An American Editor

November 25, 2020

Finding, working with, and retaining [ESL] clients, Part 1

Geoff Hart, Contributing Columnist

Editor’s notes: It is an honor and a pleasure to add Geoff Hart to the ranks of An American Editor columnists. We hope you enjoy this expanded and improved version of the author’s presentation at Communication Central’s 2016 Be a Better Freelancer® conference, Rochester, NY.

Where the author has indicated Note, the text should be a indented or block text, but your An American Editor owner hasn’t figured out how to do that yet in a new version of the WordPress editing function.

Resources will be included in Part 3 of this column.

For those interested in Geoff’s book (see author bio at end of column), Lulu.com offers 30% off all books with code BFCM30 from midnight November 27 through November 30 (presumably midnight North American Eastern Standard Time).

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For the past 33 years, I’ve been working as a scientific editor. My specialty is working with authors who have English as a second language. (For simplicity, I’ll refer to these authors as “ESL” authors hereafter.) As you can imagine, this leads to challenges I don’t encounter with my authors who speak English as their native language. Challenges that, on the whole, I enjoy. In this series, I’ll tell you a bit about why I enjoy the work so much and how you can find, work with, and retain ESL clients. I’ve placed brackets around “ESL” in the title because, as you’ll see, much of what I’ll discuss is also true for non-ESL clients, with a slightly different spin.

Why you should work with ESL clients

When I started my freelance career, I continued working with scientific researchers, but decided to emphasize authors who learned English as their second (or more) language. In addition to seeing this as an under-exploited niche, I decided that I wanted to broaden my perspective beyond what I’d been learning from my western authors. Specifically, I focused on Japanese and Chinese authors, because these were two cultures I was somewhat familiar with and very much enjoyed. The resulting diversity of topics and concerns has proven every bit as rewarding as I’d hoped. I’ve particularly enjoyed the chance to learn more about other countries and cultures. In one case, expressing this interest even resulted in a short teaching gig at a Beijing university and offers of a longer-term teaching position when I’m retired and can afford to spend multiple months living abroad.

As an ecologist by training, I benefited from another lesson: Diverse ecosystems are most robust, and tend to be most stable. Translated into editing terms, adding Asian clients meant that my workload was potentially recession-proof (like an ecosystem or a diversified stock portfolio) because economic downturns in Asia usually differ in timing and intensity from western downturns. In addition, authors in different countries tend to have different busy periods, and this helps to spread out the work somewhat. For example, the school year (for university authors) differs among countries, as do the teaching and writing responsibilities that university professors have to fit into their busy schedules. Because most of my clients work outdoors, at locations ranging from forests to deserts, their field research seasons differ between hemispheres (e.g., summer in the south is winter in the north). I still have “crunch” periods when it seems that all my authors need my help simultaneously, but the reduced number of slow periods with no work more than compensates.

As a freelancer, it also didn’t escape my notice that higher pay rates are possible in some areas of the world. For example, costs are higher in parts of the European Union and in Japan than they are in North America. For simplicity, I use a standard rate for all my clients (but with a discount for my Chinese clients, due to their smaller incomes and budgets), but if you’re more economically astute than I am and tailor your rate to each market you work in, you may have the option of raising your rate as high as each individual market will bear.

How to find ESL clients

There are as many ways to find clients as there are editors. I’ve listed several in my article on “finding work in tough times” (Hart 2006). I started by defining the authors I most wanted to work with (ESL authors). Once I knew who I wanted to work with, I contacted the editors of hundreds of peer-reviewed science journals that published articles in the areas of research I understood well enough to do substantive editing. I started with a form letter, in which I explained what I proposed:

•       I would work directly with authors, eliminating the burden on the journal’s staff.

•       I would help the author produce manuscripts sufficiently clear that the editor knew whether they were ready for peer review, and sufficiently good that it was worthwhile sending them for review.

•       I would ease the burden both on peer reviewers and on the journal’s editorial staff.

•       There would be no cost whatsoever to the journal; all they had to do was send my brochure (a concise PDF file I provided) to authors who needed my help.

That is, I focused on the problems experienced by journal editors that I could solve for them, not on why I was a good editor. To support this proposal, I explained the skills I offered (training as a scientist and many years of work with ESL authors) — but this supported my proposal (“let me solve your problems”) and was not the key to my proposal. The key was that I focused on the needs of my clients, a philosophy I’ve emphasized throughout my career. I quickly began receiving inquiries from Asian authors.

