par, look for volunteer opportunities, whether with a professional association or a charity you believe in, to do the kind of work you’re interested in and build up those skills. You might even look for a mentor who could help you strengthen your overall knowledge and specific areas of weakness.

The more you can show that you’re skilled and qualified, the easier it will be to say no to prospective clients that only pay peanuts.

Practice makes perfect

Because the necessity to say no is going to crop up for all of us, be prepared. Write out a script for how to turn down work that isn’t right for you, rates that don’t respect you, deadlines that are impossible for you to meet, etc. It can be brief. It doesn’t have to go into any detail or offer any excuses for your no. You might also want to create a backup script for the insistent client who doesn’t want to hear your no.

If you think about and plan for these moments beforehand, it will be much easier to stand up for what you want your business and your reputation to represent.

The bottom line

So how do all these aspects of saying no contribute to establishing your reputation?

Steeling yourself to say no when appropriate creates the impression of someone who is confident enough to have standards and stand up for them. Someone who is strong enough to resist pressure to behave in ways that would undermine their success and their ability to continually improve the quality of their editorial business. Someone who is more than reliable and skilled.

If you develop your ability to say no, you will establish your reputation as someone who is not only an editorial professional worth hiring, but one who can’t be scammed, scolded, underpaid or pushed around. That’s a reputation worth having.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor. She also created and co-hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com), sponsored by An American Editor. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

July 31, 2020

2020 “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference will go virtual

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 6:16 pm

Dear Colleagues:

We have made the very, very difficult decision to cancel the in-person 2020 “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference out of concern for the safety of speakers and attendees, especially anyone who would have to travel by plane or train to participate. We plan to develop a virtual version of this year’s conference. Watch this space for details in the next couple of weeks.

Thank you for your understanding – and see you in person next year!

 

July 24, 2020

AAE columnist to present “Indexing: Arabic Names” webinar for ASI on August 12

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 1:23 pm

By Ælfwine Mischler

I will present a webinar about “Indexing Arabic Names: What Everyone Needs to Know” for the American Society for Indexing (ASI) at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, August 12, 2020. This article is only the beginning of what you will learn in the webinar.

Definitive approach to definite articles

In my earlier series about romanized Arabic in English texts, I wrote my blog posts “Spelling the Definite Article” and “Omitting, Capitalizing, and Alphabetizing the Definite Article” primarily for copyeditors. By the time the PDF of a book goes to the indexer, the decisions on whether to include the definite article and how to spell it have been made. This might not be the case if a book has an embedded index, which is often written while the book is still being copyedited — or worse, before the manuscript is submitted to the publisher.

Indexers have other concerns with the definite article. The first that comes to mind is how to deal with the article when it comes at the beginning of an entry, whether a main entry or a subentry (also called main head and subhead. See my post “Basic Vocabulary.”)

Publishers vary in how they treat the article at the beginning of a main entry. Some want the article cut off there and tacked on at the end of the name (Hakim, Tawfiq al-), while others want the article to remain in place but be ignored in sorting (al-Hakim, Tawfiq alphabetized under H).

In a subentry, The Chicago Manual of Style, which many U.S. publishers follow, suggests that in a run-in index, most often found in scholarly books, the definite article be left in place and ignored in sorting. In an indented index, however, the article should be moved to the end of the name. If the publisher keeps the article in place and ignores it in the main entry, I do the same in the subentry in both run-in and indented indexes.

But the beginning of an entry is not the only position where indexers have to worry about the definite article in Arabic names. It appears as part of the second element in many compound names and should also be ignored in sorting. If there are a lot of such names in an index, it is better to sort word by word rather than letter by letter. (See “The ABCs of Alphabetizing.”)

Here are some examples of sorting with different treatments of the definite article. After the long vowel in Abi, the vowel of the article is elided and replaced with an apostrophe in this style of transcription. (For simplification, I am not using diacritics in these names.)

Note how the two names Ibn Abi Khisal and Ibn Abi ’l-Khisal sort relative to each other. These are probably the same person, but the author was a bit careless in writing the name with and without a definite article. When the two names sort one after the other, the author is more likely to see the error (if it was an error) and can tell the indexer to merge the entries.

In the following examples, the articles and ibn (son of) have been ignored but the sorting is different. The advantage of word-by-word sorting becomes apparent when you have a mixture of classical and modern Arabic names, as I have here. When readers are scanning a long list of names beginning with ‘Abd or one of its modern variants, they are more likely to see the variants when those fall together with word-by-word sorting.

