An American Editor

May 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Three Types of Indie Editing Clients

Carolyn Haley

If you edit enough novels by independent authors, you’ll notice patterns in author types and ambitions. By this I mean broad patterns — which always contain exceptions — that can help guide editors in determining how to guide individual authors on their publishing journeys.

The three broad types of indie authors are those who (1) write to market (in my shorthand, the pragmatists); (2) write to express themselves then figure out how to find their audience (the dreamers); and (3) write for either/both reasons and believe that everyone is their audience (the in-betweeners).

In this context, writing styles and genres are irrelevant. It’s all about expectations and approach. Every indie editing job has its unique parameters and focal points, driven by author desire, budget, and publishing goal. How these weave together is where the distinctions come into play.

(1) The pragmatists

Authors who write to market tend to do their homework before presenting their books for editing. They have clear story ideas (usually lots of), intend to make money, and have invested time in researching the rules of the game. The economically efficient ones go for cheaper services than I can offer, unless they have well-lined pockets, although it happens occasionally that they regret their first choice(s) of editor and come to me for re-editing, either before publication or in reaction to embarrassing feedback from readers after they’ve released their books independently.

In the main, this group wants copyediting or proofreading. They are confident about their writing technique and storytelling, and often have worked with beta readers to iron out the wrinkles in their content. Then they just want somebody editorially competent to do the nitpicky housekeeping.

Almost always, these authors self-publish. Many of them are DIYers who have already formatted and illustrated their manuscripts when they submit them for editing. They know exactly which publishing service they will use to release the book, and how to promote their work.

Rarely do these authors care about the minutiae of punctuation and style. That’s the editor’s job, in their minds, and all they want is to have their text made clean and consistent. From the editor’s viewpoint, these are easy jobs, and what matters is to have straightforward conversations with the author to understand their particulars, then gallop on through the project.

(2) The dreamers

This group of authors is inclined in the opposite direction. They’ve had a story burbling inside them for years, and finally their life situation has given them a chance to pour it out. Many have retired from an unrelated career and are indulging at last in their dreams.

Unlike the pragmatists who write to market, the dreamers are usually under-informed about the realities of publishing, either traditional or independent. And they’ve done little or no study about composition, grammar, narrative structure, etc., since their school days.

They seek an editor who will be their partner and guide them through the wilderness. They lean hard on the editor’s knowledge and expertise. Viewed cynically, they can be considered artistes or hobbyists, and it’s sometimes painful to work with them, knowing their passionate effort has little chance of acceptance or sales in the real world. At the same time, they can be the most satisfying to work with, because of their enthusiasm, openness, unfettered creativity, and sometimes astonishing growth.

For these authors, editors need to provide a lot of information, starting with careful definition of services and costs for each level of service. Scope of work may include education in storycraft and the publishing process, including advice about composing query letters, synopses, and jacket blurbs and taglines. Often, these authors’ dream is for traditional publishing success, which may or may not be appropriate for their work. It helps a lot if the editor has publishing experience in addition to language and writing skills.

Emotionally, this group of authors is “needy” in comparison to the pragmatists, so editors should be conscious of their own willingness to be drawn into ego support and where to draw the line. In contrast to the pragmatists “driving the bus,” the dreamers need to be chauffeured, or at least given an explicit road map.

(3) The in-betweeners

The third group, not surprisingly, is an assortment falling between the two extremes. They throw in the most variables for the editor to manage. The main challenge with such authors is defining what they’ve written and toward whom to target it, because they frequently believe that publishing is a single-step process that leads to anyone and everyone having access to their novel and wanting to read it.

For these folks, editors need to take extra time up front to figure out what the author specifically wants and/or needs. Pitching services to them might run the gamut from manuscript evaluation to a deep developmental edit, with copyediting or line editing as options. Like the dreamers, the in-betweeners usually require dialogue and sample edits to pave the way for a successful arrangement. They understand some of the logistics and value-added aspects of editing, but might have to be educated or convinced.

(4) Others

There’s a fourth group of authors that indie editors are wise to steer clear of, although editors don’t have to work hard to avoid this group because its members don’t really want to be edited — although they often have strong opinions about it.

Such authors fall into two camps. One disdains editors completely, while the other thinks editors overcharge. It’s rare to receive inquiries from either faction, but occasionally an author who recognizes that editing helps goes searching for someone to provide that help — at the cheapest possible price. An editor’s best practice when that happens is to steer them to one of the low-dollar bidding sites and wish them well.

Patterns and particulars

In simplistic terms, indie authors cluster into black, white, and gray areas, each seeking different levels of editorial involvement. Understanding these clusters helps editors form a strategy for approaching and accommodating their differences.

In all cases, frank and polite communication before committing to the job is imperative. So is a contract that spells out scope of work, and payment and delivery terms. The goal — always — is to avoid either or both parties receiving something different from what they expect and desire. Considering authors in broad types can also help editors evaluate their personal limits and design their service offerings for maximum mutual benefit.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences

May 15, 2021

On the Basics — Contract tips for freelancers

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:51 pm
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Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Please do not share or reprint without prior permission from and credit to the author

 and owner of An American Editor.

One of my local professional groups recently held a session about contracts for editorial work that I couldn’t attend, so I put together a few suggestions that colleagues could use despite my absence. I ended up expanding those tips into this column.

Many freelancers work for years without contracts and have no problems. Others need a contract from their first client and day in business, while still others only need a contract once in awhile. Because we never know what could arise, it’s a good business practice to have your own version of a project contract, just in case. If a client offers a contract, read it carefully (especially if it’s full of legalese) before signing it, and make sure you understand everything you’re committing to. If a client doesn’t have a contract, ask them to sign your own. If they hesitate, assure the client that it doesn’t imply distrust but protects both you and them. You can also use the language “letter of agreement,” which can sound less scary or off-putting than “contract.”

You don’t have to hire a lawyer to produce a contract. Professional associations and online services provide templates that you can tailor to your business or assignments/projects (see below).

What you don’t need

Check every contract offered to make sure you don’t accept anything that works against you, such as an unnecessary liability clause.

If a contract includes a liability clause, be aware that most freelancers do not need liability or accident coverage. That’s usually boilerplate language that relates to large contractors or subcontractors working onsite at a client’s facility or operating heavy/dangerous equipment on behalf of the client. In some states or municipalities, freelancers can’t even get liability insurance. You can usually ask to delete such a clause from a contract, but if the client insists and you want the job, add the cost to your fee. Most of us also don’t have clients coming to our home offices, or employees, subcontractors or vendors at our locations, so we don’t need that kind of liability coverage. You should have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, and added coverage for your work-related equipment, furnishings and supplies, but that would be about it.

A liability clause that says you’re responsible for anything that goes wrong with an editorial project is bad news. We rarely have control over what happens to a document once we finish writing, editing or proofreading it; other people in the publishing process can introduce errors, change quotes, leave out important details, add new but inaccurate information, etc. Don’t be bullied into saying you accept responsibility for the published version of something if you aren’t in total control of the material. You don’t want to be sued for something done by someone else.

Items to include

Start a checklist as a template for the contract elements you want to remember to include in any given project. Try to think of everything that could possibly be part of any project — hope for the best, but assume the worst. You can save it as Contract-Project X every time something new comes in and then tailor that version by deleting items that don’t apply to the specific project or assignment, but the template will ensure that you don’t leave out a crucial item that could cost you money or create other issues.

These are the minimum items to include in your contract template:

√ Nature/Type of assignment (writing, editing, proofreading, indexing, layout, etc.)

√ Scope (number of words, pages, hours, etc.; number of passes; whether fact-checking or plagiarism-checking are expected)

√ Pay rate or amount (by the word, hour, page, project, etc.); if by the page, define page

√ Deadline

√ Expenses covered/receipts required

√ Revisions

√ Protection against scope creep (spell out extra payments to be made if work goes over agreed scope)

√ Copyright/Rights/Ownership

√ Credit (work-for-hire projects generally don’t give you a byline or publication credit; editors and proofreaders often do not get credit, although you can always ask to be named)

√ Payment timing (on acceptance, on publication, X number of days after invoice)

√ Payment method (check, direct deposit, PayPal/credit card, etc.)

√ Late fee (charge to client if payment doesn’t arrive by X days after invoice date)

√ Kill fee (percentage of fee you receive if assignment is canceled for reasons beyond your control)

√ Format or program (Word, Google Docs, Pages, PDF, PowerPoint, Excel, InDesign, InCopy, etc.)

