An American Editor

September 23, 2015

Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!

I won’t keep you in suspense. The two books are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

I was reading Diane Johnson’s review of Go Set a Watchman (“Daddy’s Girl,” The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015, pp. 22–26) when I realized that Harper Lee’s two novels should be read by everyone who touches — no matter how peripherally — on the editing process. The two books provide a stark contrast of the value of editing. Johnson wrote:

According to its editors and Harper Lee herself, To Kill a Mockingbird had profited from extensive editing at R.B. Lippincott by the late Tay Hohoff, who said she and Lee worked for two years on the project. (p. 22)

The result was the production of a classic that continues, 50-plus years later, to sell 1 million copies each year.

Contrast that with Go Set a Watchman, which was published as written — without editorial input. Although Watchman has sold a phenomenal number of copies, those will be one-time sales and they came about because of the high expectations readers of Mockingbird had. The consensus seems to be that Watchman is a disaster and a blight on the reputation of Mockingbird; its primary value is to demonstrate what should not be done if one values one’s writing and reputation as an author.

Authors & Wannabe Authors

Watchman was the parent from which Mockingbird was spawned. Yet it is as different from Mockingbird as night is from day. What it demonstrates, however, is how a good editor can help an author.

Too many authors on too many lists promote self-editing or no editing or friend editing. The complaint is that a good editor costs too much and there is no reason to hire one when the author can do it herself. Too many authors also say that they would like to hire an editor but editors are too expensive; they cannot afford an editor.

If you believe you really have a good story to tell and that people will buy it, then shouldn’t you figure out a way to get that editorial help? Your book will not sell like Watchman has sold because you do not have the reputation that Harper Lee has been trading on for 50 years. And it is expected that sales of Watchman will fall precipitously now that the book has been seen. What Watchman does demonstrate, however, is that the editorial investment made in Mockingbird has paid off doubly: first, by creating a phenomenal bestseller that keeps on selling, and second, by creating a reputation that allowed the author to sell drivel, which is what Watchman amounts to. Watchman would not have sold except for Lee’s reputation built on Mockingbird.

It is hard to convince authors (and readers) of the value of good editing because editing is an invisible hand — but these two books, a before and after, should clearly demonstrate what a good editor brings to the table and why authors need editors.

The two books also offer one other insight that I think authors need: They graphically demonstrate the difference between — and value of — developmental editing and copyediting, as well as the value of each. Watchman was neither developmentally edited nor copyedited; Mockingbird was both. Could you self-edit both developmental editing and copyediting?

Skilled and professional authors know that it is almost impossible to edit one’s own work because we see only what we meant to say; we cannot be objective enough to see where our work might be unclear, clunky, disorganized, or simply grammatically lacking (suffering from misspellings, wrong or missing punctuation, close-but-not-quite-right word choices, missing or doubled words, poor transitions, and more).

It is true that a very few authors have the skills to self-edit, but those are the rare authors. Most, if not all, of the most successful authors did not self-edit. Either they or their publisher hired a professional editor. As an author, you may have spent years writing your book. You know every word, every nuance, but you do not know where you are going wrong, because your book is “perfect” — you have said so.

As did Harper Lee when she originally submitted Watchman. What a difference a skilled, professional editor made for Harper Lee — and could make for authors and wannabe authors today.

Editors

Editors should read these two books to see what a skilled editor can do. This is not to suggest that you are not a skilled editor, but to suggest that rarely are we given the opportunity to see a before and after of such radical dimension as in the case of Watchman and Mockingbird.

Even more importantly, however, these books give us the opportunity to create an explanation of the value of our services. They also give us the opportunity to graphically demonstrate the differences between developmental editing and copyediting, and what each does for a manuscript. How many of us would reread Watchman or call it a classic or even want it taught in our schools? I know I struggle to envision a movie based on Watchman or caring about the characters or the storyline.

But Mockingbird remains a highly praised novel, 50 years after its publication. It is still discussed in schools and in conversations about race relations. The movie is considered a classic that is still shown. The novel still sells a million copies each year with no advertising to speak of. And all of this is because the original version, Watchman, was developmentally edited and then copyedited by professional editors to become Mockingbird.

Editors should use these books as teaching experiences for clients. They illustrate the benefit of not creating an artificial schedule and of taking the time needed to properly develop the story and to do the editing the story requires.

Editors have looked for years for a way to clearly illustrate why they are worth what they are asking and why editing is a valuable service that is ignored or avoided at an author’s and a publisher’s peril. Watchman and Mockingbird graphically demonstrate the value of editing and editors.

Publishers (& Packagers)

Today, publishing is run largely from the accounting perspective, not the art perspective. Schedules are artificially imposed without regard for the true needs of a manuscript. Editors are asked to do more of the mechanical work and less of the judgmental work; in my earliest years as an editor, for example, the emphasis was on language editing, not on applying styling codes. We did macro-level styling at most, and left micro-level styling to designers and typesetters. But in today’s editing world, the emphasis has switched 180 degrees to emphasize micro-level styling and a deemphasize language editing.

Yet Watchman and Mockingbird can provide a useful lesson for publishers, too. Sure, HarperCollins reaped a quick influx of cash with the publication of Watchman, but if I were the publisher, I would rather have the year-after-year sales of Mockingbird than the one-time sales of Watchman. Watchman will have no lasting value in the marketplace except as an illustration of what publishers used to provide authors versus what they no longer provide authors.

Today, the mantra is “how low can I go”; that is, how little can I, the publisher, spend to take a book from manuscript to bookstore? And the first services publishers squeeze are those that are deemed “invisible” — editorial services. Instead of two years of developmental editing, as was done for Mockingbird, two weeks of copyediting may be provided today (even if the book requires two months of copyediting, let alone additional months of developmental editing).

Watchman and Mockingbird, however, demonstrate the value of the editorial process. Good editing changed a book with no potential into a classic that sells 1 million copies each year and has done so for more than 50 years, with no end in sight. Whatever the editing cost for Mockingbird, it was recouped decades ago, yet keeps on giving. Quality editing is the Timex of publishing — it is the service that keeps on giving.

Publishers and packagers should read these books and use them as guides and reasons why changes to the current editorial and production methods need to be revamped and more attention and money needs to be given to editing. Editing has to be seen today as it was in the early days of publishing. Isn’t it a shame that the books that we treat as classics and must-reads, decade after decade, were nearly all published several decades or longer ago — before accounting supplanted editorial as the decision makers?

Perhaps it is time to rethink the current model. Certainly, Watchman and Mockingbird make that point.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Selected related An American Editor essays:

July 8, 2015

The Commandments: Thou Shall be Businesslike

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

The value of presenting an editorial services entity as a business has been discussed here several times. A dreary, rainy day of doing more business tasks than actual editing, writing, or proofreading led me to think about what it means to be, and be seen as, a business.

As has, again, been said before, many freelance editors see ourselves as individuals providing services to clients and value our image as individual, independent, freelance workers. We see ourselves as professionals in terms of our training, experience, skill level, and ability to do what our clients need to make their publishing activities better. Many — maybe even most — of us, though, don’t want to be seen as companies or even formally as businesses. There’s a sense that our individualness is something to cherish and that it doesn’t quite fit with the idea of being “a business.”