This article is only the beginning of what you need to know when indexing Arabic names. In recent weeks, I have looked at a lot of indexes containing Arabic names, and there is a lot that indexers and editors should learn. The link to take my webinar, “Indexing Arabic Names: What Everyone Should Know,” is available on the American Society for Indexing website. A recording of the webinar will be available to registrants, and it will be available for purchase later on the ASI Webinar page.

 

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books about Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

June 15, 2020

On the Basics: Coping with recent events

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On the Basics,Philosophy & Ethics — An American Editor @ 2:07 pm

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

I’ve been quiet here because I haven’t known what to say about the various crises we’re all facing these days. I’m still not sure, but a few things started bubbling up that I hope will be helpful to colleagues.

COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic offers some lessons for moving on and thinking about the future. Among other aspects, it’s a hard lesson in financial planning. I’ve written several times about planning for emergencies, and this event certainly qualifies as a huge one for so many of us. It reinforces the importance of moves like these.

  • Try to save money as you go along. The best and easiest way to do this is to “Pay yourself first” — take a certain percentage out of every payment and stash it in a savings account. What you don’t see, you can’t spend. If the habit is ingrained, it will also be much easier to maintain in uncertain times.
  • Diversify your work. If you freelance, make sure you have more than one client and type of project, just in case someone you rely on for income has to cut back. If you work in-house and can moonlight without jeopardizing your job, have at least one freelance project in hand. It could be a lifesaver if your company cuts back on your hours or salary during a crisis like this one.
  • Swallow your pride. We all go through hills and valleys in our work. If yours tanks due to circumstances beyond your control, you might have to find a different kind of work to get by. At least one of my colleagues took a job with one of the big-box stores when her freelance work dried up recently. She plans to go back to freelancing, but in the meantime, she has a paycheck and health insurance, even if it means doing non-editorial work. Others have turned to some of the low-paying job sites just to have income for now.
    Several organizations have put together financial aid services for members and colleagues. If you need help, look for those resources and make use of them.
    If you qualified for any of the pandemic-related government loan or grant programs, try not to use all of the funds at once; sock some away in savings for the coming months — we don’t really know if the pandemic is under control or might come back in another wave.
  • Live frugally. Don’t go overboard and make yourself and your family miserable, but try to keep impulse buying and living expenses under control. Such habits come in handy in difficult times and are easier to maintain if they aren’t new.
  • Communicate. Most of us have been quarantined in recent weeks, many of us have been home alone and some of us aren’t comfortable with resuming regular activities yet. Try not to cut yourself off from the world, even when it seems to be coming apart. Use the phone, social media, blogs like this one, and resources of professional associations and community services to stay connected with family, friends and colleagues.
  • Look after yourself. Get out of the house for walks around the block or neighborhood or to nearby parks. Take up new hobbies that you can do at home. Order meals from local businesses that do pick up or delivery. Ask for help if you need it. As businesses reopen and people try to go back to “normal,” continue to use smart health and safety habits.

Civil rights protests

The efforts to respond to, make sense of and prevent deaths of Black people by police officers don’t seem likely to end any time soon. As someone who worked for the Urban League and has been active in the Black press for years, I just don’t know how to handle recent and continuing events in this arena, or what to say here. I just hope there will be positive change, and soon. All I can suggest to colleagues is to be aware, make efforts to be inclusive and stay safe.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor. She also hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), this year co-hosted for the second time with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com), sponsored by An American Editor, and (still) planned for October 2–4 in Baltimore, MD. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

June 3, 2020

On the Basics: A resource for writing and editing about current events

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:15 am

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Because our subscriber base is likely to include colleagues who write about or edit/proofread materials about current events, or whose employers/clients do so, I thought this resource from the Education Writers Association (EWA) might be of value. The EWA offers these tools for managing racial biases in covering current – and future – events:

https://www.ewa.org/blog-educated-reporter/tools-help-reporters-examine-their-racial-biases

And I remind colleagues of my An American Editor post about increasing diversity in your or your clients’/employers’ work:
https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/03/02/on-the-basics-enhancing-diversity-and-inclusion-in-your-writing-and-workplace/

Stay safe, and stay woke.

May 31, 2020

Conference “call”: We need your input

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:12 pm

In these difficult, downright frightening times, it’s hard to focus on anything in the future, but I’m hoping that AAE subscribers will take a moment to think a few months ahead and let us know how you feel about the 2020 “Be a Better Freelancer”® that is planned for Oct. 2–4 in Baltimore. Please take a moment to respond to this brief survey to give us a sense of what you think now, with the understanding that perspectives may change in the next couple of months:

https://forms.gle/9hQdm3FqVSdpKyDE6

Thank you!

