An American Editor

April 12, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Three — Themes and Variations

Carolyn Haley

Dialogue is a big area of editorial focus in fiction. It presents multiple technical issues — making sure all open quotes are paired with close quotes; punctuation is inside or outside the quote marks as appropriate; terminal punctuation is there at all; quote marks are right-side-up and/or have no spaces around them, and are “curly” (typographer style) versus straight.

It also presents issues regarding who said what and how, and whether that information is needed. The primary content elements are identifier tags (the who part) and writing style (the how part). Two simple examples: “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he said quietly, versus, “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he whispered; and “Ready, aim, fire,” he shouted loudly, versus just, “Ready, aim — fire!

My house style regarding dialogue is to emulate what I see in the hundreds of traditionally published books I read and review annually. The accepted wisdom is to minimize tag use (e.g., he said), use an appropriate tag when needed (e.g., he whispered), and/or bracket the words with an action so the reader can follow the exchange (e.g., The general stood behind the troops and counted down with his arm. “Ready, aim — fire!”).

Dashes and Ellipses

Em dashes (—) and ellipses (…)occur often in novels to signify broken or interrupted speech or thoughts (em dash), or hesitant or trailing-off speech or thoughts (ellipses). Regardless of purpose, they have to be handled consistently in a manuscript. They are handled differently in manuscripts destined for electronic versus print production, which adds a formatting element to the editor’s equation.

My default practice is to edit for print production. More and more, though, my clients intend from the get-go to self-publish in e-book and/or print. I now need to negotiate up front how I will format the edited material I deliver. Some authors prepare e-books themselves; others send out their edited manuscripts for formatting, or publish through a service that does the e-book prep work for them; while some want me to do that prep as part of the edit.

In manuscripts intended for submission to traditional publishers or for self-publishing in print, the em dash without spaces on either side (closed up) is the preferred style. At production time, a typesetter will finesse line length and word spacing so line breaks occur correctly. MS Word files containing em dashes transfer well to page-layout programs; in submitted-for-consideration manuscripts, an author using em dashes (vs. double hyphens or en dashes) sends a subliminal signal to the acquiring editor that they either know what they’re doing or have worked with an editor and the manuscript is in respectable shape.

In manuscripts intended for self-publishing for e-readers, however, the em dash without spaces can be a hindrance. It adheres to the words on either side, and in text that will be enlarged or shrunken at will by the reader, the clumped-together words plus em dash can cause some funky spacing on the reader’s screen because of word wrap on variable scales. The dashes, therefore, have to have spacing around them, and ideally be attached to the preceding word with a nonbreaking space so word and dash will wrap together. In some cases, the e-book producer prefers an en dash ( – ) with spaces around it. For .epub files in particular, the ideal is for any dash to be a Unicode character.

Whatever the situation, somebody has to take care of dash detail. I offer value-added to my clients, where viable, by taking care of it myself.

The same is true for ellipses. In conventional print production, ellipses comprise nine elements: word+space+point+space+point+space+point+space+word. Typesetters insert hard spaces in this sequence to avoid line breaks between the points. I can do that in Word as part of grooming the text during an edit, and often do. Manuscripts slated for e-book production, though, work best if the ellipses are coded as a single character — a three-point unit without spaces between the points, with or without spaces before and after. Spacing around the three-point character allows for better wraps during enlargement or shrinking.

Again, this is a formatting detail I can provide or ignore, depending on the client’s desires. Where it applies to house style is establishing with the author what route to take, then performing the task and recording the choice in the style sheet.

Putting It All Together

I communicate my house style through the style sheet I produce for each manuscript. I start by listing my core references.

References used for general style

  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, online unabridged, first variant used unless indicated
  • Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed.
  • Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed.
  • Multiple online sources

Some manuscripts are clean and simple, so I stop there. Others require lookups from throughout my library and the Internet, which I don’t list unless a particular project requires heavy, repeat consultation.

For example, one militaristic science fiction novel included many biblical quotations. In checking the quotes for accuracy, I discovered there are multiple versions of the Bible, and quote checks among them showed variables in phrasing. The differences could be just a word or two, or complete sentences. In this client’s book, a few checks against his phrasing showed that the King James Bible matched his work most closely, so I made sure that all the quotes in the novel aligned with the phrasing of the King James version, which I listed on the style sheet as a resource.

