An American Editor

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.

August 5, 2020

On the Basics: The power of saying no as a reputation-builder

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Owner, An American Editor

As editorial professionals, whether in-house or freelance, how do we build our reputations for not only what we do, but how we do it and who we are?

It may seem self-evident that doing good work is the first and most-important element of establishing a reputation of someone worth hiring, recommending, referring or subcontracting with. There’s more to it, though.

How we do business contributes mightily to an editorial professional’s reputation as well. And a huge factor in that process is knowing when, and how, to say no.

Saying no

It might seem odd to think of saying no as a way of establishing or solidifying your professional reputation, but it can work. Saying no to projects or clients means you know what’s right — or wrong — for your editorial business.

It’s hard to say no to a client or project, especially when you’re just starting out or funds are low and you’re worried about how you’ll pay the mortgage or rent, but doing so can be essential to the health of both your editorial business and your reputation. Saying no means you’re standing up for what you need from your business and what you expect from the people you work with or for. It means you have standards for, and limits on, how you do your work, and are willing to enforce them. Having the chutzpah to say no when appropriate gives you power.

Those standards or limits, and how saying no relates to them, can include:

Hours when you’re available — and saying no to requests (or demands) that you work outside those hours.

Type of projects you will accept and work on — and saying no to projects that aren’t right for you.

Rates you will work for — and saying no to rates that are too low.

Deadlines you will accept — and saying no to ridiculous ones that would make you crazy.

Treatment you expect from clients — and saying no to rudeness, unreasonableness, demandingness (is that a word?) and any other behavior that disrespects you as a professional.

Getting the message across

You can use your website to present your policies on these kinds of topics, as well as creating a template for responding to messages so you’re prepared to deal with challenges when they occur instead of feeling as if you’re a deer in the headlights of an unreasonable, confusing or inappropriate request. Here are a few suggestions for relaying your “just say no” message without actually saying no (at least, not upfront).

Posting work hours

The best way to head off client calls or messages at hours when you prefer not to be available is to put your “office hours” at your website (you do have your own website, of course). Many colleagues use their websites to let potential and current clients know that they aren’t available on weekends or outside specific hours.

Some people will still push that envelope, but posting your office hours means you have a way to push back. It’s also possible to set up a form of autoresponse that says something like “Thank you for your inquiry. I will respond at 9 a.m. of the next business day to discuss your project.”

You also can still do work outside those posted hours if and when you want — or need — to do so. That can mean saying no to the client but yes to whatever you have to do for a project or deadline to work in your favor.

Choosing your projects

Many colleagues prefer not to work on projects with content that is erotic, violent, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or involves some other aspect that might be difficult to read. That’s our right. Some of us also have specific preferences for the genres we want to work on: fiction vs. nonfiction, young adult vs. adult or middle grade, fantasy, sci-fi, memoir, etc. You can make those go/no-go decisions as your business policy, post them at your website and incorporate them into your e-mail template for responding to potential clients. Like posting your office hours, that can say no for you.

Again, some people just don’t read such material and might contact you anyhow with the offer of work you don’t want, for whatever reason. You don’t even have to quote a reason, but it’s immensely helpful to be able to couch your no in terms of “Thank you for your inquiry, but as you can see from my website, I don’t work on projects such as this.”

Standing up for your rates

Most of us start out charging at the lower end of rates or accepting salaries at the low end of the bar for a variety of reasons, from lack of experience to lack of confidence. If you haven’t had any formal training or experience in your corner of the editorial world, are just launching a freelance business, want to try working in a new genre or topic area, or have no way of confirming that you’re good at what you do (or want to do), it makes sense to charge less rather than more. That goes for salary levels when you’re job-hunting in the traditional work world, as well as for freelancing.

Keep in mind that if you under-charge, you run the risk of spending so much time on low-paying projects to generate enough income to pay your bills that you won’t have the time or energy to find better-paying work.

Just be sure to, first of all, research rates through professional organizations and resources (such as Writer’s Market information, the Editorial Freelancers Association chart of common rates, conversations with colleagues, etc.) for a sense of what you might be able to charge based on your training, experience and skills.

Second, look for ways to defend what you want or need to charge. Your rates or salary should reflect that combination of training, experience and skill level with the added factor of what you need to cover your expenses and have something left for fun. An American Editor founder Rich Adin calls this your effective hourly rate: the income you have to generate to live your life on a level that is not just sufficient but rewarding; a rate based on you, not on someone else, whether a colleague or a client.

