An American Editor

May 10, 2021

On the Basics — Knowing why and when to let go

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

There comes a time in every person’s life, no matter what their career, to at least think about letting go of the work life, or some portion of it. For those of us in the editorial field, that can mean anything from finding a new full-time job to not renewing an association membership; dropping a certain client, project or topic; changing freelance service offerings; taking a vacation from social media; or retiring. It can be a challenge to know when to take such actions, especially because what we do — or want to do — in the heat of a moment can be very different from what we wish we had done after some reflection.

Boredom and burnout

It happens to all of us at least once: A previously interesting topic or type of project becomes dull and deadly borrrrring. Maybe you’ve written about, edited or proofread the same topic or the same organization for the 100th time — that feels like the 1,000th — or one year too long. Maybe the material was always dry and unexciting, but you kept going because the money was good (or desperately needed). You could just be tired of dealing with a routine, a commute (well, in pre-pandemic days) or certain co-workers. Burnout takes many forms.

Either way, you kept going because it was your job, it was a freelance gig that paid well, you thought it might somehow become livelier … Whatever kept you plugged in, it’s no longer working and you need a change; maybe even the drastic change of changing fields or retiring entirely. Before going that far, though, look at where you are and see if there are ways to make it more interesting. You might be able to switch departments or handle different aspects of what you do now. Ask, and you might receive.

If making a major change is nerve-racking or somehow not possible, you might be able to use volunteer or hobby activity as a counterbalance to the draggy work situation. Create time to do things that are fun and fulfilling, and the dreary routine might become more bearable.

Working isn’t working

One sure sign that it’s time to think, or rethink, a career is when you find yourself missing deadlines even though there’s no real reason for that to happen. You aren’t sick (thank goodness), there aren’t family crises to handle (also thank goodness), you’ve done the research and interviews, you’ve reviewed the latest style guide, you have the information and tools you need … but you just.can’t.get.it.done. You know that even long-time clients will only put up with so much delay on their projects, but you’re sabotaging yourself, and you don’t know why.

That could be one aspect of burnout, but whatever we call it, it’s a bad sign. And it means you need a change. You could try convincing yourself that there are rewards for getting these things done as needed, or setting false (early) deadlines to trick yourself into doing the work, but this kind of situation is hard to fix. Sometime just switching to another project or a non-work activity that is more fun can reset your interest in finishing whatever is stuck.

Age is kicking in

We also will all reach a point when we’re ready to — or must — retire due to age, among other considerations. Younger colleagues might want to keep this in mind as a reason to put money aside regularly to support yourself at that seemingly far-distant point (also worth doing just in case you get injured or ill). I hope that those of us who are approaching that point, or already there, have a healthy financial cushion in place so you can apply the brakes to your work life without worrying about how you’ll pay the rent or mortgage, and eat something other than cat food.

The good thing for many (I hope all) of us is that a certain age means Social Security income, and that might just be enough to call it a day and do something new. Or nothing!

Networking not doing the job

We join professional associations to meet colleagues and leaders in our fields, and many of us — both freelance and in-house — join one solely for its work-finding value: access to postings of job openings, often before or instead of such opportunities reaching the help wanted ads or recruiters. 

As most of you know, I’m a big fan of belonging to and being visible/active in professional associations. I belong to almost a dozen and hold leadership roles in six at the moment. I’m at the stage of my career where I don’t need them for training; in the two-way, give-and-take nature of networking, I’m usually giving more often than taking. I remain active, though, in part because I do continually learn new things from colleagues through association forums and discussion lists; some of my groups provide opportunities for members to make a few bucks through presentations and publications; having that network of colleagues to turn to when I do need help or advice is invaluable; and — as the poster child for extroverts — I love interacting with colleagues.

However, if belonging to an association isn’t working for you, it might be time to look for a new one to join. Don’t base the decision on whether you’ve gotten work by being a member. Some organizations are so large that you can go a full year or longer without nailing a listing from a standard job service post or message. The value is often more in the colleagiality, advice, resources, support and events. But again, if none of that is resonating, look into other places to get those benefits. There are a lot of associations. There should be at least one that works for you.

Just keep in mind that the people who get the most out of association memberships are the ones who participate actively. If you’ve never contributed in any way, even just by asking questions, you might want to give it a little more time, and effort, before leaving. 

More aggravating than energizing

Not quite the same thing as retiring or changing careers, but it’s probably time to leave an online group or discussion list when:

• You’re really, really tempted to say things like, “How does someone who calls themself a writer/editor/proofreader/whatever not know that?” or “Have you never heard of a dictionary?” in response to a question.

• You are beyond tired of seeing the same questions again and again. And again. Even though you know that many times, the askers are new to either the group or the profession.

• You don’t bother to respond to questions or comments because you’re so tired of repeating the same advice, no matter how useful it is and how helpful you want to be.

Whatever your work niche might be, there are lots of other places to meet, learn from and interact with colleagues. If a given group or list is more aggravating than enjoyable, look for a new community to join where you might feel more comfortable and energized.

Preparing to leave

The most-important aspect of leaving a job, project, client or organization is the how: how you leave, and what you leave behind.

The ideal is to be the one who controls that moment or process, although we can’t always do that. Like most people in any field, not just publishing or editorial work, I’ve been in one of those “I quit/You’re fired” situations with no time to prepare myself or my co-workers for my departure (luckily, though, with everything I was responsible for in good shape, and a colleague eager to step into my shoes; too eager, in fact).