In the same manuscript, I had to check a lot of firearms, too, so I listed my primary resource: the annual edition of the Gun Digest catalogue. Another author switched back and forth between metric units and other measurement systems. After checking which the author wanted, I converted those numbers in the text. Years ago, I found a website I like to use for that purpose (www.convert-me.com); when I use it a lot, I list it to show the author where I got my numbers.

This information is all I provide on the style sheet for references. I don’t think a client needs to know every single book or website I use to check something. I list the top three or four resources to make the point that I employ the tools of my trade and have indeed checked items that needed verification. This signals the same point to other publishing professionals who might follow me in the chain, such as a proofreader or an agent, an acquiring editor, or a publisher’s in-house editor. My resource list tells them the manuscript has been professionally edited and which frame of reference the editor used.

Next on the style sheet, I provide a bullet list of applicable generalities. While these mainly concur with the core references, they accommodate any dominant deviations and reflect things done globally to the manuscript. Here’s an example from a contemporary time-travel fantasy.

Conventions followed in this manuscript

  • add ’s in singular possessives ending in s (Dr. Jones’s, Professor Albates’s, his boss’s)
  • cap first word of full sentence after colon
  • cap honorifics and titles in direct address or referral (Father vs. my father; King Ageis vs. the king)
  • cap university class and division names (Modern Physics, Thermodynamics, Psychology, Biochem; but: the medical school, the business school)
  • cap software or keyboard commands (Run, Stop, Send) and lever positions (Drive, Park)
  • comma after long introductory phrases (4+ words) and to separate long compound sentences
  • comma before last item in series (friends, students, and professors)
  • comma before terminal too, anyway, though, either [untracked]
  • distinction made between each other (two) and one another (several), except in dialogue
  • ellipses = traditional print version ( . . . ) with hard spaces between points to prevent breaking at line ends
  • italics for book and media titles; foreign languages; ship names; emphasis; sounds (pop); telepathy; thoughts/inner speech/remembered speech; unspoken language (she mouths, Everything is always okay); words as words (To her, okay is the male equivalent of the female favorite, fine.), letters as letters; dreams; text messages
  • no comma between easy-flow coordinate adjectives where meaning is clear (hot clammy darkness, large green leaves, low sweet sound)
  • no comma in common informal expressions (“Oh my,” “Oh yes”; but: “Yes, sir”)
  • no s in –ward words (backward, upward, toward) [untracked]
  • no single quotes used except for quotes-within-quotes
  • numbers spelled out zero through one hundred, plus round hundreds, thousands, fractions, and any in dialogue (except years and other special items, e.g., firearms and ammo [.50, 9 mm])
  • numerals for dates, decimals, huge numbers (1043), alphanumeric combinations (3-D, Fortune 500, room 603, I-82, serial number 34321-KT-14133, section 9B5, DL99 maintenance drone)
  • title caps in quotes for signs (“No Trespassing”), including tattoos

After this summary, I provide an alphabetical list of terms. These cover anything I look up to confirm that the dictionary or style guide differs from what the author uses, along with proper nouns that aren’t addressed elsewhere in the style sheet, words unique to the manuscript, foreign-language terms or phrases, any word including a diacritical mark, technical terminology, and whatever else might be relevant. Here are a few examples from a contemporary fantasy novel:

amid (vs. amidst)

among (vs. amongst)

ax (vs. axe)

back seat (vs. backseat)

blond (masc. & generic); blonde (fem. n.)

co- (hyphenated; co-anchor, co-worker [contrary to MW, save for co-opt])

decor (vs. décor)

facade (vs. façade)

naive (vs. naïve, but: naïveté)

And so on. In complex novels, the terms list can run for pages. Likewise the sections for characters and places, which I subdivide as needed for clusters — families, companies, opposing forces, human and alien societies, flora and fauna, spacecraft; whatever is appropriate for the book.