May 11, 2020

On the Basics: Scams are always with us

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:15 am

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

I’ve been warning colleagues about over-payment scams for years — and I recently received one for the first time! I wouldn’t usually take up AAE space with a scam warning, but I’ve been seeing inquiries about this particular one ever since it reached me, in e-mail discussion lists and several Facebook groups. A lot of people apparently either have never heard of this type of scam or just aren’t following discussions that warn about the current version. It seems to be prevalent and convincing enough to warn our subscribers about it.

In the first message I received, someone using paulasmith8188@protonmail.com claimed to have a medical condition and to need a 2,550-word article written about general health topics for a presentation at a conference, quoting a rate that fit my usual fee structure — and was a lot more than most writing assignments usually offer these days. It included a list of topics to be included and looked like an easy project to do.

I responded by e-mail to say that I was interested and require a 50% deposit from new clients. There was no argument, although my radar started pinging when the “client” asked, “What would be your preferred mode of payment? Though I’m proposing a certified bank draft, a cashier’s check or bank certified check.” The pings started going bonkers when FedEx delivered a check the very next day — a Saturday, and at not even 9 a.m.! The supposed sender was a “Jerry Orchid” in Houston, but the check was apparently drawn on an account of a John Wieland in Atlanta, GA, and issued by Vinings Bank in Smyrna, GA. Neither name matched the sender of the e-mail, and the amount was more than twice the agreed-upon deposit.

Almost as soon as the check arrived, the sender asked me via e-mail to deposit it right way, along with something about a longer or additional assignment that I didn’t quite follow — that that seemed far less important than the excessive payment and pressure to use the check immediately. I said I couldn’t get to the bank until Monday, although I already was sure this was an attempt at an overpayment scam. On Monday, I called the bank that supposedly issued the check (it was closed over the weekend) and they confirmed that it was counterfeit; in fact, I was the fifth person to call about such a check.

I wrote back to the “client” to say I knew this was a scam and that I was going to report them to the authorities, and I haven’t heard from them since. I did not pay or lose any money — but that’s only because I didn’t deposit the phony check. If I had, they would have said they mistakenly sent too much and asked for the “difference” back. The check would have been counterfeit, so I’d have been out the amount I sent back, as well as the full amount of the check, among other headaches, possibly including charges for bank fraud.

The bottom line

Versions of this scam have been going on since before e-mail and online shopping began, in all kinds of areas, from small and large Craigslist purchases to home rentals and more. Regardless of the sender, apparent assignment, amount of offer, etc.: If you ever get a check or money order for more than an agreed-up amount, don’t take it — or at least call the bank of the supposed owner of the bank account before depositing it to your account. That’s usually faster than asking your bank or the authorities to look into it. It can take several days for a check to go through channels to be confirmed as counterfeit, and the scammer will be long gone by then. Money orders might be easier to verify, but call the supposed issuer before trying to deposit one.

Other potential concerns

Another recent scam that keeps popping back up involves being contacted because the sender supposedly found you through one of your professional memberships. They offer work in or somewhat related to your service area, for a known major company (Bayer, Random House, Penguin and other well-known businesses have been named in this one). Among the red flags is that the sender’s e-ddress is not based on the company name, although some have used names of people who do actually work for the company, and that they include a request for you to be interviewed via Google Hangout. These don’t seem to involve offers of money that turn out to be counterfeit, but might be aimed at identity theft.

There are other recurring scams aimed at our profession, but most are so badly written that they’re obviously not worth a response. On the other hand, those who work with authors whose first language is not English are likely to get clumsily worded requests for editing or proofreading assistance, so we shouldn’t automatically assume that every clunky message is from a scammer.

On a related matter, colleague Beth Lasser posted a warning that while “people mention concerns about their bank details being revealed and their resumes being in random hands. Yet, our bank details are on our checks, and we put our resumes on multiple websites. What we don’t necessarily put out there is our address, birthday, income, relatives’ names, religion, and political affiliation. However, this information is on people search sites like My Life and Spokeo.”

To remove yourself from these sites or have your profile hidden, go to:
https://www.reputationdefender.com/blog/privacy/how-remove-yourself-top-peoplesearch-sites#.XquWHGx3qRw.email.

