An American Editor

February 23, 2015

On the Basics: Questions to Ask for the Ideal Client–Freelancer “Marriage”

Questions to Ask for the Ideal
Client–Freelancer “Marriage”

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

There’s been some media buzz in the wake of a recent column in the New York Times about applying psychological research to finding love by asking a date something like 36 supposedly ideal questions that determine whether the other person is marriage material. It all seemed rather forced and hokey to me, despite my definite leanings toward the romantic, but it made me think that freelance colleagues might want to apply a similar process to identifying ideal clients — or at least giving a relationship between client and freelancer a more reasonable likelihood of success.

The right questions asked at the right time can make the difference in a smooth, rewarding experience for both client and freelancer, whether the project is a writing, editing, proofreading, graphics, desktop publishing, or other assignment of some sort. The “never assume” adage is a good one to keep in mind. The one element you don’t ask about is likely to be the one that turns into a huge headache for one or both parties in the relationship.

Of course, we don’t always know what we should have asked about until not having done so comes along to haunt us or ruin the relationship. Other peoples’ experiences — and questions — could be the factor that keeps your next new client relationship from going on the rocks.

With that in mind, here are some of the questions that I try to remember to ask of or verify with prospective new clients, and some that a client might be expected to ask of us.

The Essentials

  • What is the scope of the project or assignment — number of words or pages? Are there references, footnotes, etc.?
  • If in pages, I define a page as x number of words/y number of characters. Do you use a different definition? When is it due?
  • What is the fee?
  • If there is no set fee, what is your budget?
  • Do you pay by the word, hour, page or project?
  • Do you pay on submission, acceptance, publication, within 30 days of invoice, or by some other timeframe once I’ve sent my invoice? If you usually pay after longer than 30 days after invoice, is that negotiable?
  • Do you have a contract we can use? If not, can we work from one that I provide?
  • If your usual rate is lower than I usually charge, is there any flexibility, such as an increase after a successful project?
  • Is there room in the budget in case the project changes, or goes beyond the original, scope?
  • Would there be any problem with my subcontracting some or all of the assignment as long as I review my colleague’s work before submission?

Editing in General

  • Is this for editing or proofreading?
  • If for editing, what level of edit do you expect — substantive, developmental, copy, line?
  • Which style manual do you use?
  • If you don’t have a designated style manual, is it OK if I use Chicago/AMA/AP/APA/ MLA?
  • Do you have any in-house style specifics that I should follow?
  • Do you have a preferred dictionary?
  • Is the document in Word? A PDF? PowerPoint? Some other format?
  • Do you expect one pass through the document or two?
  • Do you want me to use Track Changes?
  • Do you want me to provide coding? Fact-checking? Reference verification? Plagiarism checking?

Editing or Proofreading a Thesis or Dissertation

  • Does the institution or department have guidelines on the type of editorial assistance that is allowed?
  • Does the university or department follow any specific style guide? If they don’t use the same one, which should I follow?
  • Are there any specific checklists or guidelines to be followed?

Writing/Journalism Assignments

  • How many sources do you require?
  • Is there anyone in particular who absolutely must be interviewed and included?
  • What style manual should I follow?
  • Is there any flexibility in the word count if I get really good quotes and other interesting information?
  • Do you allow sources to see their quotes before publication of the article if they ask?

From the Client

  • What have you worked on in this genre/topic area?
  • Can you provide references?
  • Can you provide samples?
  • Will you take an editing/proofreading/writing test?
  • Do you offer any guarantee of accuracy or quality?
  • How many revisions are included in your fee?
  • Do you subcontract any of your work, or can I count on it actually being done by you and you alone?
  • Do you offer a discount for a steady stream of regular assignments?

You don’t want to scare off prospective clients by asking an overwhelming number of questions, or ones that appear to assume there will be problems with the assignment, but you do want to nail down as many  important specifics as possible before you start working on a project. I hope these suggestions help colleagues and clients get on track for the ideal professional marriage.

Are there any other questions that you would ask, or wish you had asked, of new clients or about new projects?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

August 30, 2014

Worth Reading: Steven Pinker on 10 “Grammar Rules”

Steven Pinker is one of my favorite authors. I have many of his books in my library and have his forthcoming book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, on preorder (publication date is September 30, 2014).

A couple of weeks ago, Pinker wrote an article for The Guardian. The article, “10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes),” is well worth reading. In the article, Pinker outlines the questions you should ask to “distinguish the legitimate concerns of a careful writer from the folklore and superstitions” and the questions to be asked — and if answered “yes” — to reject a grammar “rule.”

The 10 “grammar rules” Pinker addresses are:

  • and, because, but, or, so, also
  • dangling modifiers
  • like, as, such as
  • preposition at the end of a sentence
  • predicative nominative
  • split infinitives
  • that and which
  • who and whom
  • very unique
  • count nouns, mass nouns and “ten items or less”

I’ve saved the article for future reference. What do you think of it?