I try to organize my projects so someone else could step in fairly easily if I were to leave. My computer files are pretty easy to understand. I also have a strong base of colleagues whom I could recommend for most of my current projects. I can afford to stop working whenever I’m ready. I’m not sure what I’d do with myself if I weren’t working, but I do have hobbies I could spend a lot more time on and a few other ways to fill my time when that moment arrives.

On the personal side, whether you plan to job-hunt, change careers or retire, be sure you have that financial cushion in place so you can make the decision that makes you happy.

What aspects of your editorial career are pushing you toward making a change? What do you think your next life will be like?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She also created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

April 5, 2021

On the Basics: How networking can enhance success for an editing business

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Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A lot goes into launching a successful editing business, and networking can be one factor in that success. I’ll be talking about the practical aspects of such a venture in a May webinar for the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE). This post is about networking from an editing perspective and is adapted from a post I wrote for my NAIWE blog that focuses on writing and networking.

Editors might not think of networking as an element of their new businesses, but that could mean losing out on valuable ways to learn about craft and business, and to develop connections that could not only improve those aspects of what they want to do, but also lead to a greater likelihood of finding — or being found by — clients. It can also help editors help their clients.

All editors probably share a common goal: for our clients’ words, thoughts and perspectives to find audiences and outlets. Regardless of their stage of creativity, visibility or success, every writer wants — even needs — to be seen and heard. For the editor, helping a writer client make that first sale or be published in that first outlet can be almost as exciting as it is for the writer, and networking is one way to help them get there.

Whether your client is writing a novel or a press release, a poem or a white paper, a play or a case study, a how-to book or a personal blog post, an academic article or a memoir, and whether your client is an individual, company, nonprofit organization, university, government agency or publication, you want what they write to be seen and appreciated. Beyond being seen, we also want everyone who sees our clients’ writing to understand it, respond to it positively by publishing reviews or acting on it somehow, recommend it to others, and read or buy the next piece we write. Skilled editing and networking can help that happen.

Where networking comes into play is in finding and sharing resources for learning to edit better by joining professional groups and taking classes; identifying colleagues to learn from, advise and share opportunities or referrals with; avoiding scams and bad clients; getting paid; and related details of an editing business or the editing life.

Through networking, in essence, you can meet colleagues who will provide advice, insights and resources, and who might refer you to editing projects and clients. And you can be one of those helpful, respected colleagues.

It’s important to remember, by the way, that networking is a two-way process. In fact, that might be the most important aspect of networking. An editor needs to create a net of contacts and colleagues who can help them do their work better and enhance their likelihood of finding clients. One of the best ways to do that is to be a useful strand in the nets of colleagues.  

And don’t let being new to editing or networking make you feel that you can’t contribute to the networking process. You can! Don’t forget the old saying that there are no dumb questions. You might ask the one thing about grammar, usage, structure, client relations, payment, etc., that dozens of other editors have been wondering about, but didn’t dare bring up because they were afraid of looking foolish. By raising that question and eliciting responses, you help everyone learn something.

If you can’t answers colleagues’ questions yet, look for resources you can share — books, courses, blogs, organizations, etc., that you have found useful or have seen in your real-world and online activity. Keep in mind that we all had to start somewhere, first by actually editing something, next by seeing it get published (and paid for), and then by becoming visible and active in some corner of the editing world.

Even extroverts like me had to learn the ropes of networking effectively; it isn’t just a matter of paying dues and using the resources of an association to enhance our own work. If you ask questions and get helpful answers, look for ways to provide answers to other people’s questions. If you join a group, whether an online community or a formal association, be active and visible, not just what I call a checkbook member: someone who joins and then sits back silently, contributes nothing and waits for the group to hand them success.

In the continuing pandemic era, we can’t do much networking in person, so the introverts among us don’t have to worry as much about fitting in at events as in the past (and, we hope, the future). Nowadays, you can use the virtual world to your networking advantage by “lurking” in online communities and professional associations for a while, to take the temperature of the environment and decide whether it will be helpful, and you’ll be comfortable, before you spend money on a membership or speak up with your questions and suggestions. Oh, and as the owner of an editing business, anything you do invest in joining an organization is a tax deduction!

Learn and profit from networking, and try to give as much as you take. Your reputation will blossom as a result, along with your editing business and efforts.

How has networking helped you launch and build an editing business? Have you overcome a fear of interacting with colleagues through networking?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is a widely published freelance writer/editor and the creator of Communication Central’s annual Be a Better Freelancer® conference, now co-hosted by NAIWE and the An American Editor blog. Through her active participation in a variety of professional associations, she is often called the Queen of Networking, and she’s the Networking member of the NAIWE Board of Experts.

February 3, 2021

On the Basics: Should we work for free?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Disclaimer: This post expands on a conversation I’ve participated in on LinkedIn, so some of you may have seen parts of it already.

Like many of us here, I’m often asked to do writing, editing, proofreading, website or speaking work for free. When such a request comes from organizations or causes I believe in, I’ll consider it and sometimes say yes. From people who aim to profit from the project or my potential role, I find polite but firm ways to say no, and explain — if necessary — that I do this work as my profession, so I expect to be paid. I don’t talk about my need to pay a mortgage or buy groceries; I simply present myself as a business. With newbie authors, I suggest that they start saving so they can afford to hire professional editors or proofreaders, designers, etc. With startup companies, I suggest that they get back in touch once they’re funded/established and can pay for professional services.

