An American Editor

May 28, 2021

On the Basics — What is editing? What is it supposed to do?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A lot of sites and groups purport to offer expert advice about writing and editing. Some of it is good, some of it is bad and some of it inspires additional conversation. A recent online conversation discussed whether editing is supposed to make a piece of writing shorter vs. longer after a colleague saw a statement in a writing group that editing means making things shorter; when he responded that editing can also make things longer, he was told that’s revising, not editing. Other participants responded with the classics: Shakespeare’s “Brevity is the soul of wit” and Mark Twain’s “I’d have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.”

Yes, making a work more concise is often part of editing, and usually a good thing, but that isn’t all there is to editing. I’m with the colleague who sees editing as sometimes making something longer. Authors can be so familiar with their topics that they don’t realize their readers might need more detail, untrained in writing and apt to over-write or write without organization and structure, or in such a hurry to meet a deadline that they leave out important aspects of a topic. A skilled editor can help make the document meet its goal of completing incomplete material, and that usually requires adding to it.

There are also writers who just open the mental floodgates and write without planning, expecting their editors to make sense of the material or battle it down to meet a required length for them. Sometimes I do that to myself: I’ll write out everything I have for an article, then go back and cut it down if I have to meet a specific word count. (I save the longer version in case I find a use for the material I’ve cut to fulfill the assignment.)

When I’m wearing my editor hat, I cut a bit or add a bit, whichever is appropriate (with the caveat that I provide copyediting; I’m not interested in the much-harder work of developmental or substantive editing these days). Every document is different, and likely to require a different approach. To me, editing simply makes a written work better, which can mean cutting it down if needed; making it longer if needed; or simply making it clear, consistent, accurate and readable without changing the word count — perhaps by changing some words for ones that are a better fit but keep the manuscript at the same overall count — all while respecting the author’s voice. And even “better” can be a subjective matter, just to add to the complexity of the process.

What colleagues say

A recent issue of the ACES: The Society for Copyediting newsletter offered these perspectives about the meaning of editing, all of which ring true, at least for me:

Charita Ray-Blakely in “Editors should understand the possible pitfalls of anthropomorphism”: “One fundamental task of editing is to promote clarity in content”

Christine Steele, quoting or paraphrasing John Russial’s Strategic Copy Editing (Guildford Press, 2004) in “Critical-thinking copyediting”:

“Editing is not about nitpicking and finding mistakes — it is about making choices”

“Editing is about critical thinking”

“Editing is about working together and respecting others”

“Editing is about balancing perfection and pragmatism”

“Editing is about ethics”

The owners of the Editorial Arts Academy, judging from a recent Facebook post, lean toward the brevity perspective: “‘Less is More’ is the guiding principle when it comes to line editing. Authors don’t pay editors to rewrite their words but rather to improve on what is already there.”

And finally, Ally Machate of the Writer’s Ally posted that “Debut books often have shorter word counts than those from successful authors” and provided some comparisons between genres, career stages and more at: http://wordcounters.com/?fbclid=IwAR0rxdeLOjhI93UHdT4dcYaavtWNtxe4-OyJAMxODebu4q5dX6i3uUD4TMs.

Managing challenges

One of the challenges for many of us is not just defining substantive, developmental, line and copyediting to make it easier to establish what we’ll do with (or to) a manuscript, but to educate clients about the difference between editing and proofreading. How many of us have been asked to “just proofread” a document, only to see that it desperately needs editing? I’m sure that’s happened to many, if not all, of us, because a client either honestly doesn’t understand the difference or is less honestly trying to get editing work done for the price (perceived as lower) of proofreading. Establishing and hewing to these boundaries is not just a matter of defining levels of editing or what editing means, but a huge factor in figuring out how much time, effort and money will go into any given editing project, whether you’re working freelance or in-house.

Cutting extraneous, redundant or unclear material is part of editing. Fleshing out incomplete ideas can be part of editing, although it’s often more appropriate to suggest to the author that they should expand or complete something, especially if you’re copyediting. There’s more room to do that kind of revision with substantive or developmental editing, although too much actual added wording by the editor can become co-authorship or ghostwriting. 