Lee Drake of OS-Cubed, one of my tech-savvy colleagues from back home in Rochester, NY, recently warned that “We’re all aware of the more common ways hackers can infiltrate your business. But as technology advances, the bad guys are getting even more creative about stealing your data.” He’s produced a video about “3 cyber threats you probably aren’t aware of.” You can check that out at https://tinyurl.com/y9xot9qv.

The bottom line

This all comes down to being cautious about how we conduct our editing and other editorial businesses. Sadly, if an offer seems too good to be true, that’s probably exactly what it is. As one of my favorite “Hill Street Blues” characters used to say, “Be careful out there.” Every day and in every way.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and now owner of An American Editor. She also hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor, and (still) planned for October 2–4 in Baltimore, MD. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

May 4, 2020

Navigating that Request for Proofreading When the Work Really Needs Editing

By Richard Bradburn, Guest Writer

As professional editors, we’ve all had them — the inquiry that arrives in your inbox: “I’ve written my first novel and my wife/partner/best friend/dog told me it’s really good. I can’t wait to publish it but I read somewhere that you should always get books proofread first. Can you give me a quote?”

I’ll assume that we agree you need to see the manuscript to give a definitive quote. You let the prospective client know and receive it by return e-mail. You open the manuscript. It begins with a prologue — a 20-page dream sequence set in cursive. Skipping most of that, you start the book proper. There are five chapters of exposition and world-building before the main character is introduced. Skim-reading further, you see evidence of point-of-view fails, pacing issues, generally poor sentence structure and grammar, and atrocious punctuation.

What to do?

The potential client has asked for a proofread, but in your professional opinion, the book is nowhere near ready for proofreading. It needs some serious copyediting and, your editorial hunch is telling you, probably some major structural surgery.

It may be that if you primarily work, even freelance, for publishing companies, you haven’t faced this dilemma. I’d imagine that someone further up the production chain has assessed what help the author needs and sent the book to you for the appropriate editing. However, it’s a common situation for those of us at the sharp end of the fiction universe who are dealing largely with authors who have no prior experience of the publishing industry or the editing process, and little or no realistic concept of how high the bar should be set if you are producing work for sale.

What follows with the client is a rather delicate dance of managing expectation and massaging ego for the author, and securing the right commission for yourself. I’ve developed a … I hesitate to say method, because that smacks of science … a strategy, if you like, for dealing with the issue.

You could just go ahead and proofread the manuscript (for a monstrous fee). It’s what the client has asked for. There are two issues with this.

One is reputational. If you proofread a shockingly poorly written book, there’s always the chance that it will come back to bite you. Asking the author to kindly not mention that you had anything to do with their masterpiece is all very well, and they may not put you in the front matter, but you have no control over what they say about you in the wider world. The book is going to do very badly, the author isn’t going to understand why (“I spent a lot of money on editing!”) and is probably, given their unenlightened attitude to publishing generally, going to look for someone else to blame. That could well be you. The author might have no great expectations, is happy with a few sales, and brags on social media about what a super editor they had. Other potential clients, perhaps with more idea about what a good book should look like, will look it up and … that’s the end of that potential client relationship.

The second problem is that it’s darned hard to proofread a terribly written book. Ask me how I know. It’s extremely slow, very frustrating and, at the end of it, demoralizing because you know that the end product is still going to be awful, no matter how diligently you work away. It’s also very hard to prevent mission creep from turning the proofread into a copyedit, for which you’re not being paid.

What are your options? You can come straight out with it: “This book isn’t ready for proofreading, because of x, y, and z issues. I suggest developmental (“structural”/“line” — whatever your terminology) editing to start, followed by copyediting …” It’s a tough call, but I’d suggest this is a poor way to start this delicate conversation. You’re giving the author lots of negatives. You’re telling them you’re not going to do what they ask. You’re telling them that their book needs substantial revision/rewriting when they thought they were a few weeks away from publishing. You’re telling them that fixing their book is going to be a lot more expensive than they thought, and require much more work on their part. You’re telling them, fundamentally, that they can’t write for <insert suitable expletive>, and that their relationship with you is going to be an intense and ongoing and expensive one, which they may not have been expecting.

You could just say, in as kindly a way as possible, that the book isn’t ready for editing, and the author should attend some writing classes, or join a local (or virtual) critique group and come back when they’ve gotten better at their craft. There are ways to phrase this so the author isn’t too crushed, but how helpful is that advice, really? Unless the author is local to you, you have no way of knowing what local classes the author has access to, whether the author can afford them, and whether those resources are any good.