If you’re low on training, get some. Look to professional associations, college certificate programs and business resources to do two things: improve your knowledge and skills, and bolster your credibility. If you’re low on experience, look for ways to do more editorial work, even if it’s on a volunteer basis or at a starting-out rate. If your skills seem below par, look for volunteer opportunities, whether with a professional association or a charity you believe in, to do the kind of work you’re interested in and build up those skills. You might even look for a mentor who could help you strengthen your overall knowledge and specific areas of weakness.

The more you can show that you’re skilled and qualified, the easier it will be to say no to prospective clients that only pay peanuts.

Practice makes perfect

Because the necessity to say no is going to crop up for all of us, be prepared. Write out a script for how to turn down work that isn’t right for you, rates that don’t respect you, deadlines that are impossible for you to meet, etc. It can be brief. It doesn’t have to go into any detail or offer any excuses for your no. You might also want to create a backup script for the insistent client who doesn’t want to hear your no.

If you think about and plan for these moments beforehand, it will be much easier to stand up for what you want your business and your reputation to represent.

The bottom line

So how do all these aspects of saying no contribute to establishing your reputation?

Steeling yourself to say no when appropriate creates the impression of someone who is confident enough to have standards and stand up for them. Someone who is strong enough to resist pressure to behave in ways that would undermine their success and their ability to continually improve the quality of their editorial business. Someone who is more than reliable and skilled.

If you develop your ability to say no, you will establish your reputation as someone who is not only an editorial professional worth hiring, but one who can’t be scammed, scolded, underpaid or pushed around. That’s a reputation worth having.

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 and co-hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com), sponsored by An American Editor. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

October 12, 2019

Saving the world from major typos

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, AAE Owner

One of the delights of hosting a conference for colleagues is the opportunity not just to meet and connect with people in person, but to share anecdotes about our business adventures, challenges and successes. In conversations during the opening day of Gateway to Success, this year’s Communication Central/NAIWE Be a Better Freelancer® conference,  I had a chance to reminisce (and chuckle) over what I consider my two major contributions to civilization through a sharp editorial eye. You might get a kick out of them — and have similar triumphs to share!

The first involved a visit home to Rochester, NY, years ago to see my parents. I had only officially been working in editing for a while, but had always had a pretty good eye for errors. I was driving past the park near our family home when I focused on the huge granite sign with letters at least a foot high, literally carved in stone, and realized that it said COBBS HILL RESEVIOR.

Now, that sign had been there for a long, long time. I can’t tell you how long, but it seemed like something that had always been there. I had walked, driven or taken a bus past it zillions of times, but never really looked at it until that moment. And I guess no one else had, either!

I called the city parks department, public works and I think the mayor’s office, trying to find someone, anyone, to report this to (this was long enough ago to predate e-mail, websites, etc., although I really wish it didn’t; I’d love to have had a photo for Facebook!). I don’t remember who I finally reached, but the next time I came home, presto: Somehow, the stone sign had been fixed! I think there was a plaque of some sort covering the original carving, but however it was done, I can say that I helped fix a typo that was … carved in stone. And my correction also had that standing!

The other was almost as satisfying, if not as permanent or visible. When Wayne-the-Wonderful and I went to Rochester for our wedding (I always wanted to be married at my parents’ house), we went to the town hall for our marriage license. I started to sign the form, but couldn’t help actually reading the thing. And … I found several typos. In the official marriage license form that had been used by the town, and possibly other New York locations around the state, for quite a few years.

I said to the town clerk, “I can’t sign this. It has typos in it.” “But that’s our official form.” “I understand that, but I can’t have typos in my marriage license. I’m a professional writer and editor, and I just can’t do that.”

This went on for several minutes, with Wayne not knowing whether to laugh, cry or leave; probably wondering what kind of a persnickety nut he was planning to marry, but prepared to stand by me as needed. I finally marked the errors and said, pleasantly but firmly, “Our wedding is on Saturday morning. I don’t care how you do it, but we’ll be back at 9:10 a.m. on Friday, and I expect to have a marriage license with no errors in it that we can sign. We’ll see you then. Thank you.”

Sure enough, when we went back at the end of the week, there was a corrected certificate for us to sign. It was my understanding that they typed up a fresh copy (this was before the days of MicroSoft Word) and used it as the new master for the license. No one else might ever have noticed, or cared, but I am proud to be responsible for — AFAIK — the town of Brighton in Rochester, NY, providing couples with error-free marriage licenses from that point on.

We all catch errors that affect meaning and comprehension, and that would have made our clients look foolish at best to their reading publics (my favorite in the more-common arena of catching errors in publications was noticing a reference to “food panties” in an article about food pantries (not edible underwear). Not many of us have the opportunity to see our work carved in stone or be responsible for fixing something as important as a marriage license. Such moments are wonderful personal triumphs that make all the hassles, arguments over usage and frustrations worthwhile.

What momentous edits have you made? Tell us about it!

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