I also include chronology for stories with complicated timeframes and changing viewpoints. In simpler stories, which might take place in a few hours or a few days, in an obvious progression, I take care of any hiccups by querying in the manuscript rather than map out the complete timeline.

Balancing Act

Most of the time, dealing with variables is just a balancing act between upholding professional editing standards without interfering with a client’s voice and vision, and it occurs without client involvement. If something is especially sticky, or requires a global change throughout the manuscript, I contact the client and we work it out while the job is in process, rather than after I deliver the manuscript, so the client isn’t surprised.

As noted above, there are times when author preference prevails over house style. If the author keenly prefers something I object to, they can have their way. It’s not my book, and English is a complicated and fluid language. Authorities agree that they disagree on the fine points, so my house policy is to not slavishly adhere to something that isn’t critical. If I get too carried away with enforcing my preferences, I might exceed the scope of work and create deadline or payment problems with an alienated author. Who needs that?

Another factor to consider is that many fiction writers are passionately protective of their work. Indeed, some of my clients have come to me after bad experiences with other editors who got overzealous about “the rules.” The authors don’t necessarily know what the rules are; they only know that corrections were applied arbitrarily and heavily to change their prose for no apparent reason. I find being the replacement editor an uncomfortable position to be in. I work just as hard as other editors to learn my craft and might be inclined to heavily change the author’s prose, too. This is why I’m careful about defining the scope of my work with my clients.

Even with well-defined boundaries, though, occasions arise when an author wants to keep something that I know to be technically wrong according to acknowledged authorities, or silly/stupid/counterproductive/embarrassing according to my own common sense. In those cases, editorial rules have to be trumped by human ones, such as the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the copyeditor’s mantra (“It’s not my book, it’s not my book . . .”).

The bottom line is customer satisfaction and paid bills. If I can see a problem client coming, I’ll decline the work opportunity, but if something conflicting develops during an otherwise going-well job, I will concede that “the customer is always right” and give them what makes them happy. (To guard against that policy getting out of hand, I’ve inserted a clause in my contract that holds the client responsible for the ultimate content of the book.)

Absent passionate client feeling about a particular point, I focus on choosing between correctness and appropriateness. As long as the text is clear, consistent, and using variations allowed by reference works honored by the publishing industry, I find no need to interfere with an author’s writing style and overload a manuscript with markups. After all, a writer’s choice of spelling or punctuation may be perfectly correct according to one authority but not another, such as one or more of the core references underpinning my house style.

Why a House Style Works

Having a house style, I’ve found, allows greater efficiency when editing a novel because I spend less time looking up rules and spellings, and weighing alternatives against each other. The act of establishing and fine-tuning a house style forces me to make both macro and micro choices about my editorial approach, and following a house style makes me consistent within a single project as well as across all projects. The combination gives me the editorial equivalent of what novelists seek for themselves: an individual voice.

We may never discuss the nitty-gritty of my editorial choices, but on the rare occasions when clients do question a choice, I have a basis upon which to answer and discuss. This increases their confidence in my ability and helps us communicate better. The result is a mutually satisfying editing job that often brings a client back with their next novel, and encourages referrals. That achieves my ultimate goal: a win-win relationship between author and editor, resulting in a better novel with its best chance for success in the author’s chosen market.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

July 13, 2016

On the Basics: So You Want to be a Freelancer

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

The idea of being a freelance editor, writer, proofreader, or other editorial worker — for that matter, a freelance anything — is alluring. The prospect of escaping from routine or a difficult boss, setting your own hours, making more money, saying no to work you don’t want to do — it all seems so exciting and worthwhile.

And it is. But freelancing isn’t easy. Being a freelancer means being in business. You might not have an outside office, employees, or a warehouse full of inventory, but you will be in business. Editorial work may be creative, but that doesn’t mean you can approach freelancing nonchalantly, as if there were no business aspects to success.

First steps

For many, if not most, of us, the hardest part of freelancing seems to be finding a steady stream of work that pays well. Before you can meet that challenge, you have to know what to do, for whom, and at how much.

