An American Editor

September 15, 2014

The Proofreader’s Corner: The Editorial Specialist — On Being “Just a Proofreader”

The Editorial Specialist — On Being “Just a Proofreader”

by Louise Harnby

Many professional editorial business owners offer multiple services. Some of us choose to offer only one. I’m an example of the latter. I’ve been in practice for seven years (though for fifteen years beforehand I worked in-house for publishers) and I’m a specialist proofreader. At the time of writing, I have no plans to change this arrangement.

Recently, I was party to an exchange between two fellow editorial freelancers, one of whom was talking about how, having completed her proofreading training, she was now thinking about “upgrading” her skills to include copy-editing. This jarred with me. I could imagine expanding my services to include a new skill, but would I consider the introduction of copy-editing as an upgrade? “Upgrade” implies that proofreading is a lower-level skill — that it’s easier to do.

Later, I had an interesting discussion with another colleague. His business is established and he currently offers a range of services (proofreading and copy-editing). The reason he contacted me was because he was considering shifting the focus of his service provision to proofreading, primarily because he enjoyed the work more. Did I think this was a good idea and could I offer any advice on what “some might see as a retrograde” step? Again, I was uncomfortable with the language being used.

I decided to think more closely about the questions raised:

  • Is being “just a proofreader” a second-fiddle editorial occupation that’s easier to do?
  • Is specializing a backward step?

Is Proofreading Easier Than Copy-editing?

Is proofreading easier than copy-editing and therefore a lesser skill? I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to this. First, it depends on what we mean by “easier.” Do we mean it’s easier to learn? Easier to do? Or easier to manage in terms of workflow?

  • If I could learn skill X but have not yet done so, X will seem harder.
  • If I have learned skill X, I might still find it harder than skill Y because I don’t have such a flair for it.
  • If I have learned skill X, and discover I have a flair for it, but I have five dogs and two-year-old sextuplets, I might find skill X technically easier but skill Y simpler to juggle with my canine/toddler demands.

I only have one dog and one child, but I still find proofreading “easier” than copy-editing for the following reasons:

  • I haven’t trained as a copy-editor and don’t have copy-editing experience, but I have trained and am experienced in working with page proofs.
  • I like short-haul work that takes one (or two at the most) weeks to complete — proofs come in, are marked up, and are returned. This fits in nicely with the non-professional demands of my life.
  • I am more than comfortable with leaving well enough alone even when I think a sentence could be improved by rewriting.
  • I like looking for the minutiae (the incorrect running head; the missing page number; the inconsistent chapter drop; the misplaced apostrophe; the recto word break).
  • I’m happier dealing directly with a professional project manager than with an author who needs a lot of hand-holding.
  • I prefer it when projects don’t overlap. Overlapping projects would be stressful for me and this might impact on my effectiveness.

I have colleagues who struggle with proofreading, however. Their souls are in copy-editing because:

  • They haven’t trained to work with page proofs but they have trained to be copy-editors.
  • They are stimulated by the long-haul nature of a project that allows them to sink their teeth into it and provide a deeper level of intervention that will make the author’s voice sing.
  • They find it difficult to resist the temptation to tinker with non-essential changes because they know that things could be better with just an intsy-wintsy, teeny-weeny bit more intervention!
  • They are excited by the bigger picture and less so by whether the chapter drops are consistently set. Boredom could impact on their effectiveness.
  • They miss having direct contact with an author, developing a working relationship with the writer and hand-holding them through part of the publishing process.
  • They like overlapping projects because this work pattern enables them to break off from one (while waiting for the next round of author responses to come in) and refresh their brains with something different.

I also have colleagues who enjoy copy-editing and proofreading. They have both the skills and personality types that enable them to carry out a range of editorial functions. They mix and match, swapping their editorial hats according to their clients’ requirements and their own workflows. And, of course, they have preferences. They choose to offer multiple services.

Nailing down what is hard or easy is impossible because it’s subjective. And yet, what’s easy for you might not be easy for me. That’s why the language of “upgrading” isn’t helpful. It treats editorial services as if each one is a stand-alone entity that has no relation to the human being carrying it out.