√ Confidentiality

√ Subcontracting (some clients will not accept having subcontractors work with you)

√ Complimentary copies

√ Permission to list or link projects/clients on your website

√ Emergency contact/process (in case something happens to you or the client, or the client’s client, that could affect being able to finish the project)

√Dispute jurisdiction/Mediation option

Adjustments over time

• Contracts can be evolving documents; you can add new items to your template that arise with any new contract of project. There’s often something you never thought of. On my first freelance newsletter contract, for instance, I included managing printing and mailing in what I would provide, but didn’t realize the client would read that item as included in what I would provide. Guess who had to pay for printing and mailing.  

Some editing and proofreading clients might expect or request guarantees of perfection or a specific percentage of perfection. Try not to be tied to such demands, which are usually impossible to meet, or to be bullied into a refund for any errors you might miss.

Resources to consult

The Paper It’s Written On: Defining your relationship with an editing client by Dick Margulis and Karin Cather; despite the subtitle, it can be used for all kinds of editorial projects (and is an excellent example of how a presentation can turn into a profit center; the book grew out a presentation by the authors at a Communication Center “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference)

√ Professional associations for samples or templates, as well as advice about creating or responding to contracts (Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) sample agreement for services: https://www.the-efa.org/resources/; Editors Canada contract template: https://www.editors.ca/hire/agreement-template-editing-services)

√ Websites for legal services, including contract samples or templates, such as LegalZoom.com and Nolo.com

√ An attorney (local bar associations can provide names)

√ Lawyers for the Arts (local chapters)

What other contract terms or items would you add to a template? What kinds of contract headaches have you experienced, and how did you resolve them?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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May 10, 2021

On the Basics — Knowing why and when to let go

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

There comes a time in every person’s life, no matter what their career, to at least think about letting go of the work life, or some portion of it. For those of us in the editorial field, that can mean anything from finding a new full-time job to not renewing an association membership; dropping a certain client, project or topic; changing freelance service offerings; taking a vacation from social media; or retiring. It can be a challenge to know when to take such actions, especially because what we do — or want to do — in the heat of a moment can be very different from what we wish we had done after some reflection.

Boredom and burnout

It happens to all of us at least once: A previously interesting topic or type of project becomes dull and deadly borrrrring. Maybe you’ve written about, edited or proofread the same topic or the same organization for the 100th time — that feels like the 1,000th — or one year too long. Maybe the material was always dry and unexciting, but you kept going because the money was good (or desperately needed). You could just be tired of dealing with a routine, a commute (well, in pre-pandemic days) or certain co-workers. Burnout takes many forms.

Either way, you kept going because it was your job, it was a freelance gig that paid well, you thought it might somehow become livelier … Whatever kept you plugged in, it’s no longer working and you need a change; maybe even the drastic change of changing fields or retiring entirely. Before going that far, though, look at where you are and see if there are ways to make it more interesting. You might be able to switch departments or handle different aspects of what you do now. Ask, and you might receive.

If making a major change is nerve-racking or somehow not possible, you might be able to use volunteer or hobby activity as a counterbalance to the draggy work situation. Create time to do things that are fun and fulfilling, and the dreary routine might become more bearable.

Working isn’t working

One sure sign that it’s time to think, or rethink, a career is when you find yourself missing deadlines even though there’s no real reason for that to happen. You aren’t sick (thank goodness), there aren’t family crises to handle (also thank goodness), you’ve done the research and interviews, you’ve reviewed the latest style guide, you have the information and tools you need … but you just.can’t.get.it.done. You know that even long-time clients will only put up with so much delay on their projects, but you’re sabotaging yourself, and you don’t know why.

That could be one aspect of burnout, but whatever we call it, it’s a bad sign. And it means you need a change. You could try convincing yourself that there are rewards for getting these things done as needed, or setting false (early) deadlines to trick yourself into doing the work, but this kind of situation is hard to fix. Sometime just switching to another project or a non-work activity that is more fun can reset your interest in finishing whatever is stuck.

Age is kicking in

We also will all reach a point when we’re ready to — or must — retire due to age, among other considerations. Younger colleagues might want to keep this in mind as a reason to put money aside regularly to support yourself at that seemingly far-distant point (also worth doing just in case you get injured or ill). I hope that those of us who are approaching that point, or already there, have a healthy financial cushion in place so you can apply the brakes to your work life without worrying about how you’ll pay the rent or mortgage, and eat something other than cat food.

The good thing for many (I hope all) of us is that a certain age means Social Security income, and that might just be enough to call it a day and do something new. Or nothing!

Networking not doing the job

We join professional associations to meet colleagues and leaders in our fields, and many of us — both freelance and in-house — join one solely for its work-finding value: access to postings of job openings, often before or instead of such opportunities reaching the help wanted ads or recruiters. 

As most of you know, I’m a big fan of belonging to and being visible/active in professional associations. I belong to almost a dozen and hold leadership roles in six at the moment. I’m at the stage of my career where I don’t need them for training; in the two-way, give-and-take nature of networking, I’m usually giving more often than taking. I remain active, though, in part because I do continually learn new things from colleagues through association forums and discussion lists; some of my groups provide opportunities for members to make a few bucks through presentations and publications; having that network of colleagues to turn to when I do need help or advice is invaluable; and — as the poster child for extroverts — I love interacting with colleagues.

However, if belonging to an association isn’t working for you, it might be time to look for a new one to join. Don’t base the decision on whether you’ve gotten work by being a member. Some organizations are so large that you can go a full year or longer without nailing a listing from a standard job service post or message. The value is often more in the colleagiality, advice, resources, support and events. But again, if none of that is resonating, look into other places to get those benefits. There are a lot of associations. There should be at least one that works for you.

Just keep in mind that the people who get the most out of association memberships are the ones who participate actively. If you’ve never contributed in any way, even just by asking questions, you might want to give it a little more time, and effort, before leaving. 

More aggravating than energizing

Not quite the same thing as retiring or changing careers, but it’s probably time to leave an online group or discussion list when:

• You’re really, really tempted to say things like, “How does someone who calls themself a writer/editor/proofreader/whatever not know that?” or “Have you never heard of a dictionary?” in response to a question.

• You are beyond tired of seeing the same questions again and again. And again. Even though you know that many times, the askers are new to either the group or the profession.

• You don’t bother to respond to questions or comments because you’re so tired of repeating the same advice, no matter how useful it is and how helpful you want to be.

Whatever your work niche might be, there are lots of other places to meet, learn from and interact with colleagues. If a given group or list is more aggravating than enjoyable, look for a new community to join where you might feel more comfortable and energized.

Preparing to leave

The most-important aspect of leaving a job, project, client or organization is the how: how you leave, and what you leave behind.

The ideal is to be the one who controls that moment or process, although we can’t always do that. Like most people in any field, not just publishing or editorial work, I’ve been in one of those “I quit/You’re fired” situations with no time to prepare myself or my co-workers for my departure (luckily, though, with everything I was responsible for in good shape, and a colleague eager to step into my shoes; too eager, in fact).

I try to organize my projects so someone else could step in fairly easily if I were to leave. My computer files are pretty easy to understand. I also have a strong base of colleagues whom I could recommend for most of my current projects. I can afford to stop working whenever I’m ready. I’m not sure what I’d do with myself if I weren’t working, but I do have hobbies I could spend a lot more time on and a few other ways to fill my time when that moment arrives.

On the personal side, whether you plan to job-hunt, change careers or retire, be sure you have that financial cushion in place so you can make the decision that makes you happy.

What aspects of your editorial career are pushing you toward making a change? What do you think your next life will be like?

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

April 20, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 2

Geoffrey Hart

For Part 1, go to

Things to expect during peer review

If English is not your author’s first language or if the author has a foreign-seeming name or foreign address, you may encounter language prejudice. This is less often racist than it is the result of such authors believing they don’t need to be edited and submitting poorly written manuscripts as a result. Publishers who receive large numbers of such manuscripts naturally seek shortcuts to reduce their workload, and may only glance quickly at the author’s cover letter or address to form an opinion. If they don’t like what they see, they may reject the manuscript or return it for revision without ever reading it, and not because it lacks merit. Thus, authors should always have their cover letter edited, not just their manuscript.

Peer review has certain recurring themes that authors must deal with, ideally with an editor’s help:

· Multiple revisions: Reviewers are chosen because they are highly educated in their fields, and because they are highly opinionated. Thus, they’re asked to be critical of manuscripts and may insist on multiple rounds of revision until they’re satisfied.