But being an individual freelancer doesn’t have to mean appearing to be unbusinesslike. And being businesslike, or presenting ourselves as businesses, doesn’t have to mean being a company with employees or subcontractors. You can be an individual editor and still have a businesslike image.

Rich Adin, An American Editor, has laid out several of the factors he considers essential to being seen as a business: regular work and access hours, a formal phone greeting, etc. (For additional views, see the list of select related AAE essays at the end of this essay.) Here are some of the factors I see as helping an individual, whether freelance writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, whatever, present a businesslike front to the world.

  • Business name: Even if you function as a sole proprietor, it probably looks better to have a company name. I’ve been doing this so long as an individual that I can usually get away with being seen simply as Ruth Thaler-Carter, Freelance Writer/Editor, especially because I started out more as a writer than an editor or proofreader. If I were to start out today, though, I’d use something other than my own name as the identity of my business. I have had a couple of clients request that I provide a business name, so my business checking account has one so I can deposit checks regardless of how they’re made out.
    Your business name should say something about what you do. Poetic names like “Blue Horizons” are all very well, but they don’t tell prospective clients what services you offer, so they won’t help you gain new projects or be visible on the Internet. Blue Horizons Editorial Services, sure.
    Opinions vary on what to call ourselves. I have no problem with being called a freelancer, but some colleagues prefer to use consultant, contractor, entrepreneur, or even (business) owner.
    Opinions also vary about whether to incorporate. This is something worth discussing with an accountant or tax professional.
  • Website: A businesslike editor will have a website, and it will look polished and professional. No amateur snapshots of the editor with kids, cats or dogs, messy desks; no photos of someone other than yourself pretending to be you. No irrelevant information. Easily navigable. Information about your background, training, experience, skills, and why someone should hire you. Whenever possible, examples of your work or, if that isn’t doable, strong testimonials from clients.
  • Work samples: A businesslike freelancer will have a way to present work samples to potential clients without violating the confidentiality or egos of past and present clients. This is more of an issue with editing and proofreading services than with writing; after all, most writing work is meant to be published and seen, while much editing or proofreading work is meant to be invisible. The finished product is what matters, and most clients don’t want the world to see what a mess their original versions were before we made our improvements. Always ask before making editing/proofreading samples accessible; use only excerpts that don’t identify the client; look for other ways to present your skills, such as testimonials and references from clients who have been happy with your work.
  • E-mail address: A businesslike editor will have a domain-based e-mail address. Using Ruth@writerruth.com or owner@FreelanceWhatever.com looks more professional and more businesslike than Ruth@gmail.com or FreelanceWhatever@aol.com. Sending e-mail from your domain-based account also might get messages through when major servers like AOL, Hotmail, Juno, etc., experience blockages for some reason. Having such an e-mail address also means you can change service providers every other day without having to notify dozens, if not hundreds, of colleagues and clients of a new address.
  • E-mail signature: Every e-mail message you send should include a signature (sigline). Opinions vary about what it should include; mine has my full name, business name, e-mail address, website URL, Twitter handle, reference to a booklet I’ve written and self-published, and a separate line with the name of the business through which I host an annual conference for freelancers. My e-mail program includes it automatically in every message I send. The only time I have to think about it is when I want to use variants, also stashed in the appropriate area of my e-mail program, that relate to my roles with organizations or clients/projects. Some colleagues include phone numbers in their siglines; I don’t do that much phone contact with clients, so I don’t include my number, but it is on my website and in directory information (yes, I still have a landline), so it’s easy to find when needed.
  • Phone: A businesslike freelancer can have either a landline or a cellphone/smartphone, but whichever you use, will answer it in a businesslike manner. I usually say “Good morning/Good afternoon, this is Ruth,” but some colleagues swear by “I can write about anything®, this is Ruth. How may I help you?” Either way, go beyond a plain “Hi” or “Hello” to let callers know whom they’ve reached when they call you. A businesslike editor also makes sure that their adorable five-year-olds or clueless spouses don’t answer their business phones; that callers don’t have to strain to hear them against background noise of barking dogs, loud TVs, clinking dishes being washed, or intrusive music.
  • Queries, job-listing responses, proposals, and pitches: A businesslike freelancer takes a little extra time to make every query, response to job-list opportunities, proposal, and pitch as perfect as possible. That starts with doing at least nominal research on the publication or potential client before pitching/querying ideas for articles so all are relevant to that publication, and only responding to job listings for which the freelancer actually is qualified. It also includes proofreading all such items before sending them; if necessary, having a friend or colleague take a look at them first.
  • Tools: We’ve talked here several times about the importance of having the right, and many times the most-current, tools for the freelance or editing job. This includes soft- and hardware; backup systems; style manuals to back up editing decisions; even business cards that go with you everywhere. Backup in the sense of equipment or files is one thing, by the way; in terms of coping with a crisis is another. A businesslike editor has colleagues to turn to if illness or injury — your own or that of a child, spouse, sibling, parent, or good friend — interferes with meeting a deadline.
  • Finances: The businesslike editor sets rates appropriate to the editor’s experience and skill level; has a business checking account and credit card for business-related expenses and payments; and has a savings cushion so the editor doesn’t have to beg to be paid earlier than usual or accept projects at rates well below the norm. It’s also important to present requests to resolve late payments in terms of being paid because of having done the work, not needing the money to pay the mortgage.
  • Invoices: A businesslike editor will have invoices that look official and go out promptly on completing a project. They will have all the necessary information to make it easy to get paid — an invoice number; your name; your mailing address and e-mail address so clients can choose between sending checks or paying online; your payment terms; any late fee terms you choose to use; perhaps a statement that the edited version of the work belongs to you until you’ve been paid.
  • Memberships: The businesslike editor will belong to associations or organizations that offer useful benefits such as job opportunities, educational programs, interaction with colleagues, and more — all aspects of being a lifelong learner and professional.

What all this boils down to is that, regardless of whether you want to be a sole-proprietor freelance editor or the owner of an editing company, Thou Shall Be Businesslike in all you do. What else do you do to present a businesslike persona?

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.

Select Related An American Editor Essays:

September 22, 2014

On the Basics: A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared

A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

You don’t have to be a Girl or Boy Scout for “Be prepared” to matter. It’s also an excellent rule of business for a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, or other publishing/editorial professional.

For any freelancer (and most in-house editorial professionals as well), “be prepared” means some, if not all, of the following.

