An American Editor

June 20, 2016

On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting — A Rebuttal

by Louise Harnby

In On Ethics: The Ethics of Ballpark Quoting, Rich Adin posed the following questions:

  1. Is it ethical for copyeditors to ever do ballpark pricing as a way to induce clients to hire them?
  2. Does the editor have an ethical obligation to not give ballpark quotes, because they can mislead a client about the real cost?
  3. If the editor gives a ballpark quote, is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark price?

1. The ethics of inducement

Rich states: “The ballpark quote has two purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison shop and (2) to let the editor demonstrate her price competitiveness, which means the editor — consciously or subconsciously — wants the price to look as low as possible.” Rich’s concern is that ballpark quoters use an unrealistic (low) price, based on limited information, to induce the client to hire them.

He concludes that “to give a ballpark quote for copyediting a manuscript is unethical unless the editor is willing to stick to that price — that is, the quoted price is the maximum the client will have to pay. It is unethical for an editor to angle to be hired by using ballpark quoting to demonstrate the editor’s price competitiveness.”

I think Rich is missing the point regarding how the ballpark price works.

The ballpark price is just that — a ballpark, an approximation. It’s a rough guide, a preliminary quick quote that enables my potential client to decide whether they’d like to continue the discussion during the comparison-shopping stage.

It certainly is not binding — and it can’t be precisely because it’s a ballpark price based on limited information. It cannot be the maximum price a client will have to pay at billing stage because I haven’t seen the files. In order to provide the client with a price that will appear on the invoice, I must acquire this information. And that’s exactly what ballpark quoters like me do. We start with the ballpark price, then move onto a conversation, and then evaluate the project and firm up the parameters of the project; finally, we provide a confirmed quotation. That confirmed quotation, not the initial ballpark quote, is the price to which, ethically, we must be willing to be held.

In my view, the ballpark quote has three purposes: (1) to enable the client to comparison-shop; (2) to save me time by eliminating lengthy discussions with potential clients whose budgets are below my fee scale; and (3) to enable me to start a conversation with a potential client (whose budget is in accordance with my fee scale) about what the project looks like, what’s required, and what the true cost will be.

Rich states: “I am aware of very few editors who will quote a price to which they are willing to be held without having the manuscript in hand.” I agree. And if the editor supplied a ballpark quotation and, after that, failed to take the opportunity to evaluate the project before agreeing to be hired, completed the project, and submitted an invoice that was higher than the ballpark quote, justifying that higher fee on the grounds that more work had been required than anticipated, yes, that would be an unethical scenario. But it’s also an absurd scenario. That’s not how ballparking works.

Ballparking isn’t an alternative to confirmed true-price quoting — it’s an additional preliminary stage that occurs beforehand. It’s an invitation to a conversation that may end up in a confirmed booking or may end up with either party deciding to walk away before hiring takes place. It’s not unethical to invite a conversation.

2. The ethics of realistic quoting

In the second part of his analysis, Rich says: “The truth is that ballpark quotes for copyediting are deceptive and are structured to mislead the client as to the ultimate cost. Editors will not deliberately overquote (i.e., quote a price the editor knows will be higher than the real price), because the competition does not overquote.”

I reject this statement that ballpark quotes are designed to mislead. As I said above, the ballpark quote is designed to provide an approximate price that will enable the potential client to ascertain whether it’s worth spending additional time having a more detailed conversation about what’s required.

Editors (I use the term broadly) who have tracked their project data carefully will have a bank of rich data on which to base their ballpark quotes so that the prices are realistic (particularly if they’ve followed Rich’s invaluable advice about determining their effective hourly rates).

The proofreading I carry out for publishers (usually on copy-edited page proofs) is rather different from the so-called proof-editing I provide for independent fiction authors. The proof-editing I do for independent fiction authors is rather different from the proofreading I do for students whose second language is English. I have 5 years’ worth of Excel spreadsheets containing nearly 500 projects. With only a little filtering and formula-creation, I can tell you how long it takes me on average to proofread a 20,000-word politics dissertation, proof-edit a 40,000-word fantasy novella written by a self-publishing author, and mark up a 90,000-word PDF of economics page proofs supplied by a publisher. Since I know what I want to earn, working out the price isn’t that difficult. I’ve developed a little phone-based Excel tool with an array-based formula that can work out a price that takes into account the type of client, the type of project, and the economies of scale for larger projects. One of my Canadian editor colleagues has a website-based widget that works in a similar way.

Here’s the thing. My ballpark prices are pretty darn accurate. So when I provide a ballpark price (based on very little information) for proof-editing a novel for an indie author, and that author decides to get in touch to continue the conversation, and ends up sending me the project file for review, I’m almost always able to say, “Yup, the price I gave you will stand as a confirmed price. Let me know if you want to make a booking.”

What if the project needs a different level of intervention than anticipated and therefore requires a price that is higher than the one I ballpark quoted? Well, remember, the client still hasn’t hired me. So I can tell the client that, having now reviewed the project in detail, I feel that the service I was asked to ballpark quote for (e.g., proofreading) is not appropriate. If I supply the service that I think is required (e.g., copyediting), I can explain why, and provide a revised realistic quotation, or I can guide the client toward alternative suppliers. Either way, we’re still having a conversation — both parties can still walk away.

Here’s another thing. I don’t underquote. I don’t overquote. I just quote. I know what I want to earn. Either the client’s budget is within the range of my fee scale or it’s not. If it is, the ballpark quote might turn into a conversation that in turn becomes a confirmed booking further down the line. If it isn’t, the client and I won’t get beyond the ballpark quote — she asked for a price. I gave her a price. She considered it too high and she never contacted me again. Or she thanked me, told me it was too high, and said she was going elsewhere. Or she thanked me, said it was too high, and asked me to lower my price (and I said no).

I think that it’s unethical for an editor to provide a quotation that she knows is unrelated to the ultimate cost and then accepts a commission on the basis of that misleading quote. I also agree that it would be a public relations disaster. But the notion as applied to a ballpark quote is unrealistic precisely because it’s premised on the assumption that the ballpark quote is given instead of a review-based confirmed quote, rather than in addition to it.

I have a price. The client has a price. Either we fit or we don’t. The ballpark isn’t about misleading the client into hiring me for work that I’ll later charge a higher price for. It’s about enabling the two of us to start talking or start walking. That’s not unethical; it’s sensible.

3. The ethics of the final price

The final section of Rich’s essay asks: “Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote?” His answer is, “Yes, there is. That limit is zero; clients should not be asked to reward editors for their unwillingness to bear the burden of underquoting.”

I disagree. Again, Rich’s view is based on a misunderstanding of how editors like me use, and justify using, a ballpark-quoting mechanism. My final bill is not based on a ballpark quote, and I suspect that’s the case for most ballparking editors. Rather, my final bill is based on a confirmed quote that I provided after the ballpark quote.

Just so we’re clear — the process works as follows. The client contacts me to ask for a ballpark quote. I provide one. If we’re on the same page financially, the client and I then begin talking. As part of our more detailed conversation about what’s required, I ask for a substantial sample of the work (perhaps even the whole project). If all goes well, we firm up a price (mine usually stays the same as the ballpark, but it could change). The price that’s signed off — one that’s realistic and based on work that both parties agree is required ­— is not the ballpark price, but the follow-on confirmed price.

Is there an ethical limit to how much the final bill can exceed the ballpark quote? No, there is no limit because the final bill is on a different price, one that was agreed after the ballpark quote. Of course, if the editor agreed to be hired for a project without asking for any detail about the project and without asking to see what the project entails, and offered only a ballpark price, and the client accepted this ballpark price but didn’t realize that it was still approximate, and then the editor billed a higher fee on the basis that the price was only a ballpark, then that would be unethical!

The scenario is surely unrealistic, though. It’s unfathomable that I (or any other ballparking editor) would end up in such a situation. I’ve never had a client say, “Hey, Louise, I’d like to confirm a booking. Take your time. Do what you need to do. Money’s no object. Whatever it costs is good with me!” They always want a confirmed top-line price. (I have previously tested offering a confirmed ranged price — one that came with a guarantee that the invoice would be between £X and £Y — but I’ve abandoned that now).