· Contradictory reviews: Reviewers have different backgrounds and biases, and this leads to very different critiques by different reviewers. You can expect reviewers to agree on major problems, since such problems are hard to miss, but you’ll often find that something one reviewer loved is anathema to another reviewer.

· Academic politics: Academic fields have many theological disputes over different points of belief (e.g., the value of social construction), and it can be difficult to satisfy a reviewer who comes from a different academic sect.

Helping authors respond to reviews is something editors do well, since we have long experience with getting inside an author’s head, and that skill translates equally well to understanding what bothered a reviewer and what changes will remove that irritation. Editors are also skilled negotiators, and can help authors find ways to reach a consensus that satisfies both the author and the reviewer. Being aware of the prevailing dogmas in a field will help editors to guide authors around the worst minefields and to build bridges over holes that would otherwise trap the unwary author and provoke a reviewer. As you gain experience in a field’s language, ways of framing arguments, and standards of evidence, you can increasingly help authors revise their work to avoid these problems.

The review process can take a long time, and if you don’t submit the best-possible manuscript, a potentially important contribution to the literature may be rejected by a prestigious publisher without the option to resubmit. Thus, one important tip is to persuade the author to work with their colleagues before they submit their manuscripts for review.

There are two good reasons for this. First, the review is likely to be done faster. Second, a rigorous and critical review by a colleague may sting, but it has no consequences other than the need to rewrite. Solving those problems before a publisher sees the manuscript means it won’t be rejected because of those problems. (It may, of course, still be rejected for other reasons.) A publisher’s reviewers are also more likely to respond positively to a manuscript that has been edited professionally.

Academic vs. non-academic audiences

Early-career academic authors tend to have a laser-like focus on writing for their peers, since they know that their peers determine how successful they’re going to be in their chosen field. However, over time, authors may gradually expand their publishing efforts beyond their circle of fellow specialists. Often, they aim to turn many years of peer-reviewed publications into something a reasonably intelligent but non-expert reader can understand. They may be writing to funding agencies to beg for money, producing op-ed pieces for the general public in newspapers or on websites, or crafting textbooks for students. Yet unless they are professional writers and well-trained in writing for different audiences, they’ll need an editor’s help to make their thoughts comprehensible to an audience that isn’t dominated by their peers. I often joke that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to communicate with the general public without adult supervision. It’s funny specifically because it’s so true.

Editors understand that different audiences require different writing styles, and can help an author learn and use the most-appropriate style or modify their approach to account for a given audience’s unique characteristics. For example, academic readers expect and are skilled at interpreting formal, jargon-heavy writing that relies on many assumptions about what readers already understand — because the readers are experts in the author’s field. In contrast, non-academic audiences require less-formal writing styles, with less jargon, and assumptions must be explained — because general audiences are experts in a wide range of things, most of which are not the author’s field of expertise.

Note: Although most academic publishers now accept manuscripts in the first-person point of view, some are reluctant, particularly when they rely on older and more-conservative peer reviewers who haven’t yet entered the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Passive voice is no longer required, but you may be called on to help an author defend the choice of first-person. An acceptable compromise is generally to emphasize active voice wherever possible and minimize the use of “I” and “we” constructions; for instructional or procedural material, imperative voice is another good alternative.

That being said, one thing remains true for almost any audience: Write simply, concisely, and clearly. Although I once (true story!) had a manuscript rejected because “it was too well written,” that’s rare these days. Even the most turgid and constipated fields of study are increasingly willing to accept a well-written manuscript. The argument and conclusions may be complex and nuanced, but the writing never should be.

Responding to peer reviews

The end of the most-difficult stage in publishing an academic manuscript comes when your author receives the comments from the reviewers. These generally fall into three main categories: acceptance with minor revision, which will mostly require minor tweaks of the text; acceptance with major revision, which requires significant additional work (e.g., more lab research, more library time, reorganization) before the publisher will even consider reviewing the manuscript again; and rejection, which may be absolute or which may (if the author has a strong argument and a sympathetic publisher) be considered the equivalent of major revision.

As an editor, I’ve helped many authors persuade the publisher that a rejection really only requires major revision, or that an acceptance with major revision really only requires minor changes. A common reason for the latter is a reviewer who says, in effect, “I know that you wanted to write about dogs, but you really should have written about cats, so I reject your argument,” Most publishers will accept a counterargument along the lines of “No, I really can’t write about felids in an article about canids that was written for a journal that publishes only shaggy dog stories,”

Note: There is a thus-far theoretical fourth response, which is “acceptance without revision.” In more than 30 years of editing, I’ve never seen that response from the reviewers for a reputable publisher, largely because reviewers often go to heroic lengths to ensure that the publisher believes they rigorously reviewed the manuscript. To prove this, they will find ways to list some specific problem, however minor, that must be fixed.

Reviewers almost always have the final say — if your manuscript represents a hill they’re willing to die on in defense of some point of dogma. Because peer review is unpaid work, experts can easily refuse a request to review a future manuscript if a publisher irritates them — and ignoring their recommendation can be very irritating to a reviewer, especially one with an agenda. If enough authors stop agreeing to work with a specific publisher, that publisher will soon find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having no more peer reviewers, and thus, will no longer be able to refer to themselves as a peer-reviewed publication. They might even (horror!) have to pay experts to review their future publications.

Thus, publishers are reluctant to overrule a reviewer out of fear the reviewer won’t work with them again in the future, and may even warn their friends and colleagues to do the same. Sometimes you just have to accept a publisher’s verdict and move on. Fortunately, there are a great many academic publishers.

Most reviewers and most publishers are reasonable people who are willing to listen to an author’s responses and counterarguments. Although academic authors who have survived their thesis defenses tend to acquire a certain measure of skill at explaining and justifying their subject and responding firmly to critiques, for some reason, they completely lose that skill when it’s time to respond to a publisher’s review. Editors can be remarkably valuable allies when it comes time to respond to review comments, which is why I always offer to help my authors write their responses.

There are several things to keep in mind.

· Authors take their writing seriously, and are often offended or even enraged by critical comments. Although this is perfectly understandable, it’s unprofitable, because expressing those emotions to a reviewer is like throwing catnip to a cat: It only encourages a strong response. Help the author take a step back and seek ways to treat criticism as a means of improving their manuscript rather than a personal attack.

· Similarly, it’s unprofitable to argue with a reviewer, particularly if that argument can be seen as an attack. Instead, help the author find ways to acknowledge the reviewer’s point, explain what they were hoping to achieve, find a way to incorporate that point in their revision, and provide a persuasive response that satisfies both the reviewer’s objection and the author’s goal.

· Where possible, help the author find ways to implement each suggestion. The more suggestions they accept, the more willing a reviewer will be to listen to counterarguments for other points. For example, if a reviewer asks the author to cite five additional references, ensure that they have cited those five references. If the reviewer asks them to cite a specific journal paper (often one written by the reviewer), ensure that they have cited that paper. It costs the author nothing, particularly if the reviewer is correct that the references are relevant and worthy of citation.

· Never cave in on important points! If the reviewer is simply wrong, and won’t accept any argument to the contrary, move on and find somewhere else to publish. There are many, many publishers. If the manuscript has merit, some publisher will eventually see its value.

· Always thank the reviewers politely at the end of the response letter, even if you disagree with them. One standard wording that has worked well for me and that I encourage you to copy and modify to meet your needs: “Thanks for your efforts to improve my manuscript. I hope that my responses and the resulting changes will be satisfactory, but I’ll be happy to work with you to resolve any remaining issues.” This acknowledges the reviewer’s effort, and attempts to shift the review process from confrontational to collaborative.

· Only thank each reviewer once, at the end of the responses, other than for particularly important comments. If you repeatedly thank a reviewer for insulting your intelligence, critiquing your upbringing and moral character, and savaging your writing style, thanking them for each body blow quickly becomes seen as sarcasm, and that tends to make the reviewer more critical.

A final comment

I’ve been helping authors for more than 30 years by using these techniques, and as a result, have facilitated the publication of more than 6,000 journal manuscripts and scientific monographs, so it’s clear that these techniques work. Interestingly, they’ve also helped me greatly when I served as a peer-reviewer or as a journal’s review coordinator. The same approaches help me put my head in the right space to work with both authors and reviewers to achieve consensus and to change the review process from confrontational to a mutually supportive way to improve the quality of an author’s contribution to the literature of a field.