While it can be challenging to stand up for ourselves in terms of being paid, I find it easy to talk to people about pro bono or free work. If we don’t value our services, skills and experience, no one else will. I wish people would realize that someone like me does the work as my profession, my living, or at least respect that — I think it’s pretty clear that I write, edit, etc., as something other than a hobby. People probably know that, if they have any sense; they just don’t want to accept or respect it.

It does help that I’ve been in the communications field for long enough that I don’t have to do free work to become established, prove myself, earn paying projects or making a comfortable living. If I were just starting out, my perspective might be different — but I would still put limits on the scope of pro bono work I would do.

The lawyers I work with in editing or proofreading for law firms do pro bono work for charities/nonprofit organizations as part of their and their firms’ commitments to service to their communities. Pro bono is expected in their profession. They also might get awards for such contributions. We in the editorial field don’t usually get such recognition; we do pro bono as a personal service, and sometimes to get established.

The difference is probably that the lawyer or accountant usually has a regular income, so doing pro bono work doesn’t cut into their business the way editing someone’s ms. for free, for instance, would interfere with a freelancer’s income-generating time. I wouldn’t give away editing an entire ms. unless the author were a relative, very close friend or colleague who had done something similar for me — but I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that substantial for me without compensation. Maybe a skim and an opinion, but not actual work.

Good reasons to donate our time

It should be noted that there are good reasons to do some editorial work for free.

If you’re new to the field, it makes sense to do a few projects for free to get established, build a network, create visibility and prove your skills. If you’re in a rut and want to expand into new types of editorial work or start covering new topics, it might take doing some work for free to get your feet wet and establish yourself on those new levels.

One example of writing for free is, of course, blogging. I don’t profit from the An American Editor blog, much as I enjoy writing here, and many of our subscribers have their own blogs on all kinds of topics that they don’t get paid to write about. These projects are everything from a service to colleagues, or friends and family, to soapboxes to therapy of a sort. Blogs are a great outlet for opinions and insights that you can’t share elsewhere and don’t have a paying client for, and can be an excellent way to get noticed. Even posting to someone else’s blog can be beneficial by creating greater visibility for your work and voice. (Some blogs do make money — there’s a lot of advice about “monetizing” blogs, and bloggers have been known to get book or other paying offers based on their posts.) However, working for free in return for visibility or “exposure” can be iffy. Just keep in mind that exposure can get someone arrested, or killed. 🙂

One of the hardest work-for-free requests for me is speaking. I love to talk, I love to share information, I love to be of help to colleagues, I love to be around people at conferences and similar events. I don‘t love to travel or stay in hotels on my own dime, which is often what’s involved with speaking at out-of-town events. Some organizations even have the chutzpah to expect speakers to pay to attend the events where they’ll be speaking, which I don’t accept. I believe that when someone is providing expert advice, they should get something out of it. That’s why the Be a Better Freelancer® conference that I host (now with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, and AAE) covers speaker accommodations, conference fee and meals at the very least, and often has paid for speaker travel as well.

I often recommend that colleagues put limits or deadlines on the pro bono work that they do, but I’ve never come up with a standard for setting the amount of time I might give to such projects. Some of them have involved a couple of hours, some have been ongoing for a long time; it depends on the cause or organization and my connection to it.

Setting boundaries is also unpredictable. Sometimes I say I’ll be available for X hours or Y months; sometimes I just see how I feel after a while to decide it’s time to stop and devote my energy to something else. How long you work pro bono and for whom is a personal decision that you probably have to make on a case-by-case basis; there might be no one-size-fits-all rule. Just be sure to give adequate warning when you reach that point of no more freebies so the recipient can fill the gap quickly.

When it comes to speaking, I often make my decision based on event location: If a conference will be held somewhere that I like or want to visit, especially because I have friends or family there, that tends to tilt the scale toward yes. If you’re an author with books to sell (or an artist or photographer, etc., with works to sell), speaking engagements can lead to onsite sales, which can offset the expense of getting to the event and make the free speech worth doing. Some of my colleagues consider the travel points they accumulate from speaking at out-of-town events as a worthwhile swap for being paid to present.

Doing free writing, editing, proofreading, indexing and other types of editorial work can be fulfilling. It can even be profitable: The connections you make and the work can take you from volunteer to employee or paid contributor. Before you turn down or accept such requests, look at them closely, think about how acceding to them will feel and act accordingly. Set your own limits and go from there.

Have you done any pro bono editorial work? For whom? How did you respond? How did it turn out for you?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers and companies worldwide. She created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

February 1, 2021

On the Basics: Coping with — and heading off — problems

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Once again, I’ve been inspired by recent posts in various places, this time ones that focused on complaints — either how a writer or editor can respond to a client’s complaint about their own work, or how an author or their editor can respond when someone else creates problems with a project.

Heading off problems before they arise

Of course, the best way to eliminate client complaints is to do great work, regardless of your niche — writing, editing, proofreading, layout, production, etc. Just be very careful about what you offer. Guaranteeing or promising perfection is a landmine. Many of us do turn around essentially perfect work most of the time, but we’re all human, and mistakes happen — our own, on occasion, and by people farther along the publication process whom we can’t control. There also can be differences of opinion about style and voice that create appearances of imperfection in the eyes of clients, readers and others who see the work.

One preventive option is to use your website, and maybe even your e-mail sigline, to say that you don’t guarantee perfection. Most of us provide results that qualify as perfect, but I never guarantee such a level of performance — I promise excellence, but I don’t guarantee perfection. Too many things can interfere with achieving perfection on every single project, no matter what your editorial niche might be and how excellent your skills.