  • Create and maintain a stash of cash or a credit-card balance to cover emergencies — a computer crash, printer breakdown, phone foul-up, even e-mail outage (you might have to rent time at a cyber café to stay in touch with or send assignments to clients), not to mention family crises.
  • Have the right tools at hand — equipment (computer, software, printer), reference books, style manuals (both print and online), paper, pens and pencils (some of us do still write in long-hand, or get asked to edit or proofread on paper), fax capability (either a machine and phone line or an e-version) — whatever is essential to get your work done.
  • Put together a backup system so you’re ready to cope in an emergency. Have a laptop if you usually work on a desktop machine, and a second laptop, tablet, or other device if you do all your work on a laptop and it conks out; extra printer cartridges or toner; both disk and download versions of essential software so you can power back up after a crash; places to go — cybercafé, public library, co-working site — in a power outage or equipment breakdown; trusted colleagues in case you (or a spouse, child, or parent) get sick when you’re on deadline. Think about what could go wrong, and try to have mechanism in place ahead of time to respond.
  • Have a website, and keep it updated. It’s an invaluable tool for promoting and building your business. It doesn’t have to be fancy or extensive, but it has to exist these days for a freelancer to succeed.
  • Update your résumé, promotional brochure, website, and online profiles regularly. Every time you have a new client (or job) or publish a new project, add it where appropriate. If you read about new trends in résumés, revamp yours accordingly. Keep current versions as Word documents and PDFs on every computer or device you use, so you can dash it off in response to every new opportunity you might see or receive and update whenever the need arises. Make sure you never have to make excuses for not being ready to respond promptly or simply miss out on the chance to be considered; timing can be everything.
  • Have a good photo of yourself. You probably will want one for your website, and you might need it for a bio to go along with an assignment, or if you’re asked to make a speech somewhere. It doesn’t have to be an expensive studio portrait; an informal, well-composed, flattering snapshot will do.
  • Have a business card; get a lot of ’em printed up and carry them with you always, including to social events, the store, wherever. You never know when it might come in handy and lead to a new client.
  • Be ready to take on assignments with little or no notice. That might mean beating instead of meeting deadlines so you have time available to accept something new with little warning, or organizing your projects so you always have some wiggle room to add something new and appealing when the opportunity shows up.
  • For when you can’t or don’t want to be available for new projects, practice ways of saying “No” (or “Thanks, but not now” if that’s more appropriate). Plan ahead to know what you prefer not to cover or work on — topics, types, or lengths of projects; kinds of clients, etc. If you think about these things ahead of time, saying no will be less intimidating and you’ll be less likely to let someone badger you into saying yes to projects you don’t want to do.
  • Develop a personal script to use with difficult, demanding clients and ones you’d rather not work with, so you don’t have to respond to them off the cuff. You’ll be more likely to protect yourself against such situations if you don’t face every one of them as new and distinct.
  • Have a template for contracts and letters of agreement, so you never forget to include important details or clauses in assignments.
  • Have a template for invoices, so it’s as easy as possible to do the billing that’s part of every independent editorial business.
  • Develop a strong network of colleagues so you have someone to turn to when you’re sick, want to take a vacation, are offered a project that doesn’t interest you or you’re too busy to accept, or want to subcontract.
  • Read, read, read! The more you read, the better prepared you will be to cope with assignments. Read newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, and anything else for both business and pleasure — they all inform and expand your skills and ability to handle assignments.
  • Have health insurance, so you and your family are protected against the costs of health emergencies.

In addition, for writers, “be prepared” means:

  • Develop an ongoing, ever-growing network of sources and contacts, so you always have someone or somewhere as a starting point for a new assignment or project. Some editors and clients will tell you whom to contact, or at least a couple of sources to include, but even the ones who give you all the names you’ll need will be impressed if you can add a couple more. If you’re writing fiction, that network might be the starting point for character names or sources of background information and other research.
  • Know the market for your kind of writing. Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace are great starting points, but look for writers’ groups — either in-person or online — to build up your knowledge base and stay tuned to news about publications that are right for your work. Conferences are also a good resource for market knowledge (and expanding your network).
  • Follow trends in publishing so you know what new ones might be best for your work and when to adopt them.

For editors and proofreaders, “be prepared” means:

  • Invest in training every year — either refresher courses or classes with new information — because trends in language, usage, tools, and technology are constantly changing, and we have to keep up with them to do our work at our best.
  • Consider learning new style manuals to be prepared to work with new types of clients or publications, just in case your current niche dries up.

Essentially, being prepared means being ready to cope with work and life emergencies, and up to date on anything that affects the work we do — or might do. Being prepared means being a better businessperson, better employee, and better freelancer.

Therefore, the commandment:

Thou shall be prepared.

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.

September 1, 2014

On the Basics: Thou Shall Behave Ethically — A 4th Commandment for Editors

Thou Shall Behave Ethically —
A 4th Commandment for Editors

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Recent discussions of ethics for editors here and elsewhere have inspired the concept of a fourth commandment:

Thou shall behave ethically.

To have an ethical editing business, it helps to understand two definitions of ethics. As Rich Adin has noted (see The Business of Editing: An Editorial Code of Professional Responsibility), one is “the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession” and another is “the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy” (vide American Heritage Dictionary).

I see being an ethical editor as somewhat of a combination of the two. I have rules for how I conduct my business — rules that I think can or should apply to any editor who wants to be seen as both professional and ethical — and I have a philosophy grounded in a moral code. That code is based on honesty: being honest about my skills, qualifications, availability, fees, and business model, and being honest with clients about their projects. It’s based on competency — I see competency and ethicality as complementary.

To me, being an ethical editor starts with presenting oneself as an editor, freelance or in-house, only if one has a level of training and experience that can support the claim to being able to do this kind of work. Far too many people nowadays are hanging out shingles or applying for jobs as editors (among other professions) who have no such training or experience. That puts authors and other clients at a serious disadvantage — they are often trusting their work to the hands of untrustworthy editors, and don’t know enough about publishing (or editing) to know the difference.

Granted, many of us start out in editing without much formal training. We learn on the job at publications, or we become editors because we’re the only people in the company who care about good grammar, correct spelling and punctuation, proper usage, and other aspects of ensuring that written material is clear, coherent, consistent, cogent, and whatever other c-words colleagues can come up with to describe well-written documents.

We find a deep-seated love of language, of words, of making clunky material into something readable and usable, even beautiful. We move on from there, sometimes getting additional formal training; sometimes learning from more-experienced colleagues; sometimes developing self-study mechanisms. If we really care about what has become our trade, we look for ways to continually hone our skills and become ever better at what we do. That, to me, is a hallmark of an ethical editor.

It probably should be noted that a skilled editor is not the same as an ethical one, although I like to think that a truly ethical editor is also a skilled one. Someone can have topnotch editing skills and still be unethical — charging for time not spent on a client’s project is probably the most common violation of an ethical code. An honest or ethical editor is one who doesn’t inflate or outright lie about skills and competency.

One of the most important aspects of an ethical editing business is to only charge for the work the editor actually does. If a project is based on a flat fee and the client doesn’t care how long it takes to do the work, it is ethical to charge the full fee, even if it takes less time to finish than expected. However, if the fee is based on an hourly rate, it is dishonest and unethical to charge for more time than one works. If a project is budgeted for 50 hours at $50/hour but it only takes 40 hours to complete the job, the ethical thing to do is to charge the client for only those 40 hours. Such honesty — or ethicality, if you prefer — is not only the right thing to do, even if it means losing a few dollars, but usually works in the editor’s favor over the long term, because it establishes an honest relationship with the client, who is more likely to trust such an editor and thus use that editor again.