(The rest of this article focuses on examples from my Chinese authors, since they represent the majority of my clients, and the cultural differences from western authors are most revealing.)

Another approach is to start with the languages you speak. I speak French fairly fluently, and have worked for years with French authors, but I wanted to broaden my search to other languages, so I learned enough Mandarin and Japanese that I can at least greet authors politely in those languages, even if I can’t carry on a conversation in either language. Wanting an excuse to learn more of both languages and more about both cultures gave me a strong incentive to do so, and that desire was very much appreciated by my authors as they came to know me.

Although this suggests that you should think across borders and oceans when you look for ESL clients, the high mobility of modern writers suggests that you should also think locally. For example, universities, research institutes, and think tanks often employ authors from other countries. Attending international, national, or local conferences that focus on the subject you want to work on is another way to meet authors — these authors often need help from an English editor who can communicate well with them, possibly even in their own language.

To meet non-researcher authors, look for social groups such as the cultural societies that host events (e.g., Chinese new year, Diwali) or business associations (such as the Pan-Asian American Business Council). Meeting people in these groups is pleasant for its own sake, but also offers ways to find future clients. But avoid the mistake of only attending to seek clients; people will recognize this kind of mercenary behavior and turn away from you.

Note: If you want to work with graduate students at a university, carefully confirm with the university’s graduate studies department whether any regulations limit the nature of your work. For example, a PhD thesis must be an original work of scholarship, and some universities interpret this to mean that no developmental or substantive editing is allowed. In such cases, all you can do without obtaining a written exception to that rule is to offer proofreading and formatting services. A student’s failure to follow the university’s rules scrupulously can lead to a thesis being rejected. When in doubt, ask the university to respond in writing so you have proof of your permission to proceed.

In addition, leverage your network by asking your colleagues about opportunities. I exchange work opportunities with half a dozen colleagues. When I have work I can’t do, whether due to lack of expertise or lack of time, I refer the inquiries to those colleagues. In return, they refer some authors they can’t handle to me. I don’t charge a fee for such referrals; I treat it as a purely pro bono thing, which I can afford to do because I have far more work than I can handle and a good income. I do have colleagues who ask for a “finder’s fee” for such referrals, and that’s perfectly legitimate if you prefer to work that way.

How to work with ESL clients

Working with ESL authors is mostly similar to working with native-English authors, but a few quirks are worth mentioning.

Clear communication

Clear communication is important for any author­–editor relationship, but it’s particularly important when you work with ESL authors. First and foremost, self-edit your written communications ruthlessly. Don’t assume your meaning is clear. You’ll find that people who are communicating with you in their second language have much higher expertise in the language of their subjects than in the daily conversational language that relates to bread and butter issues such as specifying deadlines and contract terms for working together.

Although some editors communicate extensively with their ESL authors using online meeting software such as Zoom, particularly in these pandemic days, I find that most of my authors aren’t sufficiently comfortable with spoken English to enjoy this approach. Thus, almost all of our communication is via e-mail. To ensure that messages reach their target, I maintain two backup e-mail addresses in addition to the address provided by my service provider: the address associated with my website and a Gmail address. If one address is blocked or the service is temporarily unavailable, I can use the other addresses. For example, my service provider is often blocked by government and university networks because of their cavalier attitude toward spam. For many of this group of authors, I know I can’t use my main address. Similarly, ask your authors whether they have a second address you can use if necessary. If you don’t receive a reply within a day of sending an e-mail, try again using their second address. For particularly unreliable e-mail systems, send your message to both addresses at the same time, since it’s unlikely that both will be unavailable simultaneously.

Note: Carefully check your e-mail provider’s terms of service. For example, Google analyzes and indexes all Gmail messages, which means Gmail is inappropriate for messages that contain files that describe research breakthroughs, patent applications, and other confidential information. Most e-mail providers don’t encrypt their e-mail in any way, so e-mail can be read by anyone who gains access to their account. For e-mail that must be protected against prying eyes, consider using ProtonMail (https://protonmail.com/).

Reply as fast as possible (ideally, immediately!) to queries. Remember: If you’re working with authors on the other side of the world, the time zone difference means there can be a delay of up to 12 hours before they receive your reply, and this time can be critical for authors who are working under a tight deadline. Don’t assume your message was received. Always ask authors to confirm reception of your e-mail by explicitly requesting confirmation (e.g., “please confirm that you received both files with no problems”) or by asking a question they’ll have to answer (e.g., “which of your two addresses should I use on the invoice?”). Resend your message and any attached files if you receive no reply within about a day. It’s better to “spam” an author than to make them miss a deadline because you incorrectly assumed they received a file that you sent them.