As a freelancer, another issue is that you’re essentially rejecting this client. The manuscript might be such a horror show turning it down is an agreeable outcome for you, but let’s say that times are tight and you don’t want to flatly turn away any lead. How do you keep them engaged in your process, but start to realign their expectations?

My first step is always the same: Whenever you ask for the manuscript, always ask for a synopsis as well. A synopsis will tell you far more about the client and the book than actually reading their manuscript (that’s why agents and publishers insist on them in submission packages). With very little investment of your time, you can establish whether the client knows anything about novel structure, whether the characters have any discernible arc, and how distinct and cohesive the plot is. Even the very existence of a well-written synopsis tells you a lot about the client and their ambition, because synopses are hard to write. An author who has written one has read up about submission packages, has gone at least a little way down the path of analyzing their work as a reader would, and has put some thought into their character, plot lines, and overall structure.

This client is eminently worth pursuing, because an ambition to learn their craft is the one thing it’s particularly hard to instill remotely. If they have no synopsis and can’t be bothered to write one, my instinct would be to let that client go for the reputational and operational risks mentioned above. Money talks, but it would have to be shouting for me to take on that project. If they have no synopsis now but send one in later, and it’s a dreadful rambling mess, then at least you know where you stand: They are capable of taking instruction, they’re willing to learn, and they might prove to be a valued long-term client.

Armed with this information, you can begin the process of educating that author about how much work is going to be involved in molding their book into publishable material. If you have blog/website resources of your own, you can refer that author to articles you’ve written about plot structure or character arcs. If blogging isn’t your thing, there may be other resources written by editor peers that you can refer your client to (the “Talking Fiction” essays here at An American Editor, about editing fiction, would be a good starting point).

The big difference is that now this author is your client. You’ve established quietly and authoritatively your expert credentials, given them guidance, started them down a long road toward publication. You can send this client off anywhere on the web, but they will keep coming back to you because you are now, without really much effort on your part, their writing coach.

Why bother? Because ultimately you have no idea how far, under your tutelage and encouragement, this author might blossom into a productive, well-trained, and lucrative client.

I have one resource I’d like to offer: my book, Self-editing for Self-publishers. It’s a pretty comprehensive guide to all the major stumbling blocks that novice (and some even not so novice) authors have problems with: plot structure, character issues, point of view problems, etc. It also provides thorough explanations of common punctuation and grammar mistakes. I had never thought of marketing it to editor peers (I doubt there’s anything in it that a good fiction editor wouldn’t know already), but one of them who helped at the beta reading stage pointed out that it’s an ideal tool for exactly this situation. What if you really don’t want to engage in those long-winded e-mail coaching conversations that you may not have the appetite for and that have an uncertain financial payback? Tell your author, “Go buy this book. Work through it. When you’ve finished it, come back to me and we’ll have another look.” It’s the “silver bullet” that could save you an enormous amount of time and effort, and bring you a commission that you really want, rather than are struggling to avoid.

Richard Bradburn runs editorial.ie, a full-service literary consultancy. He’s a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders in the UK; member of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers in Ireland; partner member of ALLi; and approved supplier to Publaunch. He writes occasionally for the Irish Times and journals like The Arts and Letters Daily, and regularly talks about writing and editing at conferences in the UK and Europe.

April 27, 2020

On the Basics — Contracts, pro and con

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of questions about contracts between authors and editors (or other editorial freelancers and other prospective clients) — should we use them, what should go into them, how do we implement them, do we need attorneys to create them, and so on and so on.

Plenty of editors say they’ve never needed contracts in their work with individual authors. I’m glad for them; I’ve also had good luck with clients who didn’t have contracts and whose projects went smoothly enough that I didn’t regret not asking them to sign one of my own. For the most part, though, I think it’s smart to have something along the lines of a contract between service provider (editor) and client (author, publisher, organization, publication, company, university, etc.).

The con

One reason, and probably the only valid reason, not to have a contract for working with a new client is that some people are scared off by the very concept of “a contract.” It seems so … legalistic … so serious … so untrusting or suspicious. Asking for or offering a contact apparently comes across as expecting problems to arise at some point in the relationship.

One of the telecommunications companies even uses that perspective by boasting that they don’t require contracts for their services, making it look like an advantage for the consumer over providers that do. The problem? The consumer doesn’t have any protection against rate increases, service reductions and other issues that can arise during the life of the relationship.

