An American Editor

October 14, 2015

A Question of Ethics: The Delayed Project Further Delayed

Over the years, one of the things that has concerned editors is the “problem” of overbooking that results in project schedules overlapping. In comments to my essay, A Question of Ethics: If the Editing Is Running Behind Schedule…, the following question scenario was posed:

Where it becomes more complex ethically is if the responsibility for the overrun is shared. For example, a client doesn’t send critical papers on time, so the editor takes another job to avoid being idle but misjudges their schedule. Part of the overrun is due to the editor taking too much work, but wouldn’t have happened at all if the client hadn’t delayed. As with you, I think ethically the editor owes some discount but working out how much is another issue. (Dave Higgins, October 5, 2015)

Missing from the scenario are several important pieces of information:

  • Did the editor advise the client that because of the anticipated delay in the client’s producing the required material, the editor was going to accept other work that might cause a schedule conflict?
  • Did the editor inquire as to how much of a delay the client anticipated?
  • When the editor contracted for the project, was the editor aware of the potential for delay? If yes, did the editor advise the client at that time that if there was a delay, the editor would take on other editing work rather than sit idle?
  • How well did the editor evaluate the new waiting-period project in terms of schedule and difficulty?
  • How much of a delay will result to the original client’s project?

There may be additional bits of information that would be useful in analyzing the scenario, but the outlined ones are sufficient for our purposes.

A good habit to have

I know I have said and written this so many times that you are probably tired of hearing/reading it, but here it comes again: I am a business. I run a professional business. I am not an editorial hobbyist. Remembering this is important. Using it as a guide to my conduct is also important.

When I speak with clients or potential clients, I make it clear that providing editorial services is my full-time occupation; that I am a professional, not amateur or hobbyist, editor; and that I am running a business. I repeat this often because it is the foundation for my responses to myriad situations that arise in my editorial business.

It is an important foundation for resolving the scenario presented. When I agree to take on a project and a schedule is mutually agreed upon, I emphasize to my client that should there be a delay in the client’s delivery of needed and requested information or material, the schedule will be extended appropriately. Furthermore, and this is the critical part for the scenario under discussion, if the anticipated delay is longer than a few days, I will move on to my next scheduled project whose deadline I need to meet and will return to the delaying client’s project as I can. I make it very clear that I have work scheduled to start immediately after I complete the current client’s project as originally scheduled — there is no “free” time available to accommodate client-side delays.

Advising clients that your editing schedule has little flexibility is a good habit to get into. First, it signals your expectation that just as the client will expect you to meet the agreed-upon deadline, so, too, will you expect the client to timely fulfill its agreed-to obligations. Second, it signals that your services are in demand, that you are a professional whose time is valuable both to you and to clients. Third, it provides you with the means to justify taking on additional work while waiting for the client to fulfill its obligations. Fourth, the client has had fair warning of the effects of client delay and thus you are not obligated — neither ethically nor from a customer relations point of view — to provide a discount on my services.

But what if I don’t have the habit?

If I were an editor who didn’t habitually advise clients that I cannot sit idly by waiting for material that may never appear, then I need to consider additional pieces of information.

What (and when) did the editor advise the client?

When an editor learns from a client that there will be a delay, the editor should try to ascertain the expected length of the delay. It matters whether we are talking a day or two or weeks. In the case of a short delay (and what constitutes a “short” delay we each need to define for ourselves), I am of the opinion that the editor should not take on another project; instead, the editor should give a reasonable deadline (another length of time that we each need to define for our own business) by which the editor must receive the material or the editor will start another project. In this case, the editor needs to also explicitly state to the client that schedules are likely to overlap and that the new project will take precedence over the delayed project. The editor needs to do this immediately upon learning of the delay; the editor should not wait in the hope that the delay will be minimal. If the editor does this, then I do not think any discount is owed the client for not meeting the client’s schedule.

Could delays have been anticipated when the editor agreed to the project?

Experienced editors know that some projects are ripe for schedule delays, especially multiauthor projects. If the potential for delay existed at the time of contracting, then it was the editor’s responsibility to advise the client at that point in time of what the editor will do when the delay is encountered. It is also the time to come to an agreement as to what will constitute a “lengthy” delay that would free the editor to move to another project and make that project the primary project.

Where the editor has tackled the problem at the time of contracting, I think no discount is owed to the client as a result of the editor having taken on another project. Unfortunately, many editors do not have sufficient experience or insight to see the potential for delay and address it upfront; they tackle the problem when it arises. In this case, the editor may owe the client a discount; whether the editor does or does not depends on additional information, such as what was discussed above under “What (and when) did the editor advise the client?”

The new project & the overlapping schedules

When the editor decides to take on the second project while waiting for the delayed materials to appear, how well the editor evaluated the new project is important, I think, in determining whether the editor owes the delay client a discount.

When I tell a delay client I have to move on to another project, I also tell the client when I will be able to return to their project. I also indicate whether I think I will be able to do any work at all on their project while I am working on the new project. The date I give is a semifirm date; that is, I tell the client I can return to their project on X date, give or take a day or two.

I also reexplain to the client what constitutes an editing workweek. I do this because I have found that delay clients — like all clients — assume that because I am a freelance editor I work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year when I have work. (That’s really two assumptions, the second being that there are days or weeks when I do not have work. Unless educated otherwise, clients tend not to think of freelance editing as a “full-time real job” like their jobs.) I reinforce the editing workweek idea to nip in the bud the expectation that I will work extralong days and weekends so as not to disrupt the client’s schedule. I also want to reinforce the notion that those hours and days can be worked but for a premium price, not at the regular price.