Depending on the editorial service(s) you provide, it’s also smart to include contract or agreement language saying that you do not guarantee perfection, and are not to be mentioned in a dedication or acknowledgment unless you’ve seen the final-for-release version of a client’s document and are assured that it won’t be changed after that point. Being thanked for work that gets changed for the worse after it leaves your hands can be horribly embarrassing.

When the complaint goes against you

Many writing, editing, proofreading and other publishing-world colleagues wonder about how to handle client complaints. Some say they can see themselves “firmly yet politely providing an explanation,” and possibly offering a (reasonable) refund or a discount on a future project if they were responsible for the problem. If the issue appears to be major and the client is furious, though, then what? And what if the error is someone else’s doing?

First and foremost, don’t panic. We all make mistakes, and many complaints are much less major than they seem at first. And the problem might not be your fault.

Sometimes all the client wants is your acknowledgment that you goofed, so it makes sense to apologize — but without offering anything until you have a better sense of what happened and what the client wants. A response might also depend on what the client thinks went wrong; the problem might have been caused by someone other than you (including the client!) or not even be a real deal, merely a difference in perspective or definitions.

Once you’ve identified the problem or issue, you can respond effectively. If you missed a couple of misspellings or similar somewhat minor errors in a document, apologize and consider offering to give the manuscript one more look at no cost, assuming it hasn’t already gone out into the world.

If the piece is already in print, the apology and refund or discount might do the trick. With some projects or publications, it also might be possible to redo the material and give the client a new version to republish or reissue. Bigger issues call for bigger approaches.

There have been plenty of instances of self-publishing authors finding a lot of errors in their published books, or being alerted to or criticized for errors by readers. One of the most-common reasons: Somehow the author, or someone on their behalf, uploaded the wrong file for publication. Maybe the author didn’t know how to accept an editor’s input and changes. Maybe the author misfiled the corrected, final version of the manuscript.

Another common reason for errors in published work is that a well-intentioned layout person or designer made changes in the text that introduced errors. Or that the author didn’t have the project proofread before publication.

That doesn’t only happen to independent authors, by the way, although it’s more rare in traditionally published books. I bought an expensive hardcover traditionally published book a few years ago that started with a missing map and was rife with typos on almost every page. It was so egregious and outrageous that I contacted the publisher and author, who were mortified. The publisher said the wrong version of the manuscript somehow got into production and publication, and that they’d reissue the correct version. (They sent me a different book by the same author to make up for it, and I have no idea whether they ever did a reprint of the messed-up one.)

Of course, readers find and comment about errors in published works because many independent authors don’t pay for editing or proofreading before leaping into print. That’s why it’s important for us to identify the actual problem and who was responsible for it — not to mention whether there even is a real error — if we do get a complaint.

When errors aren’t your doing

An editing colleague recently encountered a problem with work on a client’s book that had nothing to do with the editor. The colleague had completed a copyedit for a client who then used a book designer to complete the final layout and files for self-publishing on Amazon, and the designer made changes that created errors in the published version. The errors weren’t in the original draft that the author gave the designer, nor in the first proof. The copyeditor thought they were the result of a sloppy find/replace by the designer, and wanted to know how “egregious” this was.

My response:
“VERY!”

(Please note that I know a lot of talented, skilled designers who would never do something like this.)

I suggested that the author tell the designer something like: “I am very upset that you made changes to my book that introduced a substantial number of errors. This is not acceptable. I expect a refund for your services or a revision at no charge.”

I would advise an author to ask such a designer for a refund rather than a redo. Asking them to redo it at no cost is a big maybe, because that designer clearly can’t be trusted, maybe even with very clear, firm guidelines about not making any changes that you and the author don’t see. It would probably be smarter to find a new designer, and to insist on seeing the final version before letting it go into production and release.

If such a designer has control over the files of the error-filled edition, tell them to send the files to you (so a new designer can handle the new edition), but don’t say that you won’t use the designer again until you have the original files in hand or know whether the files will be provided. If they refuse, you and your author will have to correct the first edition and do the new edition yourselves from scratch, but that might be safer than trusting it to someone who has proven to be problematic. 

If you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure that (a) you and your client(s) don’t use that designer again and (2) all future projects include language requiring that you and your client(s) see any versions that a designer has changed before publication! 

No one should have to search for errors in their publishing projects caused by changes they don’t know that someone made. 

Other people’s errors in our work are painful. I recently had to explain to someone I wrote about for a newspaper profile that the typo in the article’s headline was introduced in production, when someone changed it from what I submitted; at least it could be fixed in the online version, but it lives on in the print copy. And I still bristle over a misuse of “its/it’s” — something I would never get wrong — that someone else introduced years ago in a big, bold callout quote for one of my favorite magazine projects back in the days before digital publishing; I felt that I couldn’t use it as a portfolio sample because there was no way to let prospective employers or clients know that it wasn’t my mistake.

Possible responses

When colleagues ask for strategies for dealing with upset clients, I’ve responded along these lines:

“I tend to work fast, so I consciously slow myself down and give everything a second look before sending projects back to reduce the likelihood of upsetting my clients by missing something. I also take time to go over details before I start on a project, ask about or check for style preferences, etc. In more than 35 years of writing, editing, proofreading and freelancing, I’ve only had a couple of bad experiences that were my fault. If an issue were to come up, I would remind the client that I promise and provide excellence, but don’t guarantee perfection.” 

