An American Editor

September 24, 2012

The Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?

One of the things I have never understood about my business is the concept of a client wanting a light, medium, or heavy edit. I’ve never understood it because these are words that really have no meaning when spoken in conjunction with edit.

(It is probably worth noting that these terms are used by publishers, not by authors. In the past, a manuscript was reviewed by inhouse production editors for general problems and for anticipated difficulty of editing. The terms were then used to justify a lesser or higher fee to the copyeditor. Today, most publishers have a single fee and only skim the manuscripts inhouse. No author has ever used those terms when describing what is wanted from me when hiring me to edit his or her manuscript.)

A professional editor gives a manuscript the edit it requires within the parameters of the job for which the editor was hired. If a client says to ignore references, I may ignore references, but if a client says a manuscript needs a heavy edit, I haven’t got a clue of how my editing would — or should — differ from what I would do had the client asked for a light edit.

The three terms, instead, are signals to me as to how problematic the client believes a manuscript is. When a client asks for a light edit, I understand it to mean that the client believes the manuscript is in pretty good shape with no structural flaws and minimal grammar and spelling errors. Conversely, a heavy edit indicates to me that there are likely to be numerous structural flaws and lots of grammar and spelling errors, with medium edit falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Yet, there’s the catch. Nearly all clients make the same mistake of confusing copyediting with developmental editing (see, for a refresher on the difference between the two, Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor!). In some cases, it is a mistake made out of ignorance; in other instances, it is a deliberate mistake made in hopes (perhaps even in expectation) that the editor will provide a developmental edit at the price of a copyedit.

This comes about because for an editor, there really is no difference between light, medium, and heavy editing. A manuscript gets the edit it needs — except that edit is limited by whether the editor is hired to do a copyedit or a developmental edit. There are boundaries between the two that a professional editor will not cross in the absence of compensation.

Structural problems are a good example. The developmental edit is intended to deal with structural problems but not to focus much on grammar and spelling problems. In contrast, the copyedit is focused on grammar and spelling, and except to note that there are structural problems, ignores structural problems. This is as it should be because the skills required and the time needed vary greatly. It is not uncommon to find that a developmental edit has a speed of 1 to 2 pages an hour, whereas a copyedit runs at 6 to 10 pages an hour.

The use of the terms light, medium, and heavy is problematic because clients and copyeditors are talking past each other when the terms are used. There is no common definition of what they mean and the client’s use is usually based on a false assumption: that the copyeditor will do something different as part of the editing process based on the term chosen.

The assumption is false for many reasons, but the most fundamental reason is that no matter how a client describes the edit, the copyeditor still needs to read and evaluate every word and all punctuation with the goal of ensuring that the manuscript communicates to readers. (Note that I have changed from the broader editor to the narrower copyeditor. This is because the problem particularly arises and is particularly acute when an editor is hired as a copyeditor rather than as a developmental editor.)

In my nearly 29 years of professional editing, I have not changed a single thing that I do as a copyeditor based on whether the client asks for a light, medium, or heavy edit. Copyediting is what it is; it doesn’t change based on light, medium, or heavy.

But those terms do mean something to me as a copyeditor — or at least did in the past, perhaps not so much today. They are flags for the difficulties I can expect to encounter, which means they affect my estimation of the time it will take to edit a manuscript. In past years, I found the terms to be excellent indicators of what to expect; today, I find that they are rarely an accurate indicator. Instead, today, I find that the terms are used as substitutes for whether the manuscript is for a first edition or a revision and for whether the authors are known to be difficult or not difficult to work with.

Invariably, when a publisher hires me to work on a first edition, I am told that the manuscript requires a heavy edit. When I am hired to work on the revision that will be the eighth edition of the book, I am invariably told it requires a light or medium edit, or I am told nothing at all, with the client assuming I understand that only a light or medium edit is required. So, as relatively meaningless as the terms were in the past, they have become even more irrelevant and meaningless today.

Except that I use those terms as a guide to negotiate schedule. For example, I was recently hired to edit a manuscript that was estimated to be 380 pages and that required a heavy edit. The schedule was 2 weeks. I immediately negotiated a longer schedule based on the client’s claim that a heavy edit was required (the sample chapters the client sent didn’t show any unusual problems but there were a lot more chapters yet to come so it becomes a guessing game). I subsequently renegotiated the newly negotiated schedule because when I received the complete manuscript, the page count was 490 — the combination of a heavy edit and more pages warranted a longer, just-in-case,schedule.

I think editors need to clearly separate what tasks they will do based on the type of edit — copyedit or developmental edit — that a client asks for and ignore requests for a light, medium, or heavy edit except insofar as such terms are viewed as descriptors of the number and type of problems anticipated and how they might affect the editing schedule. After all, how would you edit any differently a manuscript that was to be lightly edited from one that was to receive a medium or heavy edit? Wouldn’t you (don’t you) do all the same things regardless of the characterization of the edit?

One last note: Some clients do, in fact, pay more for a heavy edit and less for a light or medium edit. The number of publishers doing so is rapidly declining as the squeeze on editorial costs increases. But if you do have such a client, then the characterization is also important for setting the fee. Where this is the case, a more thorough evaluation of the manuscript is necessary to ensure that it has been properly characterized — especially as copyeditors do all the same things regardless of the characterization of the edit.

July 25, 2012

The Business of Editing: Killing Me Softly

I recently reviewed the various groups I am a member of on LinkedIn and was astounded to find a U.S.-based editor soliciting editing work and offering to do that work for $1 per page in all genres. Some further searching led me to discover that this person was not alone in her/his pricing.

What astounds me is less that someone is offering to do editorial work for such a low fee but that people actually believe that is a fair price to pay for professional editing. I recently spoke with an author whose ebooks are badly edited — yes, edited is the correct word — who told me that he/she had paid a professional editor $200 to edit the novel in question and so was surprised at all the errors the novel contained.

Recently, I wrote about the publisher who wants copyediting but calls it proofreading in an attempt to pay a lower price (see The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting). In my own business, I have been under pressure to reduce my fee or see the work offshored.

I am being killed softly. (And for those of you who enjoy a musical interlude, here is Roberta Flack singing Killing Me Softly!)

Unfortunately, so is my profession for the past quarter century being killed softly.

I write “being killed softly” because that is exactly what is happening. There are no trumpets blaring; clients aren’t shouting and ordering me to work for starvation wages. Instead, what they are doing is saying that they can get the services I provide for significantly less money because the competition is so keen, driving downward pricing.

There is no discussion about whether the services clients get for less money are valuable services. The base assumption is that any editor will do and any editor will do a competent, quality job. Alas, there is little to disprove the assumption in the absence of postediting proofreading, but that work is being driven by the same dynamic and so clients set a mouse to catch a mouse, rather than a cat to catch a mouse. If the proofreader’s skills match the skills of the editor, little by way of error will be caught. We see this everyday when we pick up a book and discover errors that should have been caught by a professional editor and/or proofreader.

When passing out the blame for this situation, we can look elsewhere — to the international conglomerate bean counters, to the Internet that has brought globalization to the editing profession, to the death of locally owned publishing companies that count quality higher than cost — or we can look to ourselves — to our insistence on being wholly independent and our resistance to banding together to form a strong lobbying group, to our willingness to provide stellar service for suboptimal wages, to the ease with which we permit entrance to a skilled profession. Looking at ourselves is where we should look.

Individually, we may strike gnat-like blows against this professional decline, but these will continue to prove of little avail. The profession of editing used to be a highly respected profession. It always was an underpaying profession, but it was a prestigious profession. All that has changed in recent decades. Our bohemian attitude towards our profession has worked to hurry its decline. It is now one of those work-at-home-and-earn-big-bucks professions that draws anyone in need of supplementary income.

It has become this way because we have let it become so.

I wondered if anyone was going to challenge the $1/page person, but no one did. There was no challenge of the price or of skills or of services. The idea that at this price level superior services can be provided is rapidly becoming the norm. That a good editor can often only edit five or six pages an hour — and in many instances even fewer pages an hour — does not seem to be a concern to either clients or to the editors advertising inexpensive services.

It is increasingly difficult to compete for business in the editorial marketplace. There are still pockets of clients who pay reasonable fees, but I expect those pockets to diminish and eventually disappear, and to do so in the not-too-distant future. Those of us with specialty skills are beginning to see the encroachment of downward pricing pressure.

What I find most interesting is that so many people do not even notice poor editing. There is a cadre of people who care about precision communication, but that cadre grows smaller with each passing year. A rigorous language education is now passé. The result is that there are fewer individuals who can recognize good editing from bad/no editing, and even fewer who care, being more concerned with cost.

I have no surefire solution to the problem. My hope is that some day someone in charge will see the light and decide that quality is at least of equal importance to cost control and recognize that it is not possible for an editor to provide a quality job at $1/page. Unfortunately, I do not see that day arriving any time soon.

What solutions do you propose?

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