The Decision to Specialize

Is specializing in proofreading a backward step if you have multiple skills? It all depends on what your business goals/needs are. The key issues to consider include:

  • Personal preferences: Which editorial functions do you enjoy doing? Which projects and clients groups generate the highest amount of self-worth for you?
  • Financial requirements: Will specializing affect the sustainability of your business? Will there be fee adjustments to consider that could impact on your ability to pay the bills each month?
  • Market considerations: Have you planned how you will expand your client base in your chosen field of specialization?

If you have a healthy editorial business that offers, for example, copy-editing, proofreading, and indexing, but you want to specialize in proofreading because you enjoy it more, you can earn what you need/want to earn, and you can access enough clients to provide you with the work you need, then it’s a forward step based on sound business planning and personal preference. Then, again, if you find this kind of work frustrating and can’t find enough of it to run your business in a way that is healthy, then it’s a retrograde step.

The point is that specializing (whether in proofreading or any other editorial function) in itself isn’t about moving forward or backward. Rather, it’s the foundations on which the decision is made that will determine the direction. If you want to do something, can do something, enjoy doing something, and that something is economically viable for your business, then do it.

Minding Our Language!

It’s worrying to think that some people working within this industry still talk about proofreading in terms of a hierarchy of ability because that’s not an appropriate way to approach the matter and is of little use to our clients. Seventeen publishers hire my specialist proofreading services on a regular basis and they do so because they can count on me to proofread — not copy-edit, index, translate, or do the hokey-cokey — according to their house brief. It’s not about upgrades or downgrades, or backward steps or forward steps; it’s about understanding what our clients’ problems are and being able to offer solutions.

Being a specialist proofreader isn’t a retrograde step as long as the business framework around the decision is sound. Being a specialist proofreader isn’t a downgrade from being a copy-editor — it’s simply a different function at a different stage of the editorial process. We need to take care that our language reflects these facts, otherwise new entrants to the field could be led towards making business decisions about what to learn and what to offer that are based on misunderstanding.

If you want to be “just a proofreader,” be one. Conversely, you could make the same decision with regard to another editorial function. Or you can mix it up. You’re a business owner and it’s your choice. You can change your mind, too. You might decide to move away from providing a more diverse service portfolio, because that decision works best for you now, but then in a year’s time reintroduce some of the services you withdrew from. That’s the beauty of being your own boss — regardless of what your colleagues are doing, you can determine the focus of your own business without having to negotiate with the human resources department!

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.

May 28, 2014

On Books: Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business

What is the one thing that every freelancer needs to do but most don’t do? Self-marketing!

Many freelancers have websites or participate in social media, but their marketing efforts are more passive than active. We are uncomfortable with active marketing largely because we do not know how to do it.

Years ago I taught marketing to editors and writers. It was an all-day course and I was surprised at how few people attended and, in follow-up, how few of the few who did take the course actually implemented what they learned. I suspect that in those pre–social media days, we believed that our community was small enough that personal relationships were more important and “marketing” was an unnecessary evil. (This view was often stated on editor forums.)

I admit that my view was different and for many years, I dedicated at least 10% of my gross income to marketing my services. My experience convinces me that smart marketing was and is necessary. Over the years I would read in online forums complaints from colleagues about having too little work, too long between jobs, too low an income, etc. These were phenomena with which I was unfamiliar and I attribute that to marketing. But I was preaching to the deaf.

It appears that the new generation of freelancers recognizes the need to market but needs direction on how to do it. At long last, there is a starting point for learning how to market. Louise Harnby has written Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, a guide for freelancers through the labyrinth of self-marketing.

Harnby’s book is not perfect and I have some disagreements with some of her statements, but then I look at marketing through much different glasses. For example, early in her book (p. 6), Harnby writes: “The truth is this — there are no rules.” Yes, there are rules. What there aren’t are limitations to what can be done — marketing is limited only by your imagination and pocketbook. But there are fundamental rules to successful marketing.

One such rule is that to be successful you must repeatedly market to the same audience. You cannot, for example, send an inquiry once to a prospect and leave it at that, even if the prospect says no or ignores you. If you want to work for that prospect, you must repeatedly remind that prospect of your interest and availability. Harnby both makes and skirts this point in Chapter 10, “Regular Marketing.” She emphasizes the need to keep marketing but doesn’t point out directly the need to keep marketing to the same group.

One of the great strengths of Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business is its “case studies.” I wish more detail was given in some instances, but every case study was enlightening. Importantly, the case studies reinforce the idea that what Harnby suggests is both doable and worthwhile. I particularly liked her sample marketing plan. If you read nothing else in the book, you need to read this because it is a good introduction to preparing a marketing strategy.