Even if the client was prepared to agree to such approximate pricing terms, I wouldn’t agree to them! It’s a recipe for disaster (as Rich pointed out). I don’t want to waste a minute of my working day arguing with a client over the invoice I’ve submitted because it’s higher than the one-and-only approximate price I’d provided. Such an invoice may as well have “Don’t rehire me” emblazoned on it! I don’t confirm a booking from any client without knowing the clear parameters of a project, and without having discussed and agreed to those parameters (including price) beforehand.

Summing up

The ballpark price is an approximate price. It’s a conversation starter, another (initial) stage to the quoting process. It’s a way of increasing customer-engagement by enabling the client to comparison-shop quickly and efficiently. And for those of us with plenty of work offers, and a determination to reduce the amount of time we spend engaging with people whose pockets don’t fit our fee scales, it’s a time saver. The ballpark price is an effective tool that can, and I believe should, be tested by those editorial freelancers who have the necessary data to do so with accuracy. Those that don’t have that data should start collecting it.

Rich is right that behaving unethically is a PR disaster — that applies to pricing as much as to any other aspect of business practice. But there is no reason why the ballpark price has to be unethical as long as it’s used appropriately — as the starting point of the pricing discussion, which is exactly how I use it, and how every other ballparking editor I know uses it.

Can ballpark pricing ever be used unethically? Of course it can, just as confirmed quotations can be handled unethically. It can be handled honestly but badly, too, in the same way that other elements of editorial business practice can be handled honestly but badly. It would be wrong of me to deny that there are unethical and poor practices in our industry. But there is much good practice too. And where there is bad practice, I’m inclined to blame the individuals, not the mechanisms.

The discussion reminds me of scissors. In the hands of a tailor, they’re a superb tool; in the hands of a toddler, care and supervision are required; in the hands of a torturer, they’re a dangerous weapon.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

June 13, 2016

On the Basics: So You Want to be an Editor (or Proofreader)

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Someone recently posted to an editors’ group on Facebook:

“I’ve read the official list on how to become an editor:
“1. Call yourself an editor.
“2. Start editing.”

We know that it takes a lot more than those two steps! In the poster’s defense, she followed that “list” by asking how colleagues got started in editing, and might have intended it as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but social media is full of people who say they want to work as editors or proofreaders, either in-house or freelance, with no clue about what it takes to be such a professional.

Being an editor is a laudable goal; editors are essential to finished works — whether in print or online, books on paper or electronic devices, magazines or journals, newspapers or newsletters, articles or essays, blogs or websites, even ads — that readers can follow and understand easily. However, it does take more than a degree in or teaching English, noticing errors in your daily newspaper and the books you read, or just saying “I am an editor” to be a skilled professional who adds value to someone’s writing work and deserves to be paid well for that work.

Most of the subscribers to An American Editor are probably already experienced and working as editors, but equally probably often get those classic “How do I get paid to edit?” or “How do I get started in editing?” inquiries. Here are some tips and guidelines for yourself or for those who ask you what it takes to be a professional editor or proofreader, along with resources for training, finding work in the field, and more.

Important Skills

It takes a number of skills and characteristics to be an editor (most of which also apply to proofreaders), including:

  • An excellent knowledge of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage, so ingrained that you rarely have to double-check such aspects of a document — but also so realistic that you know when to stop and check. That is often a result of strong training back in grade school or high school, or self-training later on in life.
  • A sharp eye for consistency and accuracy, even if you aren’t doing fact-checking (that’s a separate step or process, although some editors include fact-checking in their services and most will flag items of fact that seem a bit off for the author or client to check and fix). Some of us seem to have been born with this skill, but it’s also something you can train yourself in.
  • Detail-oriented — what some people might call nitpicky, but professionals know is essential to catching errors and inconsistencies.
  • Organized — both for yourself, in terms of following a regular process or approach, and for the client or project, in terms of doing or suggesting what a document needs to ensure a logical flow of information.
  • Self-effacing, because the author’s voice rules; if your ego needs the visibility of bylines, be the writer.
  • Tactful in dealing with authors or clients, some of whom can be difficult to work with and some of whom may have delicate egos where their projects are concerned. It takes skill and tact to ask the right questions or point out problems in a way that doesn’t upset the author/client. Authors with hurt feelings won’t respond well to edits.
  • Tolerance for jargon — knowing when it has to remain in a document, which can be the case in some fields or professions; some jargon is a term of art.
  • A good memory — for new facts, cross-pollination of information, style guidelines, and the ways things are done in different parts of a manuscript. The sharper your memory, the less time you’ll have to spend on checking and looking up things in a manuscript.

Tools of the trade

To work effectively and professionally as an editor, you need:

  • Internet access, because editing today is a global business and because the Internet is how most of us will be found, receive and send back projects, communicate with clients and colleagues, do research, double-check style elements, etc.
  • Microsoft Word (Mac or PC), which is the leading word-processing program of the day, no matter how many of us hate it. Just remember not to rely exclusively on its spell- and grammar-check functions, because they are not foolproof. Spellcheck will not flag correctly words that are the wrong choice or an inadvertently repeated phrase, and the grammar-check is infamous for its inaccuracies.
  • Adobe Acrobat or other “PDF” maker/editor, since an increasing number of clients expect editors to work on documents in that format.
  • Style manuals as appropriate for the types of documents you might edit — not just having the manual at hand, but knowing it well, and knowing when to check either the book or the online version, whether to refresh and confirm your instincts or defend a change to a client. (Anyone who doesn’t know what a style manual is has a ways to go before being able to say “I’m a professional editor.”)
  • Dictionaries, even if you’re a skilled speller, because you never know when a new word might pop up, a client might question one of your corrections, or you might suddenly draw a blank on the correct spelling of a word.
  • Guides to grammar and usage, to provide refreshers or reminders and, again, defend changes to clients as needed.
  • Memberships in professional organizations and/or online forums like Copyediting-L and the Editors Association of Earth group on Facebook, for access to colleagues and resources you might need when projects present especially knotty problems or you just could use some encouragement and advice.
  • Productivity resources, for automating much of the editorial process (especially for academic or large projects), so your brain and eyes are more free to focus on substance and you can work more quickly, which is especially important if you plan to freelance: Jack Lyon’s Editor’s Toolkit Plus 2014 from The Editorium, which contains The Editorium’s most widely used macros in a single package; Daniel Heuman’s PerfectIt from Intelligent Editing; Paul Beverly’s macros; and Rich Adin’s EditTools from wordsnSync Ltd.

Optional but still useful: Fax capability, because some clients still like to send or receive projects that way or use faxing for contracts, and knowledge of proofreading marks and clear printing/handwriting, for those projects that clients ask to be edited on paper. Again, these requests may not arise often, but they do still come up, as I know from current experience. Proofreading marks also can be used as stamps when editing or proofing PDFs.

Who Goes First?

One of the cardinal rules of editing is to respect and retain the author’s voice. The author comes first. An editor has to learn to subsume his or her personality in the editing process and often has to live with invisibility or anonymity (although there are authors who thank their editors, either in formal acknowledgments or online in forums such as LinkedIn). If your ego needs the visibility of a byline or your own voice predominating a work, step away from editing and do the writing yourself.

Resources for Training

You may be relieved to know that many skilled, successful editors don’t have formal training as editors. In a recent Facebook group conversation, for example, more than 40 people in just a day or two said they had either no degree at all or none related to editing. This can be seen as a drawback for our field, as Rich has discussed here a number of times, but it’s an advantage for those who have learned on the job and developed strong skills on their own, without formal training or coursework.

That doesn’t mean someone can leap into editing as a professional without some training or experience, no matter how many untrained, inexperienced people hang out their shingles and fool clients into thinking it’s worth hiring them.

Useful resources for training in editing include the following.



Further listings

That First Editing Job

Once you have the skills, tools, and resources in place, be sure to read Bernadette Cash’s “Getting That First Job: Advice from a Technical Recruiter,” which provides tips for finding an editing job in the tech field that can be applied to other kinds of editing.

Words of Wisdom

One of my Facebook editing colleagues reported recently that Ann Goldstein, copy editor at the New Yorker magazine and also a translator, recently told an audience at a writers’ conference in Auckland, New Zealand, that “if you want to be a good editor, the most important thing is to read. Read a lot!” I would concur. The more you read, the better you will edit. Reading in a wide range of fields and a variety of publications, from books to magazines to newspapers to blogs and newsletters, will expand your sense of what works in written material, as well as add to your general knowledge of trends and events that might crop up in the works you edit.