The pro

And there’s the concern: Not having a contract with a client means that neither party has any protection in case there’s a problem. It can be worth the effort to explain to a reluctant client that a contract protects both you and the client. It gives you protection against the client not paying, paying very slowly or adding to the project without additional compensation, among other potential issues, but it also protects the client against the freelancer not doing the work as expected. Not that any of us would do that, of course, but it’s something to use to reassure the client.

The process

With the disclaimer that I am not an attorney, the good news is that a contract doesn’t have to be complicated or heavily legalistic. It can take the form of a letter of agreement or a checklist, or even a confirming e-mail message. You can ask the client to sign and return the agreement, or use language like “Unless I hear otherwise by Date X, this will constitute our agreement/contract.”

And speaking of e-mail, a contract nowadays doesn’t have to be on paper. A chain of e-mail messages describing the project and setting out and agreeing to the parameters can be treated as a contract. Just be sure to include language like “As we discussed and agreed, I will do such-and-such for this amount by that date …” — and to save those back-and-forth messages, just in case.

Contract details

What should go into a contract for editing services? Here’s a checklist I use to identify what I’m expected to do (for writing assignments, I include number of interviews and who provides the interview sources).

Genre

Scope (topic and length)

Fee or rate (per hour, word, page, project, etc.)

Definition of page

Payment policy and timing

Deadline(s)

Number of passes

Number of revisions (for writing projects)

Fee or rate for additional work beyond original scope

Expenses

Mediation jurisdiction if any problems

What you don’t need or should try not to agree to

One reason contract questions come up is the increasing tendency of clients to include draconian terms in current contracts, especially businesses and companies that aren’t used to working with freelance editors. The most-common one is expecting the freelancer or independent contractor to have liability insurance. Something like errors and omissions coverage might make sense for an investigative journalist, but editors rarely need something like liability coverage. That kind of policy is usually intended for situations where the contractor works onsite at the client’s office or property, uses heavy equipment on the client’s behalf or project, has subcontractors, and otherwise is likely to have access to the client’s information or property.

Accepting liability for your work is especially an issue for writers, editors and even proofreaders, because other people are likely to change (or not accept) what you submit. The publication process is fluid and involves people we never meet; even printers/production people have been known to introduce changes — and, unintentionally, errors — after an editor or proofreader signs off and gets paid for our role. We can’t be responsible for what happens made after we finish our part of the project.

Pointing out that you are a sole proprietor who works from home and doesn’t use heavy equipment or subcontractors can help carry the day when you’re asked to provide liability insurance to a client. If they still insist, add the cost to your contract and include language to the effect that you aren’t responsible for any changes made to your version of the material.

Authors new to the publishing process also might ask you to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). These are usually benign and more valuable as assurance for an author that an editor won’t steal their precious words for some reason than for any other reason; they generally commit you to not telling the world all about the author’s work, or perhaps that you worked on their manuscript. If you’d rather not sign an NDA, you could point out that any editor who would violate an author’s trust in such a way wouldn’t stay in business for very long.

What you don’t want to sign is a non-compete agreement that limits how you can use your skills with new clients in the future, even the near future. Signing such an agreement can lock you out of doing similar work for similar (or any!) clients, which would interfere with your ability to pursue your career or business.

Protecting yourself

You might not need a formal contract of your own that’s packed with dense, incomprehensible legalese, but you at least need someone with legal knowledge to rely on when a prospective client offers a contract that seems impenetrable. It’s one thing to say, “Read any contract before signing it.” It’s another to actually read and understand some of these documents.

My attorney is an old friend from back in high school whose practice is in intellectual property, copyright and contracts. I have her look over any contract or NDA that I’m asked to sign; we swap services, but it would be worth whatever she would charge if I were paying for her help. If you don’t know anyone who would be willing to review contracts for you, check with your local bar association or chapter of Lawyers for the Arts; some professional organizations also have legal services where one consultation is free, or there’s a substantial discount on an initial request. Such reviews shouldn’t cost much, and any expense is deductible at tax time.

For a template or boilerplate language, look to professional organizations and online resources like LegalZoom. Pick one and tailor it to your needs and each project.