An ethical editor knows and uses the standard tools of our profession. We don’t make up rules to suit ourselves or reinforce our own assumptions. Among other things, we learn and internalize the accepted rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. We identify and use the appropriate style manuals for the sector(s) in which we work — the Chicago Manual of Style for book and much magazine publishing; the Associated Press Stylebook for journalism; the Government Printing Office manual for government-agency projects; the American Psychological Association manual for much of academic publishing; the Merck Index, Dorland’s, or, perhaps, American Medical Association manual for medical publications; etc. We have the leading dictionaries on our bookshelves and/or computers.

Of course, someone starting an editing career is unlikely to know any given style manual inside-out; that’s why it helps to work in-house in a professional environment. The ethical editor lets a prospective employer or client know his or her experience level and if  the editor is new enough to the field to still be learning the essentials of whatever manual the employer or client expects the editor to use. Some may think that such honesty will mean losing out on jobs, but we all have to start somewhere, and employers and clients understand that.

Along the same lines, an ethical editor stocks his or her bookcase with guides to grammar, because none of us can claim to be perfect. We’re all likely to have grammar gremlins or simply need the occasional refresher to make sure any changes we make are justified. If nothing else, we may need a reference at hand to support a proposed change with a client who needs to see a reason for everything done to a document beyond “I can’t explain why, but I know this was wrong and that my version is right.” Editors aren’t parents; we can’t get away with “Because I said so.”

Because an ethical editor believes in continually honing skills and knowing when to consult appropriate resources. We invest in the current versions of the appropriate manuals — often, we have more than one on our bookshelves — and learn as much as we can about them. For when the right choice doesn’t leap to mind, we subscribe to online versions of those manuals so we can check or verify our decisions. Beyond those tools, we learn (sometimes even establish) in-house preferences, since a publication, publisher, organization, or company can use one of the standard manuals as a starting point, but go its own way on some details.

We also wait until we know how to use the technical, as well as the academic, tools of our trade before inflicting ourselves on employers or clients. That is, we learn at least the basics of using Word and, in some environments Framemaker, Excel, Acrobat, InCopy, etc.

An ethical editor also stays current on language trends. Language evolves and changes constantly. An ethical editor knows to find ways to pick up on when new words enter the lexicon and existing ones change (just think of the country names that no longer include “the”), through reading and interacting with colleagues.

An ethical editor is connected with trustworthy colleagues and resources to ensure that she or he understands the nature of the work and sees information about new trends or changes in language, editing techniques and tools, useful resources, and other aspects of being effective and professional. (Interacting with unethical or dishonest editors could make an ethical editor turn into an unethical one, but I find that unlikely.)

Similarly to members of the medical profession, the ethical editor “first does no harm.” It is the role of the editor to enhance, clarify, and convey the author’s or client’s voice, not to rewrite the work in the editor’s voice or from the editor’s point of view. This also relates to being trained and experienced in grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, etc. — doing no harm means not trying to fix clients’ material based on inadequate skills and knowledge, because that would mean both introducing errors and missing problems a skilled editor would be expected to recognize and fix.

Another important element to being an ethical editor is to incorporate clear communication with clients into our business practices and processes. That means letting clients know how we will work on their projects, what the fee will be, that we will meet their deadlines, and if there are problems that affect how and whether the editor can do the work and still meet those deadlines. It means asking questions rather than making assumptions, and keeping the client informed along the way.

The ethical editor does not do certain kinds of projects — writing a thesis or dissertation for someone, for instance, no matter how tempting the fee. An ethical editor may develop a kind of radar for material that doesn’t “fit” and should learn how to use antiplagiarism tools on behalf of clients such as book publishers and journals. An ethical editor also doesn’t do the client’s writing.

An ethical editor learns the differences between various levels of editing and between editing and proofreading, how to educate clients on what those differences are, and how to provide the services a project needs. For many reasons, both a lot of prospective clients and some colleagues have no idea that there’s a difference between copyediting and substantive or developmental editing, or between any type of editing and proofreading. Some clients are trying to get higher-level skills at lower-level fees or wages; others are truly ignorant of the difference. Either way, the ethical editor speaks up.

Being an ethical editor boils down to being honest about all aspects of one’s work process, skills, and presence in the field. To hold up your head and be a success in our profession,

Thou shall behave ethically.

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.

August 20, 2014

The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit

The title may tell you that I am a bit frustrated. But let’s begin this story at the beginning.

My daughter wrote a nonfiction book that was accepted by a major crossover publisher for fall publication. (A crossover publisher is, in this instance, one that publishes academic titles for popular consumption — think Doris Kearns Goodwin-type books, which are well-researched nonfiction and could be written and published for a strictly academic market but instead are written and published to appeal to both academics and consumers.) Everything has been going smoothly with the process and my daughter has been very happy with the publisher.

Except that like far too many publishers these days, this publisher outsources to a packager the editing and production services. When told that the copyediting would be outsourced, my daughter asked about the assigned copyeditor. She was told that the editor had worked with the packager for more than 6 years, and was considered an outstanding editor — in fact, she was considered to be the best of the editors who worked for this packager.

Hearing that made my daughter feel better and gave her high hopes that the editing would be high quality.

Then I started receiving phone calls with questions about Chicago style, capitalization, whether it was OK to change “was” to “had been” in every instance, and on and on. Finally, my daughter asked me point blank: “Should I panic about the quality of the editing?”

I had not seen the edited manuscript but assured my daughter that some of the changes, such as removal of serial commas, were a matter of preference and house style and not (generally) something to panic over unless meaning was changed. I also suggested that she read more of the edited manuscript before coming to any conclusions about the editing.

Then she dropped the bombshell: The editor altered/rewrote direct quotations, making ungrammatical quotes grammatical. “Is this what a copyeditor does?” she asked.

Now I began to panic and asked her to send me a sample chapter to look at.

Within 15 minutes I saw that the editing was unacceptable in multiple ways and that my daughter not only needed to panic but needed to contact the publisher immediately. The editing was a disaster. (I also subsequently learned that no one told my daughter that as the author she could accept or reject any of the editor’s changes; she assumed that she had to accept the editor’s changes on the basis that this was the editor’s area of expertise. I quickly disabused her of that notion.) Once she explained to the publisher the problems she was finding and some of my comments, the publisher agreed that the book needed to be reedited by a different editor.

Which brings me to the commandment: Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

If you do not know that direct quotes in nonfiction (and that the quotes are sourced should give you a clue) should not be changed, you should not claim to be an editor. I was taught that basic principle in sixth grade, if not even earlier. If you do not know that editing changes are to be limited to those that do not change the meaning of the sentence or paragraph, then do not claim to be an editor.

More importantly than not claiming to be an editor, you should not edit — period.