One area where cutting vs. adding words can make the editing life more complicated is (for freelancers) on the financial side: If you charge by the word, you have to decide which word count to use for your fee. Most of the people I’ve seen discuss this pricing model use the original word count, but if you’ve done a lot adding to the manuscript, you might feel cheated of your rightful fee if you can’t charge for doing so. You might need language in your contract to cover that eventuality.

There’s also one occasional headache in the area of word count: how to account for the actual number of words. As I found out this past week, Word can’t always be relied upon to provide the correct count. My version suddenly showed what I knew was a 700-word document I was writing as having only 187 words; apparently the program got stuck at some point in the manuscript and didn’t “see” the rest of it. Copy-and-pasting into a new document cured the problem (and it helped that I save frequently as I work, whether writing, editing or proofreading), but it was a heart-stopping moment to think that I had somehow deleted most of my hard-written words! To an editor addicted to cutting out words, that might have been a good thing to see, but it certainly wasn’t a good moment here. When I asked colleagues what might have caused that glitch, nobody knew but everybody said something similar had happened to them at least once, if not often.

Experiences among us

How do you define editing, and your role as an editor, in terms of when/whether to cut and when/whether to add? What challenges have you had in establishing a definition and communicating it to clients or colleagues? How often has cutting vs. adding words been a factor?

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.

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.

February 1, 2021

On the Basics: Coping with — and heading off — problems

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Once again, I’ve been inspired by recent posts in various places, this time ones that focused on complaints — either how a writer or editor can respond to a client’s complaint about their own work, or how an author or their editor can respond when someone else creates problems with a project.

Heading off problems before they arise

Of course, the best way to eliminate client complaints is to do great work, regardless of your niche — writing, editing, proofreading, layout, production, etc. Just be very careful about what you offer. Guaranteeing or promising perfection is a landmine. Many of us do turn around essentially perfect work most of the time, but we’re all human, and mistakes happen — our own, on occasion, and by people farther along the publication process whom we can’t control. There also can be differences of opinion about style and voice that create appearances of imperfection in the eyes of clients, readers and others who see the work.

One preventive option is to use your website, and maybe even your e-mail sigline, to say that you don’t guarantee perfection. Most of us provide results that qualify as perfect, but I never guarantee such a level of performance — I promise excellence, but I don’t guarantee perfection. Too many things can interfere with achieving perfection on every single project, no matter what your editorial niche might be and how excellent your skills.

Depending on the editorial service(s) you provide, it’s also smart to include contract or agreement language saying that you do not guarantee perfection, and are not to be mentioned in a dedication or acknowledgment unless you’ve seen the final-for-release version of a client’s document and are assured that it won’t be changed after that point. Being thanked for work that gets changed for the worse after it leaves your hands can be horribly embarrassing.

When the complaint goes against you

Many writing, editing, proofreading and other publishing-world colleagues wonder about how to handle client complaints. Some say they can see themselves “firmly yet politely providing an explanation,” and possibly offering a (reasonable) refund or a discount on a future project if they were responsible for the problem. If the issue appears to be major and the client is furious, though, then what? And what if the error is someone else’s doing?

First and foremost, don’t panic. We all make mistakes, and many complaints are much less major than they seem at first. And the problem might not be your fault.

Sometimes all the client wants is your acknowledgment that you goofed, so it makes sense to apologize — but without offering anything until you have a better sense of what happened and what the client wants. A response might also depend on what the client thinks went wrong; the problem might have been caused by someone other than you (including the client!) or not even be a real deal, merely a difference in perspective or definitions.

Once you’ve identified the problem or issue, you can respond effectively. If you missed a couple of misspellings or similar somewhat minor errors in a document, apologize and consider offering to give the manuscript one more look at no cost, assuming it hasn’t already gone out into the world.

If the piece is already in print, the apology and refund or discount might do the trick. With some projects or publications, it also might be possible to redo the material and give the client a new version to republish or reissue. Bigger issues call for bigger approaches.