Figure out what you do well, and what you want to do. Put some time into identifying your market — publications, publishers large or small, big corporations, small businesses, independent authors, government agencies, domestic and international not-for-profit organizations, etc., all use freelance writers, editors, desktop publishers, proofreaders, website designers and managers, indexers, graphic artists, and more. Think about your competition, and how you might make yourself stand out from them. Use resources discussed in An American Editor and elsewhere to figure out how much you need to earn to cover your expenses. Then get ready to find the clients that respect your skills and pay accordingly.

Charging for your work

Setting rates for your freelance work can be daunting. Some clients will have rates in place and all you have to do is decide whether to accept those rates. Others may ask what you would charge, or expect you to bid on their work. Various publications and professional organizations provide guidelines on ranges for different types of editorial work, and colleagues are often willing to share what they charge. (Search An American Editor for columns about “effective hourly rate” and “what to charge” to understand and set the rates you need to cover your bills and expenses.)

Keep in mind that everyone is different; my skills, years of experience, types of client, types of work I accept, and chutzpah level are different from yours, so what I charge might be irrelevant to what you can charge (in either direction).

Part of freelancing successfully and getting paid what you think you’re worth has to do with how you set up your business. If you’re a specialist, you probably can charge higher fees; if you’re a generalist, you should get more assignments. The bottom line might look the same.

Thinking about this aspect of freelancing before you actively look for clients will make it easier to know which projects are worth accepting and which ones to turn down.

Finding work

Finding worthwhile clients and projects means marketing and promoting yourself and your skills. As creative people, and as the introverts that many writers, editors, and proofreaders supposedly are, that is a nerve-racking prospect, but it is absolutely essential to freelance success.

The first step is to let everyone you know — family, friends, and especially everyone you’ve ever worked with — about your freelance business and that you are looking for projects. Get business cards and carry them with you at all times; you never know when the lead to a project might crop up, even in social situations. Then go after clients beyond your current network of contacts.

The “bible” for freelance writers is Writer’s Market. I’m also a big believer in trolling local newsstands to find and read magazines that interest me so I can pitch story ideas; they all have websites, and most of those sites provide editorial calendars and writers’ guidelines. Editors and proofreaders often rely on Literary Market Place. We all can use membership (and visibility) in professional associations or discussion groups for access to job-listing services, directory listings, and referrals as colleagues get to know us.

About the boss

One of the fun things about freelancing is being the boss. One of the hard things about freelancing is being the boss.

As the owner of your freelance business, you are responsible for meeting deadlines; paying quarterly estimated taxes; billing and collecting; filing and record-keeping; marketing and promoting; managing time; and all the other little details that are not the editorial activities that you want to spend all your time doing.

You also now have to psych out not one “boss” or “supervisor,” but several. You will have more than one client to answer to and understand — if you’re lucky, dozens. Some will interpret a deadline to mean receiving your work first thing in the morning of the due date; others will consider 5 p.m. as meeting that deadline. Some will want to discuss every detail of a project by phone or e-mail, adding substantial amounts of time to the work. Different clients may expect you to follow different style guides; some may not even know what a style manual is. Some of your responsibility as a freelancer will be to educate clients — tactfully, of course — on expectations.

(For more details on all of these topics, search the An American Editor archives for “setting office hours,” “managing time,” “expectations,” etc.)

Protecting yourself

Rewarding as it can be, freelancing also has its risks. The one that seems to come up in discussions the most often is not getting paid. You can head that off, for the most part, by having something in the way of an agreement or contract. It doesn’t have to be overly formal or lawyerly, but make sure you confirm all details of an assignment or project by e-mail or in a Word document. Include language about how and when you’ll be paid. (Check the An American Editor archives for “Getting Paid: Things for a Freelancer to Think About.”)

If the client has a contract for you to sign, read it carefully to make sure you aren’t accepting liability for anything beyond your control, such as changes after you’ve submitted your work that could create inaccuracies. You can often negotiate to cross out clauses that don’t apply to you or that you find unacceptable. Some boilerplate contracts that make sense for large vendors but not individual freelancers ask for huge levels of insurance coverage, for instance, and usually can be removed if you point that out to the client.