Another exemplary chapter is Chapter 20, “Going Direct.” When I worked in advertising and marketing in the very early 1970s, going direct was a cornerstone of a marketing plan for a small business. With the growth of the Internet and social media, going direct declined greatly or turned into spam. Harnby explains both how to go direct and why to go direct, making the case for its use even in the age of social media.

Not talked about in the book, but something that should be included in any revision, is the marketing calendar. Creating and maintaining a marketing calendar is important and a key to marketing success. Marketing is about timing as well as content. Great content that is used at the wrong time loses impact. A marketing calendar lets you focus on creating a marketing tidbit around a specific time or event. For example, I used to send out special gift packages for Halloween with my marketing pitch, which pitch was also Halloween oriented. Next up on the calendar was Thanksgiving. Because I kept a calendar, I knew when I had to prepare the material for each of these marketing events and when I had to mail the items. It would do little good to send something for Thanksgiving and have it arrive after the holiday or when no one was likely to be in the office to receive it. In addition to the detailed marketing plan that Harnby discusses, the detailed marketing calendar is also important.

Another item that should be included in a future edition is the marketing budget. How to create one, how to fund one, how to spend one — these are all important issues that need addressing when dealing with any marketing effort. For example, an issue that would fall under the budget category is should you design your own website or hire a professional? How do you make the budgetary analysis?

Harnby’s book, Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, demonstrates that any of us can do successful marketing. All we need is a little help and guidance, which Harnby’s book provides. It is the first book on marketing for freelancers that I would whole-heartedly recommend. It covers the essentials in sufficient detail for any freelancer to start a successful marketing campaign.

Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business is a must-have book in my library. I learned quite a bit that I was unaware of and that I am not taking advantage of in my marketing efforts, which I will think about rectifying. I am convinced that freelancers who follow Harnby’s advice — and persist in their marketing efforts — will ultimately find themselves overwhelmed with offers for work. For more information about Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, click this link.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 22, 2013

Relationships & the Unwritten Rules

Every relationship is governed by rules. It doesn’t matter whether the relationship is between spouses, parent and child, government and citizen, rock and a hard place, or authors and editors. If there is a relationship, there are rules that govern it.

Some of the rules are written. The relationship between spouses is partially governed by the rules (laws) enacted by their place of domicile or even by a prenuptial agreement. Similarly, sometimes some of the rules that govern the relationship between author and editor are written, such as when there is a contract between them.

But the majority of the rules that govern relationships are unwritten. They come about as a result of the values we have absorbed each day that we live. We begin as a blank slate and with each day that passes we gain a little bit more of our moral compass. It is these unwritten rules that are the more important rules.

In the author-editor relationship, it is the unwritten rules that are most important. I do not disagree with the notion that a written agreement that says author shall pay editor $x on y date is not important; rather, I believe that the moral compulsion for the author to actually make the payment is the more important part of the relationship. As I used to tell clients when I practiced law, an honest handshake was much more valuable than a dishonest signature on a contract.

One unwritten rule (really, a group of rules) in the author-editor relationship addresses responsibilities. Who is responsible for what. Left unsaid, just like the rule is left unsaid, are the reasons why the author has certain responsibilities and the editor has others. But these unwritten rules, which are often the basis for controversy between the author and editor, are the rules that form the foundation of the relationship. In their absence, chaos reigns; in their presence, a foundation for dispute resolution is available.

What brings this to mind is a recent experience I had with an author. Let me be clear about several things. First, I did not have a direct relationship with the author; my direct client was a third-party who hired and paid me. Second, the parameters of the work I was to perform were negotiated between my client and the author. My client relayed the decisions made between the author and them to me.

Even though there was no direct relationship between the author and me, the unwritten rules of responsibility are still applicable.

The parameters of the job were to copyedit the author’s 400-page manuscript on specialized financing within 8 workdays. The edit was specified as “light,” a term that really has no meaning but which indicates that neither the author nor the client thought there were major problems with the manuscript. (For a discussion of light, medium, and heavy as descriptors of the level of editing, see Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?)

It is important to note that my company was hired to perform a copyedit, not a developmental edit (for a discussion of copyediting versus developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) and that there was a rush schedule. The normal process, and the one I expected to be followed, was copyediting, return to author to accept or reject copyediting, proofreading, publication.