Note: When you negotiate schedules, carefully account for time zone differences (http://www.worldtimeserver.com/). For example, I use language such as “I will return your paper on [date], eastern Canada (Montreal) time.”

Retain copies of all correspondence, in case you need to return to an earlier message to clarify some point. Disk space is cheap, particularly if you use an online e-mail service like Gmail. Although you can leave all your messages in your mail software, I prefer to copy them into a correspondence file in Microsoft Word for each author. This collects the information in one place, the search functions are generally superior, and it’s easier to move the text to other programs if necessary. Alternatively, if you prefer storing e-mail as e-mail, consider configuring your e-mail software to use the IMAP protocol (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Message_Access_Protocol), which leaves your e-mail on the service provider’s servers so that you can access it from all of your computing devices (e.g., your smartphone in addition to your laptop computer).

Until you’ve worked with an author long enough to know their needs, don’t assume you understand those needs. Learn the difference between what they want (e.g., “I need the edited manuscript Friday”) and what they really need (e.g., “but I’m not going to work on it before Monday, so Monday is probably fine”). Make these needs explicit rather than guessing. Back when I was a wage slave, I always asked each author when they wanted the manuscript and when they really needed it; the two dates were rarely the same.

For an ESL author, spend some time learning how they want to work with you; this may not be “the western way.” Some will just want you to tell them what to change; others want to understand why you recommend changes and to work with you to discuss all changes. Learn their busy periods (e.g., the date range for the school term vs. the summer research period, annual conferences they try to attend, national holidays). Add notes to your calendar, well in advance, to warn you that these periods are coming so you can plan your schedule more effectively.

Speaking of schedules, carefully note your own planned absences on the calendar so you can warn your authors well in advance about when you’ll be unavailable. For example, as I’ve begun moving toward retirement, I now reserve most of December as private time, when I will concentrate on my own writing. Thus, I warn authors at least two months in advance that I won’t be available during that period and that they need to reserve my time well in advance; I warn them that once my schedule is full, they’ll wait three+ weeks before I’m available again in January.

In my experience, busy authors often forget these warnings. That’s fair, since our job is to meet their needs, and their job is to write. In any event, authors benefit from a reminder. When I plan my annual vacation, I notify authors two months in advance and again one month before I leave. One useful, if deceptive, trick: If you know that certain authors always write to you at the last minute, tell them you’ll be gone one week before your actual departure date. That way, when work arrives at the last minute, you still have time to do the work. If an author notices this trick (“I thought you said you’d be away …”), explain that you would ideally like to have left on the date you announced, but you made time to help them anyway because helping them is important to you. This isn’t a lie if it’s true; the last week before my vacation is usually filled with domestic work and other preparations.

Provide status updates about your availability. For example, if you’ll be trying to edit a large book during a certain period, warn your clients there will be delays during that period. Be willing to negotiate extensions both with the author (for yourself), and with publishers that impose deadlines on your authors. For example, most journal editors are willing to give an ESL author more time to return a revised manuscript if they know that the revision is complete and the author is only waiting for their English editor to become available. (This won’t work if the publisher has a hard deadline, such as releasing a book or special issue of a journal right before a major conference, but negotiation works more often than you’d expect.)

Note: If you’re in the fortunate situation of having more work than time, negotiate agreements with colleagues you trust to work with your authors when you’re not available. Coordinate their schedules with yours well in advance to avoid any surprises; they’ll be absent sometimes, too.

As your workload increases, start building room and flexibility into your schedule to cope with unexpected busy periods. For example, I reserve one day per week for a client who sends me a regular stream of work. When they don’t send me a manuscript, I can usually find another manuscript I can work on while I wait for theirs to arrive. Based on many years of experience with how my workload varies during the year, I’ve learned to include such unscheduled (“open”) days on my calendar. Currently, I try to keep one day open per week in addition to the work for that weekly client.

When you receive a manuscript that’s longer than the author estimated when they reserved your time, ask for more time. If you can meet the original deadline, that’s great — but if you need more time, you have it. I’ve always appreciated the advice to “promise late, deliver early”; that is, if I’m able to complete the work faster than expected, the author gets a pleasant surprise, but if not, they still receive my work on the expected date. As I’m getting older, my editing speed is declining, so I find that I need this extra time more often. I warn my authors at least annually about the maximum I can reliably edit in a day’s work, and ask them to predict the length of their manuscript and ask for more than a day when they contact me to reserve my time.