There have been plenty of instances of self-publishing authors finding a lot of errors in their published books, or being alerted to or criticized for errors by readers. One of the most-common reasons: Somehow the author, or someone on their behalf, uploaded the wrong file for publication. Maybe the author didn’t know how to accept an editor’s input and changes. Maybe the author misfiled the corrected, final version of the manuscript.

Another common reason for errors in published work is that a well-intentioned layout person or designer made changes in the text that introduced errors. Or that the author didn’t have the project proofread before publication.

That doesn’t only happen to independent authors, by the way, although it’s more rare in traditionally published books. I bought an expensive hardcover traditionally published book a few years ago that started with a missing map and was rife with typos on almost every page. It was so egregious and outrageous that I contacted the publisher and author, who were mortified. The publisher said the wrong version of the manuscript somehow got into production and publication, and that they’d reissue the correct version. (They sent me a different book by the same author to make up for it, and I have no idea whether they ever did a reprint of the messed-up one.)

Of course, readers find and comment about errors in published works because many independent authors don’t pay for editing or proofreading before leaping into print. That’s why it’s important for us to identify the actual problem and who was responsible for it — not to mention whether there even is a real error — if we do get a complaint.

When errors aren’t your doing

An editing colleague recently encountered a problem with work on a client’s book that had nothing to do with the editor. The colleague had completed a copyedit for a client who then used a book designer to complete the final layout and files for self-publishing on Amazon, and the designer made changes that created errors in the published version. The errors weren’t in the original draft that the author gave the designer, nor in the first proof. The copyeditor thought they were the result of a sloppy find/replace by the designer, and wanted to know how “egregious” this was.

My response:
“VERY!”

(Please note that I know a lot of talented, skilled designers who would never do something like this.)

I suggested that the author tell the designer something like: “I am very upset that you made changes to my book that introduced a substantial number of errors. This is not acceptable. I expect a refund for your services or a revision at no charge.”

I would advise an author to ask such a designer for a refund rather than a redo. Asking them to redo it at no cost is a big maybe, because that designer clearly can’t be trusted, maybe even with very clear, firm guidelines about not making any changes that you and the author don’t see. It would probably be smarter to find a new designer, and to insist on seeing the final version before letting it go into production and release.

If such a designer has control over the files of the error-filled edition, tell them to send the files to you (so a new designer can handle the new edition), but don’t say that you won’t use the designer again until you have the original files in hand or know whether the files will be provided. If they refuse, you and your author will have to correct the first edition and do the new edition yourselves from scratch, but that might be safer than trusting it to someone who has proven to be problematic. 

If you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure that (a) you and your client(s) don’t use that designer again and (2) all future projects include language requiring that you and your client(s) see any versions that a designer has changed before publication! 

No one should have to search for errors in their publishing projects caused by changes they don’t know that someone made. 

Other people’s errors in our work are painful. I recently had to explain to someone I wrote about for a newspaper profile that the typo in the article’s headline was introduced in production, when someone changed it from what I submitted; at least it could be fixed in the online version, but it lives on in the print copy. And I still bristle over a misuse of “its/it’s” — something I would never get wrong — that someone else introduced years ago in a big, bold callout quote for one of my favorite magazine projects back in the days before digital publishing; I felt that I couldn’t use it as a portfolio sample because there was no way to let prospective employers or clients know that it wasn’t my mistake.

Possible responses

When colleagues ask for strategies for dealing with upset clients, I’ve responded along these lines:

“I tend to work fast, so I consciously slow myself down and give everything a second look before sending projects back to reduce the likelihood of upsetting my clients by missing something. I also take time to go over details before I start on a project, ask about or check for style preferences, etc. In more than 35 years of writing, editing, proofreading and freelancing, I’ve only had a couple of bad experiences that were my fault. If an issue were to come up, I would remind the client that I promise and provide excellence, but don’t guarantee perfection.” 