I am able to give the semifirm date because after 31 years of evaluating manuscripts, I have a pretty good idea of how long a project will take. If I have made the commitment but miscalculated, I entertain giving the delay client a discount. The discount amount varies and is based on whether I think I can make up the miscalculated time.

The snowball effect

The problem with schedules is that failing to meet them usually has a snowball effect. If editing is not done on time, then authors don’t finish their review on time, which means typesetting is delayed, which means printing is delayed, and so on. The question then becomes: Who should bear responsibility?

I think a sense of professional ethics and responsibility resolves as follows:

  • When the client fails to deliver on time, the snowball effects, which affect the client and not the editor, are chargeable to the client — no editor’s discount is warranted.
  • When the editor takes on a wait-time project and has properly prepared and notified the delay client, the snowball effects are chargeable to the client — no editor’s discount is warranted.
  • When the editor hasn’t properly prepared and notified the client, the snowball effects are chargeable to the editor — a small editor’s discount is warranted.
  • When the editor has miscalculated the time needed to complete the wait-time project, the snowball effects are chargeable to the editor — a larger editor’s discount is warranted.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Some related An American Editor essays that may be of interest:

February 1, 2011

Do Words Matter?

I know this is an odd question to ask of editors, but the recent hullabaloo regarding the vituperative exchanges from the far right and the far left and their influence in the recent Tucson massacre brings this question to the fore yet again: Do words matter?

To listen to the pundits, the Tucson incident and statements by people like Sarah Palin have little to no connection. I suspect that there is no direct connection, but I’m not sure that one can so easily dismiss responsibility for incitement or for creating the conditions under which deranged minds would think such actions are expected and normal.

Let’s go back in time — not very far — to the summer of the debate over the health care reform bill. Sarah Palin declared that the health care bill would create “death panels.” Forgetting about the falsity of her charge, consider only the import of her description. The name was chosen because of the image it would send: of doctors deliberately withholding treatment from grandma in order to kill her and save taxpayer dollars.

Similarly, go back a few more years and consider how conservatives described the estate tax as the “death tax.” The implication was that every citizen’s estate and family would have to pay a tax at death, yet the reality was (and is) that it would apply only to multimillionaire estates or less than 3% of U.S. citizens.

And consider what we do as editors and authors. Do we not evaluate words and try to choose words that convey the message we want to send clearly and directly? Do we not try to minimize obfuscation? Isn’t the difference between a great author and all other authors how the author has used words to craft a “spell” over the reader?

If words do not matter, then why mischaracterize end-of-life options as death panels intended to kill grandma or estate taxes as death taxes applicable to all Americans rather than to the wealthiest few? What these slogans demonstrate — and demonstrate forcefully — is that words do matter. That the choice of words has consequences, both intended and unintended.

Which brings us to the question of responsibility. Should we not hold those who utter the words responsible for the consequences of their words, even if the consequence was unintended? I’m not talking about criminal-law-type responsibility; I’m talking about a moral responsibility. I don’t doubt that Sarah Palin didn’t intend for someone to murder a congressperson when she put up the map with crosshairs, but should she not have thought about the people with access to guns who would look at that as an invitation to justifiable murder?

If words do not matter, then why is the right-wing so upset with being charged with complicity in the Tucson shooting as a result of their incendiary invective? The answer, of course, is that words do matter, just as tone matters, and the one thing that every American can say without contradiction is that the political discourse in the United States has become a bitter lake of violent, hateful words.

Every time I read or hear someone say we need to return to our original founders for guidance, to original intent, I think “nice words that are being spouted by someone who doesn’t understand what they mean.” Our original founders founded the United States by political compromise, not by diktat. Yet those who seek to implement original intent pronounce that our founders were united in single beliefs.

We need look no further than the question of whether we are a Christian nation. Note that none of the founding documents call us a Christian nation or refer to Christianity. In fact, the original constitution was barely passed and was passed only after it was agreed that the first 10 amendments would be added, of which the first amendment talks of religious freedom, not of Christianity. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others were not Christians as current people would have us believe. Franklin was an atheist, Thomas Paine was an atheist, Alexander Hamilton was an atheist, Jefferson and Washington were deists — not one of these founders insisted on America being a Christian nation.

So does it matter that the constitution doesn’t call us a Christian nation? Yes, it does matter, because words do matter. The choice of words that our founding fathers made had consequences — then and now. John Hancock made it clear that he endorsed the word choices — and the consequences that flowed therefrom — made in the Declaration of Independence by boldly signing his name. His is the most legible of all signatures. Hancock understood that by signing the Declaration it was tantamount to a declaration of war and he stood by his word choice.

Yet politicians of all stripes today, but even more so on the right than on the left, dismiss responsibility for their word choices and the consequences that follow. It is always someone else’s fault, someone else’s responsibility. It sure would be nice if those who wish to lead us today could show the leadership skills of our founders, rediscovering both the art of compromise that enabled the United States of America to become a single, independent nation, and the willingness to take responsibility for their words and actions. Alas, I fear that today’s “leaders” really have no vision grander or broader than their own wealth and well being and that the lessons they should have learned from our founding fathers will be left on the ashes of Tucson.

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