An American Editor

October 31, 2016

The Business of Editing: Putting Out the Fire

Every editor eventually faces the question of “damage control” and over a long career, may face it more than once. Preparation is the best way to address the issue.

What do you do when a client finds an error
in your work?

Every business faces this problem. For service people, like editors, the issue is error; for a retailer, the issue is defective goods; for service-retailer (e.g., an auto mechanic), the issue may be either error, defective goods, or a combination. No matter, every business — from the smallest to the largest and in every type of commercial venture — has on occasion had to deal with the question of what to do when a client finds an error.

The difference is that most businesses have an existing plan to address the problem; editors rarely do. Reasons why editors rarely are prepared include:

  • We expect errors to exist in our end product; we know that editing perfection is a goal, not a standard against which we should be judged;
  • We understand that it is a matter of preference and opinion whether to use serial commas or to close up hyphenated compounds;
  • We recognize that language is fluid — what was forbidden yesterday may well be de rigueur today;
  • We expect at least one if not many more eyes will go over our material, thereby minimizing the number of errors; and, perhaps most important,
  • We know that our work product is not (or should not be) the final iteration because the client has the power, right, and duty to accept or reject our suggested changes.

It is for these reasons, among others, that editors — unlike content creators such as writers who carry errors and omissions insurance policies — do not carry editing liability insurance policies. Of course, those reasons do not address the problem with which we are faced: What should we do?

The usual suggestion is to offer a discount on the work or on future work. Some clients demand reimbursement for any costs incurred, such as the cost of reprinting. Neither is an acceptable solution.

The more severe the client considers the error, the less likely it is that the client will continue to use your services, making the ultimate goal of your giving the discount/reimbursement — to smooth ruffled feathers and maintain the work relationship — less achievable. If you cannot be certain that your goal will be achieved, why proceed down that path?

Taking steps to avoid this problem — that is, the problem of being asked to compensate a client for an error — should be among the first acts of an editor when setting up to do business. The steps that can be taken are to have a written policy regarding errors and liability. (It is important to note that we are speaking of editing errors, not content-creation errors that include fact-checking errors.) The policy should indicate:

  1. What constitutes an error;
  2. Whether there is a margin for error and if there is, the size of the margin. (The margin of error can be a set number of errors or a percentage such as “constituting greater than 4% of the number of words in the document/project.”);
  3. The remedy(ies) available to the client; and
  4. The client’s responsibilities to minimize any negative effects that might arise from the error(s).

The terms need to be in writing and part of any agreement or correspondence with a client.

Probably the most important item in the foregoing list is #4. Clients have to assume some responsibility for a final product, whether it be a novel, a biography, a quarterly report, a dissertation, or something else. Clients too often assume that they can hire an editor and walk away from the project. But they cannot. One of the responsibilities can be (and should be) to hire an independent proofreader to review the near-final product.

One of the reasons I do rarely work directly with authors is because it was always a battle to convince authors that editing without independent proofreading is like taking one’s car in for an oil change and just having the oil drained and not replaced. Authors were (rightfully) budget conscious, but there is a difference between being conscious of one’s budget and being a slave to the budget to the detriment of one’s creation. When I do work directly with an author, I make it clear that I cannot accept liability for errors in the absence of high-quality independent proofreading.

Probably the most difficult item in the list to define is error. But the absence of an agreed upon definition of error is an invitation to an acrimonious editor–author relationship. This definition must be clearly spelled out and in writing. The easiest way is by defining the parameters of the work to be done. For example, if the editor is being hired to fact check, that should be included in the definition of the job’s parameters; if fact checking is not part of the job, it needs to be explicitly excluded as part of the editor’s responsibilities and explicitly included as part of the client’s responsibilities.

Once there is agreement, then the remedies available to the client need to be spelled out. It is here that you give the answer to the question “What do you do when a client finds an error in your work?” The remedies have to reflect what you are comfortable doing and should never be based on the unknowable, such as the likelihood that a client will continue to send me work if this particular remedy is available. It is better to assume that no matter what remedy you offer, there will be no future work from the client. With that assumption, you can focus on what will enhance your reputation for fairness and quality work.

What do you do when you find an error in work
that you have already submitted to your client?

Although a related issue, this is a garment of a different color. Some editors choose to say and do nothing, assuming that the next person in the chain will spot and fix the error. Some, like me, prefer to notify the client immediately and send a corrected file.

We gain or lose work based on our reputation. Consequently, I try to make my decisions based on whether I think the action I am contemplating will build up my reputation or tear it down. To my thinking, sending the corrected document will enhance my reputation.

I have sent a corrected document even weeks after I submitted the original edited to the client. Sometimes it is too late, sometimes it is in the nick of time, but always the client has been appreciative. I have never lost a client by sending a corrected file.

I not only send a corrected file, but also a cover note in which I explain what the correction is and why it is important to correct my error. (Sometimes it is not an error but something has changed since I edited the document, such as the announcement of a new treatment modality.)

I have said in other essays that the most important marketing tool for an editor is impressing upon the client that you are knowledgeable about the subject area and are always expanding your knowledge. It sends an important message about you to your clients and prospective clients.

I grant that there are many ways to send such a message; my admission that I made an error and correcting it is one way. (Another is when I develop a better way to accomplish a task and I let the client know about it. For example, when I developed the reference renumbering report that I send along with a document with renumbered references, I made sure that clients learned about it and how useful the report would be to their authors, proofreaders, and compositors. The result has been an increase in inquiries about my willingness to take on large projects with complex reference renumbering.) Being forthright about errors gives clients confidence in my abilities and willingness to accept responsibility for what I do.

The key to both questions is to create a response that enhances your stature. Remember that as an independent businessperson it is your reputation that determines your success in building clientele.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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