An editor is supposed to understand the value and meaning of words and how they fit, or do not fit, within the structure of a sentence and paragraph. When a sentence reads “…when he suddenly awoke…”, an editor needs to think twice about deleting “suddenly”: “…when he awoke…” is not the same as “…when he suddenly awoke…”. And if you think “suddenly” is unneeded and should be deleted, you should explain why you are deleting the word (or suggesting deletion). As an editor, you should know the importance and value of communicating with the author your reasoning for nonobvious changes.

In the case of my daughter’s book, this was a major failing of the editor. Not a single change that the editor made in the entire book was accompanied by an explanatory note, not even something as simple as “changed per Chicago.” Providing an explanation is fundamental to maintaining good author–editor relations. We have discussed this in detail before (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often?).

The question that arises is: How does someone know that they do not know the basics? If you don’t know something, you don’t know that you don’t know it. And in the case of my daughter’s editor, supposedly she had been a professional editor for 6 years and was receiving superior grades.

This is a tough question and it is a question that vexes authors who hire an editor. The only solution I know of is to ask for a sample edit. The problem is that there is an underlying assumption when a sample edit is asked for: That the person who will review the sample edit actually knows enough about editing that the reviewer can separate the wheat from the chaff. As my daughter noted, she has no experience and wouldn’t know whether the editor was correcting her mistakes or creating new mistakes. My daughter can fall back on me to review the sample but most authors and in-house production staff do not have someone to fall back on.

In the end, all an author can really do is rely on “gut” feeling unless, as occurred in my daughter’s case, a blatant, basic error repeatedly occurs (in this instance, it was the altering of direct quotes).

Editors can instill confidence by adding explanations and by knowing the basics of editing, such as direct quotes in nonfiction are left as they are but may be queried; that one doesn’t make a change unless it improves the sentence and doesn’t change the sentence’s meaning; that you don’t change tenses willy-nilly; that an editor’s role mimics that of the doctor — do no harm; that it is better to break a sentence into multiple sentences than to make an incoherent sentence even more incoherent.

Alas, my daughter’s experience convinces me even more of the need for a national editor’s accreditation. Her experience also convinces me that a significant part of the problem is the willingness of publishers to leave the task of finding qualified editors to third-party vendors whose interests are not synchronous with the publisher or author’s interest.

I’m not too worried about my daughter’s book, but I do worry about authors who do not have someone knowledgeable they can call on for help in evaluating the quality of editing. No matter what, ultimately the responsibility lies with the person offering the editing service, and that person should remember the commandment:

Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 18, 2014

The Business of Editing: Walking the Line

On another forum, a colleague raised several interesting questions, ones that we need to address. Ultimately, the questions, although paraphrased below, boil down to this:

Did I cross the line?

The questions our colleague asked were these (as distilled by me; I did not receive permission to quote directly from the message our colleague posted):

  • Because I have years of editing experience, cannot I assume that my edits are always reasonable and correct and that the client — whether author or publisher — should both accept and trust my judgement?
  • Because the client should accept and trust my judgement, is there really any need for me to provide an explanation in a comment?
  • Because the client is free to accept or reject any or all of my edits, is there any reason why I should spend the extra time to add the explanations?
  • What are the limits, if any, to my role as a copyeditor?

Our colleague’s message began with an example of a sentence that our colleague edited. Because I do not have permission to quote the original sentence and our colleague’s alteration, I have mimicked the original and the change:

 Original: “The regime collapsed as a result of a decline in population from misguided birth control policies, the reintroduction of previously wiped out diseases from the regime’s refusal to allow vaccination, and famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production.”

Change: “The political hypotheses for the regime’s collapse include a decline in population from birth control policies, the reintroduction of epidemic diseases from the regime’s antivaccination campaign, and famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.”

The client pointed out to our colleague that the changes were made without any explanatory comment and asked, as an example, for justification for the change from “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.” Our colleague’s justification for describing the farm policies as “Stalinist” was that our colleague just knew it — the information came from her acquired knowledge.

Did our colleague cross any lines? How do we answer our colleague’s questions?

Because I Have Years of Editing Experience…

Unfortunately, this is the approach of many editors. Yet, it is not a valid approach to our job. No matter what the author has written — be it novel, biography, scientific treatise — when it comes to subject matter, the author is expert, even if the author is not.

The role of the copyeditor is not to developmental edit. The copyeditor’s focus is on grammar, spelling, word choice, not on rewriting. Rewriting should be incidental, an occasional occurrence. Under no circumstance should the copyeditor interject their own knowledge except in the form of a query. This is true for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the author who will ultimately be held responsible for the quality of the book. We have discussed this author–editor relationship before (see, e.g., Relationships & the Unwritten Rules and The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners).

More importantly, “I just know” is not something we would accept from an author. We would require the author of a biography to have a comprehensive bibliography, to be able to cite sources for statements given as fact (opinion, of course, is a different matter). Importantly, even if we construe an author’s statement as opinion, we want it to be the author’s opinion, not the opinion of an anonymous editor whose credentials to draw the conclusion are unknown and may be nonexistent.

In the absence of provable subject matter expertise, the editor’s alterations cannot be given the status of “always reasonable” nor can they, even if reasonable, ever be given the status of blind acceptance: Clients should neither accept nor trust the editor’s judgement on items that fall outside the editor’s known expertise or outside the responsibilities for which the editor has been hired.

Because the Client Should Accept and Trust My Judgment…

This was generally addressed above but the question is really about the need to provide explanations. The need to provide an explanation should be unquestioned. Editors are suggesters not arbiters of fact. If a sentence can be better written without changing meaning or author voice, then making the change and asking the author if the change is OK is acceptable.

But it is never acceptable for the editor to add to or substitute for the author’s facts — except by way of comment. I have edited many hundreds of books in my 30 years of editing, including books in my area of educational expertise. Yet, I have made it a rule to never alter an author’s facts; I always query (e.g., “Do you think that the addition of XYZ would better represent your view?” “According to Professor Smith, ABC was caused by poor logistical planning. Do you think it is worth mentioning or discussing here as further explanation of your perspective? See Smith, xxxxx.”)

If I know something is amiss, I try to let the author know something is amiss by commenting. The one thing I am absolutely certain of is that I am not so currently knowledgeable about the topics I am editing that I can infallibly rewrite what the (expert) author has written.

Comments are always justified; uncommented substantive changes are never justified.

Because the Client Is Free to Accept or
Reject Any or All of My Edits…

This is the traditional editor excuse, yet it neglects to address a very important topic: the editor–client relationship.

First, I never think that an author wants to spend hours going over my edits. Deciding whether the change from about to approximately is justified is boring enough but after seeing the change a dozen times, the author soon learns whether such changes can be skipped over (i.e., the author evaluates the editor’s credibility). But that is not true of substantive changes.

Second, I think about the message I send the author when I make a substantive change without explanation. Am I not telling the author that I am the one who should have written the book? And why should the author have to guess at why I made the substantive change? An author will accept that I changed “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies” because three paragraphs earlier the author referred to the “Stalinist farming policies” as the cause of famine and malnutrition, especially if I make the change and include an explanatory note. But the author is likely to be upset by my change in the absence of the explanation and then resistant to other suggestions and changes.