How have you developed your skills — what kinds of training and education have you used to become an editor, or evolve into a better one? What do you consider an essential skill or ability for an editor?

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

June 1, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing III

by Carolyn Haley

The editing experiment I reported on in Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing I and II offered a unique chance to see the same material not only from both sides — author and editor — but also from multiple editorial viewpoints. As the author of the test material, I was surprised by how many thoughts and emotions the editors’ responses evoked in me, even though the material was decades old and had been replaced by what became successful published novels. I suspect that any author on the receiving end of seven different edits might feel similarly disconcerted.

At the same time, editorial subjectivity is what authors experience whenever they shop for an editor and request or automatically receive sample edits. (The same happens when they solicit feedback from beta readers.) Multiple samples are a good way for authors to select the editor best suited to their work.

During the experiment, I reviewed each volunteer editor’s response from both an editor’s and author’s perspective. I’ve already covered the editor’s angle in the above-referenced essays, so here’s a taste of what the experiment results looked like through an author’s eyes.

A quick review for context

My experiment imitated a common scenario in the industry — publishers or authors who hire copyeditors without giving them instructions, assuming they share the same vocabulary and process. All I told the seven professional volunteers was, “Copyedit according to your own understanding of what copyediting means.” I deliberately didn’t say what copyediting meant to me, or ask them for clarification of their individual approaches. I wanted to see what would happen without guidance.

As part of the test, I inserted errors into both samples. Neither sample resulted in seven takes to compare against each other; instead, six editors chose to edit the first test sample and four chose the second. A handful edited both.

Now that the experiment is complete, I can reveal what I withheld from the volunteers. As an author, I would expect a copyeditor to accept that the story was finished and my narrative style was intentional; and to polish the prose with a light touch, correcting all the technical errors and pointing out anything in question with neutrally phrased comments and queries.

The following examples show how close the editors came to meeting that expectation while working in the dark.

Example 1


“Her car had a close encounter with a tree” Jona retorted. Linny kept her mouth shut to hide the broken teeth from her close encounter with the steering wheel. The remaining car interior had bashed her head, elbows, and knees.

All six editors caught the technical error — the missing comma before the close-quote in the first line. Then the variations began.

Editor #1 remarked: ‘close encounter’ twice in consecutive sentences is a little distracting. I suggest Jona says “her car met a tree”, or similar, or that she hides the “teeth, broken on the steering wheel”?

Editor #2, after changing all the paragraph breaks in the full dialogue, offered this: Consider recasting to avoid a close repetition of “close encounter” — unless the repetition is intentional.

Editor #3, meanwhile, replaced the second close encounter with collision, then commented: This way avoids repeating “close encounter,” to give the expression more impact the first time; does that work for you?

Editor #4 was fine with the close encounter duplication and body-damage description, but felt a clarification was appropriate elsewhere in the paragraph, changing “to hide the broken teeth from” to “to hide the teeth broken during.”

Editor #5 cared about dialogue tags, changing retorted to said with the query: Change OK? Jona isn’t really retorting, and said is generally your best bet for dialogue attribution.

Editor #6 had nothing to say about any element of the paragraph, though questioned the character’s injury in an earlier paragraph — querying the plausibility of the effects of the injury still showing after the timeframe specified in the story.

Example 2


Blanche rushed into my silence. “I know, I’m sorry, but — well, the final’s the last chance, and Dru asked . . .”

The trap in this paragraph is final; it’s supposed to be finale, a performance identified as such at the start of the characters’ conversation.

Editor #1 caught the typo and changed the ellipses style.

Editor #2 changed final’s to final performance is then commented on a different sentence (“Blanche rushed into my silence”) with I like this phrase, followed by an explanation of a different edit: New para for new speaker.

Editor #3 also caught the typo then felt obliged to clarify the character’s trail-off speech with added content: Blanche rushed into my silence. “I know, I’m sorry, but — well, the finale’s the last chance, and Dru asked . . . ” Her nerve seemed to break.

Editor #4 corrected the typo and moved on.

Example 3


I sat holding the phone without seeing for a moment, then smacked it into the cradle. Two points for Blanch for finding a way to get me to New Atlantis! Give her another ten for making it as awkward as possible.

The trap was the misspelled character name: Blanch should be Blanche.

Editor #1 caught the typo and left the rest of the paragraph alone.

Editor #2 suggested deleting “without seeing” then asked: When does this story occur? Rare for people to have home phones these days.

Editor #3 also caught the typo and left the rest of the paragraph alone.

Editor # 4 corrected the error, changed a preposition (“Two points to Blanche”), and added a writing lesson: Exclamation points can lose their effectiveness if you overuse them. I’ve changed to less dramatic punctuation here and elsewhere, retaining only if the speaker really is shouting.

Example 4


“I guess so. No, not really. Look, I’ve got no time and six people in earshot, but, please, can you do me a huge favor?”

I sighed and placed my brush into a water jar. “What.”

There were no traps in this section.

Editors #1 and #3 changed the period after “What” to a question mark, without comment.

Editor #2 let the period stand, but opined: Technically, this should have a ?, but I like it fine as is because she isn’t asking so much as demanding. J

Editor #4 expressed the same sentiment by leaving the sentence alone.

Example 5


The front entrance was barricaded not only by gates but also by a hoard of groupies. I had discovered this three years ago when I first visited Blanche and Dru after they moved up from the City for good.

The trap is hoard, which should be horde.

Editor #1 caught the trap and also chose to lower-case “City” (which was capped as a shorthand for New York City and used consistently through the book, but the editor couldn’t know this from the sample).

Editor #2 made the same change to “City” plus corrected the tense in the sentence (“. . . after they’d moved up from the city for good”).

Editor #3 not only lower-cased “City” but also recast the paragraph, resequenced the paragraphs around it, and rewrote half the text to connect the changes together, thereby condensing five paragraphs down to two. It was partly explained by the query: Deleted because (in passage I’ve shifted up from below) she’s adamant about never using the front gate again, so question of choosing. OK?

Editor #4 left everything in the paragraph alone, including the incorrect word.

Making choices

As an author, I found it simple to choose which editor I could work with comfortably, just from the two samples of approximately 1,600 words each. And I’m sure a different author would make a different choice.

This luxury of choice, however, can only be made by authors who self-publish, or those who directly hire editors to help prepare their novels for submission to traditional publishers. Once authors are under contract with a publishing house, they rarely have control over who edits their manuscript, or any option to change editors if they are dissatisfied with their work. More than one editor might work on the book — a content editor and copyeditor, plus maybe the agent who placed the manuscript with the house — but a contracted author won’t get seven different takes on their book at the same stage at the same time and be free to select their preferred partner. The same holds true for authors who buy editing from an author-services company, which distributes manuscripts internally without author involvement.

The unanswered question

My experiment left an important question dangling: How would the revisions, comments, and queries have differed if I’d told the editors exactly what I wanted for copyediting (i.e., acceptance that the story was finished and my narrative style was intentional; and to polish the prose with a light touch, correcting all the technical errors and pointing out anything in question with neutrally phrased comments and queries)? Or if any of them had asked?

Considering another experiment to test that, I asked a fresh group of ten editors, “How do you define copyediting?” Sure enough, I got ten different answers, which will be discussed in a future essay. For now, the lesson I learned from the subjectivity experiment is: Author, tell the editor what you’re looking for! Editor, tell the author what you intend to do! If your vocabularies and ideas differ, then dig a little deeper before working together. That conversation will go a long way toward preventing misunderstandings during the editing process, and building a mutually positive relationship.

Related essays on An American Editor:

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

May 18, 2016

The Business of Editing: Uniqueness & Being Valuable to Clients

Editors gain work by being skilled. But with all of the competition for editorial work, being skilled is not enough both to gain business and to charge (and be paid) higher rates. Recently, Louise Harnby wrote about generalization versus specialization and its effect on a freelancer’s job prospects (see The Proofreader’s Corner: The Generalist–Specialist Dichotomy and the Editorial Freelancer). Another facet to being valuable to clients and to getting them to pay higher rates willingly is providing unique skills and services that those clients see as valuable.

