An American Editor

June 17, 2019

On the Basics: Where Do We Go for Our Own Editing Support?

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By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, AAE Owner and Editor-in-Chief

As often happens, I’ve been inspired by a Facebook post to write a column here. This time, someone asked where editors who are also writers find editors for their writing work. Here’s how I responded:

“Since I’ve been writing, editing and proofreading professionally for a looonnnng time, I’m lucky to have a network of colleagues and friends whom I can trust to look at my stuff if needed. If none of my go-to people are available, I give preference to anyone who has attended a Communication Central ‘Be a Better Freelancer’® conference.
“I would never bother with a ‘nameless editing site’ or outlets like Upwork. If I didn’t know anyone to ask, I’d go to the EFA, NAIWE, ACES, EAC, SfEP, etc., to look for someone whose skills and background seem compatible.”

As a much-published writer, I get edited by some of my clients, so I know what it feels like to be on that end of the relationship or process. As a freelance editor and proofreader, I work on material by clients, some of whom are more nervous about being edited than others (although I’ve rarely had to deal with outright outrage). As the owner and editor-in-chief of the An American Editor blog, I edit colleagues regularly (and I hope sensitively).

As we all know, editing can be a delicate dance: We have to learn how to balance fixing obvious and more-subtle errors with retaining the author’s voice and not upsetting an author by the level or volume of changes we suggest. We have to learn how to relay our substantive changes with authority and tact — not always easy to do simultaneously. We have to be able to explain or defend some of our changes, which can be a challenge when there’s something we know is wrong but we can’t quote a specific rule to support what we think the author should do.

Being professional editors ourselves makes the search for our own editors both more challenging and more interesting. We’re likely to be more demanding about the skills and experience another editor brings to the process, and we might be more difficult to work for. Finding and working with editors on our own material can make us better at both writing and editing by reminding us of the value of that outside set of eyes on our work, and showing us where our writing needs help. We also might be grateful to learn how to make our own writing better, stronger, livelier …

As editors, we know how the process works. Some of us may have had challenging experiences with clients, so we know how not to behave on that side of the equation.

Steps in the process

The first step is to accept that everyone needs an editor (or at least a proofreader). No matter how experienced any of us might be, we can’t see our own writing with total objectivity. We know what we meant to say and often see that intent, rather than how a phrase, passage or entire article might come across to readers. We even miss clear-cut typos in our own work, especially if we’ve turned off spellchecker to enhance the writing flow or don’t use resources like PerfectIt or various Editorium tools to automate some of the process.

We have to put our egos aside so we can focus on what I see as the ultimate goal of editing: making the work better.

The next step is to define what we need or want from a colleague’s editing services, and whether we can pay for their help.

With all that said, where do we go (channeling the Chief Blue Meanie’s plaintive query to his sidekick Max in “Yellow Submarine”!)?

As I said in my Facebook post, I can’t see myself using online sources like freelance.com, Upwork, Reedsy, Craigslist, etc., to find an editor for my own writing. I know that many colleagues use such sites to find projects and find them worthwhile, but I turn to other channels. I start by looking among my colleagues for someone who has editing experience, has demonstrated strong knowledge of usage and all its aspects, follows the rules of groups or lists that we belong to, and seems as they would be sensitive to an author’s tender ego or at least knows how to relay suggested edits tactfully. In other words, I probably look for someone a lot like myself. We probably all would do that.

Having a colleague edit my writing work is usually a simple matter of contacting someone and saying, “Do you have time to look something over for me?” For those here who don’t have the great good fortune of a network like mine, here are a few tips.

  • Edit yourself — set your manuscript aside for a day or two, and then go through it one more time to make sure it’s as clean and complete as possible. Try to view it through a reader’s eye to find clunky passages, danglers, missing facts, consistent style (especially with character names!), and any other elements you would look for in a client’s material.
  • Put together a brief description of your manuscript or project — genre, length in number of words, preferred style, planned outlet if known, deadline, etc.; level of editing you want to receive; budget. (If you’re low on funds, think of ways you might be able to swap services, but remember how you feel when a prospective client wants Cadillac editing for go-cart prices.)
  • Put your ego in your pocket.
  • Go to reliable sources: the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, Editorial Freelancers Association, American Copy Editors Society, American Medical Writers Association, Society for Technical Communication, Society of Editors and Proofreaders, Editors Canada, freelance sections of specialty groups like the Society of Professional Journalists or National Association of Science Writers, etc.
  • Post or list your project with one of these professional associations, or identify a few people through their directories who look like a good match and contact them directly.
  • Remember to let those you don’t choose to work with know that you’ve found someone.
  • Go for it!

If you’ve had someone edit your writing work, how did it go? And are there resources I’ve overlooked that colleagues would find useful for this?