Basically, I see making substantive changes without explanation as an invitation to disaster. With the explanation, I increase my credibility as an editor; without the explanation, I risk angering the author and making the author lose faith in my ability as an editor. I also risk making the author take a “stand-your-ground” attitude toward other editorial suggestions I make.

Regardless of whether the client can accept or reject any changes the editor has made, not providing an explanation for a substantive change jeopardizes the editor’s credibility. Which brings us to the penultimate question:

What Are the Limits, If Any, to My Role as a Copyeditor?

The line between copyeditor and developmental editor is not a bright line. We discussed the roles 4.5 years ago in Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor, but the demarcation is worth repeating.

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure, as well as with the accuracy of the subject matter content. It is the developmental editor’s role to suggest other causes of an event to an author and even to rewrite sentences and paragraphs to reflect those suggestions. Yet, even the developmental editor needs to query the author about the changes being made, although such querying may be done more broadly, such as “I have rewritten the next five paragraphs to reflect the discussion of the subject found in chapter 3.”

The copyeditor’s role, on the other hand, is to focus on the mechanics of the manuscript — such things as, grammar, spelling, punctuation, conformance to a style, and consistency. Rewrites should be very limited, often to compact a sentence by removing redundancies or to ensure that, for example, material is in the present tense. It is not the copyeditor’s job to rewrite substantively. At most the copyeditor should suggest a substantive change in a comment.

In the case of our colleague, I think our colleague crosses that fine line that an editor needs to walk. Hired as a copyeditor, our colleague should not have crossed over into developmental editing without including an explanatory comment.

It is not unusual to see negative comments about editors generally. I think these comments come about as the result of numerous factors, one of which is the crossing of the line. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 30, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Establish the Rules of Engagement Before Beginning a Project

In our continuing series on commandments for editors and authors, Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, contributes the following essay discussing what should be established at the beginning of an editor–client relationship and why it should be established.

(Ruth E. Thaler-Carter [www.writerruth.com] is a successful freelance writer/editor, the author of “Get Paid to Write! Getting Started as a Freelance Writer” and “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business,” and the owner of Communication Central [www.communication-central.com], which hosts a conference for freelancers every fall.

_________________

Thou Shall Establish the Rules of Engagement
Before Beginning a Project

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

If anything should be a key guiding light for freelance editors, it is our third editorial commandment:

Thou shall establish the rules of engagement before beginning an editing project.

Those rules can cover a number of aspects of freelancing. Here are the ones I find most important to success as a freelance editor.

Define a “Page”

It doesn’t matter if you use 250 words, 1,800 characters or some other formula. What matters is to have a standard definition of a page, relay it to the client, and stick to it — or ask for the client’s definition — before accepting anything about a new project.

Why is this important? Because clients don’t always play fair when it comes to describing their projects. When you hear from a prospective new client about editing a manuscript of x number of pages, don’t assume you can rely on that page count. Whether through laziness, ignorance of the publishing process, or deliberate attempts to get more editing work for less money, many clients misrepresent the size of a manuscript and the scope of its problems.

You’ll be told a project is 25 pages, so you expect to receive 6,250 words and you promise to turn the manuscript around in five hours, knowing you can usually handle five or six pages per hour. You receive a manuscript that actually has 15,000 words because the client has formatted it single-spaced in 8- or 10-point type. You’ve just lost money and committed to a timeframe that is probably impossible to fulfill.

I have one client whose manuscripts include large photos. At first look, the page count seems higher than it really is, as an average photo takes up half a page. He thought his 70-page document would actually be something like 55 or 60 pages of editing. However, his documents are also single-spaced, so his 70 pages became 100, even after “discounting” the photos.

Let the client know that you define a page as 250 words (that’s what I use; Rich Adin, An American Editor, uses a character count), that you will check the word count when you receive the project, and that only then will you commit to a deadline and fee.

Define Your Fee

With many projects, it can be challenging to pin down a fair rate for our work. With new projects or clients, setting a flat or project fee can backfire — either the project is a lot bigger than expected, as explained above, or it’s a lot more demanding than expected.

With project rates, include language to protect yourself against “scope creep” — where the project ends up being much longer and more complex than expected, the client keeps adding to it, or the client doesn’t like what you did on a first go-round and expects you to redo the work again and again and again.

If being paid by the hour, protect yourself with a range, rather than a specific, limited amount of time. Usually it is better to use a page rate, so you benefit from working efficiently and don’t lose out if the project is longer or more complex than expected. Even with a page rate, however, be sure to include your definition of a page at the earliest moment in your negotiations.

It isn’t only the amount of the fee that is important. When you will be paid is also a factor. Be sure to state whether you require a deposit/advance, when your interim payments are to be made, and what will happen if a payment is late. Specify your late fee for those (ideally rare) occasions when a full or final payment doesn’t show up on time.

Define the Service

Many clients have no idea of what the difference is between editing and proofreading, or between substantive, developmental, and copy editing. You may have to explain the difference, and you may have to stand firm on doing a lesser level of work than the client would like to get for the agreed-upon fee.

Before you accept a project, be sure to establish what it needs, what you will do, and what effect that will have on the fee and deadline. Just as it’s risky to accept a page count before the manuscript is in hand, don’t commit to a “light edit” or “only proofreading” sight unseen.

You also may need to declare whether charts, figures, and other pieces of artwork are included in the fee. Notes can add significantly to the length of a work and the time needed to edit it (although there are tools to help you manage that process, as has been discussed by Rich many times).

Define Who Does What

As Rich has said, “Both the author and the editor should give careful thought to the division of responsibility before they begin the relationship and should recognize that such division is governed by the parameters set for the project. More importantly, authors should clearly state, in writing, their expectations and the services they want an editor to perform, and be prepared to pay for those services. … The responsibility for a manuscript is a shared responsibility.”

Let your clients or authors know whether you prefer, for instance, to receive a manuscript that is both complete and as final as possible. You don’t want to edit a first draft just to find out that the author is still rewriting and expects you to (re)edit the new version. Then again, some editors are comfortable with receiving only a few chapters at a time — the idea is that the author/client will learn from the early edits and incorporate that knowledge into subsequent chapters.

Establish the author’s responsibilities in terms of when you will receive the manuscript or segments of it, what format it should be in, whether the client wants you to use Track Changes (make sure the client understands how to use or respond to Word’s Track Changes), and timing of responses to your questions. Set ground rules early about things like phone and e-mail contact — when it’s OK for the client to call, how phone and e-mail discussions will be billed, etc.

Establish your responsibility for deadlines and for what you’re going to do with the project. Putting these details into writing, even by e-mail, makes the project go much more smoothly and the relationship between client and editor a much healthier one than otherwise.

It all comes down to this commandment: Thou shall establish the rules of engagement before beginning an editing project.

_________________

Do you agree with Ruth? Would your commandment be different? Would the components of your commandment be different?

June 17, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners

We recently edited a new book that was badly written. Not only was it badly written, but we were financially and time-wise constrained. So, as we typically do, we do the best we can within the limitations imposed.