The ideal resource

You don’t have to take my word for any of this, and you can get a lot more advice from colleagues Dick Margulis and Karin Cather from their book, The Paper It’s Written On: Defining Your Relationship with an Editing Client. That’s a must-have for every editor’s bookcase — and well worth having no matter what kind of editorial or publishing work you do.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor, which was founded by Rich Adin. She also hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com), sponsored by An American Editor, and (still) planned this year for October 2–4 in Baltimore, MD. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

April 20, 2020

Thinking Fiction: The Three Bottom-line Facts of Writing and Publishing Novels

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:44 am
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By Carolyn Haley

Over the years, my editing enterprise has evolved so that most of my clients are now indie authors. A high percentage of them are first-time novelists. Some have done their homework and understand what to expect from editing and publishing; for others, it falls on me to help them align their expectations with reality as part of the job.

To date, I haven’t worked with an author who doesn’t desire to publish. The biggest idea that most new authors aren’t prepared for is the psychological transition from the personal art experience of writing to the impersonal business of publishing.

In other words, once their book is out of their hands, it becomes an object.

This is why I routinely convey these three facts that novelists must understand and accept if they want to publish:

  1. It’s your story, your voice, your work.
  2. Writing is a craft as well as an art.
  3. Once your book leaves your hands, it becomes a consumer product.

Owning one’s work

If I had a dime for every time I’ve tried to convince a new author that their voice and efforts are legitimate, I’d be a wealthy woman!

So many new authors apologize for themselves, comparing their stories, their years (or not) of writing, their personalities, to people who are prominently successful. They do not believe their voices or ideas can compete on that level, or even have merit. They put too much importance on what other people — including me as an editor — think of their efforts, considering each step of the writing process to be an exercise of judgment, usually against them.

Some do go the other way and think that every syllable that comes out of their pen or keyboard is a priceless pearl, but I rarely get those folks as clients. Usually they fall into the insecure camp.

That’s when I emphasize that the story is their own: their idea, their voice, their art/craft work. Not mine. My job is to help them tell the story so it’s coherent and accessible to the largest number of readers, particularly the desired audience.

The author’s job is to believe in their story, and believe that somebody out there wants to read it and will understand it. Whether that’s a single person or a million people depends on what the book is and through what channel it is made public. The bottom line never changes: You must get the right book into the right person’s hands on the right day. I, the editor, might not be that right person, but I believe every client’s book is the right book for someone.

The book has to be as smooth and tight as it can be before it’s passed around — and therein lies part of the problem. It’s hard for new authors to grasp that every story can be written dozens, sometimes hundreds, of different ways. Just ask anyone who has recast their novel over and over again in response to personal drive, beta reader feedback, or editorial direction. Sometimes the biggest problem is knowing when to stop!

Ultimately, what makes a story uniquely the author’s is how it’s expressed. Just like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two authors’ voices are the same. Even if someone is retelling a classic fairy tale and the story itself is unoriginal, the way an author writes it is what counts. (This is the basis of copyright protection.)

Aside from that legal aspect (a work is protected by copyright from the moment it comes into existence), it’s the author’s responsibility to establish and hold boundaries for their work. Some boundaries are intangible, like accepting or rejecting influence, while others are concrete, like contract terms. Authors need to know themselves well, believe in their work, and be clear about their goals if they want to survive the transition between writing a novel and publishing it.

Writing is a craft as well as an art

The first thing most new authors need to understand is that only the tiniest percentage of writers get their novels shipshape in one draft; in fact, I would be surprised if anyone publishes a first version unless, perhaps, they’re self-publishing and think their work doesn’t need at least a critique if not editing (and proofreading). The rest of us need help somewhere along the line. The old saying “can’t see the forest for the trees” applies here, in that it’s nigh impossible to perceive both overview and detail at the same time: A writer is usually so intimately involved in creating their story world that they can’t detach enough to perceive the package in the same way as an outsider would. That’s why writers need beta readers and editors. Those other eyes see what the author can’t. Ideally, the multiple perspectives of beta readers, an editor, and a proofreader (again, at the least) combine to make a novel the best it can be.

Having the flaws in one’s work pointed out is a hurtful experience. Some writers can’t take this and either skip the help phase or get so defensive about it that they draw their boundaries too tightly and reject every suggestion. Others writers swing the opposite way and revise to accommodate every person’s preferences. That rapidly becomes a merry-go-round they can’t get off, and might result in the book getting worse instead of better. Savvy writers manage their emotional reactions and take what they need from the feedback, reject the rest, and move on toward their writing and publishing goals.

Savvy writers also recognize that every reader will have a different reaction to every story, whether it’s their mother, an agent, an editor, a paying customer, or a reviewer. Pleasing all of them can’t be done, so it’s not worth trying.