Reference

Hart, G. 2021. Creating truly effective outlines. NAIWE website (https://naiwe.com/).

Geoff Hart (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories so far. Visit him online at www.geoff-hart.com.

April 7, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 1

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:18 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Geoffrey Hart

[This article is a revised and expanded version of a November 2005 guest lecture I gave to Dr. Saul Carliner’s graduate seminar in instructional design at Concordia University.]

Many clients and potential clients are writing academic papers that must undergo the Darwinian struggle known as peer review. The purpose of this struggle is to select only the fittest papers by improving the quality of the information. Academics being civilized beings, this doesn’t inevitably have to be “nature, red in tooth and claw,” but when the review is done well, reviewers provide insightful, focused critiques that help authors compete more strongly in the community of knowledge by improving the quality and clarity of their message.

Of course, academics being human, some reviewers see themselves as wolves, not helpers, and see their role as running behind the pack so they can pull down the slowest and weakest. They then scatter the bones of their victims upon the ground for all to see as a literary kind of memento mori.

It takes all sorts, I suppose.

Overstretched metaphors notwithstanding, academic discourse benefits greatly from peer review because the peer reviewers are chosen for their expertise in the author’s field, and most recognize that publishing is a collaborative effort in which everyone agrees on the same goals: to maximize the quality of knowledge that gets published and to improve the conversation. Quality is the first goal, both because of how important the published literature should be for guiding practitioners and future authors by providing a body of knowledge that enriches an entire field of study. The second goal is to make authors look good in print, which means helping them communicate their key ideas concisely and clearly. Third, and less-often mentioned, is the “they did it to me, so I’m going to do it to you” school of review — I’ve heard PhD thesis supervisors admit, off the record, that their supervisor made them rewrite their thesis 10 times even after it was long ready to publish, and that they were going to demand the same suffering of their grad students. Sadly, many carry this philosophy to the task of peer review.

There are many ways the peer review process can fail, including authors who recommend peer reviewers who owe them a favor and will give a favorable review, even if it’s not justified, or who promote papers that support their particular biases. On the whole, though, most participants take the process seriously and work hard and with integrity to help authors publish manuscripts they can be proud of.

You may have noted that most of what I’ve described sounds very similar to what editors do, so why do we need editors when we have peer review? (Alternatively, why do we need peer reviewers when we have editors?) There are three main reasons.

First, peer reviewers are unpaid volunteers, and it’s a poor and disrespectful use of their time to send them unclear, error-ridden manuscripts. Second, unless the manuscript is about editing, the reviewers are rarely editors, and therefore aren’t best suited to the job of editing a manuscript for clarity, even if they had the time — and most don’t. Third, eliminating all the many infelicities to which a text is prone makes it easier for reviewers to understand the author’s key points and identify subtle flaws that should be fixed, but that (without editing) might be invisible beneath a sea of typos, false cognates, and other problems.

That being said, how can editors help authors prepare their manuscripts for peer review?

Note: The approach described in this article works equally well for journal articles, monographs (e.g., a report series
published by a research institute), and books.

The review process

Writing for peer review begins with an understanding of the peer-review process. Fortunately, this is more similar to than different from other forms of nonfiction writing. The process generally follows these steps:

· The author completes their research, whether in a laboratory or a library, and analyzes the knowledge they acquired to create an overall mental image of their findings and where these fit within the larger context of a field’s collection of knowledge. Developmental editing can be very helpful at this stage.

· Based on this review of their subject, the author creates a strong outline to guide their writing (Hart, 2021). Again, developmental editing can facilitate this stage.

· Next, the author must choose an appropriate publisher — one that will be interested in the manuscript and will provide access to an interested audience. Based on that publisher’s requirements (usually made available via their website), the author writes a first draft that follows those guidelines. If the publisher lets authors develop their own style guide, developmental editing can produce a guide that eases the task of writing consistently.

· With help from colleagues and (ideally) a substantive editor, the author revises the manuscript to produce the most-polished story they can before they submit it to the publisher.

· The publisher hands off the manuscript to one or more peer reviewers. After some time has passed (often months), the author receives the review comments and the publisher’s verdict, and must then revise the manuscript to answer any questions or address any criticisms raised by the reviewers. Substantive editing and copyediting are often required at this stage.

· The author repeats the revise/resubmit/review cycle as often as necessary, with an editor’s help, until they either satisfy the publisher that their manuscript is worthy of publication, or they give up and send it to another publisher (where the whole process might start over again!).

Choosing the right publisher

Deciding where to publish a manuscript is a complicated task, since there are many criteria, some of which are contradictory or very subjective.

Publishing in a prestigious journal or with a prestigious academic press is important for an academic’s career because the publisher’s prestige is one criterion for evaluating an author’s work. The downside of prestigious publishers is that everyone wants to publish with them, which gives the publisher enormous freedom in choosing only the best of the best submissions. It’s not quite the writer’s equivalent of buying a lottery ticket, but the chances of success sometimes seem equally low. A less-prestigious but still perfectly respectable publisher may be a better option, particularly for authors who are still early in their careers and don’t yet have name recognition that would get them through doors that are shut to new authors.

Another decision is whether the author should write for their peers, which usually means a smaller but more-expert audience, or for a wider group of readers who are outside the author’s area of specialization, which usually means a larger but less-expert audience. The former may be important when an author is trying to make a name for themselves in their field; the latter may be more important when they have something to say that will be of broad interest to readers both in their field and out.

Note: Academics face an interesting challenge: Their work may be very important for the general public, but publishing general-interest manuscripts gains little respect from colleagues, and sometimes gains their contempt. One solution is to publish first in academic publications, and then recast that work for a broader audience later.

Editors who specialize in certain areas gradually acquire a sense of which publishers are a good choice. If, however, you (as an editor) are unfamiliar with a field, there are tricks you can use to help the author find a suitable publisher. First, examine the bibliography in the manuscript. If the author repeatedly cites papers from a specific journal or books from a specific publisher, than that journal or publisher is likely to be a good candidate because these citations prove the willingness of those outlets to publish similar manuscripts.

On the other hand, the lack of a specific publisher, such as a science journal, in the list of citations may be a sign that the author’s subject has not been published by that journal even though its readers would clearly benefit from learning more about that subject. Another way editors can help authors is by helping them argue for the relevance of a manuscript by explaining (in a cover letter) how it will benefit the publication’s readers.

Neither author nor editors should hesitate to ask colleagues for suggestions, both for publishers they’ve worked with and that have been helpful and have provided effective reviews — and publishers that are best avoided. Many publishers, and particularly peer-reviewed journals, report their rejection ratio at their author guidelines web pages. If they have a high-impact factor (i.e., if many of their publications are cited by other authors), they’ll report that prominently, too.

Publishers with the highest impact factors tend to have the highest rejection rates, so choosing a balance between impact and risk of rejection is important. This is a judgment call and a deeply personal decision, and editors can provide advice on the pros and cons of a given publisher, but in the end, the author must choose.

Note: Chapter 3 of my book Writing for Science Journals (http://geoff-hart.com/books/journals/journal-book.htm) provides a detailed discussion of this subject.

Style guides

Most academic or scholarly publishers receive more manuscripts than they can ever hope to publish, and as a result, they use a variety of screening criteria (some that are not so good) to eliminate the least-suitable manuscripts. One of the first and easiest is to check whether an author followed their style guide. An author who can’t be trusted to follow a simple, clearly stated set of instructions suggests the author will be more trouble to work with than the publisher desires. (That being said, having worked for more than 30 years in academic publishing, “simple” often strikes me as a one-word oxymoron.)

At a minimum, this suggests that the publisher will have to spend more of their tight budget on copyediting the manuscript than they would with an author who takes more care. Thus, editors should start first with the publisher’s stated style guide, then expand to other style resources if necessary. If the publisher doesn’t have a style guide, then — as I noted earlier — editors can help authors create a customized style guide during the developmental editing phase.

Note: Chapter 8 of my book Effective Onscreen Editing (http://geoff-hart.com/books/eoe/onscreen-book.htm) discusses how to create and use style sheets in considerable detail.

Each field tends to have a core set of style guides. For example, academic fields outside the sciences tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style; the sciences tend to use the Council of Science Editors style guide, Scientific Style and Format. There are likely to be more-specialized guides for specific disciplines, such as the APA Style Guide for psychologists or the Associated Press Stylebook for journalists. Learn which guides are most often used in a field, and use them to guide your editing. If you can’t find a sufficiently subject-specific guide, Google is your friend. Many professional associations publish their own official style guides for members, or provide recommendations of reputable guides produced by others.