I have been negotiating a contract with a major client. The negotiations have been ongoing since December and are about to conclude to my (and presumably also to the client’s) satisfaction. Although it has taken nearly 6 months, both sides were willing to stick with the negotiations because each side views the other as valuable.

What makes me valuable are the usual editorial things, such as highly skilled editing that evokes praise from my client’s authors. For example, last week a client wrote, “The authors have started reviewing pages, and they have been pleased, so thanks for the quality work!” What also makes me valuable are some of the unique services I provide. (Unique is being used relatively, to say that I am providing services that few editors provide, not that I am the only editor who provides the services.)

An example of a unique and valuable service I provide to clients concerns the renumbering of references. One of the more difficult tasks an editor may undertake is renumbering references in both the reference list and in-text callouts. It isn’t too difficult or confusing when a chapter has 20 references and three need to be renumbered, but the situation changes when the chapter has 258 references in the reference list with more than 300 in-text reference callouts and they all need to be renumbered. The renumbering becomes even more complex when it is scattered: for example, instead of 0 becoming 1, 0a becoming 2, and 1 becoming 3, 0 becomes 21, 0a becomes 76, and 1 becomes 5.

Not only does this become difficult for the editor to follow, but it is also a significant problem for authors during their review of the editing and for proofreaders, one that can lead to expressed dissatisfaction and complaints about the editor’s work if the authors discover a renumbering error.

A vast majority of editors simply go slowly, renumber, check it twice, and make a note to the client or authors that references were renumbered and the renumbering should be checked. To track the renumbering, the editors use pencil and paper, which further slows the process, especially when there are a lot of references requiring renumbering, as is often the case for me.

I offer my clients something unique — a “report” that details the renumbering. It is a separate file that accompanies the edited chapter and bears a title that references the chapter. For example, if the edited chapter file is Jones Synthetic Fibers 19e chapter 13 edited.doc, the renumbering file is 13 Jones Synthetic Fibers 19e Ref Num ReOrder Checklist.rno.txt. The renumbering file is a comma-separated list, with the all the original reference numbers listed to the left of the comma, including a, b, and c references (e.g., 1, 1a, 1b, 2), and the the new number, if any, listed to the right of the comma. For example,

Original Ref Number,Renumbered to

Because I use EditTools’ Reference # Order Check macro, creating the renumbering file is easy — I just export the list I use to track the renumbering as I edit.

It is worth noting that using the Reference # Order Check macro to track references called out in the text — even when no renumbering is needed — makes it easy to catch skipped in-text callouts. Another chapter in the recent project of mine that I mentioned earlier has 199 references. Most of the references are called out in order, so no minimal renumbering was required (in fact, only eight references required renumbering). However, five reference callouts were skipped — 54, 99, 107, 125, and 161 — which I easily found using the macro. Here is a portion of the report that will accompany this chapter:

Original Ref Number,Renumbered to
161,text callout missing

(If a reference number is called out only once and only in number order, I can easily find the missing callouts, too. But in the texts I edit it is not unusual for callouts to be repeated even though initially called out in order — for example, 90, 91, 92, 93–96, 92, 94, 97 — which can make order tracking more difficult.) In instances where a text callout is missing, I usually insert an Author Query as follows:

AQ: Reference 106 is cited above, but there is no callout in the text for reference 107. Please either (1) insert a text callout for reference 107 between the callout for 106 above and the callout for 108 here, or (2) delete the current reference 107 from the reference list and renumber all references from this point forward.

If there are a lot of skipped numbers, in addition to the AQ at the location of the skipped callout, I compile a mini-report and insert it as a comment at the beginning of the document. Where references have been renumbered, I insert a comment similar to this at the beginning of the document:

AQ: Please note that some [or ALL capitalized if all rather than some is appropriate] references in this chapter have been renumbered. In addition, several references do not have in-text callouts. Please see the file “13 Jones Synthetic Fibers 19e Ref Num ReOrder Checklist.rno.txt” for details on the renumbering and the missing text callouts.

This is one example of additional value that I provide clients. Clients have remarked on this, especially noting that the authors and proofreaders are appreciative. One client told me to be particularly careful about renumbering references because the authors were very unhappy with the poor renumbering another editor had done on the prior edition. I received the large project because the client knew I would provide a high-quality edit along with a report with each chapter that required renumbering, both of which would please the authors. More importantly, it also helped ensure that I had done the renumbering accurately.

Okay, we have determined that this is a valuable service, but what is its benefit to me? Here it is: clients seek me out because I make their life easier. They want to send me the types of projects I want to edit. And they are more willing to negotiate with me, whether about schedule or money or both or something else. Clients seek out my services because what I can offer is unique and of value to them. My clients are packagers and publishers. Both have tight schedules they want or need to meet, and both want work done that requires minimal redoing or fixing. Over the years I have heard many publishers and packagers complain about not meeting schedules because of mistakes made in such tasks as reference renumbering. And when they do not meet schedules, they lose money.

These clients — at least the ones who give it some thought — consider it better to pay me a little more and take advantage of the unique services I can provide than to save a little on the editing expense but then have to pay even more to fix avoidable errors later. It is also valuable to them to have happy authors.

Do you offer unique services to your clients? Do you find that doing so makes you more valuable to your clients? Does being valuable to your clients result in long-term benefits to you?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 27, 2016

The Business of Editing: 8 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid II

Part I discussed the first four reasons why editing is undervalued by clients. Those reasons were as follows:

  1. Few editors know their required effective hourly rate.
  2. Our profession has failed to convince “clients” of editing’s value.
  3. The market views us as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service.
  4. It is too easy to open an editorial business.

Part II discusses reasons five through eight.

5. For too many editors, the income is a second income.

For many entrants to the profession, editing is a second income, not the primary source of household income. Consequently, they offer absurdly low rates (I have seen as low as 50 cents a page) with promises of high quality and speedy return. Those offers get published all over the Internet — just look at LinkedIn — and thus form the “standard” that clients expect. As a group, we have done nothing successful to combat those low rates and to keep them from becoming the standard.

As a second income, this is usually money for vacations or to buy a better car, not usually money needed for survival. The result is that there is no need to justify a rate other than that the rate brings in business. If your basic necessities of life are already covered by a primary income, then your primary (and often only) concern is getting business. Consequently, too many second-income editors set their rates low and that low level is seen repeatedly. It soon becomes the “standard” that clients expect.

6. We refer clients to “rate charts” to justify our fee.

In my view, we make the problem worse by referring to fee schedules that are published but are clearly not statistically sound, such as the EFA rate schedule.

The EFA chart, which is the fee schedule commonly referred to in the United States, is 100% statistically invalid. The history of the chart is that a small percentage of EFA members respond to the survey, not all of whom are editors or proofreaders, but all of whom are EFA members. In addition, not all the responders define what they do the same, and not all are freelancers. It is one of the least-meaningful guides available for setting rates.

One problem with past EFA rate surveys was that there was no uniform basis for how responders calculated (i.e., originally determined) their fee, or of the rationale for the amount charged, or of what services were included in the charge. One editor who participated in a past EFA survey told me she was retired and had cut her fee in half because she didn’t really need the money but wanted the occasional project to work on.

My point is this: Experienced editors should know better than to consider the EFA survey as having any value whatsoever as a guide for setting or justifying a fee, and they should not be telling clients (or colleagues) to look to it for guidance. The usual reply is that it is better than nothing, or that it is the only thing out there, or at least that it gives the range. But even to the casual observer it is clear that the EFA rate survey is so riddled with holes that it is an unreliable guide. Consequently, instead of helping us convince the world that editors are worth more than a pittance, we are reinforcing the client’s beliefs by being unable to point to something objectively valid that supports our view.

7. We fail to give a client a cogent explanation of why we can’t accept a job.

We compound the problem of inadequate compensation by failing to provide a detailed explanation of why we cannot accept a particular job at the price offered, and by failing to explain what services are included and excluded at various price points. When we buy an automobile, we are told how much the basic car costs and then how much each add-on package costs and what is included in each package. Why aren’t we doing the same for editing?