Authors must bother, instead, to get their vision translated into clean, coherent prose and structure so the most readers possible will be able to understand and embrace it. Authors must figure out who they want to connect with and aim their fine-tuning efforts at that audience.

Books are consumer products

Authors who seek traditional publishing will likely have to compromise somewhere, and face the prospect that they could lose control over their work if they don’t read the fine print in a contract. Once they’ve signed with an agent or publishing house, they can’t change their mind without consequences.

Their personal boundaries, then, must be solidly understood internally before they reach out to others. I advise authors to look at their boundaries in light of their goals, and be prepared to think hard about what they want so they can respond appropriately when faced with hard choices. They have to be prepared to accept the consequences any time they stick to their guns, and not play the blame game. It’s their book, and they are ultimately responsible for its fate through saying yes or no at decision points.

The upside of hard choices is the gain that can come from pain. Commonly, the character, plot, or plausibility point causing the strongest reader or editor objection (and the most distress in the author at the thought of changing or cutting it) came from the author’s heart and feels vital to the story. They need to own this problem and solve it by one of two means: (1) Dig deep into their creativity and figure out how to make the problem point work to mutual satisfaction, or (2) just delete the problem (an action known as “killing your darlings”) and then use it in another work. Sometimes problem parts truly are extraneous — something the author loves that just doesn’t serve the story. It also might be that they only need to solve a craft issue, and doing so will set the art free.

Subjectivity

Just because a person writes something with all their heart and soul doesn’t mean it’s any good. “Good” is a subjective judgment, of course, based on other people’s tastes, but it’s also a technical judgment, based on coherence and convention. A small percentage of the reading public is open to experimental material or has a high tolerance for sloppy presentation if something else grips their attention — characters, story line, relevance. The rest expect novels to follow certain standards of story structure, language use, and genre tropes, and they don’t want to see typos or poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling, or boring info dumps, or unbelievable characters and situations. It’s an insult to readers to foist immature work upon them. They want the best a writer can do.

Therefore, authors who desire good sales and reviews must study writing and story craft as well as find someone who knows what they’re doing to review the manuscript and help polish it. Rare is the writer who has all the skills needed to conceive and execute a story for hundreds of pages so other people can get lost in reading it. The greater a writer’s experience, the less they have to learn and compromise; but until that experience has been attained, the writer must expect to work long and hard, and receive some negative results along the way to success.

 

In all the arts (writing, painting, dance, music, sculpture, drama), a common wisdom is, “You have to know the rules to break them.” Knowing the rules is craft. Knowing when to break them is art. Writers who don’t know the rules — who think art alone will carry their work to acclaim — generally don’t succeed to their satisfaction. To avoid that, they must do their homework, and allow people who are farther along the path to help. That’s how the successful folks become successful. Learning to write is a continuum, and a given author is at their own point along it, always seeking to advance along the line. There is no ultimate point of achievement, only process and evolution.

The impersonality of being an object

Many people liken writing a book to having a baby, and revising it to raising a child. Publishing a book is like pushing a fledgling out of the nest to fly or fall. The author might retain a connection to the creature they’ve created, but at some point, it becomes an independent entity that will leave them behind.

That phase begins the moment they let another person read the manuscript. What lived privately in their head becomes an object vulnerable to other people’s perceptions. The only way to prevent this is to keep the manuscript in a drawer. It’s shocking to learn how differently other people will interpret what seems to clear to the writer, or that they will react opposite to what the author intended. Depending on what they wrote, how they wrote it, who reads it, the author’s relationship to them, and how adept the responder is at couching critique in technical rather than personal terms will determine how well the book (and author) weathers exposure.

Editors, unlike most beta readers, are trained to view a book in craft and marketplace terms, and their job is to analyze the forest while an author is focused on the trees (and vice versa). For self-publishing authors, editors are the test readers before a novel hits the public. They help finesse an author’s work and advance it toward the publishing goals. The keyword here is help. Editorial feedback helps authors make the technical and psychic transitions to understanding their book as a product — the result of art and craft honed for reception in the wider world. Once money enters the equation, either going out or coming in, an author’s art becomes a consumer product.

When consumers read an author’s acknowledgments in a published book, they usually see a list of folks who contributed to the project. “It takes a village” is a common theme. Authors who seek help, love help, accept help, reach their goals. Authors who spurn it usually don’t. That’s why it’s important to understand the reality rules of writing and publishing. Authors who own their work, ask for and accept help with it, and recognize that it will become something beyond them, for better or worse, usually get where they want to go.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

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