Last but not least, always read an example of something published by the publisher. Whatever the stated preferences in their style guide, publishers tend to slowly diverge from their published guidelines. This may be because their acquiring or managing editors choose to follow a different authority (including their own preference), but neglect to inform their website manager that the guidelines should be updated. Unless the published guidelines have a current date and specifically supersede older guidelines, the proof of the pudding’s in the most-recent publication.

Geoff Hart (www.geoff-hart.com) (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories thus far.    

April 5, 2021

On the Basics: How networking can enhance success for an editing business

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 2:31 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A lot goes into launching a successful editing business, and networking can be one factor in that success. I’ll be talking about the practical aspects of such a venture in a May webinar for the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE). This post is about networking from an editing perspective and is adapted from a post I wrote for my NAIWE blog that focuses on writing and networking.

Editors might not think of networking as an element of their new businesses, but that could mean losing out on valuable ways to learn about craft and business, and to develop connections that could not only improve those aspects of what they want to do, but also lead to a greater likelihood of finding — or being found by — clients. It can also help editors help their clients.

All editors probably share a common goal: for our clients’ words, thoughts and perspectives to find audiences and outlets. Regardless of their stage of creativity, visibility or success, every writer wants — even needs — to be seen and heard. For the editor, helping a writer client make that first sale or be published in that first outlet can be almost as exciting as it is for the writer, and networking is one way to help them get there.

Whether your client is writing a novel or a press release, a poem or a white paper, a play or a case study, a how-to book or a personal blog post, an academic article or a memoir, and whether your client is an individual, company, nonprofit organization, university, government agency or publication, you want what they write to be seen and appreciated. Beyond being seen, we also want everyone who sees our clients’ writing to understand it, respond to it positively by publishing reviews or acting on it somehow, recommend it to others, and read or buy the next piece we write. Skilled editing and networking can help that happen.

Where networking comes into play is in finding and sharing resources for learning to edit better by joining professional groups and taking classes; identifying colleagues to learn from, advise and share opportunities or referrals with; avoiding scams and bad clients; getting paid; and related details of an editing business or the editing life.

Through networking, in essence, you can meet colleagues who will provide advice, insights and resources, and who might refer you to editing projects and clients. And you can be one of those helpful, respected colleagues.

It’s important to remember, by the way, that networking is a two-way process. In fact, that might be the most important aspect of networking. An editor needs to create a net of contacts and colleagues who can help them do their work better and enhance their likelihood of finding clients. One of the best ways to do that is to be a useful strand in the nets of colleagues.  

And don’t let being new to editing or networking make you feel that you can’t contribute to the networking process. You can! Don’t forget the old saying that there are no dumb questions. You might ask the one thing about grammar, usage, structure, client relations, payment, etc., that dozens of other editors have been wondering about, but didn’t dare bring up because they were afraid of looking foolish. By raising that question and eliciting responses, you help everyone learn something.

If you can’t answers colleagues’ questions yet, look for resources you can share — books, courses, blogs, organizations, etc., that you have found useful or have seen in your real-world and online activity. Keep in mind that we all had to start somewhere, first by actually editing something, next by seeing it get published (and paid for), and then by becoming visible and active in some corner of the editing world.

Even extroverts like me had to learn the ropes of networking effectively; it isn’t just a matter of paying dues and using the resources of an association to enhance our own work. If you ask questions and get helpful answers, look for ways to provide answers to other people’s questions. If you join a group, whether an online community or a formal association, be active and visible, not just what I call a checkbook member: someone who joins and then sits back silently, contributes nothing and waits for the group to hand them success.

In the continuing pandemic era, we can’t do much networking in person, so the introverts among us don’t have to worry as much about fitting in at events as in the past (and, we hope, the future). Nowadays, you can use the virtual world to your networking advantage by “lurking” in online communities and professional associations for a while, to take the temperature of the environment and decide whether it will be helpful, and you’ll be comfortable, before you spend money on a membership or speak up with your questions and suggestions. Oh, and as the owner of an editing business, anything you do invest in joining an organization is a tax deduction!

Learn and profit from networking, and try to give as much as you take. Your reputation will blossom as a result, along with your editing business and efforts.

How has networking helped you launch and build an editing business? Have you overcome a fear of interacting with colleagues through networking?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is a widely published freelance writer/editor and the creator of Communication Central’s annual Be a Better Freelancer® conference, now co-hosted by NAIWE and the An American Editor blog. Through her active participation in a variety of professional associations, she is often called the Queen of Networking, and she’s the Networking member of the NAIWE Board of Experts.

March 19, 2021

For Rent to Publishers: One Pistol with Bullet to Shoot Yourself in the Foot (or Why Good Editing Matters)

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 12:59 pm

Richard H. Adin

I never thought I would say “Gosh, I am glad I am retired,” but I am. Being retired has done many things for me, not least of which (aside from having the time to play with my granddaughters before their school and other diversions make me uninteresting and obsolete before my time) is that I now have time to devote to pleasure reading and building a library that my children wish I wouldn’t and my granddaughters are glad I am.

As part of doing so, I not only buy books as if there will be no more books for sale, but I also subscribe to dedicated book review magazines (New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, New York Times Book Review, and Book Pages, to name a few), as well as numerous more general interest magazines that include book reviews worth reading (e.g., The Nation, The New Republic, Atlantic, The Economist, and Harper’s). It is not too often that more than one or two of magazines review the same book (one of the exceptions recently has been Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, which, surprisingly to me, has been reviewed by most of the magazines I subscribe to). Having all these book reviews available means that my to-be-read (TBR) pile of books never diminishes; it just keeps growing like the blob in the old horror movies.

In addition to these magazine sources for books that draw my interest, I also tend to scan online sources like Fantastic Fiction (www.fantasticfiction.com) and certain categories of interest at Amazon, like biography, philosophy, history, language, science fiction/fantasy, and mystery. At Amazon, I use filters to narrow my searches. For example, I will filter for biographies, English language, and hardcovers (always hardcovers; I do not buy paperbacks) and then sort the list by publication date, which enables me to preview books yet to be published to see if there are any that I want to preorder. (I preorder a lot of books; as of this writing, for example, in 2021, I have preordered about 90 books so far. That includes books for me [the vast majority] and the books I send each granddaughter every month. In 2020, I ordered more than 275 books for myself and my granddaughters. I select at least three hardcover books, and sometimes more, to ship to each granddaughter each month.)

(I know this has been a long introduction, but soon I will pivot to focus more narrowly on the point of this essay.)

As a result of one of my biography searches, I came across Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel by Rachel Holmes (Bloomsbury Press, 976 pp., September 2020 in UK, December 2020 in US). If you look at Amazon, the reviews and quotes make this book look like it is a definitive biography, well-written, and worthy of both reading and being added to a library of biographies. Alas, it appears that the book is not so worthy. Bloomsbury, a respected publisher, rented my pistol and shot itself in the foot.

Rarely do I read a review that takes a book to task for errors and omissions that are so bad that they need to be pointed out so as not to mislead a potential buyer. A reviewer will occasionally note that a book is missing certain material, has a bias, is dully written, whatever. Rarely does a review take a publisher to task for doing a poor production job. Yet that is what happened in the case of Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel.

Within a few paragraphs of the opening sentence of “Worth the Upbringing” by Susan Pedersen (London Review of Books, vol. 43 No.5, March 4, 2021) (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n05/susan-pedersen/worth-the-upbringing), an in-depth review of Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, the reader is told:

Rachel Holmes’s new biography of Pankhurst rightly gives equal weight to the three great causes — feminism, left internationalism and anti-imperialism — to which Pankhurst devoted her life. Almost a thousand pages long, and weighing in at three and a half pounds, it is clearly intended to be the definitive life. Disappointingly, it isn’t. It is digressive, repetitive, and rife with typographical and factual errors, but that isn’t the main problem. (Emphasis supplied.)