April 9, 2014

The Business of Editing: Finding Editors

Last week I wrote about subcontracting and said it isn’t a difficult thing to do from an administrative perspective (see The Business of Editing: Subcontracting). I did mention the one stumbling block: finding competent editors.

Finding a competent editor to subcontract to is difficult. There are lots of reasons for this difficulty, such as the lack of universal certification with reliable standards. In some subject areas and some countries this is less of a problem than in the United States, but even in those countries and subject areas that have certifying organizations, the problem exists, if for no other reason than most editors lack the certifications that are available.

Don’t misunderstand: neither certification nor lack of certification is proof of an editor’s competence or incompetence. They may be indicators in some cases, but they do not rise to the level of proof.

The problem is that there is nothing that I know of that rises to the level of proof certitude. Editing is still an artisan’s career, which means that the same manuscript will be handled differently by equally competent and professional editors. Too much in editing is other than cast-iron rule for it to be otherwise (e.g., Is since synonymous in all instances with because? Should a serial comma be used even though the style is no serial commas?).

Another unsolvable problem regarding competency is subject matter competency. An editor may be an outstanding editor for historical romance novels yet abysmal as an editor of medical texts.

What it boils down to is that finding the right editor for a particular job is a difficult task that is not made any easier by the ease of entry into the profession.

In my early years, I assumed that an editor who was experienced in the areas in which I worked had to be competent. So if someone’s resume indicated that she had 3 years of medical editing experience, I assumed she must be competent. It took a while for me to grasp that in some cases, there was little correlation between competence and years of experience except, perhaps in the case of many years of experience, which tended to correlate very well.

Alas, even with a strong correlation between subject matter competence and years of experience, there was no assurance that the person would be a competent editor for the particular job(s). Editing is much more than knowing subject matter; editing is also much more than having edited a certain number of manuscripts.

I suppose we can say there are at least three levels of editing competency: no competency, mechanical editing competency, and inspired editing competency. The first, no competency, needs no discussion. It is represented by the person who hangs out a shingle, calls himself a professional editor, gets hired, and not only enrages the client with the poor work but gets the client to rant about editor incompetency to anyone who will listen.

Mechanical editing competency is probably where most editors fall on the editing continuum. They know grammar and the rules, know how to make sure that lists are parallel, tenses aren’t shifting every which way, and can quote the style manual rule that supports whatever editing decision they have made. They are good editors but uninspired.

Inspired editing competency is a label that, I think, can be given to a much smaller number of editors. These editors not only know the rules but know when to ignore them. (Imagine the difference between the editor who insisted on “to go boldly” versus the editor who understood “to boldly go.”) The inspired editor does not rewrite and reframe an author’s manuscript simply because he can; rather, he knows when it is necessary to rewrite for clear communication and when it is necessary to ignore the rules that have governed language for decades, if not for centuries, and leave the manuscript alone. The inspired editor understands the importance of language choices and understands when since is synonymous with because and when it should not be considered synonymous.

This is the problem of subcontracting. Which editor do you seek: the mechanically competent editor or the inspired editor? And how do you find them?

In part, the answer lies in what service you are providing and to whom you are providing it. Someone who works directly with authors on their novels and offers developmental-type services may want the inspired editor; in contrast, the editor who works with packagers whose budgets are small and tight, whose schedules are tight, and whose instructions from their clients are focused on the rules may want the mechanically competent editor.

In part the answer lies in what type of business you are trying to grow. You may already have a sufficient number of one type of editor and want the other type so as to be able to expand your business. In addition, you may be constrained by the type of clients you serve and the pay you can offer, which may dictate the type of editor you seek.

Knowing the type you seek allows you to configure your search methods to meet those needs. The one thing I have determined to be an absolute necessity (unless I know the editor and the editor’s work exceedingly well) is an editing test.

For many years I hired based solely on resume and an “interview.” What I found was that doing so was a crapshoot. Sometimes I struck gold, but most times I struck out. A test should be used to weed out, but not as the sole decision maker. I have found that since I instituted a test, 95% of applicants fade away. They do not return the test at all and so they make the decision for me. Of the 5% who take the test, fewer than 1 in 50 pass it. “Failing” my test does not mean the editor is not a good editor; it means that they will not fit my needs.

Even the editor who “passes” my test, should they be hired, needs some guidance from me, but the goal is to for them to be assigned a project and to run with it without supervision and with my having the confidence to know that I can take their editing and submit it to the client and not worry about a negative reaction.

There is no sure-bet method for finding an editor who fits when looking for subcontractors. There are steps one can take, but nothing is guaranteed — which is why when a good fit is found, it is worth working hard to maintain the relationship. Finding the editor is the hardest part of subcontracting, but it is not an impossible part. It just requires a bit more upfront work, but it can be well worthwhile.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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