An American Editor

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 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?

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 15, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall be Profitable

Along with my recurring column called “The Business of Editing,” I’ve decided to start another series titled “The Commandments,” in which I, and perhaps some guests, will discuss commandments I (we) believe editors and authors should follow.

The series begins with this commandment for editors and writers, although I will couch most of it in terms of editing: Thou shall be profitable! It is primarily aimed, of course, at editors who have their own businesses, but is worth keeping in mind even for in-house staffers.

What good is it to be in business and not be profitable? Being profitable is more than just having a steady income. It means earning more than it costs you to run your business, and it means earning at least what you would earn if you were working for someone else — that is, more than the minimum wage!

The question of profitability is difficult, but the reality is that, if you cannot earn enough to cover business and living costs, including such costs as health insurance and retirement, then you are not profitable — and being profitable is probably the one inviolable commandment for any business.

I understand that there are other rewards of being self-employed, not the least of which is not being employed by someone else and being able to set your own schedule. But these are really illusory benefits if you do not earn enough to afford what are considered today the basics of life. If you are not profitable, the answer is not to give up, but to adjust your approach to the business of editing.

I remember my very first months as a freelance editor. In those days, I had no clients on day one. My first year as a freelance editor was a lean year — I didn’t earn enough to pay my mortgage, let alone feed my family. My turnaround year was my second year, when I doubled the gross of my first year, which was followed by my third year, when I doubled the gross of my second year.

In that first year, I had to make a decision: Pay the mortgage or use the money to promote my business. I went back and forth about what to do. In the end, I decided to skip the mortgage payment and use the money to promote my business. My thinking went along these lines: If I paid the mortgage, I put off for one month the loss of home for just one month; if I promoted my business, I gave myself an opportunity to put off the loss of home permanently, because the cure for my problem was more (profitable) work. As it turned out, I made the right choice.

This is the kind of choice that every business faces: Do you pay a current bill and hope enough business comes in to pay future bills, or do you invest in something that might encourage more business to come your way (or make the business you do have more profitable)? It needs to be noted that part of the problem for editors is that editing is a hands-on profession. It requires, like all crafts, that person-time be spent on the material. After all, if someone doesn’t actually read the manuscript, it will never be edited.

Spending person-time, however, also acts as a limiter on precisely how much work an editor can handle. Unlike manufacturing widgets, it isn’t possible to simultaneously read two pages from two different manuscripts and edit both — at least not do so and provide a professional edit. Consequently, editors need to find ways to speed up the work they do, do the work more efficiently and productively, and thus make room in the schedule for more manuscripts to edit.

In other words, profitability is the result of a combination of factors: a constant flow of manuscripts, to be edited at a price that will give the editor the potential to be profitable, and which will be edited efficiently and speedily.

Few editors I know have taken the time to analyze exactly what is the point of profitability for their business. One telltale sign is that the editor charges by the hour rather than by the page or the project or the word. Consider this: A person who works for a large company may earn $20 an hour, but, if you analyze the company’s books, you will discover that the employee costs the company another $15 to $20 an hour — or more — which means the company has to earn the equivalent of $35 to $40 an hour just to break even on the employee.

Self-employed editors do not think in those terms. They think that they have earned $25 an hour for 30 hours of work this week and so they have made $750 this week. But they haven’t really made $750. Approximately one-third has to be set aside for federal, state, and local taxes. That reduces the amount earned to $500. Because we all rely on the Internet these days to send and receive manuscript files and to find the resources we need, for example, to verify that a word is correctly spelled or used, there is the cost of the Internet connection. I grant that cost can range all over the place, but for minimal service, I suspect it runs at least $25 a month, so for this week, let’s allocate $6.25. Similarly with telephone service. Most editors I know have a cell phone. Again, plans and costs can vary widely, but I suspect that, on average, the cost runs $80 a month. For this example, let’s allocate $20.

I don’t want to go into each and every detail; you get the idea. But even with just these three allocations, that $750 has become $473.75 — and we know that there are more costs of doing business that need to come out of that sum, such as an allocation for rent/mortgage, for electric/gas, and for insurance, not even counting health insurance.

And there is one other problem with looking at this week’s earnings and projecting: It is not safe to assume that, if you earned a gross of $750 this week, you will earn at least that same gross each and every week. Experience indicates that some weeks will match, some will be less, and some will be more (which is why we pay an estimated tax).

Instead, editors need to determine what their hourly costs are and what their profit above that cost should be. That, then, becomes the amount you need to earn as an effective hourly rate (Remember our discussion of effective hourly rates? See Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand and In Editing, It’s the Little Things That Count), which is a truer indicator of your profitability than the hourly rate you charge.

If you are not going to run a profitable business, why run a business? If your editing is not profitable and you do not take the steps to make it profitable, should you not rethink your career plan? I know, as I said before, that there are other reasons for being self-employed and for being an editor. And these are important. For example, there is no sense being an editor if you hate reading and dealing with author foibles. On the other hand, as much as you may love what you are doing, do you not also need to eat?

Consequently, this commandment: Thou shall be profitable! And if you are not, you will think about how to change your business plan so that you do become profitable.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: