An American Editor

August 26, 2013

Personal or Emotional Satisfaction & the Job of Editing

On a freelance list to which I subscribe, Carolyn Haley asked me, “Rich, do you get any personal or emotional satisfaction from your work?” The question was asked in followup to a posting I had made to a thread-opening question asking whether any editors had a “joy client or project,” that is, a client or project that brought especial pleasure to the editor. Some responders talked about clients, some projects, some teachers.

My response was as follows:

The clients who bring me joy are those who

  1. pay my asking price on or before the invoice due date
  2. do not disturb me while I’m editing
  3. tell me and all their friends and colleagues that I’m the greatest editor ever
  4. insist that their publisher hire me to edit their book
  5. have my telephone number and e-mail address memorized so they can contact me quickly and often
  6. submit manuscripts that are so clean they require minimal effort to conform to the chosen style (particularly those whose reference lists run hundreds of references with 99% of the references in perfect format)
  7. call me before calling any other editor to see if I can fit their project into my schedule, and especially those willing to wait for me to fit them in
  8. want my services so much that they are willing to accommodate my schedule at the expense of their schedule
  9. do not ask for herculean efforts in exchange for slave wages, do not write in jabberwockyese, and have a great sense of humor
  10. pay my asking price on or before the invoice due date (a trait well worth repeating :))

On the list, I responded to Carolyn’s question as follows:

…I always get personal satisfaction from every book I edit. If I didn’t, I would have long ago found a different career. Of course, there is also the personal satisfaction of running a profitable business, finding ways to beat the constant push to suppress prices, finding ways to become more efficient, etc.

I also get satisfaction at seeing the number of subscribers to my An American Editor blog increase and to the number of times my articles are liked or tweeted.

But the truth is that should my business or my blog cease tomorrow, I would not feel any less satisfied — personal or emotional satisfaction — because what truly gives me pleasure and satisfaction in life lies outside those confines.

Bottom line is that I view what I do as a job, and the reward for doing a good job is making money. My personal and emotional satisfaction quests go toward my children and grandchildren — toward such things as making a cranky baby smile, playing catch with my 15-month-old granddaughter, helping her unload all the plastic containers from a cabinet and throwing them on the floor (although the subsequent rewashing and restoring isn’t so satisfying), seeing my son admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, sitting with a book on location while watching my wife create a new painting, and the like.

I do not view my editing as anything more than a job/business that I like and at which I am qualified and good. I look forward to going to my office and working, but I look elsewhere for personal and emotional satisfaction. I would find no satisfaction whatsoever in knowing that I did a magnificent editing job, turning a book from junk into literature, [only to find] that I have to struggle to get paid or to pay my bills. Editing is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

The question about personal and emotional satisfaction made me wonder about how colleagues view their work and whether there is a correlation between personal and emotional satisfaction and financial success as a freelancer. (I do recognize that each of us has our own definition of success and that not everyone counts financial success as the most important measure of success.)

I have wondered about this before. Years ago, when I was a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, we had discussions on whether editors are artisans or business people. In those discussions, I was in the very tiny minority — many times a minority of one or two — who said we should be business people first, artisans second. Twenty years later, the discussion appears to not have abated.

Think about painters, actors, writers, photographers, and other artists. How many do you know who are making a comfortable living solely from their art? Don’t most of those we know have either another job or a significant other who provides financial support? Think about why that is. Is it because their priority is personal and emotional satisfaction from producing their art rather than the business aspects of the art world? Consider, also, how many of them hire agents to handle the business aspects.

Editors aren’t different. We make conscious choices to elevate one aspect of our work over another. There is nothing inherently wrong with this as long as we are willing to accept the consequences of those choices. For most editors, elevating the creative function over the business function means less income.

Why? Because it becomes difficult to make appropriate business decisions. Do we give a manuscript a second pass, knowing that if we do we will find errors that we missed on the first pass, when that second pass will be at our expense, not the client’s expense? The artisan says “Yes, I make that second pass” because it is more important to reach perfection (the personal/emotional satisfaction) than to be adequately paid; the business person says “Not unless I am compensated for the additional work” because in the business world, decisions are made on a profit-loss basis.

This is not to say that creative satisfaction does not play a role in the business-first approach or that business does not play a role in the creative-first approach. Rather, it is which is dominant and which approach forms the basis for decisions we make.

I find it interesting that many of the editors who struggle financially are those who are unwilling to place personal and emotional satisfaction from editing second to sound to business practices. They tend to refuse work because it doesn’t appeal to them, ignoring the financial considerations. There is nothing wrong with such a decision as long as the editor understands the tradeoff.

And, yes, I do know some editors who successfully place artisan values above business values and succeed. But for every Tom Hanks there are hundreds of unsuccessful actors. In editing, it is no different — for every successful editor who places artisanship first, there are hundreds who are unsuccessful. If we could all be exceptions, there would be no rule.

Every morning I look forward to my editing day — even those days when I am editing a book on colonoscopies — because I know that every day brings me satisfaction. I know that I am an excellent editor, that clients are very rarely displeased, and that my services are in demand. I can look at my bank account and not worry. And I know that at the end of the day, I will be able to indulge in those activities that bring me personal and emotional satisfaction without worrying about how I will pay my bills.

For me it is the business approach that has to dominate my editorial services. I need to be able to objectively evaluate clients and manuscripts based on financial return, not on whether a topic appeals to me. The very last thing I want to do is worry about meeting my obligations; the very first thing I want to do is face each day knowing at the workday’s end, I will be indulging in those things that bring me satisfaction.

I would add one more “wondering.” I wonder how many editors who place creative above business have a family for which they are the sole financial provider? I suspect that it is easier to choose the creative over the business approach when there is a safety net of some sort or when the only person relying on your efforts is yourself. I admit I have never been in such a situation, which probably partially accounts for my business-first approach.