Perhaps if that had been the end of the production criticism, I might view this book differently, but later in the review comes this:

Here,​ in its final third, Holmes’s book improves dramatically. It’s still baggy and repetitive, but the final three hundred pages are fresher and more engaging than the preceding six hundred, probably because Pankhurst did not write obsessively about her life during these decades, so that Holmes has had to piece the story together from more prosaic sources.*

That doesn’t look too bad until you note the asterisk denoting a footnote, and what a footnote it is:

*I am sorry to labour this point, but Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly. Holmes’s factual errors and interpretative choices are obviously her own, but surely someone might have noticed when Amy Ashwood Garvey (750) turns into Amy Ashmore Garvey (751), or when Emmeline’s sister Ada Goulden Bach (624) reappears — without having married some other Pankhurst — as Ada Pankhurst (628), or when garbled sentences have simply migrated uncorrected into the text (121, 650). Need we be told twice that Sylvia reminded Emmeline Pethick Lawrence of a young Russian student revolutionary (189, 197), twice that Norah Smyth could afford to keep Sylvia’s East End ventures afloat ‘since she managed her investments well’ (353, 359), twice that during his state visit to Britain Selassie reminded Sylvia of his invitation to her to move to Ethiopia (745, 775), twice about the importance of folk dancing to the women’s movement (182–3, 267–8), three times about the wonders of the eucalyptus tree in Ethiopia (760–1, 783–4, 834–6), half a dozen times (at least) that Sylvia hated porridge, and twice that Harriot Stanton Blatch tried to persuade Emmeline to stop making Sylvia eat it when she was a child (41, 284)? Key events are often recounted twice: Sylvia’s first trip to Ethiopia in 1944 once on pp. 721-2 and again at greater length on pp. 758-66; the story of her breach with her mother and sister over Richard’s birth once in Chapter 5 and then again in Chapter 30. I would not have wanted the job of paring this manuscript down, but surely a publisher employs people for this purpose.

The first words of the footnote — “Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly” — are the crux of the matter.

Bloomsbury is a highly reputable publisher. It has a long history of publishing important books and rarely is quality discussed; in fact, I can’t recall the last time I read a review that so keenly criticized the quality of a Bloomsbury book, and I have been an avid review reader for 60-some years. Consequently, when the quality of a Bloomsbury book is questioned, savvy readers need to take notice. Not just readers, however. Professional editors and all publishers need to take notice. Why? Because the problems for which Bloomsbury is being scolded seem to be problems that are growing within the industry.

We have all noticed the trend since the 1980s, if not earlier, as publishers merged and consolidated and shareholder dividend became more important than nearly anything else, for costs to be reduced. There are few places in the publishing world where costs can be reduced. In-house staff can be reduced (done!), greater reliance can be had on outsiders to make publishing decisions (done!), and lower production costs can be achieved by seeking the least-expensive ways (and people) to edit and produce a book (done!).

The industry can’t tell in advance how well most books will sell. A prime, and very famous, example is the Harry Potter series. It was rejected by many publishers and was originally brought out by a small, independent publisher. What publisher wouldn’t have grabbed that series had they been prescient enough to know what a worldwide seller it would be? Yet, it is this lack of prescience that causes problems like “Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly.” Bloomsbury doesn’t have a bottomless coffer from which to draw funds and so has to allocate its resources.

The real issue is whether publishers like Bloomsbury are sufficiently analyzing their options and making the best choices. It increasingly seems that the only option is “cheapest.”

In the last decades of my active editing career, I made it a point to insist on certain terms. I established a minimum price below which I would not go (this was kept internal and not shared explicitly with clients or potential clients; I determined this floor by the process I outlined in previous An American Editor essays that are available in the An American Editor archives). I set a specific and nonnegotiable way for establishing a page count (I always charged by the page and never by the hour; for my reasoning, you can search the An American Editor archives for my essays discussing the pluses and minuses of the various ways to charge); and I set a firm payment-due-by policy — if payment in full was not received within my timeframe, I stopped work.

These key things (and some others) were nonnegotiable — either the client agreed and I did the work or the client didn’t agree and I passed on the job.

I was being paid for my expertise and the quality of my work. Clients always had the option of finding someone willing to work for far less than me; of finding someone who would accept the client’s page count instead of doing their own (I always do my own page count; I never accept the client’s); and of finding someone who was willing to wait an eternity to be paid. (I recall one short-lived client who started at payment within 30 days, then went to 45 days, then to 90 days, and finally to when the book was published. I never did get a satisfactory answer to what happened if the book was not published for a year or perhaps was never published). But my expertise and work quality were not available to clients who wanted that person.

To find editors who would do as they wanted, publishers created an intermediary level. When I first started work as an independent editor, I was hired by the publisher, my work was reviewed by the publisher’s in-house editorial staff, and I was paid by the publisher. As time passed and cheapness became the requirement, “independent” full-service production houses were created, often as subsidiaries of the publisher, and located in developing countries where costs were low. In the beginning, only production, not editorial, work was done by these companies. But as dividend demands and competitiveness increased (and pressure from companies like Amazon built), these service companies expanded into the editorial realm.

That is when trouble began — “good enough” became the standard, eventually devolving to “it was edited” without mention of or regard for the quality of the editing. I do not intend to rehash that history or delineate the problems beyond saying that editorial quality declined greatly. Much of the problem was that having a grasp of formal language is not the same as having a grasp of the nuances and localisms of a language, and the editors who were hired were formally fluent but informally naïve.

The other major contributor was that to be competitive, more books had to be published, yet publishing more books meant more fiscal failures. The book industry relies on hits to support both failures and what is referred to as “literary masterpieces”; that is, books that deserve to be (if not need to be) published as part of a debt to society and to the future, but that will never be wildly profitable (or even minimally or barely profitable).

One way to help keep a company afloat is to control costs. Editorial costs are easy to control because many readers can’t discern between good and bad editing and, more importantly, most people buy a book and put it on a shelf until they get around to it, by which time the book can’t be returned. In addition, of the great number of books being published each year, only a handful will be reviewed by knowledgable reviewers.

But all of this brings us back again to the Bloomsbury problem: Does having a bad review for editorial reasons sink a book’s prospects? If yes, then when publishers seek the least-expensive editing instead of the best editing, are publishers shooting themselves in the foot? If no, then why bother with editing at all? How many books and publishers can survive repeated reviews that state, “[publisher] deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly”?

The Bloomsbury problem is exacerbated by us editors in that there is both an overabundance of editors (largely because of the ease of becoming an editor and the belief that not only can anyone be an editor, but “that I caught the half-dozen misspellings in the book proves what a great editor I am”) and an overabundance of editors willing to cheapen the value of their work so they have work, like the editor who says she can charge 50 cents a page for a heavy edit of an engineering tome because she is retired, receives Social Security, and views her editing earnings as popcorn money. (I have often thought that editing is one of those trades that probably should have remained a guild craft, but that isn’t how capitalism works.) Bloomsbury could publish Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel because it had no one to advise it that the book should not be published until edited better (assuming it was edited at all).

Bloomsbury, like most publishers, wears blinders when it comes to editorial services — it simply does not want to understand the value that a high-quality, highly professional editor can bring to the table. Adding to the problem is that few editors understand the importance of their role, or even the parameters of their role, in preparing a book for publication. Ask most people what an editor does and the answer is “Correct the spelling and grammar.” I’d bet that few editors reading this have ever told a publisher (or even an author) that a book should not be published in its current construct, detailing why and what steps are needed to make the book publishable.

Most editors see a production schedule and know that by x date, they have to be done editing. Their goal is to meet that schedule for fear of not getting another project from the client. The fear is legitimate, but also often hampers the editor by keeping the editor from doing the best professional job the editor can do. Publishers like Bloomsbury also look at the production schedule and see that the editing has to be finished by x date to meet the printing date so the book will be available for a specific release period. The publisher does not think it possible that the book would greatly benefit from delay, because the publisher does not equate high-quality editing with higher sales and better reviews.

And so we have the Bloomsbury Sylvia Pankhurst problem. How many more books would Bloomsbury sell if instead of writing, “It is digressive, repetitive, and rife with typographical and factual errors” and “Bloomsbury deserves some sharp words for its failure to edit and proofread this book properly,” the reviewer had written, “It is authoritative and free of typographical and factual errors” and “Bloomsbury deserves kudos for the high-quality editing and proofreading this book received, which makes this an outstanding contribution to the Pankhurst literature”?

Imagine being the editor of Sylvia Pankhurst, knowing that Bloomsbury definitely saw the negative London Review of Books review. If I were the publisher, I would want to know the editor’s name and put out the word within Bloomsbury (which would soon leak externally) not to hire that editor again. In contrast, had the review been positive, thereby enhancing Bloomsbury’s reputation as a publisher, Bloomsbury would want to know the editor’s name so it could hire that editor again for future projects. And if I were the editor, I’d be blasting the positive review everywhere.