If a client wants a refund or discount, look at the context very, very carefully before responding or acquiescing. I’d rather not set a precedent for a refund or a discount. If something really were my fault, I’d consider providing a partial refund that represents a reasonable response, or offering a discount — again, on a reasonable level — for a subsequent project. Some of us will provide a refund at a few cents per error; others offer a discount (I wouldn’t go higher than 10%) on a new project.

A sad reality

Today’s online world makes moments involving client or reader complaints very challenging. It can be difficult — sometimes impossible — to respond to allegations of poor performance, and some complainers won’t stand down even if you can show that an issue wasn’t your doing. We also can’t always know where someone is complaining or even attacking us; there are so many platforms where these things can appear that it might not be possible to counteract every instance of a problem. Engaging with complainers or attackers also can make them escalate their behavior; even when we’re right, we might not win.

It’s smart to do occasional online searches of your name to see if there are any issues “out there” that you might want — or need — to respond to. Testimonials at your website from clients whose projects went smoothly also can help balance out baseless complaints or criticisms.

In whatever role anyone here might play in a publishing project, we can only do our best and network together to maintain our reputations. Complaints might be one of those inevitable, but ideally rare, headaches that come with being in business and living in the current era of online visibility, with all of its unpredictable aspects — some that are scary, but many that are beneficial.

Have you encountered complaints about your work, or that of anyone else who’s part of one of your projects? How did you respond? What would you do differently in the future?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She also created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

January 15, 2021

On the Basics: Who’s the bravest of the brave in publishing?

      

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

We don’t usually think of writers as brave (unless they’re investigative reporters or pioneering authors whose work puts them at risk of reprisal from dangerous people), but I was reminded of the Wicked Witch in “Snow White” asking the mirror, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” when a social media post made me realize that independent authors are among “the bravest of them all” in the publishing world.

What makes indie authors brave? Just the fact of trying to get published.

Indie authors often have solid experience in an area of business or a profession that is worth sharing. Some have gone through challenges in life that taught them lessons that are also worth sharing — memoir is a popular genre these days. Many have fascinating ideas — they can create entire worlds! — or skill in translating real life into fictional versions of what they’ve experienced or seen happen to people around them.

But indie authors are frequently, maybe even usually, not trained in writing. They haven’t worked in publishing, or in a job in some other field that included the kind of writing they aim to publish. They haven’t taken classes in writing. They don’t have mentors. They might have written blogs, but those are often disorganized and only semi-coherent. (Not all, mind you; there are aspiring authors whose blogs are well-written, readable and interesting.)

Many indie authors are operating without a net. They’re trying to get published without solid skills or professional help in the basics of spelling, punctuation, grammar or usage, much less plot and character development, consistent style, structure or organization, coherent voice, and more. They don’t belong to writers’ or critique groups. They don’t have beta readers (many don’t know what those are). They have something to say — and it’s often something worth reading — but no experience to guide them in how to get it said and, once said, into the hands or before the eyes of readers.

Please be aware that these authors are not stupid, although some might be less than skilled as writers. They’re simply new to the process.

From what I see in various internet groups of writers and editors, some indie authors don’t seem to read enough of other people’s work to have a good sense of what makes a “good” book in a given genre. They ask for help with one aspect of a sentence or paragraph, but it’s the aspect of that sentence or paragraph that is the least important or least problematic; they don’t see the actual problem.

I have a lot of respect for anyone with the discipline and focus to do long-form writing, whether a book, essay, journalistic investigation, blog post; fiction or nonfiction; fact or opinion — whatever the work might be. I’ve done plenty of long-form writing, although not quite at book length, so I know what it takes, even though most of my training is in journalism, where shorter is often better. Long-form writing is involving, fulfilling, and enthralling, even when it doesn’t go smoothly.

Next steps toward publication

Once the writing is — or the author thinks it is — done, the idea of taking the next steps into publishing can be daunting, and requires another kind of courage. I admire the bravery of any not-yet-published author who asks for advice from colleagues (both writers and editors). Admitting ignorance of the process and opening themselves up to possible rejection or criticism of the work is scary. It takes courage to put time and effort into creating a book, especially one that reveals difficult or painful events in the author’s life, and try to navigate the world of publishing with no experience, contacts or knowledge of what to do.

An unpublished writer might think it’s easier to seek traditional publishing than to self-publish, because the traditional path means having an agent who does the work of finding the ideal publisher for a book, and someone at the publishing house who shepherds the book through revision (agents sometimes help with that process before trying to find a publisher), editing, design, production and distribution. Essentially, all the writer has to do is … write.

However, entering the world of traditional publishing means learning how the business works, starting with the value of having an agent. Then there’s finding an agent, and developing the patience of waiting for the book to be accepted by a publisher and make its way through the next steps before publication. That can take a year or longer, and by then, some books are no longer timely or get bumped by a new star in the author’s genre.

In today’s world, even traditional publishing also means that an author has to take an active part in promoting a book. Speaking of bravery, that’s a new role, and one that not only takes an author away from writing their next book, but also makes some authors quite uncomfortable.

The bravery factor is more noticeable for indie authors — those who opt for self-publishing — than for those who opt for traditional publishing. Beyond the challenge of writing with little or no experience and training, an indie author often finds out that they need more money than they realized might be involved in bringing their baby — book — to life. As an independent, the author is responsible for costs such as editing, proofreading, cover and interior design, printing (if they want “hard copies” on hand), and marketing or promotions. They have to learn — sometimes by bitter experience — to distinguish between the skilled professionals and the hacks in editing or proofreading, and in design. They also have to learn, again sometimes from experience, the difference between legitimate publishing services and vanity presses. Just finding ways to learn about these aspects of the process can be challenging as well.