How many of us take the time to explain our editing workday and workweek? Clients assume that because we are freelancers working from home (usually), we are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Few editors I know ever say otherwise. When I respond to a client’s project offer, I carefully delineate the editing workday and workweek, explain what services are included and excluded, and I offer various options at different prices. I let the client choose the editing package and price. In my early years I didn’t do this; today I almost always offer choices. This reinforces to the client that I am a professional and that the client can have certain expectations at certain price points.

The failure to give a cogent explanation and to offer choices reinforces the perception of low-level professionalism and justifies, in the client’s mind, the low compensation.

8. The lack of standard definitions for editorial services.

As professionals we have failed to establish standard definitions of various editorial tasks that all professionals adopt. Each of us defines copyediting, for example, differently — sometimes the difference is small, and sometimes it is great — but we all call it copyediting. Consequently, when a client sees that A will do copyediting for $7.50 an hour and B will do it for $35 an hour, the client has no reason to think of the services as other than identical, and will often choose A because of price.

The lack of standard definitions means that we need to diligently explain to a client what is included and excluded for the price we are charging. Yet most of us do not provide that detailed explanation. Consequently, if editor B includes the kitchen sink as part of her copyediting services, the client hiring editor A expects the kitchen sink to be included by editor A regardless of the disparity between what editor B and editor A charge for copyediting. And if editor A explains that it is not included, the editor may well lose the client. To save the job, editor A will include the kitchen sink, thereby setting a standard to which all editors will be held — a low price that includes the kitchen sink.

Our failure as group to establish uniform standards results in our hurting our own cause and in our (generally) not being well paid. If we tackled these eight reasons using a national organization with accrediting authority, we could greatly improve how professional editing and editors are perceived, valued, and paid.

The eight reasons discussed are not all of the reasons for the low pay–high expectations syndrome in editing; I am confident you can add additional reasons. Ultimately, the question we need to face and solve is this: We know the problem and the reasons. What as a group are we going to do to solve the problem?

What do you suggest? What will you do?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 20, 2016

The Business of Editing: 8 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid I

A recent discussion on another forum lamented over how underpaid (undervalued) editing is, pointing out that neither authors nor publishers appreciate and are willing to pay for the expertise editors bring to a project. Of course, this is not a new lament; it was the same 32 years ago, when I began my editing career, and it has been a constant since that day.

In the discussion I just mentioned, the lament was tied to the client command (or observation) that the manuscript requires only a “light” edit. Let’s set aside the initial problem — what a “light” edit is (for my perspective, see The Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?) — and instead focus on some — not all — of the reasons the value of editing is viewed so poorly as to act as justification for low rates of compensation from our clients.

Part I of this essay discusses the first four reasons.

1. Few editors know their required effective hourly rate.

Like all businesses, we can set our own rates of compensation. The problem is that too many of us set them in an information vacuum. Too many of us have no idea what our Required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR) is, and as a consequence we set our rate based on what some unscientific and invalid rate survey says is the “going rate.”

(For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of rEHR, and those who need a refresher on how to calculate it, see the five-part series Business of Editing: What to Charge. Additional previous essays worth reviewing are The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make, the two-part essay The Business of Editing: Keys to a Project Quote, So, How Much Am I Worth?, and Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts. Essays written by Ruth Thaler-Carter and Louise Harnby that touch on these and related topics can be found if you look for “On the Basics” and “The Proofreader’s Corner” in the Search field on this blog.)

Your rEHR is the minimum you need to earn for each hour of paid work if you hope to meet your living requirements. A survey that is of suspect validity to begin with can’t help you determine what you should charge if you do not know whether what the survey says is the “going rate” is more or less than you require just to have shelter, clothing, and food. When editors do not know their rEHR, they undermine themselves.

How are they undermining themselves? By helping to establish the validity of a rate that has no relationship to real-world economics. Haven’t you found that no matter how low your rate, a client readily comes back with a lower rate that was quoted by an editorial colleague? How was that lower rate established? Probably by waving an uncooked strand of spaghetti through the seas of Atlantis and watching the numbers magically appear. Or by going to one of the rate surveys that are constantly mentioned but aren’t any more valid than the spaghetti waving.

By approving and accepting rates that are lower than your rEHR, you are reinforcing the idea that editorial services are of little value.

2. Our profession has failed to convince clients of editing’s value.

In the olden days, when people like Bennett Cerf ran publishing houses and publishing houses were family-owned businesses, not international conglomerates, being an editor made you part of a prestigious profession. More importantly, high-quality editing was desired and properly compensated. I can still recall the lecture I received in 1987 from a Farrar, Strauss & Giroux editor about the publisher’s low tolerance for editorial errors. However, as the original family-owned publishers were bought up and merged into international conglomerates, bean counters took over and assigned a low value to editing, a low value from which the profession has not recovered.

As a profession, we have failed to convince our clients that they are devalued by poorly edited books. We have failed to demonstrate that consumers notice and care. We have failed to equate high-quality editing with reasonable compensation. By not making a concerted effort to convince clients of the value of editing, we have shored up the notion that cheaper is better for the bottom line. Finally, we have failed to make the consumer see that poor-quality editing means a poor reading experience, and that particular publishers and authors are noted for producing poorly edited books.

3. The market views us as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service.

Although we call ourselves professionals and think of ourselves as part of a profession, the market reality is that we are viewed as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service. This is a market view we have not successfully countered. Actually, as a group we have done little to nothing to counter that perception.

This is tied to number two above. We have let others determine whether our services are necessary. Look at how many times we see comments from authors saying that the author can edit his or her own manuscript as well as or better than any editor. Delve a little into the reason for the statement and what you find is that the author has had a poor experience with an editor and tars every editor with that tainted brush.

Of course, the author looked for the lowest-cost editor who claimed the most experience, and hired that editor. The author and the editor were both racing to the bottom, with cost driving both the author and the editor, who had set a low price to attract the business. The problem for many authors is that they personally have to foot the editorial bill, and so they look for the least cost. And the publishers? They assume that no one will notice if the editing is poor — not the author and not the consumer — and, unfortunately, too often they are correct. The publishers make the gamble and usually win.

If an author cannot get an editor cheaply enough, the author will self-edit or have friends do the editing, because the author does not view editors as high-level professionals who provide a necessary service in these days of self-publishing. It is our failure as a profession that we have not convinced clients of our professionalism and of the value of editorial services.

4. It is too easy to open an editorial business.

Unlike professionals who are able to charge much higher fees (e.g., doctors, lawyers, plumbers, carpenters, masons), we have no entry requirements in our profession — no apprenticeships, no degree requirements, no code of conduct, no licensing, no nothing. All a person has to do is declare to the world that she is a professional editor. (When you think about it, even McDonald’s fry cooks get some training from someone else, and cleaning-service personnel often need to be bonded. Our profession [different for content creators] has no insurance requirements, something most, if not all, other professions have.)

Let’s face it — even a sixth-grader could hang out a shingle as a professional editor. There simply are no professional standards. Writers and painters in the United States are better organized than editors and have more professional organizations (i.e., the organizations are more professionally organized and run) to create standards and promote codes of conduct than editors have.

Such ease of claiming membership in the editorial profession does us a disservice. It helps foster the notion that we are undeserving of better pay because there is no minimum standard of quality that a client can be assured of receiving in exchange for higher compensation.

Part II addresses reasons five through eight.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 18, 2016

What One Fool Can Do

by Daniel Sosnoski

In at item titled “Against Editors” at the website Gawker, Hamilton Nolan writes:

In the writing world, there is a hierarchy. The writers are on the bottom. Above them are editors, who tell the writers what to change. This is backwards. How many good writers has Big Edit destroyed?

Nolan’s view is not entirely exceptional. You can find similar sentiments elsewhere on the web, and you’ll sooner or later find yourself working with a writer who views their relationship with you as being purely adversarial.

The two chief routes by which writers come to detest editors are either a misunderstanding of the two parties’ respective roles, or bad experiences at the hands of editors who are unprofessional or uncaring in their approach to the craft. To that end, I advise my colleagues to be kind to authors because all of us are, arguably, representing our profession and we ought to present our work in the best possible light.

If you’re dealing with the first type of writer, one who thinks you are “the enemy,” then you might have a chance to reset their perception of the relationship and get things back on an even keel. Inexperienced writers sometimes think fighting with the editor is a normal part of the job. The second type of writer, who’s had bad experiences being edited, will be bringing that history along and you might have to address it head on.