March 5, 2014

Why Are You Hiring a Professional Editor?

Increasingly, I wonder why professional editors are being hired. In reading online discussions, it is pretty evident that (a) everyone thinks they can be an editor, (b) a growing number of authors think that self-editing or peer editing is more than sufficient, (c) professional editors are believed to be overpaid, and (d) people who have edited a romance novel think they can as competently and easily edit a 5,000-page manuscript on the genetics of cancer.

Of course, a lot of discussion online centers around price. Not only are editors offering services at unsustainable prices (see The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It for a discussion of sustainable pricing), but users of the editing services offered are balking at those prices. (How absurd is this “pricing war” becoming? I received a job application from an editor offering to work for 25¢/page!)

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that those who need a professional editor’s services have no clue as to why they need those services except that everyone tells them that they do and because using an editor is what authors have done for decades. The users of editors do not contemplate the purposes for which they want an editor’s services.

We have discussed professional editors and what their role is in the publishing process numerous times over the life of this blog. The editor’s role hasn’t changed, probably since the time of the very first editor. Yet even with that history, when asked “Why are you hiring a professional editor?”, the answer is rarely inclusive of what the editor does.

Within the past few weeks, I was asked to edit a paper that was going to be submitted as part of a grant proposal. The instructions were clear: check spelling and look for egregious grammar errors but touch nothing else. Why hire me? (I turned down the work for a multitude of reasons, including the project’s schedule was incompatible with my schedule, but largely because I am not a spell checker — I am a professional editor who expects to make use of my editorial skills, not a verifier that spell check software didn’t miss something.)

I think a significant amount of blame for the state of editing lies in the hiddenness of what editors do. It is hard to point to a paragraph in a book and say that because of the suggestions of the editor, this paragraph altered the author’s destiny, turned the author into a star or into a has been. Editors may have star-making power, but if they do, it is not readily apparent to either the editor or to the person who hires the editor.

The person hiring the editor is really looking for someone who can take away embarrassments before they become embarrassing. That’s because of the limited understanding of the editor’s role. Each person who hires an editor needs to ask, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” If the answer is to verify spell checking software, then the follow-up question should be, “Why am I hiring a professional editor for a job that doesn’t require a professional editor?”

Ultimately, there should be an epiphany. The questioner should realize that what she needs to know is what a professional editor does. It is this appreciation of the skills owned by a professional editor that will enable the answering of the original query, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” Importantly, once the question can be answered, it is likely to move the focus away from pricing and toward skillsets.

Another result of being able to answer the question is that the asker will be able to analyze her needs and guide the editor as to what is needed and wanted: If all you need to do is cross the street, you don’t hire a taxi. It is the lack of understanding on the part of an editor’s clients as to what an editor does and why it is important that is at the heart of the problems professional editors face in terms of unrealistic expectations and downward pressure on pricing. It is hard for an editor to convince a client that she is worth $50 an hour when the client thinks the editor is just a glorified spell checker.

Someone who understands what an editor does, understands the need for a professional editor. It remains true that no one will be able to point to a single paragraph in a book and say that the editor’s transformation of that paragraph instantly altered the author’s status; such singular events remain within the realm of the speechwriter. Unfortunately, because readers never see the before and after of an editor’s work, it is not possible for readers to see how the editor has improved or worsened an author’s work.

In addition, an editor suggests and the author decides, which means that an author can easily reject the advice that would transform his work from a member of the pack to leader of the pack as accept the advice.

The reason a professional editor is hired is that the client wants to ensure that her manuscript is accessible and understandable, that it flows not just in her eyes and mind but in the mind and eyes of others. She wants to know that her word choice conveys the meaning she intends. Professional editors have honed the skills that deliver these results. Professional editors are able to maintain a distance from the manuscript that enables an objective assessment; it is very difficult for a mother to objectively assess her child.

Once it is realized what a professional editor does and what skills he has, it becomes clear that not everyone can be an editor, just as not everyone can be a lawyer or doctor; that peer group editing is not the same as using a professional editor; that professional editors are skilled artisans who are worth more than a bottom-scraping fee; and that the editor who has successfully edited a romance novel is not necessarily the editor who can successfully edit a large manuscript on cancer genetics.

In other words, once one realizes what skills a professional editor possesses, it is easier to see that different skills are needed for different projects. Now one can answer the question, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 29, 2013

Making the Decision to Move to Lightspeed

The one thing that is true about technology is that obsolescence is built-in. Whatever you buy today will, after a manufacturer-predefined time, begin to turn to dust.

Before we go further into my tale, let’s sidestep for this bit of music:

As I have mentioned in other posts, I have my computers custom built locally. That allows me to choose higher-quality components from manufacturers that I prefer. One part from here, one from there. More importantly, my local computer shop warrants those components for 3 years.