Some indie authors just blast through writing their books and do their best to self-publish without professional editing, proofreading or other assistance. Those are usually the books that get called out in social media and reviews for errors in everything from the basics of grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage to consistency and accuracy in character names or event places, as well as sloppy writing in general. The author has demonstrated bravery in getting that book out there, but bravery doesn’t always guarantee success.

The editing aspect

Submitting work to be edited takes another type of courage, especially for a first-time author. It can be scary to ask for editing help. The average indie author has never worked with an editor who helped them organize ideas and fine-tune drafts, so they often don’t understand the editing process. They also are — understandably  — protective of their work. They might worry that an editor will be critical and tell them to make changes that they will not want to make. They might have worked on their books for years and be deeply reluctant to change a single word. They might even be afraid that an editor will steal their work.

A colleague who is both a novelist and an editor of fiction tells me that she frequently sees evidence of indie author courage: She works on “books [by] first novelists with terrific story ideas that were badly executed.” She finds that “[t]heir courage to put these out to somebody’s critique is significant, and the challenge to me to do them justice — encouraging them emotionally while advising them of what they need to deal with — has been high level and difficult at the same time.”

Editors who work with indie authors must be prepared to use more tact than they might need when serving professional writers. An indie author who has not been trained in writing and never tried to be published before might not understand the reasons for some of an editor’s changes. A good editor will be sensitive to the author’s feelings and handle the editing process with respect.

It should be noted that even experienced, well-published writers can be nervous about being edited. I’m always a little worried about what will happen to my words once I’ve submitted them to an editor or client, because I’ve seen my work changed in ways I dislike. Some of those changes have been outright wrong — a misspelled word, a grammar error introduced by the client — and some have been different perspectives or minor annoyances. Just this past month, a publisher changed my headline to use the wife’s nickname in it for a profile I had written of a couple whom I’ve known all my life — I only included the nickname because the husband used it in several of his comments; none of their friends would be likely to use it. As authors/writers, we can sometimes ask to see what will be published under our names, but not always.

Once in publication

When an indie author’s book is done and published, more bravery is called for. For many indie authors, this is the hardest part of the process, because indie publishing means the author has to handle promotions, marketing, fulfillment and related tasks. If their book is available through Amazon or other major online sources, they don’t have to do all of the fulfillment, but they still are responsible for letting the world know about their book.

That might mean creating a website, which would be another challenge. It could mean trying to arrange for book signings and tours — also a demanding process, and that doesn’t even include actually showing up for those events. It probably means blogging on their own, and getting guest posts on other people’s blogs. Oh, and trying to find reviewers who will say good things about their book.

All of these tasks require interacting with people — mostly strangers — and that is scary for the classic introvert writer. Facing up to handling those tasks takes courage. It goes against that ingrained personality and requires braving not only a demanding environment of communicating and interacting with other people, but the possibility of criticism and rejection.

Guts, glory and publishing success

Any way you look at any part of the process, writing and publishing take courage, and the indie author needs extra buckets of bravery. Consider this a tribute to their guts and a helping hand to their glory.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial (writing, editing, proofreading, etc.) and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

January 13, 2021

On the Basics: The long and the short of it

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Contrary to the classic Mark Twain quote (“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one”), long-form writing doesn’t necessarily mean rambling, disorganized or even easy. To be effective and worth reading (even simply readable), long-form works need structure and revision, and as much attention to clarity, meaning and other aspects of good writing as short works. Lots of people can — and do — write at length without much effort, and many publish nowadays without taking the next step of self- or professional editing, but no one writes a well-reasoned, coherent work of fiction or nonfiction without investing time and effort in making it flow smoothly, have a distinctive voice, retain a consistent style, complete every thought and reflect some effort in the process. Long doesn’t automatically equal good.

Of course, a writer doesn’t always have a choice when it comes to the length of their piece of string. Newspaper and newsletter journalists almost always have to make their work fit a certain limited amount of space, even when a topic cries out for greater detail and length. Magazine writers usually have more scope for writing long, but even they have word limits to meet. Editors are not happy when they assign an article of 1,000 words and receive one that’s 2,000 or more!

Sometimes we can convince an editor to let us go over an assigned word length (but that still means doing some careful self-editing before submitting the work). And the ask has to be made before that deadline; again, editors don’t like surprises — in either direction, especially at the last minute: fewer words than assigned, which leaves a hole in the layout, or more words than assigned, which means extra work for the editor in either cutting down the submitted version or finding more space for it than originally planned.

Reducing an article that’s too long can be fairly easy: Get rid of the adjectives. Then the adverbs. Leave the bare, but clear and coherent, bones to stand on their own without any padding. The problem is that can result in a piece that’s abrupt and choppy, with none of the descriptive elements that give it life and emotion. Not a problem with a breaking news article or some kind of alert, perhaps, but a concern in other contexts.

Expanding a piece that’s too short can be harder, but it’s usually possible to do some research on the topic and find material to quote or paraphrase for greater depth and detail. Sometimes all it takes is finding one more person to interview and include. It doesn’t mean adding fluff just to meet an assigned word count, though. If greater length is needed, it should be substantive and meaningful.

There are times when reaching the assigned word count for a long-form piece of writing is torture, and times when cutting down a piece that’s too long is just as hard. Sometimes I’ll have a lot of great material after interviewing someone and doing the appropriate background research, including colorful quotes and essential facts, and it’s easier to just write it all up (or out) without worrying about a restrictive assigned word count. Then I’ll edit myself down to the required word count — but I’ll save the longer version in case I can repurpose it later. That might mean it gets posted to the client’s website while their print version uses the shorter version, or I resell the long version to another outlet.