Getting back to “Against Editors,” a key passage in Nolan’s article is as follows:

Go find a story published a few years ago in The New Yorker, perhaps America’s most tightly edited magazine. Give that story to an editor, and tell him it’s a draft. I guarantee you that that editor will take that story — well-polished diamond that it presumably is — and suggest a host of changes. Rewrite the story to the specifications of the new editor. Then take it to another editor, and repeat the process… You would never find an editor who read the story, set down his pencil, and said, “Looks fine. This story is perfect.”

The gauntlet is thrown

It is a point of pride in my office that we have a tag for documents that says, simply, “Clean.” The meaning is “I have read this document and have no changes.” Admittedly, it isn’t used often, but it is used, and it reassures me that we aren’t fiddling with text merely for the sake of imprinting our own voice on it.

Still, Nolan’s words nagged at me. Could he be right? How could his proposition be tested? Could I make an educational lesson from it? When we reached the end of the workweek, I called an editorial meeting and gathered five editors (in addition to myself) and passed out to everyone a page of raw, unedited copy — 12 point, triple spaced — and red pens.

Here is a sample of that text:

The smaller the office the larger the scope of your influence and the more you will see the direct correlation between your mood and theirs or your attitude toward a patient and how they treat that person. In this sense, leadership and the impact yours has, is all about you. But, isn’t it always?

For the next 20 minutes, we worked in silence. The instruction was to edit freely, but to make no edits that could not be fully justified — “it just looks better to me this way” was off the table.

Three of the editors were fairly new, and three were trained and seasoned. At the end of the time allotted I called halt and most had gotten through two to three pages of the text. We went around the table and each editor read the first sentence (as shown above) and indicated what they marked up and why. For example: “The smaller your office, the larger the influence of your mood and that of your staff upon patient care.” (My edit.)

As we went along, sentence by sentence, a pattern began to emerge: The junior editors were unpredictable. Some rewrote heavily, others lightly, none making the same changes. The experienced editors tended to seize upon the same faults and make similar — but not identical — edits in some cases, and in others the suggested fix was nearly identical.

For example: “I deleted ‘But, isn’t it always?’ as being extraneous to the flow of the text. It was a rhetorical question.”

Most made the same edit. There was disagreement about placing a comma after “office,” but in general you could see that the problem of “theirs” having an undefined referent in the original required a fix. Exactly how that problem should be corrected differed from editor to editor.

In this, I would say that Nolan had a point worth making. In text that is seriously flawed (but correctable), two editors might make different changes, but — and this is key — they will tend to repair the same problem. Much as two mechanics might approach the diagnosis and repair of a vehicle in slightly different ways, the end result will be functional transportation.

About that title

A phrase that Richard Dawkins likes to use in his writing is, “What one fool can do, so can another.” His meaning is that if someone can accomplish something, so can you. The task of editing, however, seems to be special in that, while any competent editor can spot and correct typos, punctuation errors, and adjust copy to meet house style, with text of the sort presented by the problem I assigned my colleagues, I see a clear divergence.

Junior editors see clumsy text but aren’t always sure how to fix it or why. They tend to make changes that could not be readily explained to the author (even if sensible). Experienced editors seem to agree on the same problems and find similar solutions to them. While in my exercise we didn’t all make identical corrections, the act of verbalizing our thoughts was a step toward harmonizing our approach to editing.

Repeating this exercise is definitely in my game plan for staff development. Listening to one another explain our approaches and rationale is valuable in that it gets us thinking the same way about editing. If you work with one or more other editors, I highly recommend trying this for yourself and gauging the results.

In the event you are presented with clean copy, by all means mark it “clean” and know that you did your job properly. Some might argue that not making any changes to a text could potentially raise problems regarding what is being paid for, but that’s a subject for another column.

Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.

April 13, 2016

The Business of Editing: How Many Pages an Hour Do You Edit?

This question was asked, probably for the umpteenth time, on another editorial forum. I wondered then, as I wonder now, what the value is of a response like “4 to 6 pages an hour” or “10 pages an hour” — or any number.

I find surfing editorial forums interesting in so far as doing so reveals how colleagues think. Both questions and answers are revealing. Editorial colleagues want to be helpful to one another. Consequently, no matter the question, someone, if not many someones, will respond. I think that sense of community is heartening and helps make editing a great profession to be in. That surface impression of community helpfulness, however, begins to slip as the answers pile up.

A Great Question But of Little Value

“How many pages an hour do you edit?” is a great question that elicits a world of responses, the majority (possibly all) of which are valueless. While seeming to be a good way to measure one’s own efficiency and productivity, it isn’t. If my own speed is slower than the reported average and I consequently think I need to speed things up, I’ve simply elevated the responses to a status they do not deserve. If my speed is faster, must I be more efficient and productive? And if my speed is slower, must I be less efficient and productive? In reality, no.

Editing speed in itself is not indicative of anything, largely because the number leaves out myriad bits of necessary qualifying information. If I tell you that I edit, on average, 12 pages an hour, what have you learned about my editing? Nothing. Among other things you haven’t learned are what types of projects I handled; what the parameters were for those projects; what tools I use to speed up (or slow down) my editing; or, most importantly, how good an editor I am. I may be the greatest of all editors but only edit 4 pages an hour, or I could be the worst of all editors and edit 25 pages an hour. Conversely, I may be the worst of all editors but only edit 4 pages an hour, or I could be the best of all editors and edit 25 pages an hour.

The number of pages I edit each editing hour is a statistic with no meaning or value, even though colleagues and clients are intrigued by it. After all, if you can edit 20 pages an hour and I only edit 5 pages an hour, isn’t the client going to be better served economically by you than by me?

Type of Editing Matters

It matters whether my speed is reflective of my copyediting or of my developmental-editing speed. It also matters how I define the type of editing. For example, does copyediting include more than one editing pass over the manuscript? Does it include coding or styling of the manuscript? Do I include fact checking? What about references — are they APA or AMA style or some other convoluted style that requires a significant amount of work? And do I include formatting and verification of those references? The bottom line is that there are a number of variables in what we include and exclude as part of our definition. In the absence of having a uniform definition for editing type, the number of pages an hour that I can edit has no relevance in a discussion about how many pages an hour you should be editing.

What Makes a Page?

Another vital element that needs to be known is: What makes a page? Is it number of words, characters without spaces, characters with spaces, formatted pages, something else? And once the measure is chosen, how much of the measure makes a page? For example, is it 250 words, 300 words, or 350 words that make a page? Suppose there are a large number of words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Do words like that count as one word? Two words? Three words? If you count characters, how many characters make a page?

Type of Manuscript Matters

It matters greatly whether my statement that I edit 12 pages an hour refers to editing advanced physics textbooks or cookbooks or illustrated children’s books or western novels. It matters whether the book is laden with photographs or with statistical tables. Without knowing what I am editing, how can you determine whether my speed is fast, slow, or middling?

Client Instructions Matter

Also relevant to determining the value of an editing speed are client instructions. It matters greatly whether I am instructed to simply run spellcheck and look for misspelled words or if I am asked to do a comprehensive edit that includes verifying Latin names for organisms against a particular database or to convert the form of measure the author uses to a more universally used measure. It matters whether there are 50 references or 1,000 references in a chapter and whether my instructions are to check each for accuracy and then format them, or accept them as accurate but format them, or just look for missing information and provide it but not format the references. (If you think a chapter cannot have 1,000 references, let me assure you that I often edit chapters with that number of references and more; I have edited chapters with nearly 2,000 references. Of course, such chapters tend to be “book length” in and of themselves.)

How Well Written Is the Manuscript?

Experienced editors know the importance of this bit of information. A poorly written manuscript slows editing to a crawl, whereas a well-written manuscript often means faster editing. Yet using terms like light, medium, and heavy to describe the difficulty of editing is not helpful because there are no universal definitions of these terms. In addition, there are gradations within each category — one editor’s medium-level edit may be another editor’s heavy edit.

Did You Consider This?

Okay, you tell me you know the answers to all of the previous questions and therefore are in a position to assign value to my being able to edit 12 pages an hour. But did you consider this? Do you know how many errors I create or miss as I edit that at the 12-page speed? This is important information. If I introduce an average of three errors per page or miss three errors per page, perhaps I need to slow my speed down because I am making/missing too many errors. Perhaps editing at 12 pages an hour is inappropriate for the material. On the other hand, if I am not introducing any errors and I am missing, on average, one error for every 5 pages, perhaps I am editing an appropriate speed or maybe can even edit a little bit faster.