Do some basic research on copyright so you understand, and don’t unnecessarily give away, your rights to your work. With writing, the work belongs to you once you’ve created it until you’re paid for whatever rights you’ve agreed to sell. For editing work, include language in agreements and invoices about retaining the copyright to your version of the document until you’ve been paid. (See the An American Editor essay “The Editor’s Interest: Copyright or Not.”)

For writing assignments, payment will usually be by the word and after the assignment is done. Try to get payment on acceptance rather than on publication — it could take several months between when you hand in that article and the magazine comes out, and all kinds of things could happen in between to delay or even cancel publication.

Editing and proofreading usually are paid by the hour; sometimes by the word or page, or as flat (project) fees. When working with nonpublisher companies and individuals, you often can get a deposit or advance before starting the work; with many clients, you can arrange for interim payments on lengthy projects. That kind of arrangement is especially useful with individual authors, who could be gobsmacked by the total fee but able to pay several smaller amounts over time. Consider making it your business policy, whenever possible, to withhold the finished work until paid in full.

Include language in agreements about late fees, and something to that effect in your invoice template; you generally can’t, or at least shouldn’t, charge late fees if you haven’t said that you will do so. And don’t jump the gun — you can say “payable on receipt” on your invoice, but the standard timeframe for payment in the business world is 30 days after invoice date. Unless your contract specifies otherwise, that’s when you’ll be paid. A few days past the 30-day limit might not mean someone isn’t going to pay. Give it a week, perhaps two, before treating a missing payment as late. (For additional discussion about invoicing on An American Editor, see “The Business of Editing: Thinking About Invoices.”)

The possibility of late payment or nonpayment brings up another important aspect of protecting yourself: Try to have a savings cushion that covers at least a few months of expenses before you venture into full-time freelancing, so you’re covered in case it takes a while to find projects, or you encounter slow or no-show payments. Knowing you can pay your bills affects your attitude. If you’re desperate for money, you’re more likely to accept low fees and draconian conditions. Try not to do that to yourself.

Self-protection is also a factor in marketing and promotions. When you’re immersed in a substantial, demanding, long-term project, it’s easy to forget to market yourself. Don’t get so buried in current work that you stop looking for the next project. Otherwise, you’ll have no work or income while you wait for that check to come in. The smart thing to do is to set aside a few hours every week to devote to marketing.

Working for free

If you don’t have experience or training in the skills you want to sell, it might make sense to do some free or low-paying work to build up a portfolio of work. If that’s the case, do so on your own terms — write or edit for a nonprofit organization you support for long enough to establish yourself, and then use that work and those contacts as your springboard to paying projects.

Beware of websites where you bid for projects; those clients are usually more interested in how little you’ll accept than the quality of your work. You don’t want to wear yourself out by doing $1,000 worth of work for $5 or $10, even $100. That time could be better spent on looking for clients who respect skill and quality, and pay accordingly.

Resources

There’s a lot more to freelancing, of course, than these tips. For more, check the An American Editor archives and consider getting my self-published booklet, “Get Paid to Write! Getting Started as a Freelance Writer”; my booklet for the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business”; and Rich Adin’s book with Jack Lyon and me, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper; and attending the “Be a Better Freelancer”® conferences offered by Communication Central.

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.

July 13, 2015

The Keys to High-Quality Editing

The one thing every professional editor strives to produce is a high-quality edit. This is more difficult today than it was 30 years ago; client demands have made production of high-quality editing increasingly difficult.

Yet there are “keys” to producing high-quality editing.

Accept or reject a project

The keys begin with the decision whether to take on a particular project. A few days ago, I turned on my computer to find five job offers waiting for me. I only accepted one. The one I accepted came with much less onerous demands than the others, which means that I will be able to provide a high-quality edit.

The job I accepted asked me to suggest a schedule based on what the client wanted and the manuscript needed; the others gave me a fixed schedule. After reviewing the manuscript for the accepted job, I suggested that a nine-week schedule was reasonable. The other jobs were for much shorter manuscripts but still required at least a two-week and more likely a three-week schedule; the schedule on offer was one week with no flexibility.