Show, don’t tell

As I noted earlier, ESL authors often speak the language of their specialty far better than they speak the common language that represents the glue for social interactions.

Although you can sometimes rely on complex words if you know your author is willing to use a dictionary, consider instead whether you can illustrate your meaning. For example:

•       If you must resort to grammatical jargon, illustrate it. For example, “In this sentence, the verb accord is the dataset is or the data are.

•       If you must name punctuation, illustrate it: “Add or delete the semicolon (;) between author names in all references.”

•       If you must refer to shapes or symbol names, illustrate: “delete the asterisk (*) and replace it with a triangle (Δ).” Similarly, showing works better for patterns and colors: “Delete the red cross-hatching: [///].” (Editor’s note: Attempting to apply red “ink? to the /// element results in the whole sentence being made red.)

Part 2 of this article will continue with a discussion of cultural considerations, related rhetorical issues, and editing tips.” The final part will include references for the entire discussion.

Part 2 of this column will be published on Wednesday, December 2.

Geoff Hart (he/him) (www.geoff-hart.com) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 28 stories thus far.

October 22, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: Rates, Data Tracking, and Digital Efficiencies (Part II)

Rates, Data Tracking, and Digital Efficiencies (Part II)

by Louise Harnby

In Part I, I discussed some of the ways in which proofreaders working for agencies or publishers on typeset page proofs find themselves worse off in real terms. I also wrote about the importance of tracking business-performance data so that the proofreader can assess the health of her business and see where the problems are.

Here in Part II, I consider three options for how to deal with problematic rates, including my preferred solution — that of introducing digital efficiencies.

1. Discuss the Issue with the In-house Project Manager (PM)

You might be able to negotiate a better fee for the job. Even if your negotiations don’t end up in the rate increase you wanted, at least you’ll have a clearer understanding of why the press’s rates have either decreased or not risen in line with the cost of living. Any decision you make thereafter will be informed by knowledge of the press’s business concerns.

One mistake inexperienced editorial professionals make when setting about negotiations is lack of preparation. The “it’s not fair” approach is unlikely to be persuasive. Your PM may be sympathetic to your plight, may even acknowledge that many of her freelancers are feeling the pinch and that the editorial fees she’s offering are making it difficult for editors and proofreaders to sustain a viable business. However, unless you can give her substantive reasons why she needs to go down the negotiation route (as opposed to simply offering the job to some other freelancer who won’t quibble about the fee), your frustrations are likely to get you nowhere.

Instead, tell your PM why the project is worth more money. Do the sums where necessary so that she understands why she should pay more. I did this for a project earlier this year. I’d accepted a flat fee for proofreading a book on the understanding that it had been professionally copy-edited. It transpired that this wasn’t the case, and the proofs needed a level of attention that meant I’d be working for an estimated £10/US$16 per hour. This was completely unacceptable to me — the hourly rate worked out well below that which I both need and want to earn.

I could have declined the work but I took the time to provide a detailed explanation of the problems. Consequently, she understood that there had to be some give and take, and I was able to negotiate a substantial increase — one that, upon completion of the project, worked out to be £24/US$39 per hour. Given how invasive I’d been (though it was neither a proper copy-edit because I was working within the restraints of page proofs, nor was it a proper proofread because I had to do some sentence rewriting), the final hourly rate was still not as high as I think it should have been but it was one that I was prepared to accept, and it was north of my required effective hourly rate.

2. Elect Not to Work for the Press

As independent business owners, proofreaders have the right to choose with whom they work. If I’m unhappy with the rates a publisher is offering, I can decline the work and seek out better-paying clients. Though I’m constantly marketing my business in a bid to make myself discoverable and interesting to new and better-paying customers, letting go of an existing client is an option I only want to employ when all others have been exhausted.

3. Introduce Efficiencies

This is my preferred option, and the preferred option of An American Editor, as indicated in numerous previous essays by Rich Adin and his contributing writers. Finding efficiencies is especially important if I’m dealing with a long-term client that provides regular proofreading work that I enjoy doing and adds value to my portfolio. Not all of my publishers provide me with an income-per-project that works out at my preferred rate (what I want to earn) or, more importantly, my required rate (what I need to earn), but I absolutely love the books they send me and I therefore want to find a way to continue the relationship with them.

Introducing Digital Efficiencies…

Recently, I chatted with a colleague about rates. We have a common client and he’d noticed that the page rate had decreased — so we’re proofreading the same number of words per page as two years ago, but for less money. In theory, we’re worse off. He certainly thought he was worse off.