Publishers and editors earn reputations. Too many reviews like that of Sylvia Pankhurst hurt a publisher’s reputation; readers will be cautious about buying books with that publisher’s name attached. Similarly, editors associated with reviews like that of Sylvia Pankhurst tend to be avoided by knowledgeable publishers; it is very difficult to regain a positive reputation for editing in today’s social media world once a negative one has been earned.

Both publishers and editors need to remember that an important key to success is reputation.

Richard Adin is the founder of the An American Editor blog, author of The Business of Editing (with Jack Lyon and Ruth E. Thaler-Carter), owner of wordsnSync, and creator/owner of EditTools.

March 17, 2021

Thinking Fiction: The Book as an Object

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:40 pm

Carolyn Haley

Writing a novel has often been likened to having a baby. The analogy is apt, in terms of gestation, obsession, pain, thrill, frustration, and all that goes with the long-term development of a new life.

Less often discussed is what happens later in the process, when it’s time to push the fledgling out of the nest.

In literary terms, this translates to finishing a book and letting it go to flop or fly. Some writers can’t do that, for any of three reasons:

1) Insecurity. They fear they will fail, or be laughed at, or put down.

2) Perfectionism. They can’t stop fine-tuning, because they believe a state of perfection can be achieved.

3) Brainwashing. They’ve been drilled by gurus to make their work “the best it can be” and believe that anything less is undeserving to be published, so their book is never ready.

The reverse also happens — some writers rush their books out the door in eagerness for publication, and don’t give their work the time and attention it deserves (including not budgeting money or time for editing and proofreading).

Either way, there’s a mental transition that has to occur between writing and publishing. A novel’s natural lifecycle is to transform from a private idea to a publicly exposed product. Along the way, it takes on a life of its own and the author is progressively edged aside.

Transformation phase 1

During draft composition, a story belongs exclusively to its author. Once the manuscript is completed and somebody else reads it, however, the transformation from idea to object begins.

Many authors test their ideas through beta readers to get their first sense of how their material can be perceived outside their own head. The more beta readers, the more different ideas and opinions push against the author’s sensibilities and imagination. What the author initially conceived starts to change in their own minds as well as on the page.

When the book reaches an editor, the real transition begins. Professional editors have no personal connection to the author. Their relationship is a business one, and their concern is only the material the author has created. This is not to suggest that the author-editor relationship is or should ever be indifferent or adversarial; rather, most editors get fully engaged in the material and devote themselves to helping the author cultivate it into a product that will draw readers.

But to the editor, the book is a “thing” — a narrative to be analyzed and polished and, if necessary, reformulated, until it is solid enough to go out the door and connect with its readers. For editors, working on a manuscript is a job as well as a calling, and the manuscript is weighed and measured against standards including, but also extending beyond, the author’s own criteria.

Transformation phase 2

Once a manuscript has been polished, it’s presented to one of three types of people: agents and acquiring editors (traditional publishing), or directly to readers (self-publishing). For the first two, the agent/editor evaluates the book as something they love and can commit to, or don’t love and reject for taste, or love but reject because it can’t be sold in enough quantities to justify the cost of producing it. In other words, the book has become a commodity and is subject to an accounting sheet. The author may still be in the equation, because with agents and publishers, contracts are involved, but at that point, author control and preference start sliding to the back seat, and what has been lovingly carried by their own hands is transferred to someone else’s.

When an author self-publishes their book and promotes it directly to readers, the disassociation happens more slowly but still becomes real. To self-publish, an author must turn a manuscript into a product people can buy. That process involves making all kinds of decisions about style, format, category, distribution, cover design, tagline, blurb, and so forth. These decisions force authors to look at their work as a thing that has to appeal to readers outside their own sphere.

Often, especially with first-time authors, submitting a book to the wider world is fraught with angst, discouragement, and confusion. It’s particularly galling for those who go the traditional-publishing route and submit, get rejected, submit, get rejected, for what could be dozens of times over many years. It’s hard for authors to realize that it’s not themselves being rejected, when what they conceived in passion, and invested a big chunk of their lives into expressing and molding, brings no positive result.

Even when the big day comes and the book is finally accepted, the process becomes more depersonalizing when contracts come into play. Suddenly the “baby” morphs into intellectual property involving rights and licensing, then gets kicked around like a soccer ball during further stages of editing and all the choices and compromises involved in turning it into a purchasable product.

Sooner or later, authors have to detach emotionally from their work and share the publisher’s perspective, whether they are working with a traditional house or producing the book themselves. The book must become an object to get into readers’ hands, by whatever tools and techniques work.

Transformation phase 3

After all the transitional tasks are accomplished, and the book is published, then come sales and reviews — and a new wave of learning just how many different ways the product can be perceived. By then, it’s difficult for an author to remember the once-upon-a-time when the challenge of the day was wringing words out of the soul and getting them into the right order to capture the author’s vision and feelings. The book has flown from the nest, destined for a fate that depends on myriad factors mainly beyond the author’s control.

The weirdest experience some authors have is meeting their readers, through signings or conferences or interviews (online or in person), when their personal self who created the book faces the results of what the book turned into. Depending on their personality type, this can be the most fulfilling part of the process, or the most alienating.

Regardless, the path to publication involves transformation inside the author as well as within the work itself. That’s why it’s important for authors to decide early what they want from publishing.

The best practice is to ignore the question during drafting the book, so the intense, private creation experience can proceed uninhibited. Then, when revising, but before showing the work to any beta readers or editors, authors can dream about what they want for success, and consider what they’re willing to settle for and what they don’t want at all. Understanding their goals and boundaries helps them direct their feedback readers on the best way to revise the book without wasting time, energy, and emotion on dead ends and sidetracks.

It comes down to authors owning their work. Ownership becomes literal once the book has turned into a thing, but while getting there, it’s a psychological state that reduces emotional distress and eases the transition between art and object.

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

February 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Does Spelling Really Matter?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:18 pm
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Carolyn Haley, Columnist

When it comes to creating books, there are three answers to the question of whether spelling really matters: yes, no, and “it depends.” Usually all three come into play over the course of a book’s life.

At the draft and revision stages of composing a book, spelling doesn’t matter. That’s when authors focus on content — organizing ideas, devising plots, developing characters, turning sentences, building worlds. Prose changes constantly during composition, and only the author (and perhaps a personal support team) sees the work in progress.

By the time a manuscript is submitted for professional consideration, however, or released to public readership, spelling has come to matter a lot.

In between composing and publication lie the variables and decisions that fall under “it depends.”

It depends on the author, the editor, the publisher, the country in which all or any of them live, and the countries in which the book will be distributed. It also depends on which resources the various parties use for reference and guidance. In English alone, alternatives abound.

Most authors expect editors to be expert spellers, grammarians, and evaluators. Most editors are, which is why authors and editors have long formed a yin/yang balance that results in great books. Editors are expected to recognize not only a true misspelling (typo), but also a word that is legitimately spelled in different ways.

What authors may not know is how editors determine which variant is correct. Fanning through any few dictionaries shows that not every authority agrees on how to spell a particular word. It often happens that an author refers to Dictionary A, which spells something like non-disclosure or e-mail with a hyphen, while Dictionary B, used by an editor, spells both words solid (nondisclosure, email).

Even within an individual dictionary, one or more variations may be allowed, such as ax and axe. Nowadays, with online dictionaries available, there might also be differences between a print edition and an online edition of the same one, owing to the online version’s ability to update faster. Thus, for example, the initial cap in Internet, shown in the latest print edition, may appear in lowercase in the online edition. Common usage drives changes in caps and spellings as well as meanings, and even coins new terms (e.g., some dictionaries now allow Google the company name to be used as a verb, to google). Changes are likely to appear in the next edition of a print dictionary, but that might not be published for several years and so will always be a step behind its rapid-response online version.

Meanwhile, different countries favor different spellings. Sticking with English, there are American, British, Canadian, and Australian variants, as well as local and regional versions within each country.

Editors understand this, and recognize that it’s not so much “correctness” that matters but consistency and context. For instance, American editors working on American authors’ novels will draw upon American-English dictionaries and style guides, whereas Canadian (etc.) editors will refer to dictionaries and style guides preferred in their country. In crossover situations, such as an American editor working on a British writer’s book, the editor normally consults with the author or the author’s publisher to determine which standard to apply.