The usual process is for us to receive a manuscript that an author has already gone through a few times and often has had crowd-editing by friends and colleagues. In addition, it has received whatever developmental editing it will receive. We are hired to copyedit the manuscript. (For a discussion of the difference between copyediting and developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) After we have copyedited the manuscript, it goes back to the author to approve or reject any changes we have made, to answer/address any author queries we have inserted, and to give it yet another read in case we missed something.

This last step is important. Like authors, we editors are human and we make mistakes and we do miss things that seem very obvious. In this particular editing job, the editor missed a very obvious error. The author had written “Jack and Jill is a married couple” and the editor failed to change the is to are. Out of more than 100 changes the editor made to this particular chapter, the editor missed this change, but that was enough. The author latched onto this error and wrote: “I suggest you review the edited pages I sent in and develop a list for you to use when speaking with the editor of this project.  As I am not compensated to help you do your job, I will offer the most blatant example and then let you do your due diligence on your end.”

This author ignored the commandment: Thou shall treat the editor as a partner, not as an adversary.

I looked at the “edited” pages the author had returned and found only one change the author had made (added a description), which was clearly not a change because of an editing error. Aside from that one change and a comment that praised a rewording done by the editor, the author noted no other “errors.” So I went through the particular chapter and a couple of others to see if I could figure out what the author’s complaint was, but I couldn’t find anything.

The author failed to treat the editor as a partner; instead, the editor was treated as an adversary. First, by not listing or identifying what the author perceived as errors. It is difficult to address unidentified “errors.” Second, the author made a general, broad-brush complaint. This is not helpful to anyone. The author failed to understand that the editing of his book is a collaborative process between the editor and the author, not an adversarial process. The professional editors I know are willing to correct errors they have made, but they are not willing to keep reediting a manuscript simply because an author proclaims dissatisfaction.

The third error this author (and many authors) make is refusing to understand and accept the parameters of the editing process for which the editor was hired. For example, this author also complained about the layout (not an editor’s job at all) and about the failure of the copyeditor to provide both a copyedit and a developmental edit.

The fourth and most important error the author made is to believe that to point out errors is doing the editor’s job and that the author has no role in doing so because the author is “uncompensated.” The author is the one who has everything at stake, not the editor. The book will be published in the author’s name, not the editor’s name. Any error that remains will be attributable to the author, not to the anonymous editor. As the largest stakeholder in the final manuscript, the author does have a responsibility to identify perceived errors.

I find it troubling that an author would look at 100 errors, find 99 of them corrected, but ignore the 99 and rant about the one that was missed (the author should point out the error, but not go on a rant about the editing). I also find it troubling that an author willingly ignores the sorry state of the delivered manuscript and the time and financial constraints under which the editor is working, and focuses on the one error, which error was introduced by the author.

Authors need to look at the manuscript broadly and not focus on one or two errors that slip past the editor. Authors need to remember that editors are human and suffer from the same problem as do authors: they sometimes see what they expect to see. We are not immune just because we are editors. Authors also need to recognize that the editor could have as easily caught the error about which the author is now complaining, but missed one of the other 99 errors.

Authors need to recognize that the editorial process is a collaborative process. If an author is reviewing an edited manuscript, the author should at least point out the missed error. The author could also correct it.

In the instant case, the author was uninterested in the constraints under which the editor worked. When publishers and authors demand a short editing schedule, they have to expect errors to remain. Something has to give to meet the schedule; the most obvious thing to give is second passes. This is especially true when the client demands that material be submitted in batches.

As many of us have experienced, publishers and authors are also putting pressure on pricing. For many authors and publishers, the paramount consideration is price followed by meeting a short schedule. Quality takes a backseat to those requirements. Low price and fast schedule cannot equate to a perfect edit. A perfect edit takes time.

Authors do have responsibilities when it comes to their manuscript. To think otherwise is to end in the publication of a poorly prepared manuscript. Authors need to think of editors as their partners, not as their adversaries. Authors also need to get away from the false demarcations of who is responsible for what when it comes to their manuscripts.

Thus the commandment for authors: Thou shall treat your editor as a partner, not as an adversary!

May 8, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall be Efficient

It is not enough to say that an editor has to be profitable (see The Commandments: Thou Shall be Profitable); a business must also be efficient in the delivery of its goods and services. Thus the commandment: Thou shall be efficient!

Efficiency has many facets. Included under the efficiency umbrella are the steps an editor takes before editing a manuscript — the preparatory steps (see, e.g., Business of Editing: The Logistics of Large Projects). Also included are the steps an editor takes during editing to promote speed, accuracy, and consistency, as well as the steps (the planning) the editor takes to meet a schedule and those an editor takes to find and retain clients.

With today’s worldwide competition for editorial work and the resulting depression of fees — and let us not forget the rise in authors who believe they can do it all themselves, which rise is a result of the rise of ebook self-publishing — the need for editorial efficiency is greater than ever.

Two things clients look for are low price and short schedule. Everyone is in a hurry. When I started as an editor, my clients’ primary concern was getting it right — schedules were flexible. Today, as a result of the continual consolidation in the publishing industry and the rising power of the accountants, schedule is the highest priority among publishers (with low editorial and production costs a very close second). In addition, authors and publishers often do not have large reservoirs of patience for the editing process.

The pressure of low fees and short schedules means that editors need to be more efficient in order to earn a reasonable living from editing. The effective hourly rate has to be foremost in an editor’s mind (see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand for a discussion of the effective hourly rate). The ultimate question is: How does an editor become more efficient?

Some ways we have discussed previously, such as our discussion on macros (see, e.g., The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online II — The Macros). But mastering macros is not enough. We must also be, for example, masters of Microsoft Word. We must also revise our approach to editing.

When we are paid by the hour, we can be less efficient than when we are paid by the page or the project, because the client is paying us without regard to efficiency, although there are limits to the number of hours for which a client will willingly pay. The problem from an editor’s perspective is that when we are paid by the hour, we are limited in our earning capacity and it becomes ever more important that we be able to fill our work week with work. If we are paid $30 and hour, all we can earn is $30 an hour and if we only work 20 hours in a week, we are paid only for those 20 hours.

In addition, there is no incentive to quickly finish a project because the next project will also pay us $30 an hour and it doesn’t matter which project is paying us as long as we are getting paid. (Of course, we are not really earning $30 an hour because that number is reduced considerably when we include the hours for which we are not being paid but which are also work hours; that is, when we calculate our effective hourly rate.)

Yet efficiency can bring some rewards even to the hourly earner. Being efficient reduces the hours we need to spend on a project and thus enables us to take on additional projects and additional clients — we can expand our base. Efficiency can help move us from being dependent on a particular client to a broad base of clients.

One aspect of efficiency is the number of reading passes an editor makes. Discussing with colleagues how they process a manuscript can be revealing. Some do multiple passes over a manuscript in an attempt to find and correct lingering errors. Others try to minimize the number of passes, especially if they are not being paid by the hour.