However, there were still problems that had to be addressed with what ultimately became the accepted job. For example, the references and how they were to be formatted. The author used what is for me a rarely seen style for the references: American Chemical Society style. If the manuscript had a handful of references, changing them to Harvard style would not be a problem, but the manuscript has a lot of references and there are a lot of stylistic differences between Harvard and ACS. The client wants the manuscript sooner rather than later, and so it was decided that because the author was consistent, we would use ACS style for the references.

In contrast, a couple of the manuscripts that I rejected didn’t have a single reference style, but the predominant style would have required many hours of work to restyle to conform to the client’s style. Yet the client was unwilling to compromise.

The keys to high-quality editing begin with the decision whether to take on a project or not. Many editors are simply thankful to be offered work and accept jobs without vetting them. This approach leads to a low effective hourly rate and questionable editing quality because it can be a struggle to meet short schedules — especially if the manuscript is not well written.

Effective hourly rate

Another key is ensuring that a project leads to a decent effective hourly rate and a profit. I have noted over the years that many colleagues take on a new project expecting it to go smoothly only to find that it does not. And when it does not, they are faced with the dilemma of ensuring a decent effective hourly rate versus the high quality of editing they prefer to provide. This is the eternal struggle — what to do when the compensation is inadequate.

Of course, it is difficult to know in advance, even if you sample a manuscript, how easy or hard a manuscript will be to edit. But there are certain things one can look for as clues. I have found that authors who very inconsistent and sloppy with references are often the same with the main text, which means more editing work. I have also found that if I see a lot of Word’s squiggly red lines, which indicate possible misspellings, that a manuscript may be problematic. In this case, however, because much of what I edit is medical, I recognize that the built-in spellchecker will mischaracterize a word, indicating it is misspelled when it isn’t. This clue requires familiarity with the subject matter.

Subject-matter familiarity

Which brings us to yet another key: knowledge of the subject matter. It is not that the editor needs to be an expert in the subject matter, it is that the editor needs to be comfortable with the subject matter. In my case, for example, I stopped editing fiction after about 6 months of editing — more than 31 years ago. I stopped for several reasons, including to provide a high-quality edit I had to be able to keep a sharp focus on the novel’s text. What I found was that when faced with a poorly written manuscript, my focus would begin drifting and I would have to reread the same paragraphs perhaps multiple times. I also discovered that for me, nonfiction was both more interesting and more profitable.

Fiction editing is difficult because it requires familiarity with a wide range of topics that I am not normally either interested in nor familiar with. I have never been particularly interested, for example, whether Bucharest’s weather is closer to that of London or New York City, but that could bin important in a novel whose action takes place in Bucharest. As a fiction editor, it was my responsibility to know whether or not the author’s description of Bucharest was plausible (actually, accurate). My fiction reading has always been limited; I tend to read vast amounts of nonfiction. Consequently, I was better “educated” about things that the nonfiction I was editing was concerned with than the fiction editing needed.

Pattern recognition

The ability to recognize writing patterns is another key. Every author has a writing pattern and in a group of collaborating authors, one pattern dominates. Identifying early in the editing process this pattern leads to greater consistency and accuracy in editing, which can lead to higher-quality editing. When you can identify these patterns, you can take advantage of tools such as EditTools. These types of tools, if properly used, lead to higher-quality editing.

Resources

The final key to be discussed in this essay is resources. Having the right resources available is important. For example, knowing that Garner’s Modern American Usage is the leading usage guide for American English is not enough; you need to have it available. Similarly, being told to follow a particular style manual by the client is of little use is you are not familiar with it and have it readily available. It does no good for a client to ask you to follow AMA style if the only style guide you can access and are familiar with is Chicago.

It should be clear that many things go into producing a high-quality edit; consequently, a lot of things need to come together. Yet an editor’s skill is not just objective things such as available resources; the skillset an editor needs to meet client limitations and still produce high-quality editing is sharpened over years of education and editing. Knowing one’s current limitations is an important part of providing high-quality editing. The professional editor works diligently to minimize those limitations, and one way to do so is to knowingly evaluate an offered job by the keys to high-quality editing.

What do you think?