That’s why we see American books with favorite and color and British books with favourite and colour, along with differences like gray and grey, check and cheque, while and whilst, toward and towards, plus prefixes and suffixes added to root words with and without a hyphen.

None of these are wrong unless they switch around in an individual manuscript, or appear in an inappropriate context, such as an American novel released in the United States using British spellings, or vice versa. Most books are reedited (or re-edited) before being published in other countries, and often retitled (or re-titled). Conversely, self-published books that are globally available online (or on-line or on line) the moment they come out tend to be edited in the author’s native English, and stay that way.

Editors on staff at a publishing house generally use the preferred house spelling and style guides for editing manuscripts. Likewise, independent editors working in a narrow niche use the guides that dominate in their arm of the industry. Independent editors working with independent authors have free rein in their choices, but most educate themselves in the guides that are predominant in their channels, and stock their reference libraries accordingly. Editors by nature are inclined to load our libraries with all the reference works we can get their hands on, so we can almost always accommodate whatever language issues come our way.

Consistency is the aspect that really counts in spelling. When there are multiple variations for a word, the editor’s task is to decide which one to use and stick with it. This level of detail grooming usually occurs during copyediting (or copy-editing or copy editing). Many copyeditors (or copy editors) prepare a style sheet for each project in which they specify the reference works guiding their decisions, and use the style sheet to note any variations used in the manuscript. This shows the author what was done and why, without the editor having to load the manuscript with explanations or extra markups.

Authors who have preferences that they care about deeply — regarding either the reference resources they want used or specific personal preferences like that e in axe or grey — need to let their editors know before work begins so misunderstandings don’t occur, and work doesn’t have to be undone or redone. In the absence of author direction, most editors will follow the dictionaries and style guides they’ve determined are suitable for the project.

The purpose of consistency and correctness in any aspect of a book is to present a clean and professional product to the people destined to read it. Typos and irregularities distract readers from content, and in some cases cause negative reactions. Manuscripts being considered for publication might be rejected if the material is sloppy and inconsistent, because those issues give the impression the author hasn’t done their homework and the work isn’t ready to be published. Sometimes sloppiness means rejection simply because the extra work required to bring the material up to the publisher’s standard will cost too much time and money to warrant accepting the book. Other times, manuscripts are winnowed out of contention without even being read, solely because of errors and irregularities that are visible in a quick scan — and spelling errors are very easy to spot. An agent or acquiring editor whose desk is piled high with submissions might reduce that pile to manageable proportions by automatically rejecting any manuscript that looks messy or amateurish, as much due to spelling issues as to presentation (but that’s a topic for another time).

Readers on the consumer end judge books by their interior presentation as well as by their covers. Many a book has been skipped over by potential readers in response to reviews dissing it for sloppiness. Even Amazon, which opened doors to so many self-publishing writers, has responded to reader complaints by instituting quality standards that may result in a book being removed from Amazon’s site until the problems are fixed. The most brilliant, creative, informative content can be unappreciated or unread if it’s riddled with misspellings or other issues. Readers want and deserve the respect that’s signaled by material as well written and well edited as the parties involved can make it.

So, yes, spelling matters in the end.

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

February 3, 2021

On the Basics: Should we work for free?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Disclaimer: This post expands on a conversation I’ve participated in on LinkedIn, so some of you may have seen parts of it already.

Like many of us here, I’m often asked to do writing, editing, proofreading, website or speaking work for free. When such a request comes from organizations or causes I believe in, I’ll consider it and sometimes say yes. From people who aim to profit from the project or my potential role, I find polite but firm ways to say no, and explain — if necessary — that I do this work as my profession, so I expect to be paid. I don’t talk about my need to pay a mortgage or buy groceries; I simply present myself as a business. With newbie authors, I suggest that they start saving so they can afford to hire professional editors or proofreaders, designers, etc. With startup companies, I suggest that they get back in touch once they’re funded/established and can pay for professional services.

While it can be challenging to stand up for ourselves in terms of being paid, I find it easy to talk to people about pro bono or free work. If we don’t value our services, skills and experience, no one else will. I wish people would realize that someone like me does the work as my profession, my living, or at least respect that — I think it’s pretty clear that I write, edit, etc., as something other than a hobby. People probably know that, if they have any sense; they just don’t want to accept or respect it.

It does help that I’ve been in the communications field for long enough that I don’t have to do free work to become established, prove myself, earn paying projects or making a comfortable living. If I were just starting out, my perspective might be different — but I would still put limits on the scope of pro bono work I would do.

The lawyers I work with in editing or proofreading for law firms do pro bono work for charities/nonprofit organizations as part of their and their firms’ commitments to service to their communities. Pro bono is expected in their profession. They also might get awards for such contributions. We in the editorial field don’t usually get such recognition; we do pro bono as a personal service, and sometimes to get established.

The difference is probably that the lawyer or accountant usually has a regular income, so doing pro bono work doesn’t cut into their business the way editing someone’s ms. for free, for instance, would interfere with a freelancer’s income-generating time. I wouldn’t give away editing an entire ms. unless the author were a relative, very close friend or colleague who had done something similar for me — but I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that substantial for me without compensation. Maybe a skim and an opinion, but not actual work.

Good reasons to donate our time

It should be noted that there are good reasons to do some editorial work for free.

If you’re new to the field, it makes sense to do a few projects for free to get established, build a network, create visibility and prove your skills. If you’re in a rut and want to expand into new types of editorial work or start covering new topics, it might take doing some work for free to get your feet wet and establish yourself on those new levels.

One example of writing for free is, of course, blogging. I don’t profit from the An American Editor blog, much as I enjoy writing here, and many of our subscribers have their own blogs on all kinds of topics that they don’t get paid to write about. These projects are everything from a service to colleagues, or friends and family, to soapboxes to therapy of a sort. Blogs are a great outlet for opinions and insights that you can’t share elsewhere and don’t have a paying client for, and can be an excellent way to get noticed. Even posting to someone else’s blog can be beneficial by creating greater visibility for your work and voice. (Some blogs do make money — there’s a lot of advice about “monetizing” blogs, and bloggers have been known to get book or other paying offers based on their posts.) However, working for free in return for visibility or “exposure” can be iffy. Just keep in mind that exposure can get someone arrested, or killed. 🙂

One of the hardest work-for-free requests for me is speaking. I love to talk, I love to share information, I love to be of help to colleagues, I love to be around people at conferences and similar events. I don‘t love to travel or stay in hotels on my own dime, which is often what’s involved with speaking at out-of-town events. Some organizations even have the chutzpah to expect speakers to pay to attend the events where they’ll be speaking, which I don’t accept. I believe that when someone is providing expert advice, they should get something out of it. That’s why the Be a Better Freelancer® conference that I host (now with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, and AAE) covers speaker accommodations, conference fee and meals at the very least, and often has paid for speaker travel as well.

I often recommend that colleagues put limits or deadlines on the pro bono work that they do, but I’ve never come up with a standard for setting the amount of time I might give to such projects. Some of them have involved a couple of hours, some have been ongoing for a long time; it depends on the cause or organization and my connection to it.

Setting boundaries is also unpredictable. Sometimes I say I’ll be available for X hours or Y months; sometimes I just see how I feel after a while to decide it’s time to stop and devote my energy to something else. How long you work pro bono and for whom is a personal decision that you probably have to make on a case-by-case basis; there might be no one-size-fits-all rule. Just be sure to give adequate warning when you reach that point of no more freebies so the recipient can fill the gap quickly.

When it comes to speaking, I often make my decision based on event location: If a conference will be held somewhere that I like or want to visit, especially because I have friends or family there, that tends to tilt the scale toward yes. If you’re an author with books to sell (or an artist or photographer, etc., with works to sell), speaking engagements can lead to onsite sales, which can offset the expense of getting to the event and make the free speech worth doing. Some of my colleagues consider the travel points they accumulate from speaking at out-of-town events as a worthwhile swap for being paid to present.

Doing free writing, editing, proofreading, indexing and other types of editorial work can be fulfilling. It can even be profitable: The connections you make and the work can take you from volunteer to employee or paid contributor. Before you turn down or accept such requests, look at them closely, think about how acceding to them will feel and act accordingly. Set your own limits and go from there.

Have you done any pro bono editorial work? For whom? How did you respond? How did it turn out for you?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers and companies worldwide. She created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

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