Of course, there is the problem of what an error is.

The Universe of Editors

Another problem with the numbers generated by the main question is the representativeness of the responders. Getting 20 responses out of a universe of many thousands of editors is not very representative. The 20 responders may be the 20 best editors or the 20 worst editors or the 20 most middling editors. Or they may be a mix. But unless the responders are a match for you, their numbers are of no value. And even if they are a match for you, their number is too small to be statistically meaningful or indicative of average speed of editors irrespective of any other criterion.

The Bottom Line

Some questions we ask our colleagues will provide valuable information, but asking how many pages a colleague edits is not one of them. In the absence of universally agreed-upon terms and definitions to describe what we do, comparing my editing speed with your editing speed simply produces two unhelpful numbers.

When asked why they think this information is useful, editors often reply that if the majority of responders give a number that is faster than their number, then it is an indication that they are going too slow and need to take a look at how they can improve their number. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is false reasoning. Because others are faster (or slower) than you is not an indication that there is anything wrong with your speed. There are too many variables.

Whatever my speed is, it is my speed and it is the speed at which I can produce a high-quality edit for a particular project. I keep detailed records and I know that over my 32 years of editing, I was able to edit some projects at what I think of as grand prix speeds and others at slower-than-turtle speeds. Speed was governed by the particular project, by my editing peculiarities, and by how much I could automate certain functions. This number was/is unique to me and meaningless to colleagues.

The One Thing Never to Do!

The one thing that no editor should ever do is estimate a project based on editing speeds claimed by colleagues. Estimates should always be based on your editing speed, your editing day, and your editing workweek. What a colleague does is at best anecdotal, not anything to use as a foundation for your work and business.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 11, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing Fiction II

by Carolyn Haley

Part I of this two-part essay described the experiment I conducted to learn more about the weight and importance of subjectivity in editing fiction, and to satisfy my personal curiosity about how different editors might handle the same material. Part I covered the experiment parameters, general results, and types of technical errors that occurred in the work of seven volunteer professional editors.

Part II continues the description of results, shifting to areas where errors are harder to define and recognize, and where individual backgrounds come more strongly into play.

Debatable errors

All the volunteers addressed the debatable items I inserted into the test samples, though no two editors addressed the same number and combination of them. This is where I expected the greatest variation between editors, and I was not disappointed.

Example debatable items were hyphenated or solid prefixes and suffixes; hyphenation of compound adjectives; one-word or two-word spellings that could vary according to dictionary; use or not of the serial comma; treatment of ellipses and dashes; treatment of dialogue tags and thoughts; words or numerals for numbers; location of paragraph breaks; casualness versus formalness of characters’ speech; spelling of common expressions (all right vs. alright, OK vs. okay); and the like.

These represent what I expect to see itemized on a style sheet. I deliberately did not request style sheets from the volunteers, because I wanted to see whether providing one with a copyediting job is a default practice, and what form the style sheet took if provided. Note that some editors, as a matter of policy, do not provide style sheets for tests but will provide them for live book-length projects. As this exercise resembled a short test, and I did not request a style sheet, I expected that not everyone would include one.

And not everyone did—just three of seven editors. Two of the submitted style sheets were organized and detailed, reflecting the editors’ long experience with traditional publishers. These greatly helped my review of those editors’ samples. The select debatable items they put on their term lists affirmed that they had spotted the variants and made decisions about them. I also knew what reference resources they were drawing from so had context to understand their choices. The thorough and professional presentation of the style sheets positively influenced my opinion of the editors’ knowledge and capability. While the editors who did not provide a style sheet might have done as good a job on the sample exercises as those editors who did provide one, I had to guess what they noticed or not, based on what I saw changed and unchanged. (Sometimes an editor removed the guessing game by deleting or rewriting a debatable item.)

Including a style sheet in an actual test for a publisher might give an editor a competitive advantage, based on the positive impression it gave in my experiment. And including a style sheet for an author is always a good idea. A style sheet shows that the editor really did examine the manuscript closely and think about fine points. It also gives organized information to the author during later revisions or expansion in a series, making the next round cleaner. At the same time it gives context and detail for any subsequent editors, as well as for the proofreader at the end of the line.

For more information about creating and using style sheets, see Amy Schneider’s four-part series starting with “Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets Part I: General Style.

Fact checking and formatting

Whether fact checking should be included in copyediting is a scope-of-work item determined between editor and client. Commonly, copyeditors who work for publishers aren’t asked to do fact checking or don’t provide that service, whereas copyeditors who work for indie authors might include it. I did not instruct the volunteer editors on fact checking because I wanted to see if there was any pattern in who did and who didn’t provide the service. I tested it by inserting errors that could be found by simple online lookups, such as whether a mountain range’s formal name included “Hills” or “Mountains,” and the wrong manufacturing date for a vintage car. Four of the seven editors found one or more of these, although none reacted to them all, and I saw no correlation with anyone’s particular background.

At the same time, three editors queried subtle verisimilitude issues that would have embarrassed the author had the details gone through to publication. I had been aware of two of those bloopers but blind to the others; so, as the author in question, I would have been deeply grateful to those sharp editorial eyes (and as the test creator, I was duly embarrassed).

Formatting a manuscript is also considered a scope-of-work variable in copyediting. Here again I did not instruct the volunteers, wanting to see what they did on their own. The majority left the text as they found it, in terms of font, type size, and line spacing. I put one sample in 1.5 spacing instead of industry-standard double spacing; nobody changed it. I set the other one in Courier font; two editors changed it to Times New Roman, and one who let it stand apparently had trouble telling the difference between straight and “curly” apostrophes and quotation marks in that font, for that editor had the highest miss rate in those details.

I also inserted manual tab indents for paragraphs in one of the samples. Only one editor replaced them with automatic indent, as is required for production. A different editor inserted a note advising that they had spotted the tabs and other deviations from industry standard but left them in place, while another editor went for no-indent first paragraphs then auto-indented the rest without remark. Most of these changes were manually applied; only two editors used Word’s style feature on whole text.

Comments and queries

Everybody was polite, professional, and helpful in their comments. Some were so gentle and politically correct in their phrasing that, in my eyes, it undermined their authority. Somewhere there’s a happy medium between bullying and babying, and although everyone in the experiment found that middle ground, some conveyed their expertise and confidence better than others. If I were an author shopping for an editor based on these samples, it would have been easy to determine who best suited my preferences and needs.

At first the number of comments and queries for so little text seemed disproportionately high. Then I realized that some of the editors’ remarks covered subjects I ordinarily put on a style sheet. For instance, I list my grammar/style/spelling resources and operating premises together at the top of my style sheet, whereas some of the editors who did not include a style sheet used comments to explain, for example, that a change was supported by a particular style guide or dictionary.

I’m guessing that the editors made more queries than might be normal because the test was done in a vacuum. In a real job they would have more information than I provided about the story premise, client, and other parameters of the project. For example, the full novel one of the samples came from was loaded with telepathic communication between psychics, which I set in italics. To distinguish telepathy from private thoughts, I kept thoughts in roman type. But I did not give this information to the volunteer editors. One of them, when encountering the direct thought in roman text, selected it and applied italics:

“…but I can still make the autocross on Sunday.” Two hours in the other direction, I didn’t add.

This distraction led the copyeditor to miss the inverted close-quote mark immediately preceding the sentence. If editor had known that thoughts did not have to be italicized, then the editor would not have paused to change or query the sentence and likely would have noticed the punctuation error.

That example was not the only evidence of editors being distracted by adjacent problems. It appeared during highlighting text for comments, too. One editor was so focused on typing up a remark about writing style that they didn’t see this error lying inside the selected text: No more hazy envelop of pulsing bruises; instead, a bright, boundless world begging to be explored. I saw several oversights of that sort among the editors who commented heavily. The lighter-touch editors caught more mechanical errors, presumably because their eyes and minds weren’t bouncing back and forth as much between places on the screen.


What does the experiment teach us? Not much more than we already know. And with a sampling of only seven editors, along with the number of variables being evaluated at one time and my personal bias, we can’t call this a scientific test.