Rich Adin, An American Editor

February 10, 2014

On the Basics: Tips for Getting Started in Editing or Freelancing

Tips for Getting Started in Editing or Freelancing

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter 

There it was again: yet another LinkedIn discussion asking how to get started in editing, or how to start freelancing as an editor. Versions of this topic must pop up there at least once a week — probably more often, given the zillions of LinkedIn groups, of which I only see a dozen or so. The question comes up so often that I thought it might make the basis of a useful essay here.

The original question is often full of typos, which doesn’t bode well for the asker’s ability to either accept my response or succeed in our field. I do my best not to criticize such posts, but sometimes will say, “If you want to be a professional editor or proofreader, you need to make sure your posts are letter-perfect.”

My first reaction to “How do I start editing/proofreading/freelancing or promoting my editing business?” is usually “It depends. Do you have any experience, training, skills?” If the answer is “no,” I suggest taking some courses from local or online programs through universities, writers’ centers, and professional organizations before trying to get a job as an editor or pitch oneself as a freelance editor. You don’t necessarily need a degree or completed certificate, but you need something to ensure you know what you’re doing and can assure prospective clients or employers that you have at least basic skills in the profession.

I also suggest getting and studying one of the major style manuals — Associated Press, Chicago, American Psychological Association, Government Printing Office, etc., depending on the kind of editing someone might want to do — because knowing what they are and what they require will be a standard necessity for any professional editor. The best way to lose a prospective client is not to know what “AP,” “CMOS,” “APA,” or “GPO” means, or to do a first project using the standards for one when the client calls for another.

And, of course, there is a raft of important books to get, read, and absorb: The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys by Amy Einsohn; Copyediting: A Practical Guide, by Karen Judd; and The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper, by Richard Adin, edited and with a foreword and introductions by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter and Jack M. Lyon and index by Sue Nedrow.

Be prepared to take tests to demonstrate your skills. Prospective employers and clients won’t take your word for your having the experience and skills they expect from you. Even if you have substantial experience, you’ll have to prove yourself, so don’t get in a huff when asked to take a test. Employers and clients know that it’s too easy to hang out a shingle and call oneself an editor, or a freelancer, without the least bit of experience or training. Think of tests as opportunities to show your stuff and prove your worth.

Assuming the person has some experience and skill in editing, or is willing to get some training before trying to enter the field, I have a few standard responses to the “how to get started” question. Here they are in greater detail than usual.

  • Contact everyone you’ve ever worked with or for to let them know you’re available for editing work, and ask them to keep you in mind if their colleagues need an editor. Past and current colleagues and employers know your work and skill level, and are often glad to help you get the word out about being available for jobs or freelance projects. Just contacting people from your work past to let them know you’re available is likely to result in at least one good lead.
  • Let friends and family know as well, especially if you’re looking for freelance projects. You might be surprised at who among them either needs an editor or knows of others who do, and you can usually count on them to be your biggest cheerleaders.
  • Ask those same previous colleagues for references or testimonials that you can post to a website or use in a promotional brochure. Their opinions will have credibility.
  • Join the American Copy Editors Society, Editorial Freelancers Association, and/or National Association of Independent Writers and Editors for access to their job services and directory listings for members, discussion lists, courses, interaction with colleagues, and other resources, all of which will enhance your professionalism, network, and resources. If you have special training or expertise, look for other organizations in that field.
  • Set up a website. You’ll need it to get found, function as an easily accessible portfolio by displaying testimonials to and examples of your skills, and establish a professional-looking, domain-based e-mail address.
  • Participate actively in LinkedIn and association environments, offering advice as well as asking for help — networking is a two-way process. Try to give as much as you take. Make sure all posts in those environments are grammatically and otherwise perfect, because that’s the best way to show that you know what you’re doing and are worth hiring.
  • Contact publishers to pitch your services. Direct contact can be surprisingly effective. Just be sure that your messages and query letters are perfect!
  • Subscribe to this blog (An American Editor) to learn more about the world of publishing and the nature of both editing and freelancing. Join the Copy Editing List to plug into the insights and wisdom of some of the most knowledgeable and experienced editors around. Subscribe to Copyediting newsletter and its related blogs to stay abreast of trends in language and the editing profession, and for access to its resources, such as courses on grammar and other aspects of editing, a job board, and more.
  • Get my “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business” booklet from the EFA for tips on starting your business and making it a success.
  • Start saving now to attend the annual Communication Central conference for freelancers (this year, Sept. 26–27, 2014, in Rochester, NY) to meet colleagues, learn how to make the most of important editing tools, and enhance your business and marketing skills. It’s the only conference specifically for freelance writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, and other professionals in the publishing field who want to freelance or do better at freelancing, and many of the sessions are of value to in-house editors as well.
  • Use your imagination. If you don’t have at least a spark of creativity and originality in how you approach your career, the road to success will be challenging. Don’t rely only on what other editors say about how they approach their work and their search for clients or jobs. Have an approach of your own. As long as it’s based on good practice, ethical behavior, and genuine skills and experience, it will serve you well.