For years, I replaced our computers every 18 to 24 months. The technology was changing rapidly and by the time 2 years had passed, it was like moving from the paleolithic era of computing to the future. And the more complex my macros became and the more I wanted them to do, the greater the computing power I needed and wanted. The one thing I didn’t want was to have time to twiddle my thumbs while waiting for my macros to do their tasks.

About 6 years ago that changed with the building of our current computers. I had finally hit the top of the hill. Sure changes continued to occur and components continued to improve, but none of them would have had much of an impact on my needs. The machine I had custom built would outlive my editing career — or so I hoped.

As with all such wishes, there was something I forgot: components are designed to fail. Manufacturers don’t want things to live forever, so obsolescence is built-in.

This past week, my boot drive began to fail. I could tell because it took longer and longer to boot up my computer each morning; because where once the computer easily handled a dozen open applications simultaneously, now it struggled to hand three or four; because I would be working and suddenly everything would freeze for a few seconds.

I also began to notice that my data drive also was generating errors. Reads and writes to the data drive (a separate physical drive from my boot drive) took a little bit longer; instructions weren’t being carried out quite as fast (or so it seemed) as in previous times.

Although these two hard drives were high-quality drives when purchased, time had passed them by. All traditional-type hard drives have moving parts, parts that eventually wear out. The one thing I didn’t want to happen was for the drive to start writing data to bad sectors, causing corruption, so I took the hints I was being given and called my local computer shop.

It took 3 hours of downtime, but in that time, I went from what now seems like crawling to near the speed of light. It previously took a little more than 90 seconds to boot up; now it takes less than 20 seconds. The cure was not only new drives but going to solid-state drives (SSDs).

Unfortunately, SSDs are expensive, at least double the price of traditional drives. But with that increased price comes compactness (four SSDs fit within the same space as one traditional drive), no moving parts to wear out (although these drives do eventually lose the ability to write to the disks, they, supposedly, never lose the ability to read from them), no heat generation, and no noise (no moving parts to make noise).

An advantage of custom building my computers is the ease with which these types of repairs can be made. As I have noted previously, all of my hard drives are hot swappable, which means that I can pull them out of their slot without turning off and opening the computer, and I can put a different hard drive in the slot and access it. It makes for great backup and for easy storage when I travel. It also means that my computer shop could do the repair in my office — I didn’t need to be without the computer for more than a few hours. (Most of the time I was “down” was spent cloning my old drives to the new SSDs. The physical replacement of the drives and getting Windows to recognize the new drives took only a few minutes.)

Now that I have new primary hard drives, I am thinking about updating my remaining traditional hard drives (six of them: one for storage of completed projects; one to hold my imaging backups; four in my NAS [network-attached storage] box for my daily backups) to SSDs. I am unlikely to do that upgrade soon because of the cost and the lack of real need. None of those drives get the use that my two primary drives receive.

The upgrades I will be doing in the coming few months are upgrades to my motherboard, processor, RAM, and video cards. With the new SSDs, my Journals macro that took nearly 26 minutes to run through 15,000 dataset entries on a list of 500+ references now takes closer to 11 minutes (see Business of Editing: The Logistics of Large Projects). It will be even faster once I upgrade the motherboard, processor, and RAM to ones that can take full advantage of the SSDs.

With my computer working great with just the SSD upgrade, why would I consider spending even more money to upgrade these other components? Because I will get a high return on my investment — I will make back the cost of the upgrade in just a couple of projects. Remember, I charge by the page so that the faster and more efficiently I can process data, the higher my effective hourly rate will be (see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand).

In other words, I am investing in my business. My pre-SSD computer configuration performed well for about 6 years. I received an excellent rate of return on that investment. Now it is time to invest for the next 6 years (or longer). When I make decisions about whether to buy new equipment/components, the biggest factors in my decision-making process are the answers to these questions: “Will it help to increase my effective hourly rate?” and “If it will, how quickly will it do so?”

If the answer to the first question is no, then I proceed no further. The only time I will buy is when I must because of, for example, a component failure. I haven’t bought a tablet for work because a tablet can neither improve my speed/efficiency nor positively affect my effective hourly rate. If the answer to the first question is yes, but the answer to the second question is a time frame that I think is too long, such as 20 or more projects or 1 year or longer, then I also do not buy. The return on investment is not sufficient to justify the investment. I need to wait for further technological improvements.

In the case of the hard drives, the decision had to be made whether to buy traditional drives or the SSDs. I decided to buy the SSDs because the answer to the first question was yes and to the second it was no more than 2 projects to recoup the price differential; in other words, it made fiscal sense to spend more now to reap long-term benefits.

What analysis do you do when deciding whether to buy new equipment or to upgrade your current equipment or even what type of equipment to buy?

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