If a client wants a refund or discount, look at the context very, very carefully before responding or acquiescing. I’d rather not set a precedent for a refund or a discount. If something really were my fault, I’d consider providing a partial refund that represents a reasonable response, or offering a discount — again, on a reasonable level — for a subsequent project. Some of us will provide a refund at a few cents per error; others offer a discount (I wouldn’t go higher than 10%) on a new project.

A sad reality

Today’s online world makes moments involving client or reader complaints very challenging. It can be difficult — sometimes impossible — to respond to allegations of poor performance, and some complainers won’t stand down even if you can show that an issue wasn’t your doing. We also can’t always know where someone is complaining or even attacking us; there are so many platforms where these things can appear that it might not be possible to counteract every instance of a problem. Engaging with complainers or attackers also can make them escalate their behavior; even when we’re right, we might not win.

It’s smart to do occasional online searches of your name to see if there are any issues “out there” that you might want — or need — to respond to. Testimonials at your website from clients whose projects went smoothly also can help balance out baseless complaints or criticisms.

In whatever role anyone here might play in a publishing project, we can only do our best and network together to maintain our reputations. Complaints might be one of those inevitable, but ideally rare, headaches that come with being in business and living in the current era of online visibility, with all of its unpredictable aspects — some that are scary, but many that are beneficial.

Have you encountered complaints about your work, or that of anyone else who’s part of one of your projects? How did you respond? What would you do differently in the future?

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.

August 31, 2020

On the Basics: The ethics of editing college applications

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Once again, inspiration for an An American Editor blog post struck in reaction to a collegial discussion list conversation. (Some of you may have seen the beginnings of the conversation; this is an expanded version.)

A colleague mentioned having received a request to write or edit the client’s kid’s college application and said she responded by telling them that college applications should be the student’s own work. She characterized the request as a possible ethics issue, and I agree; I said I would have responded the same way. If they had only asked for editing services, it might have been different.

This is a frequent, albeit unfortunate, type of request. The asker usually has every intention of paying for the service, so it isn’t a scam in the financial sense, but either doesn’t know or care that it could be unethical. I manage or respond to these requests by making it my policy not to provide editing for college or grad school applications; proofreading, maybe, but even that can seem borderline inappropriate.

This might be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but I’m interested in how colleagues think about it. Some institutions will let applicants use editors or proofreaders for application statements or essays, but forbid hiring someone to write those materials. Some draw distinctions between doing such work for native speakers vs. speakers of other languages, or between disciplines — hiring an editor or proofreader is OK for students in the sciences, engineering, maybe business, etc., but not for those in English degree programs.

I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who is willing to function in a language other than their original one, especially English, which can be a challenge even for well-educated origin speakers (as we often see here). And I’m not monolingual: I’ve studied and used French, German and Spanish — but wouldn’t want to tackle writing in any of them until I had spent time immersed in them again; even German, which I picked up in childhood mostly from listening to my Austrian parents and only studied formally much later.

In the application process, it seems more fair for someone’s command of any language to be clear in — literally — their own words, especially in areas like medicine, where lack of fluency could have life-threatening results.

On the other hand, rejecting an applicant because of clunky English in an application might be a disservice to all concerned. Many applicants are very talented in their fields and deserve the opportunity to continue their educations at institutions in countries other than their own. There also can be a difference between someone’s spoken and comprehended levels of language vs. their skills in writing it. And it’s valuable for students to meet and interact with peers from other countries and cultures, no matter which ones are involved. Being accepted into a program and interacting with native speakers, both instructors and fellow students, day in and day out would improve a non-native’s command of English as well.

One colleague found it “hard to believe someone has the nerve to ask for such a thing in this day and age.”

Actually, I find it understandable (not acceptable, but understandable). It isn’t new. There have always been ways for students to game the system, even if only by having their parents write or edit their school work or applications, and students have been selling their work to each other for ages and a day. It’s even easier to do nowadays than ever before: Entire businesses are built on writing student essays and applications (businesses that do the writing for students at any level, and people who work for such businesses, are unethical in my eyes and those of many others, both individuals and institutions/organizations). Papers, and probably application essays, can be purchased online with ease. Celebrities pay thousands to phony up their kids’ applications, sometimes without the kids’ knowledge.