Best of luck to all who seek to enter the rewarding field of editing.

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.

January 26, 2010

Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)

As noted in Part 1, one way to distinguish between a professional editor and your neighbor who poses as one, is by their style guide library. The professional knows that to do a good job one needs to have good resources and to be familiar with them. The Internet is not a substitute for a professional editor’s library.

In addition to style manuals, a professional editor’s library includes usage books, that is, books that discuss and provide guidance on correct usage of language. For example, my library includes Garner’s Modern American Usage; Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage; Mathews’ Dictionary of Americanisms; The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style; Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words; The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations; The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage; H.L. Mencken’s multivolume work The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States; and Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary, among other language resources.

We haven’t even gotten to the dictionaries and grammar guides, or the books about language cognition and origins, all of which form a part of a professional editor’s library. The editor’s resource library is an important facet of what distinguishes the professional from the casual editor. Another facet is the professional editor’s skill with and knowledge of these resources.

Authors and publishers who care about the quality of their books care about the professionalism of their editors. They recognize that a professional editor is skilled and knowledgeable and brings something important to the book: the firming of the communication link between the author and the reader.

It is this communication link to which the usage guides are inextricably connected. Usage guides help an editor choose the right word. Is it Arkansan, Arkansawyer, or Arkie? How about aren’t I vs. amn’t I vs. an’t I? Given the choice, which of the following is the superior phrase: catch fire or catch on fire? Or cater-corner vs. catter-corner vs. kitty-corner?

A professional editor considers who is the intended audience for the book. If a book is being written for a local audience, then localisms may be excellent word choices, although not so fine for a national audience. But what about a term that has been broadly heard but little understood?

Recently, I read a news article that used the term mugwump. How many readers understood the term or its origins? A professional editor would look at the context and apply the correct definition. Before the 1880s, mugwump meant an important person, the high-muck-a-muck. In the 1880s, it became transformed to refer to Republicans who supported the Democrats’ presidential candidate. Today it means an independent. Is this important? If you are writing a book whose events take place in 1884, don’t you want your readers to understand what the term meant in 1884, not what it means today or meant in 1801?

So we return to the question of book quality. It is these skills and knowledge that professional editors bring to a manuscript. But publishers are increasingly less interested in those skills and knowledge because their accountants see no financial gain in emphasizing editorial quality. And authors too often believe that their manuscript as given to the publisher is “perfect”; they see no gain in paying for a professional editor, much less any editing at all.

A book’s quality is amalgam of multiple endeavors, not least of which is the author’s original creativity. Equally important, however, is editing by a professional who respects his or her profession enough to invest time and money to continuously acquire the skills, knowledge, and resources that distinguish the professional editor from all other claimants to the editorial mantle. Publishers and authors who fail to recognize that distinction — between professional and nonprofessional editing — embark on the road to mediocre quality at best.

This mediocrity brings with it a backlash from consumers who are unwilling to pay the wanted price, who do not buy future books written by the author, and who give negative reviews. This backlash is increasingly evident in the ebookers’ revolt over pricing and quality in ebooks.

Publishers need to recognize that they cannot continue to pay slave wages and expect professional editing — the two simply do not go hand-in-hand. Professional editing and quality do, however, go hand-in-hand.

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