However, I looked at my project data spreadsheet and it told a different story. My spreadsheet showed that my extrapolated hourly rate for this client was higher than it was two years ago, to the extent that I was better off in real terms. Importantly, it was in excess of my required effective hourly rate. Even though I was earning less per page, I was still getting a higher overall reward for the time I spent working for this client. How could this be? I didn’t think I was worse off.

Something that emerged from my discussion with my colleague was that I was utilizing digital tools, whereas he was not. I believe that this is how I’ve managed to ensure that my extrapolated hourly rate has increased to the extent that I’m better off. I’ve become more accomplished at using these tools, too, so any efficiency gains aren’t one-off — there are marginal benefits to be accrued.

PDFs, Proofreading, and Saving Time…

Not all my publisher clients want me to mark up the PDF version of a proof; some still want hardcopy annotation. But all of them send me a PDF, and that means I can still introduce efficiencies. Here are just some of the ways that I think working with a PDF saves me time:

  • Chapter headings/drops: The PDF proof usually comes with each chapter bookmarked. If it hasn’t, I do this myself. Clicking through those bookmarks enables me to check in seconds that the chapter drops, and the font and size of the chapter headings, are consistent. I don’t waste valuable time thumbing manually through, say, 350 separate bits of paper, sticking Post-it tabs to the chapter-title pages, and measuring or cross-comparing the pages, while trying to ensure the whole lot doesn’t end up on the floor (it has happened!).
  • Reference checking: Even if you don’t use something like the fabulous ReferenceChecker (one of my favorite tools — though you’ll need to dump the text from the PDF into a Word document first), it’s much quicker to search for an author’s name in the PDF, and click straight through to the references/bibliography, than manually fiddling with bits of paper.
  • Global searches: We can do superfast searches for erroneous spaces before colons, semi-colons, and full points; and for possible problematic words such as “pubic,” “manger,” and “asses.”
  • Other layout issues: Using a PDF, it takes seconds rather than minutes to search for and check the positioning and styling of figures and tables, running heads, page numbers, and word breaks at the end of recto pages. The same applies to checking that the text on facing pages is balanced, as well as spotting widows and orphans.

Other Digital Efficiencies

  • Onscreen markup: Ask your client if they’ll accept onscreen markup of PDFs. Even if they don’t like the idea of extensive use of the comment boxes, you can utilize proofreading stamps. These enable you to provide a digital version of a paper markup. For more information on PDF proofreading take a look at Roundup: “PDF Proofreading Stamps (quick-access links)” (Proofreader’s Parlour, 2012); it includes further valuable links to relevant resources (and advice) published on the websites of my colleagues Adrienne Montgomerie and Katharine O’Moore-Klopf.
  • Digital delivery: Following on from that, if your client allows you to mark up onscreen, you can simply email the marked-up proofs. Consider how much time you spend dropping projects off at the post office or waiting for couriers to arrive. If you are proofreading on a fixed-fee basis, that’s a cost to you, and it’s time you could be doing other billable work or drinking your favorite tea.
  • Utilize online dictionaries to check word-break preferences, spelling, hyphenation, and style preferences. It’s quicker than thumbing through printed reference guides.
  • Use additional digital tools such as macro suites, word-list generation tools like TextStat (“Revisiting an old favourite: TextSTAT, word lists, and the proofreader”, and consistency checkers (e.g., PerfectIt) when it’s appropriate to do so. They save you time while increasing your hit rate.

Toyota Does It, So Why Shouldn’t We?

UK readers may recall an episode of Digby Jones: The New Troubleshooter (BBC, 2014). In a bid to help a Durham-based electronics manufacturer, Ebac, British business ambassador Digby Jones took the owner to a Toyota factory to learn how staff have introduced even the smallest efficiencies to improve their productivity and profitability. Nothing in the factory was left out of the mix — from the layout of the factory floor to the use of high-tech equipment. If a change in process could help turn minutes into seconds, it was considered worthwhile. In other words, it’s about marginal gains.

If Toyota does it, why shouldn’t the proofreader? When we track and add up all our saved minutes, the total can have a significant overall impact on the time it takes us to complete the work we do. The use of digital tools isn’t the only way to introduce efficiencies, but it’s an obvious one to start with.

How do you track your data? Do you know what you need to earn vs. what you want to earn? Which variables do you record? Which complementary digital tools do you use when proofreading, and how do you think they make you more productive and improve the quality of your work?

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

The Proofreader’s Corner: Rates, Data Tracking, and Digital Efficiencies (Part I)

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