There also can be a thin line between editing and rewriting, although the distinction between writing and editing is easier to draw.

I typed papers for fellow students when I was in college (back in the Dark Ages before computers 🙂 ), and would correct some of their spelling or basic punctuation errors as I went along, but I wouldn’t rewrite if their concepts weren’t clear. There was a big difference between typing up a handwritten paper and rewriting or even editing it. More recently, I proofread my niece’s résumé and a cover letter for her; she’s in landscape architecture and is bilingual in English and Hebrew. I was comfortable with catching a few typos that had nothing to do with her professional skills, but I did have an ulterior motive for making her material as close to perfect as possible: I’m hoping she gets a job offer here where I live!

The good news is that the growth of companies that do the work for students and the ease of plagiarizing via the Internet has led to innovation in response, such as anti-plagiarism software programs. These can be used not just to check on whether someone has copied from known published works, but whether they’ve used material that has been “outed” as generated by someone (or thing) other than the student in question.

In the discussion of this that I mentioned above, several colleagues had perspectives on this that were ethical and interesting. Some have worked for college writing centers by providing coaching and advice without actually doing students’ work for them. Others have developed freelance services with a similar focus — helping clients learn how to write more clearly and effectively, but not doing the writing for them.

How and where do you draw a line?

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

August 21, 2020

On the Basics: Yet another scam warning

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Sorry to end the week on a somewhat sour note, but I wanted to warn colleagues here about an apparent current new scam aimed primarily at editors. (Some of you may already have seen discussions about this one; this is for those who haven’t.)

If anyone gets requests from a supposed Ayse Cetin or Fatma, they are probably scams, although we haven’t figured out what the senders are after. They’ll say they need help with something for a fall class, probably in math — coaching or editing, or writing in general. The initial message is likely to include a Word document as an attachment.

If you respond, they’ll do a few rounds of e-mail correspondence (even if you say that you don’t work in their area), and then they’ll want to meet via Zoom. They’ve wasted a lot of time for quite a few colleagues so far in e-mail back-and-forthing and Zoom time, as well as attempts to research the supposed senders to determine whether the requests are legitimate — but haven’t actually hired anyone.

One confusing aspect in trying to figure out what they’re up to is that they’re spending a lot of time and effort on communicating with several dozen editors to date — far more than most scammers bother with before getting money out of people. I’m guessing that a version of the overpayment scam would evolve; others think this is an attempt at hacking e-mail or Zoom accounts.

If you’ve received and responded to this, change your e-mail and/or Zoom passwords. If you receive any version of this and haven’t already responded, delete, delete, delete.

This kind of headache aside,  here’s wishing colleagues a safe, healthy and fun weekend.

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

July 3, 2019

It’s All About the Benjamins! EditTools’ Time Tracker (Part I)

By Richard Adin

In the early years of my freelance editing career, I joined the EFA (Editorial Freelancers Association) as a way to “meet,” via its chat list, other freelance editors. One thing that struck me was how united — except for me and a very few others — EFA members were in their approach to the business of editing. We outliers viewed our chosen career as a business, while most of our colleagues viewed what they did as more like art; that is, they paid as little attention as possible to the business side of freelancing and as much as possible to the skill (editorial) side.

There were many discussions about financial struggles, poor pay, added tasks, multiple passes, and the like. There were few discussions (and very few discussants) regarding advertising, promotion, business practices, calculating what to charge, negotiating — any of the business-side skills. And when business-oriented discussions did start, they often ended quickly because colleagues piled on about how craft was so much more important than something as pedestrian as business and money.

As I said, I was an outlier. For me, it was about the Benjamins (the money). Freelancing was my full-time job — my only source of income. I had a mortgage to pay and two children to feed, clothe, keep healthy, and school. I had no trust fund or wealthy relative who couldn’t wait to send me money on a regular basis. Although how well I edited was very important to both myself and my clients, the money was equally important to me.