After the book was printed, reviewers began panning it. Complaints about content, editing, and proofreading arose, with some complaints about comprehensibility. The author was incensed and decided that all the fault was with the third-party and the author demanded that my client, the third-party, insert author corrections into the manuscript and reprint the book. The author provided a PDF of the book with author corrections added. Needless to say, my client was not happy.

I was asked to review the author’s complaints and the editing and advise my client. My client provided me with the reviewer’s comments, the printer file, and the author-corrected files; I had my own copies of the edited manuscript that I had submitted to my client. (I make it a point to keep copies of what I submit to clients for years.) Let me say upfront that I have an excellent relationship with my client and have edited numerous books for them. This kerfuffle has no effect on our relationship; the question is how to respond to the author.

I spent some time going through the author’s complaints. Two of the author’s complaints regarding mistakes in spelling that we missed were justified. We probably shouldn’t have missed them. On the other hand, there were more than a dozen errors surrounding those missed spellings that we did catch, including one that resulted in an AQ (author query) regarding the word immediately adjacent to one of the missed spelling errors.

The reviewer specifically quoted a sentence that the reviewer found incomprehensible. The reviewer was certainly correct, but the evolution of that sentence is what intrigues me. It turns out that the copyedited version that we submitted differs from the version that was printed. The author rejected one of the editor’s suggested changes to the sentence and made a couple of additional changes that we knew nothing about.

Another complaint was that a theory name was misspelled (the name began Sho when it should have been Scho) and the editor didn’t catch the misspelling. I searched the entire book and discovered that the name appeared twice in the book, both times spelled the same way by the author (i.e., spelled incorrectly), with more than 200 pages separating the two appearances.

I think you are getting the idea.

I then looked at the author’s corrected files to see what corrections were being proposed as necessary because of editing errors. This was revelatory. Some of the corrections were rewrites that added additional information that could not be gleaned from any of the surrounding material. There was nothing particularly wrong with the sentences before the additions, but the additions did add clarification. The question is, “How would the editor know to add the clarifying material?”

Other corrections made incomprehensible what began as poor writing; that is, the corrections would do more harm than good. Importantly, a large number of them were simply wrong, such as adding commas where no comma belongs, deleting a word or two so that a sentence went from poorly written to incomprehensible, adding a misspelled word or the wrong word to an otherwise difficult sentence, and so on.

Bottom line is that most of the author’s proposed corrections would make things worse, not better.

One other thing I noted is that some of the errors the author complained of should have been caught by a proofreader. Whether the manuscript was proofread or not, I do not know, but I do know that if it was proofread, the proofreader was not a professional, or at least not one I would consider professional. More importantly, the author should have caught these errors during the author review.

The author also refuses to accept that there is a difference between a developmental edit and a copyedit, that separate fees are charged for each service, and that the author paid only for a copyedit.

The question is the unwritten relationship rules. Who has responsibility for what. It is not that there weren’t some editor errors; there were. However, all of the editor errors could have been and should have been caught by the proofreader and the author during their review. It is one reason why there are proofreading and author reviews.

More important, however, is that the responsibility for a manuscript is a shared responsibility. This author insists that the responsibility lies solely with the editor. The author refuses to accept the idea that the author-editor relationship is a partnership and that the editor’s responsibilities are limited by the parameters imposed, ultimately, by the author; the author denies the commandment we discussed in The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners.

Ultimately, my client has to make a political decision: Should they appease the author or stand their ground? I think they have a solid basis for standing their ground. The book desperately needed a developmental edit, but no one wanted to spend the money to have it done. The author did not determine in advance what was needed and expected by way of a copyedit. For example, the author assumed that fact checking was automatically included, yet did not specify that as one of the tasks, did not pay for it, and did not allot sufficient time for it to be done (remember that the editing schedule was 8 workdays).

Realistic — and knowledgeable — division of responsibility is important in the author-editor relationship. As an unwritten rule, however, division of responsibility is so fluid that it is easy for one party to attempt to shift what should be their responsibility to the other party. Both the author and the editor should give careful thought to the division of responsibility before they begin the relationship and should recognize that such division is governed by the parameters set for the project.

More importantly, authors should clearly state, in writing, their expectations and the services they want an editor to perform, and be prepared to pay for those services.

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