The experiment revealed little insight into the question, “How good is good enough?” Some aspects of that question will be discussed in a future essay covering editorial subjectivity from the author’s point of view.

From my editor’s point of view, the experiment affirmed my expectations. I now feel confident stating that every copyeditor has a different approach and editing style; that most copyeditors will address most elements in a manuscript while never quite attaining perfection; that their understanding of the distinctions between editing tasks varies; and that in the absence of explicit instructions, copyeditors will likely return results different from what the hiring party might expect.

The experiment also supported two beliefs I’ve long adhered to: (a) that a successful editorial job comes from a compatible fit and good communication between editor and client, and (b) that journalist William H. Whyte had it right when he said, “The great enemy of communication…is the illusion of it.”

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

March 28, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing Fiction I

by Carolyn Haley

Earlier generations of fiction editors were mentored by old pros at august publishing houses, learning the art and craft of storytelling and producing books to high standards. Things have changed; although there are still old pros cultivating younger editors at important, high-quality houses, their numbers have declined. The editing profession now contains many independent and small-press editors who have entered the field from diverse paths; who have different training; who may have incomplete knowledge of writing, editing, and publishing practices; and who, in some cases, are too naïve or unethical to be handling other people’s work.

Because of this shift, the subjectivity that characterizes editing novels has become more complex — at least for me, who was not educated and seasoned in the traditional book publishing business. Thankfully, my arrival in the industry coincided with the Internet, so I can tap into the collective editorial mind. But that has revealed so many different approaches that I often bog down in pondering choices, reversing decisions, consulting other people, revisiting style guides, and talking more thoroughly with clients in order to make the right judgment call about myriad details. This process might make me a better editor, but it also makes me a slower and more tentative editor. The question that never seems to go away is, “How good is good enough?”

The question may be unanswerable because of subjectivity. What seems to matter, ultimately, is the fit between editor and client and between a novel and its audience.

Objectifying subjectivity

I remain curious and concerned about the weight and importance of subjectivity, and have long wanted to see how different editors would work the same material. So I devised an informal experiment. Emulating a publisher who needs to test editorial candidates’ skills, I created an exercise loaded with traps. Then I called for volunteers among my editorial colleagues. Seven responded, and I sent them the opening pages from two manuscripts (each sample approximately 1,680 words), with the instruction to copyedit either or both samples according to their own understanding of what “copyediting” means. This provided ten samples total.

The sample text came from early drafts of my own novels, now published, and for which I own the rights. I chose this material to avoid any potential problems that could arise from using disguised client text in a public forum. My goal was to see similarities and differences in individual copyeditors’ techniques and accuracy, such as how many and what types of errors were caught, and how comments and queries were handled. I hoped, too, for some single characteristic to emerge that would lead to a profound discovery or conclusion.

The volunteers’ professional editing experience ranged from five to 25 years, representing a mix of fiction and nonfiction; copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing; and working for publishers and independent authors. Although some of the volunteers specialize in copyediting fiction, others aspire to that or prefer a balance of fiction and nonfiction work.

The traps I planted in the exercises were split between technical errors (spelling, grammar, punctuation, factual accuracy, and consistency) and debatable errors (usage, punctuation, and style). By “debatable” I mean items that are open to interpretation or could result from the editors’ adherence to different dictionaries and style guides.

My instructions to the volunteers intentionally did not mention style guides, style sheets, fact checking, and software tools, because I wanted to see what turned up unprompted.

Summary of results

In three areas the editors performed identically:

  1. Everyone used Microsoft Word and its Track Changes feature. All edits were visible, save for global formatting or corrections. And each editor found reasons to use Track Changes’ Comments feature, whether as margin balloons or inline insertions.
  2. Everyone caught almost all (95+ percent) of the technical errors I inserted into the text.
  3. Everyone responded to some percentage of the debatable items.

No one caught every technical error I inserted, although five of seven found errors I hadn’t noticed when I made the tests.

The strongest overall performance came from the most specialized copyeditor who has been working in fiction the longest and for publishers only. The weakest overall performance came from an editor with more than a decade of mixed fiction/nonfiction experience for publishers and indie authors.

Interestingly, an editor with a high miss rate on one sample performed fine on the other sample. This points to state of mind, timing of work session, nature of material, and attention span as variables in the subjectivity equation.

In either test sample, there was no one section where every editor changed or commented on the same thing. Instead, individual styles and sensibilities expressed themselves in small amounts throughout the text. Some editors made minor changes without query or comment, whereas others made similar changes but included explanations and suggested alternative phrasings. Some made so many changes or suggestions it was hard to believe they were copyediting. Indeed, their copyediting resembled what I call line, substantive, or developmental editing. The majority touched the text more than I ever do for a copyediting job.

Technical Errors

The most common type of technical error involved punctuation and spaces. Some of those errors pertained to typography; for example, the editor didn’t spot straight apostrophes (′) and quotation marks (″) that should have been “curly” (i.e., typographer’s style), or attempted to fix them all and missed a few.

It’s possible that the straight/curly subject might not fall into the copyediting scope of work for editors hired by publishing houses. Often, manuscripts from publishers come to the editor mechanically groomed and styled, reducing the number of gremlins the copyeditor needs to address. Or else the copyeditor is informed that quotations marks, dashes, ellipses, and the like will be taken care of by a compositor. That usually isn’t the case for editors working with indie authors, so scope of work when working with indie authors may include more elements of mechanical editing.

The volunteers in my experiment mostly went one way or the other with the curly/straight detail — changed them all, or left them all. I considered either approach allowable. There were two editors, however, who changed straights to curlies but appeared to have done it manually instead of electronically, so some instances remained unchanged. I considered those errors. I also considered it an error to use a single open quotation mark instead of an apostrophe in truncated words. This occurred in one sample that contained the short form of until (til). Three editors revised it to til — which may or may not be correct according to what dictionary you consult — but inserted the wrong punctuation mark. The others left the word alone or replaced it with the alternate, till.

In another instance, the editor apparently was distracted from an inverted close-quote mark by attending to a style change right next to it, so that the following happened at a transition between dialogue and a character’s thought:

“…but I can still make the autocross on Sunday.” Two hours in the other direction, I didn’t add.

The original text did not contain italics. But in the process of selecting and changing the style of the character’s thought from roman to italic, the editor failed to notice the close-quote problem at the end of the previous sentence.

Similar bloopers were spread among the samples, such as an extra space before or after punctuation (e.g., “I— damn it”) and spelling inconsistencies (e.g., Atlantis vs. Atlantic). Most small, subtle oversights of this type can be caught using features available in commercial software tools designed for editors (e.g., EditTools, Editor’s ToolKit, PerfectIt) or built into Word (e.g., find/replace, wildcard find/replace, macros), so I was surprised by how many got through. When I later questioned the editors about what tools they use, I learned that six use a limited selection of tools, and one uses none at all. (One of the six added a twist I didn’t anticipate, claiming to use a few tools for live work but for the experiment thought that using them would be “cheating.”)

The second most common technical error came in the spelling of similar-sounding or similar-looking words (“confusables”): reign/rein, hoard/horde, envelop/envelope, deserts/desserts, breath/breathe. Spellcheck alone won’t catch real words of this sort, so one needs a keen eye enhanced by editorial software tools and macros to find them all in a text.

One editor made a good case for this by not catching typos in critical proper nouns—for instance, a main character’s name (Dru vs. Drew). This editor’s custom is to make only a few specific find/replace passes in Word for global mechanical details (e.g., double spaces after periods), which won’t catch names or spelling variants. For those, you need something like PerfectIt, or Paul Beverley’s ProperNounAlyse, or EditTools’ Never Spell Word, or just paying close attention to Word’s spellchecker, which will stop on “Jon” after you’ve hit Ignore All when accepting “John.”

In general, the results compiled for all seven editors showed a strong correlation between a high number of spelling, punctuation, and consistency errors and a low number of support tools used. The correlation is not absolute, however. The editor with least experience in fiction, who speaks British instead of American English, and used only one tool, performed above midpack.

Part II continues with a discussion of the experiment’s results relating to debatable errors, fact checking, formatting, style sheets, comments, and queries.

Related essays on An American Editor:

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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 two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

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