It’s also often possible to break up a long article into a series if the client or publication is willing to go that route.

The advent of the internet and the wild proliferation of blogs and other online outlets has made it easier for longer pieces of writing to get published, but long doesn’t necessarily mean good. Long can mean rambling, confusing, disorganized, even incoherent.

As I mentioned, I often write long and then edit myself down when I have more material than fits an allotted word count. And sometimes I write short and struggle to bump up a piece to say more, whether to meet a higher assigned word count, perhaps to impress readers or simply to satisfy my sense of providing a complete picture of the topic.

That always brings back a high school moment when my favorite English teacher assigned an in-class analysis of the poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” (Yeats, 1917). She provided several questions to be answered in essay format, and I usually wrote several pages worth in response to such assignments. For that one, though, I got stuck after two or three paragraphs and simply couldn’t think of anything else to say. I finally gave up and took my seemingly inadequate offering up to the teacher’s desk, admitting that I couldn’t come up with anything else. She looked it over and said, “You’re fine. You’ve said everything it needs. Sometimes shorter is better.” I don’t remember a word of that poem, but I remember that lesson.

The long and the short of this is that some topics cry out for more depth and length than others, and some assignments can only be handled with a short piece of writing even if they could be written longer. The trick is to know when to go long and when to write tight. Both have their place in literature and journalism; both have their own limits and demands — and rewards. Those who do either format well deserve our readership and our praise. And, speaking as a freelancer, our clients’ respect by way of decent pay for our work!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

January 1, 2021

On the Basics: Preparing for the new year

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

It’s the first day of the new year (thank goodness!), and that means it’s time to put together a plan for the new year if you haven’t already done so. With New Year’s Day falling on a Friday, we have a whole weekend to use for launching the new year on a positive note. Here are a few suggestions for projects to consider.

Review, refresh and expand your website (or create one!). Look for ways to make the text more active and interesting; add information about recent achievements, such as new clients/projects, awards, etc.; replace long-used images with new ones; add new pages if appropriate, etc. Consider asking a colleague to assess the site to make sure it’s helping your visibility through accurate language and effective search engine optimization (SEO) and keywords; it might be worth paying a professional for an SEO assessment.

• Review and update your résumé. You might not always need it, but it’s worth having a current version on hand in case you do. You don’t want to throw something together in a rush to respond to a request; that’s a guarantee of making embarrassing mistakes. Again, this is where swapping services with a colleague might be a good idea. For the aspiring and current freelancers among us, it also might be worth consulting the new (2020) edition of the Editorial Freelancers Association booklet, “Resumés for Freelancers: Make Your Resumé an Effective Marketing Tool … and More!” (Disclaimer: I’m the co-author — but I don’t profit from sales.)

Set goals for the new year. These can be basic: Earn more money, find new clients, join new organizations or take on new roles in ones you already belong to, create new promotional/marketing material, expand visibility in social media, be more organized, stay ahead of filing and record-keeping, etc. (Once you’ve thought about them, these goals can be the basis of a formal business plan; especially useful for those thinking about launching a freelance business.)

Review what you’ve gained from and contributed to professional memberships. There might be organizations that are a better fit for where you are in your current job or freelance business, and ones you belong to that haven’t been as useful as you had hoped. Be patient, because some memberships take awhile to generate income, but make sure that your investment in professional associations is paying off. Ask colleagues which associations have been the most-useful and -profitable for them, and why or how.

Think about ways to be more visible. Consider writing a book or booklet, especially if you do speaking engagements (even online ones; having a publication to sell or promote at such events can be very profitable); look for ways to become a presenter or trainer (again, even in virtual environments); find new places to contribute comments and guest posts; update your LinkedIn profile; start your own blog; use visual media such as podcasting and videos; partner with a colleague to swap referrals or work on bigger (or new types of) projects together than either of you can handle alone; be more active in associations of colleagues — and potential clients. The more you show up, the stronger your professional image and credibility, and the easier it will be for prospective employers or clients to find, and hire, you.

• If you’re freelancing, increase your rates! Let current clients know that will happen in January and stick to it. If a valued client objects, you can always “grandfather in” existing ones at their current rates — as long as you feel they’re worth it.

Whatever you choose to do in this important new year, here’s to success and fulfillment for all of us. Feel free to share your plans, goals and questions for the year. 

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting), which helps independent authors produce and publisher their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

August 31, 2020

On the Basics: The ethics of editing college applications

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Once again, inspiration for an An American Editor blog post struck in reaction to a collegial discussion list conversation. (Some of you may have seen the beginnings of the conversation; this is an expanded version.)

A colleague mentioned having received a request to write or edit the client’s kid’s college application and said she responded by telling them that college applications should be the student’s own work. She characterized the request as a possible ethics issue, and I agree; I said I would have responded the same way. If they had only asked for editing services, it might have been different.

This is a frequent, albeit unfortunate, type of request. The asker usually has every intention of paying for the service, so it isn’t a scam in the financial sense, but either doesn’t know or care that it could be unethical. I manage or respond to these requests by making it my policy not to provide editing for college or grad school applications; proofreading, maybe, but even that can seem borderline inappropriate.