How about you?

March 4, 2013

What Do Editors Forget Most Often?

In a way, this is a trick question. After all, editors forget lots of things, just like everyone else. But what I have discovered through very unscientific surveying is that editors forget three very specific things with astonishing frequency.

Who’s Who in the Relationship

The first thing editors tend to forget is their role in the editor-client relationship. Now, I grant that even more egregious forgetting occurs on the client side, having suffered that many times myself, but editors too often set themselves up to “fail” by forgetting their role in the relationship. An editor’s role in the relationship is to either do what the client wants or not undertake the job.

It’s pretty simple but one of the hardest things for an editor to do. Why? Because we are knowledgable about our business, have many years of experience dealing with issues of language and grammar, and as between the client and the editor, we are the “experts” on matters of language. Alas, all that is meaningless

Were we in a corporate setting and sitting in the chair of the vice president for communication discussing with a secretary whether the phrase is simply myriad or is a myriad of or whether it even matters, we know that our decision in favor of one would be binding: the relationship between us and our secretary is such that the secretary has to take the lumping. And so it is in our relationship with our clients: we are in the secretary’s position, yet we too often think that is our client’s position.

Perhaps we know better than our client, but it is the client who is the decider and we need to either learn to live with it or drop the project and the client.

Is it More Than Opinion?

As much as the editor-client relationship power struggle reigns high on the list of things editors tend to forget, the matter of opinion is the sticking point with me.

There is nothing I dislike more than being told by either a colleague or a client than “Chicago says…” or “AMA says…” or “Garner says…” in a manner that conveys that nothing more needs to be said. Don’t misunderstand. It isn’t that I don’t value their opinions, because I do; rather, it is that I am told what they say as if what they say is gospel from the Mount, a universal truth that can neither be questioned nor ignored nor deviated from.

In a way, this ties in to the editor-client relationship. If a client tells me that I am to follow the dictates of Chicago 16, then I either agree to do so or I decline the project. I do not dispute the client’s right to dictate whether compound adjectives should be hyphenated or not.

So my gripe is not with the application of the rules as disclosed by these authorities; instead, my gripe is with clients and colleagues who believe that these are truly rules by which we must live and edit rather than opinions by which we should be guided.

I am of the firm conviction that treatises like Chicago are merely suggestions, guides, if you will, to a method that enhances clarity and consistency. It is nice to be able to point to the hyphenation table on page 375 of Chicago 16 and say to a client that what I did is correct according to Chicago. It relieves me of the burden of justifying my “decision.”

Yet, that is precisely the problem. Reading and understanding the chart is not difficult. It requires little to no discretion on my part. I become just a pencil-pusher, because all that matters is that whatever “decision” I make I can justify by Chicago chapter and verse. So why should a client pay me more for my expertise when there really is no “my” in the “expertise”; the expertise, if any, lies with the team of contributors to the chosen style guide.

Consider, for example, how much discretion an editor has when styling references. None, really. I understand this when applied to references because references are really a more mechanical task than most editorial tasks. But should this mechanical approach also apply to the explanatory text, the main body of the book?

I think an editor has an obligation to remind a client that the style guides are just that — guides, not the holy gospel of editing. A professional editor brings to a project much more than the ability to read and understand a table of hyphenation or the mechanics of styling a reference. A professional editor brings to the project — or should bring to the project — the ability to understand language and make editorial decisions that enhance the author’s communication with the reader. And, most importantly, the professional editor should bring the ability to justify those decisions without saying “Chicago says…” or “AMA says…” or “Garner says….” The professional editor should be able to say “I say…” and then build the case for the decision based on multiple sources and reasons, even if contrary to what a style guide declares. And if the editor’s decision conforms to that of the style guide, the editor should be able to justify that decision by saying “I followed Chicago‘s suggestion because….” In other words, the editor should be the decision maker and should be able to justify the decision made using the style guides as one leg of support but not the whole support.

Isn’t the knowledge to make and ability to justify editorial decisions that fall outside the purview of a guide’s opinion the hallmark of the professional editor? This is what editors too often forget. We need to remind ourselves and our clients that although we often agree with a style guide, we sometimes disagree, and when we disagree, we do so knowledgeably and because we have the client’s interest in communicating clearly with readers uppermost in our mind.

Editing is a Business

The third, and final (for this article), most often forgotten thing is that editing is a business, not a hobby. Long-time readers of An American Editor recognize this statement: I make it often, and do so because the mantra too often falls on deaf ears or goes in one ear and out the other.

Here the focus is on the editor. Editors too often forget that they are a business and that they must view everything from that perspective. It is wonderful that you want to undertake the local SPCA’s newsletter as a freebie to give it the professional polish that organization deserves. But that doesn’t mean abandoning business principles. No matter how much you love the SPCA, you need to demand that it approach its dealings with you on a business-to-business basis. Payment or lack of payment is not the determinant.

Your time is valuable. You must respect it and the demands made on it; you must also insist that others do the same. A client is a client; a project is a project. Decisions you make should be made exactly the same way whether the client is a charity you love or a corporation you are indifferent about. And charity clients should be subject to firing on the same terms as a noncharity client. Being a business means acting like a business.

Thus we have three things that are important to editors that editors too often forget: (a) the client is the ultimate editorial decider in the editor-client relationship; (b) that editorial “authorities” such as style guides are simply one opinion in a spectrum of opinions and that the knowledge to make and ability to justify editorial decisions that fall outside the purview of a guide’s opinion is the hallmark of the professional editor; and (c) that no matter what project we do, whether a freebie for a local charity or a highly paid corporate document, we do so as a business and all decisions relating to any project need to be made as business decisions.

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