I recognized from the start that if I didn’t pay close attention to the business side of freelancing, my family and I would be in trouble. When my son needed $5,000 worth of dental work, it was my job to make sure he got it. It was not my job to tell the dentist, “Sorry, but I am an artisan without sufficient income to pay for your services.” When it came time for college, it was my job to try to get my children through with minimal or no debt for them to deal with upon graduation. And this doesn’t even address such things as providing for my retirement or providing health insurance and auto insurance and the myriad other things that are part of modern life.

In other words, for me, it was all about the Benjamins in the sense that my editorial work could not be viewed through rose-colored glasses as if the only thing that mattered was artisanship.

Which brings me to the point of this essay: EditTools 9 and the project management macros that are part of the just-released EditTools 9 (www.wordsnSync.com).

In Business, Data Drive Success

What seems a lifetime ago, I wrote a series of essays for An American Editor about calculating pricing and why it is important not to look at rate surveys or ask colleagues for guidance (see, for example, the five-part essay “What to Charge,” beginning with Part I, and “The Quest for Rate Charts.” ) Yet, when I go to chat lists like Copyediting-l, it is not unusual to find colleagues asking “What should I charge?” or “What is the going rate?” Nor is it unusual to see a multitude of responses, not one of which is really informative or meaningful for the person who asked the question.

When I meet or speak with colleagues and these questions come up, I usually ask if they have read my essays (some yes, some no) and have ever actually gathered the data from their own experiences and used that data to calculate their personal required Effective Hourly Rate (rEHR) and their actual EHR, both for a project and over the course of many projects. Nearly universally, the answer to the latter questions (about data collection, rEHR, and EHR) is “no.” Why? Because “it is too much effort” or “the XYZ rate chart says to charge X amount” or “I can’t charge more than the going rate.”

But here are the problems: If you don’t collect the data,

  • you can’t determine what you are actually earning (as opposed to what you are charging; you can be charging $3 per page but actually earning $45 per hour, or you can be charging $5 per page but actually earning $9.25 per hour);
  • you can’t know what is the best way to charge to maximize your EHR for the kind of projects you do;
  • you can’t determine whether some types of work are more profitable for you than other types; and
  • you can’t easily determine what to bid/quote when asked for a bid/quote for a new project.

Ultimately, if you don’t know your rEHR, you don’t know if you are making money or losing money because you have nothing to compare your EHR against.

It is also important to remember that there are basically two ways to charge: by the hour or not by the hour (per word, per page, per project). Although many editors like to charge by the hour, that is the worst choice because whatever hourly rate you set, that is the most you can earn. In addition, it is not unusual to start a project and suddenly find that it is taking you less time — or more — to work than originally expected. If you charge by the hour and it takes less time than originally thought, you lose some of the revenue you were expecting to earn; if it takes more time, and assuming nothing has changed, such as the client making additional demands, you run up against the client’s budget. I have yet to meet a client with an unlimited budget and who doesn’t rebel against the idea that you quoted 100 hours of work but now say it will take 150 hours and expect the client to pay for the additional 50 hours.

However, to charge by something other than the hour requires past data so you can have some certainty, based on that past experience, that you can earn at least your rEHR and preferably a much-higher EHR. The way it works is this:

If you charge $3 per page for a 500-page project, you know you will be paid $1,500. If your rEHR is $30, you also know that you have to complete the job in no more than 50 hours. If you can complete the job in 40 hours, the client still pays $1,500 because the fee is not tied to the time spent but to the page count, and your EHR is $37.50. If you were charging by the hour and charged your rEHR of $30, you would be paid $1,200 — a $300 revenue loss.

All of this is based on knowing your data. During my years as a freelancer, I accumulated reams of data. The data were not always well-organized or easy to access until I got smarter about how track the information, but it was always valuable. Within months of first collecting data, I learned some valuable things about my business. I learned, among many other things, that for me (I emphasize that this applies solely to me and my experience):

  • medical textbooks earned a higher EHR than any other type of project;
  • charging by the page was better than charging hourly;
  • calculating a page by number of characters rather than words was better;
  • high-page-count projects that took months to complete were better than low-page-count projects (I rarely edited books of fewer than 3,000 manuscript pages and usually edited texts ranging between 5,000 and 7,500 manuscript pages; I often edited books that ran between 15,000 and 20,000+ manuscript pages);
  • working directly with an author was highly problematic and to be avoided;
  • limiting my services to copyediting was best (I phased out proofreading and other services);
  • working only with clients who would meet my payment schedule was best;
  • saying no, even to a regular, long-time client, was better for business than saying yes and not doing a topnotch job because I hated the work.