This might be an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but I’m interested in how colleagues think about it. Some institutions will let applicants use editors or proofreaders for application statements or essays, but forbid hiring someone to write those materials. Some draw distinctions between doing such work for native speakers vs. speakers of other languages, or between disciplines — hiring an editor or proofreader is OK for students in the sciences, engineering, maybe business, etc., but not for those in English degree programs.

I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who is willing to function in a language other than their original one, especially English, which can be a challenge even for well-educated origin speakers (as we often see here). And I’m not monolingual: I’ve studied and used French, German and Spanish — but wouldn’t want to tackle writing in any of them until I had spent time immersed in them again; even German, which I picked up in childhood mostly from listening to my Austrian parents and only studied formally much later.

In the application process, it seems more fair for someone’s command of any language to be clear in — literally — their own words, especially in areas like medicine, where lack of fluency could have life-threatening results.

On the other hand, rejecting an applicant because of clunky English in an application might be a disservice to all concerned. Many applicants are very talented in their fields and deserve the opportunity to continue their educations at institutions in countries other than their own. There also can be a difference between someone’s spoken and comprehended levels of language vs. their skills in writing it. And it’s valuable for students to meet and interact with peers from other countries and cultures, no matter which ones are involved. Being accepted into a program and interacting with native speakers, both instructors and fellow students, day in and day out would improve a non-native’s command of English as well.

One colleague found it “hard to believe someone has the nerve to ask for such a thing in this day and age.”

Actually, I find it understandable (not acceptable, but understandable). It isn’t new. There have always been ways for students to game the system, even if only by having their parents write or edit their school work or applications, and students have been selling their work to each other for ages and a day. It’s even easier to do nowadays than ever before: Entire businesses are built on writing student essays and applications (businesses that do the writing for students at any level, and people who work for such businesses, are unethical in my eyes and those of many others, both individuals and institutions/organizations). Papers, and probably application essays, can be purchased online with ease. Celebrities pay thousands to phony up their kids’ applications, sometimes without the kids’ knowledge.

There also can be a thin line between editing and rewriting, although the distinction between writing and editing is easier to draw.

I typed papers for fellow students when I was in college (back in the Dark Ages before computers 🙂 ), and would correct some of their spelling or basic punctuation errors as I went along, but I wouldn’t rewrite if their concepts weren’t clear. There was a big difference between typing up a handwritten paper and rewriting or even editing it. More recently, I proofread my niece’s résumé and a cover letter for her; she’s in landscape architecture and is bilingual in English and Hebrew. I was comfortable with catching a few typos that had nothing to do with her professional skills, but I did have an ulterior motive for making her material as close to perfect as possible: I’m hoping she gets a job offer here where I live!

The good news is that the growth of companies that do the work for students and the ease of plagiarizing via the Internet has led to innovation in response, such as anti-plagiarism software programs. These can be used not just to check on whether someone has copied from known published works, but whether they’ve used material that has been “outed” as generated by someone (or thing) other than the student in question.

In the discussion of this that I mentioned above, several colleagues had perspectives on this that were ethical and interesting. Some have worked for college writing centers by providing coaching and advice without actually doing students’ work for them. Others have developed freelance services with a similar focus — helping clients learn how to write more clearly and effectively, but not doing the writing for them.

How and where do you draw a line?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor. She also created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com), sponsored by An American Editor and this year planned for October 2–4 as a virtual event. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

August 23, 2020

On the Basics: New resources for freelancers

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

I’m breaking precedent with a Sunday post to share some professional good news: The updated edition of my “Freelancing 101” booklet for the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), featuring new input from EFA Publications chairperson Robin Martin, and the updated new edition of the EFA’s “Resumés for Freelancers” booklet, which I’ve co-authored with original author Sheila Buff, are among the new publications available at the EFA’s new bookstore:
https://shop.aer.io/editorial_freelancers_association_bookstore

Robin deserves a huge round of applause for herding cats (um, authors) and – even more challenging – organizing the new bookstore.

I hope our subscribers find these publications useful. They were a lot of fun to produce and should be – if I say so myself – excellent resources for various aspects of a freelance editorial (not just editing) business.

August 21, 2020

On the Basics: Yet another scam warning

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Sorry to end the week on a somewhat sour note, but I wanted to warn colleagues here about an apparent current new scam aimed primarily at editors. (Some of you may already have seen discussions about this one; this is for those who haven’t.)

If anyone gets requests from a supposed Ayse Cetin or Fatma, they are probably scams, although we haven’t figured out what the senders are after. They’ll say they need help with something for a fall class, probably in math — coaching or editing, or writing in general. The initial message is likely to include a Word document as an attachment.

If you respond, they’ll do a few rounds of e-mail correspondence (even if you say that you don’t work in their area), and then they’ll want to meet via Zoom. They’ve wasted a lot of time for quite a few colleagues so far in e-mail back-and-forthing and Zoom time, as well as attempts to research the supposed senders to determine whether the requests are legitimate — but haven’t actually hired anyone.

One confusing aspect in trying to figure out what they’re up to is that they’re spending a lot of time and effort on communicating with several dozen editors to date — far more than most scammers bother with before getting money out of people. I’m guessing that a version of the overpayment scam would evolve; others think this is an attempt at hacking e-mail or Zoom accounts.

If you’ve received and responded to this, change your e-mail and/or Zoom passwords. If you receive any version of this and haven’t already responded, delete, delete, delete.

This kind of headache aside,  here’s wishing colleagues a safe, healthy and fun weekend.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor. She also hosts the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com), sponsored by An American Editor, and this year planned for October 2–4 as a virtual event. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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