Limiting the number of passes to one or two is doable, depending on the type of manuscript (e.g., novel, nonfiction book, journal article), the client (e.g., whether author or publisher), the software used (e.g., PerfectIt, EditTools, specialized spell checkers), the client’s requirements, and the type of edit one is hired to perform (e.g., developmental, copyedit; see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). It is not true that every pass an editor makes over a manuscript makes the manuscript more error-free. That may be true for one, two, possibly three passes, but there comes a point when returns diminish — not because there are no errors, but because we begin to see what we expect to see, not necessarily what is really there. We become overfamiliar with the manuscript. Consequently, doing fewer passes can be both more efficient and more productive. (We, and our clients, need to accept that there really is no such thing as a 100% error-free manuscript, especially when many “errors” are subjective errors.)

Efficiency is also had by using the correct tools. Studies are very clear that using multiple monitors, for example, increases productivity and efficiency. Using two monitors increases efficiency by 50%; add a third and gain another 25%; add a fourth and gain another 5%. Basically, editing with three monitors seems to be the most efficient and productive. I know that I have found using three 24-inch rotating monitors has made it much easier for me to edit quickly, efficiently, and accurately. It allows me to, for example, drag and drop between documents, each document on its own screen. It also allows me to have my stylesheet open and before me at all times, as well research tools.

Efficiency is also found in reducing the number of keystrokes needed to process information. I have found invaluable a keyboard accessory called XKeys. I have used the Pro PS2 version for more than 10 years; it is what allows me to access many of my macros by the press of a single key. I have assigned each of the buttons on the XKeys to a key combination that I would not normally use (e.g., Ctrl+Alt+Shift+K) and I assign one of my macros to that key combination. Using Xkeys makes using macros like Toggle much more efficient.

Efficiency also means tracking one’s time carefully. An editor needs to know what areas of editing go relatively “fast” and what go “slow.” By identifying the areas that take longer to process, the editor can focus on ways to make such work go faster. More importantly, if an editor finds that she can process certain types of material faster and more accurately than other types, the editor now knows where to focus her marketing efforts.

Similarly, an editor needs to know her strengths and weaknesses. For example, I know that I am a fumble-fingered typist. Consequently, I know that if I have to type nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs, I am likely to mistype it and need to correct my typing, which makes both the original typing and the correction typing inefficient. Thus I know that I can increase my efficiency by having that phrase typed correctly once in my Toggle dataset and then pressing a key combination (or, in my case, an Xkeys button) to have it automatically typed.

Efficiency is good for the editor and for the client. No client wants to pay for an editor’s learning or redoing curve, and most editors want to increase their earning power. Analyzing how you work and trying to improve on it is a fundamental part of any business.

Thus the commandment: Thou shall be efficient!

April 22, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Use a Professional Editor

My first commandment for authors is this: Thou shall use a professional editor! I know I’ve said this before — many times — and I know that some of you will respond that you are capable of doing your own editing, or that crowd editing works just fine, or that your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law, who taught fourth graders English, does a fantastic job. Yet, haven’t you bought a book or two whose author you wanted to strangle because it was pretty obvious that a professional editor wasn’t used (or the editor’s advice wasn’t followed)?

We’ve hashed through some of the arguments in previous posts; see, for example, The Making of a Professional Editor, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2), and The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud, but this is a topic that never dies.

Consider this statement: “Lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in group that usually backs them” (New York Times, April 10, 2013, page A12). What is wrong with this statement? (It was an article headline, which accounts for its brusqueness.) Does your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law know? I would guess that if it passed muster at the New York Times, it would pass her muster and that of the crowd editors, too.

I read this statement several times because I couldn’t quite figure out what was meant. Reading the article clarified the headline, but suppose I hadn’t read the article? Or suppose this was a sentence in your book, albeit written with the missing prepositions as: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs them.” The question that needs to be asked is: “Does ‘them’ mean ‘spending cuts’ or ‘lobbyists’?” Should the sentence be: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs spending cuts” or “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs the lobbyists”?

Two distinct meanings are possible, yet most readers would not catch that possibility. And this is the problem with having your book “edited” by someone other than a professional editor. Experienced, professional editors are trained to catch these types of errors; they have spent years mastering the art of not reading what they expect but of reading what is actually before them.

As the example illustrates, not catching this error can lead to misunderstanding. It makes a difference whether “them” means “spending cuts” or “lobbyists.” Readers will generally give more credence to the former than to the latter. After all, it has become clear in recent years, particularly with the intransigence of the Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association over the issue of background checks, that lobbyists are not among the favored species.

There is a second aspect to this commandment, which is the professional editor’s fee. Think about how you work. Would you not agree that the less you are paid (or anticipate being paid) the less diligent you are in your work. What I mean is this: If you are currently paid $20 an hour and are satisfied with that sum for your current job, you perform your work diligently. If your employer comes to you and says that although your job will remain the same, your pay henceforth will be $10 an hour, are you likely to be as diligent? Or will you consider cutting corners? Most people would be less diligent and would cut corners.

Editors — professional and amateur alike — are no different. If you have a 50,000 word manuscript (approximately 200 manuscript pages), do you honestly think that the editor who is being paid $300 will be as thorough and professional as the editor who is being paid $1500? How fast will the editor need to go through your manuscript in order to earn a living wage? Do you expect that an editor who has to work faster will be as accurate as the editor who can take more time?

Most editors do multiple passes; this is especially true when the project is fiction and it is important to first grasp the whole story and get a feel for the characters. How many passes do you think that editor who is paid $300 will do? And if the editor is doing the project at their own expense (i.e., as part of a crowd edit or as a friend for free), how thorough an edit and how many passes is it reasonable to expect? How many passes would you do if it meant giving up your pleasure time?

Again, we all know people who would sacrifice their first-born to do a good job because they volunteered to do so, but that is the gamble you take. And the gamble can be devastating if it is lost. How many bad reviews can your book withstand? How many two- and three-star reviews that complain about the grammar would it take to sink your ability to sell your book, even at $2.99?

Professional editors are word doctors for authors. Just as you (or I) would not undertake to self-treat for cancer, we should not self-treat our books, which are a significant part of our life. Just as we would go to the doctor about our cancer, so we should go to the professional editor about our manuscript.

One reason we go to the doctor to have our cancer treated is because the doctor has experience dealing with cancer. We rely on the doctor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us how serious a problem we have and for suggestions about courses of treatment. We know doctors are not perfect, but we expect them to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught health sciences at the high school.

All we need do is substitute professional editor for doctor and the argument is made: One reason we go to the professional editor to have our manuscript edited is because the professional editor has experience dealing with manuscripts. We rely on the professional editor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us about any manuscript problems and for suggestions about how to correct them. We know professional editors are not perfect, but we expect the professional editor to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught English to fourth graders (or even at the local college).

When an author hires a professional editor, the author is hiring experience with manuscripts and the knowledge that the editor has accumulated about how to structure and tell a story (all manuscripts tell a story) so that the author’s message is communicated and received. You spent months, if not years, of your life putting together a story that you want more than a handful of friends to read and understand. Should you not, then, hire a professional editor and pay an appropriate fee for that editor’s services to ensure that your manuscript is ready and is the best it can be?

Thus the first commandment for authors: Thou shall use a professional editor!

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