I also learned that investing in my business, such as spending many thousands of dollars to create and improve EditTools, paid dividends over the long term (the more-important term).

And I learned a lesson that many editors don’t want to accept: that sometimes you lose money on a project, but that is no reason not to try again. Too many editors have told me that when they have charged by a non-hourly method, they lost money, so they returned to hourly charging. How they know they lost money, I do not know, because they had no idea what their rEHR was, but their assumption was that if they earned less than they would have had they charged by the hour, they lost money. This is not only incorrect thinking, it is short-term thinking.

Such decisions have to be made based on data. Because collecting and analyzing accurate data is a stumbling block for many editors, EditTools 9 includes the Time Tracker project management macro, discussion of which will begin in Part 2 of this essay.

Richard (Rich) Adin is the founder of the An American Editor blog, author of The Business of Editing, owner of wordsnSync, and creator/owner of EditTools.

July 1, 2019

EditTools 9 with Time & Project Management Macros Is Now Available

By Richard Adin

It has taken nearly two years to create the newest release of EditTools, but EditTools 9 is now available (http://www.wordsnsync.com/download.php). New features in EditTools 9 include:

Time Tracker not only lets you keep track of the time you are spending on a project, but it also keeps data about your projects and calculates your Effective Hourly Rate (EHR) and Average Pages per Hour (APH) for the specific project, all projects worked on in the current year, and all projects over your career.

EditTools 9 requires a new license; your EditTools 8 registration number will not work with EditTools 9. There are two versions of EditTools 9: a full version for a first-time EditTools user and an upgrade version for registered users of EditTools 8. Unlike past upgrades, the upgrade is not free.

For details about how to upgrade from EditTools 8 to EditTools 9, see the information at “Download Upgrade to EditTools v9 from v8.”

Richard (Rich) Adin is the founder of the An American Editor blog, author of The Business of Editing, owner of wordsnsync, and creator/owner of EditTools.

May 15, 2019

On the Basics: Rethinking Saving Everything

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, AAE Owner

For more years than I can count, I’ve saved everything related to my work: multiple paper copies of published articles and of pre-computer edited and proofread projects; electronic or digital copies from the days of 5 1/4-inch disks to 3.5 diskettes to Syquest and Zip disks to CDs; finished files on both my iMac desktop computer and MacBook Air laptop; cloud storage …

My theory was that we never know when a client might want to redo or update a project, and I wanted to be the freelancer whom my clients could rely on to have old copies of projects at hand, just in case.

I recently changed my mind about this approach. In preparing to move halfway across the country last fall, even though to a larger space, I found myself wanting to scale back on this extensive, bulky, obsessive wealth of backups. I had to empty out file drawers for the movers, and clear stuff off shelves and out of cubbyholes; the more I could get rid of, the more I could save on the move. A light bulb went off: It seems unlikely that anyone would want anything more than a year old, but even if they do, I could keep a paper copy of everything, so I’d be able to scan anything that someone might want, and update old versions in new, current editions of software.

I went through those file cabinets in my home office and weeded out all but one paper copy each of published works. Then I went back and pitched all the loose copies after I remembered that I have a copy of everything in notebooks organized by year and going back to the 1970s, which creates the one paper copy that all that I really need — in these days of websites and online portfolios, there’s rarely a need to send someone a paper copy of a finished project. Although my file cabinet copies were organized by client or publication name and the notebooks are organized by year, I’m pretty sure I can remember at least roughly when I worked with which clients and thus can pull old copies as needed.

Next, I got rid of all paper copies of edited and proofed projects — anyone wanting to update or revise any of those nowadays will send me an electronic file to work on, and a current version is likely to be different from the one I worked on years ago. Even if it’s the still the same, my edits should already have been incorporated, and it would make more sense to reread the current version as if it’s new than to try to copy old edits from the past. The clients should have paper copies of anything not available electronically and also should be the one responsible for scanning paper copies to create new versions.

I wouldn’t use those paper edits in pitching to new clients anyhow, because no one would want their “before” versions made public, even on a limited basis. I don’t need to wonder about that or to have signed anything promising not to show the edited version of a document to anyone other than the client. If a prospective client wants proof of my editing or proofreading skills, I’d rather do a short sample than risk embarrassing a past client by showing what I did on their projects, even if I can hide their names. And my website has (wonderful) testimonials from clients attesting to the value of my skills and services, often more effective than samples.

After trashing all those paper copies, I bagged all the various types of disks and headed to the local recycling center to dispense with those as well. I still have electronic versions of everything that’s a year or so old on my computers and in cloud storage.

I even gave up my dad’s little classic Mac and my ancient Radius CPU, taking those to the recycling center as well (after wiping their hard drives).

It felt wonderfully liberating to clear out so much old material — and saved a bunch of effort in packing, which probably saved some money in the way of moving costs. I’m hoping a client won’t ask for a very old project after all, but I’m prepared to defend not keeping ancient files or copies, and can always photocopy or scan my paper versions from those yearly notebooks.

The next task for the aspiring organizer in me: going through all those old business and tax records to get rid of everything from receipt copies to entire years’ worth of documentation! That will open up an entire bookcase … I won’t know what to do with those empty shelves.

For a little farther down the road, it’s time to clear out old computer files in my e-mail program, Dropbox cloud storage account and project folders on both computers … at least I can never say I have nothing to do!

How have you changed your processes for saving projects and client files?

January 8, 2018

A New Year — and a New Era for An American Editor

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Happy new year to all subscribers and contributors to An American Editor! As most of you know, blog founder Rich Adin has done me the great honor of handing off “editorship” of An American Editor. I’m both thrilled and intimidated by this responsibility — Rich created big shoes to fill, so to speak. The response to our announcements of this change from colleagues has been downright heart-warming, and I appreciate all of your generous comments in various forums. I hope to live up to his — and all of your — confidence in me.

While Rich and I have been editing professionally for almost the same amount of time, we work on very different kinds of projects, so my take on this profession will be unlike his. He routinely works on huge projects, usually in the medical field; even one of my biggest projects would probably make only a chapter in one of Rich’s usual manuscripts. He also functions as a company, with people who work for him, while I’m happily a sole proprietor, occasionally working with colleagues but mostly on my own. However, we share similar opinions about many aspects of editing today. We both care about quality and excellence, and are concerned about consolidation in publishing, outsourcing, and professionalism in the field. We notice many of the same things about how editors approach their work, how independent editors manage their businesses, and what clients expect or demand from editors at all levels.

Rich is also far more technologically and technically ept than I will ever be, but I’ll do my best to enhance my skills in that area on behalf of our subscribers.

Because I’m new to blogging on my own, I probably will not post quite as often as Rich has been doing, so please do not be concerned or disappointed if it takes awhile for me to work up to a three-posts/week schedule.

I’m glad to report that several of our columnists still plan to be involved with An American Editor and continue to share their perspectives on editing: Jack Lyon, of macro fame; Carolyn Haley, fiction editor (and author; a double threat!); and AElfwine Mischler, indexer (who also covers working in Arabic). We are open to new columns, either occasional or regular ones, from new contributors. If you would like to contribute essays to An American Editor, contact me with your ideas at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@anamericaneditor.com.

No one (including me) gets paid, so all posts you see here or would consider writing are labors of love — love of our profession, of quality, and — if this doesn’t seem too touchy-feely — of colleagues.

If there are topics you would like to see addressed here, please feel free to let me know at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@anamericaneditor.com.

Again, my thanks to all of you for your support of An American Editor to date, and from this point onward. Here’s wishing a productive and profitable new year for all.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and the new editor-in-chief of An American Editor.

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