An American Editor

November 25, 2020

Finding, working with, and retaining [ESL] clients, Part 1

Geoff Hart, Contributing Columnist

Editor’s notes: It is an honor and a pleasure to add Geoff Hart to the ranks of An American Editor columnists. We hope you enjoy this expanded and improved version of the author’s presentation at Communication Central’s 2016 Be a Better Freelancer® conference, Rochester, NY.

Where the author has indicated Note, the text should be a indented or block text, but your An American Editor owner hasn’t figured out how to do that yet in a new version of the WordPress editing function.

Resources will be included in Part 3 of this column.

For those interested in Geoff’s book (see author bio at end of column), Lulu.com offers 30% off all books with code BFCM30 from midnight November 27 through November 30 (presumably midnight North American Eastern Standard Time).

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For the past 33 years, I’ve been working as a scientific editor. My specialty is working with authors who have English as a second language. (For simplicity, I’ll refer to these authors as “ESL” authors hereafter.) As you can imagine, this leads to challenges I don’t encounter with my authors who speak English as their native language. Challenges that, on the whole, I enjoy. In this series, I’ll tell you a bit about why I enjoy the work so much and how you can find, work with, and retain ESL clients. I’ve placed brackets around “ESL” in the title because, as you’ll see, much of what I’ll discuss is also true for non-ESL clients, with a slightly different spin.

Why you should work with ESL clients

When I started my freelance career, I continued working with scientific researchers, but decided to emphasize authors who learned English as their second (or more) language. In addition to seeing this as an under-exploited niche, I decided that I wanted to broaden my perspective beyond what I’d been learning from my western authors. Specifically, I focused on Japanese and Chinese authors, because these were two cultures I was somewhat familiar with and very much enjoyed. The resulting diversity of topics and concerns has proven every bit as rewarding as I’d hoped. I’ve particularly enjoyed the chance to learn more about other countries and cultures. In one case, expressing this interest even resulted in a short teaching gig at a Beijing university and offers of a longer-term teaching position when I’m retired and can afford to spend multiple months living abroad.

As an ecologist by training, I benefited from another lesson: Diverse ecosystems are most robust, and tend to be most stable. Translated into editing terms, adding Asian clients meant that my workload was potentially recession-proof (like an ecosystem or a diversified stock portfolio) because economic downturns in Asia usually differ in timing and intensity from western downturns. In addition, authors in different countries tend to have different busy periods, and this helps to spread out the work somewhat. For example, the school year (for university authors) differs among countries, as do the teaching and writing responsibilities that university professors have to fit into their busy schedules. Because most of my clients work outdoors, at locations ranging from forests to deserts, their field research seasons differ between hemispheres (e.g., summer in the south is winter in the north). I still have “crunch” periods when it seems that all my authors need my help simultaneously, but the reduced number of slow periods with no work more than compensates.

As a freelancer, it also didn’t escape my notice that higher pay rates are possible in some areas of the world. For example, costs are higher in parts of the European Union and in Japan than they are in North America. For simplicity, I use a standard rate for all my clients (but with a discount for my Chinese clients, due to their smaller incomes and budgets), but if you’re more economically astute than I am and tailor your rate to each market you work in, you may have the option of raising your rate as high as each individual market will bear.

How to find ESL clients

There are as many ways to find clients as there are editors. I’ve listed several in my article on “finding work in tough times” (Hart 2006). I started by defining the authors I most wanted to work with (ESL authors). Once I knew who I wanted to work with, I contacted the editors of hundreds of peer-reviewed science journals that published articles in the areas of research I understood well enough to do substantive editing. I started with a form letter, in which I explained what I proposed:

•       I would work directly with authors, eliminating the burden on the journal’s staff.

•       I would help the author produce manuscripts sufficiently clear that the editor knew whether they were ready for peer review, and sufficiently good that it was worthwhile sending them for review.

•       I would ease the burden both on peer reviewers and on the journal’s editorial staff.

•       There would be no cost whatsoever to the journal; all they had to do was send my brochure (a concise PDF file I provided) to authors who needed my help.

That is, I focused on the problems experienced by journal editors that I could solve for them, not on why I was a good editor. To support this proposal, I explained the skills I offered (training as a scientist and many years of work with ESL authors) — but this supported my proposal (“let me solve your problems”) and was not the key to my proposal. The key was that I focused on the needs of my clients, a philosophy I’ve emphasized throughout my career. I quickly began receiving inquiries from Asian authors.

(The rest of this article focuses on examples from my Chinese authors, since they represent the majority of my clients, and the cultural differences from western authors are most revealing.)

Another approach is to start with the languages you speak. I speak French fairly fluently, and have worked for years with French authors, but I wanted to broaden my search to other languages, so I learned enough Mandarin and Japanese that I can at least greet authors politely in those languages, even if I can’t carry on a conversation in either language. Wanting an excuse to learn more of both languages and more about both cultures gave me a strong incentive to do so, and that desire was very much appreciated by my authors as they came to know me.

Although this suggests that you should think across borders and oceans when you look for ESL clients, the high mobility of modern writers suggests that you should also think locally. For example, universities, research institutes, and think tanks often employ authors from other countries. Attending international, national, or local conferences that focus on the subject you want to work on is another way to meet authors — these authors often need help from an English editor who can communicate well with them, possibly even in their own language.

To meet non-researcher authors, look for social groups such as the cultural societies that host events (e.g., Chinese new year, Diwali) or business associations (such as the Pan-Asian American Business Council). Meeting people in these groups is pleasant for its own sake, but also offers ways to find future clients. But avoid the mistake of only attending to seek clients; people will recognize this kind of mercenary behavior and turn away from you.

Note: If you want to work with graduate students at a university, carefully confirm with the university’s graduate studies department whether any regulations limit the nature of your work. For example, a PhD thesis must be an original work of scholarship, and some universities interpret this to mean that no developmental or substantive editing is allowed. In such cases, all you can do without obtaining a written exception to that rule is to offer proofreading and formatting services. A student’s failure to follow the university’s rules scrupulously can lead to a thesis being rejected. When in doubt, ask the university to respond in writing so you have proof of your permission to proceed.

In addition, leverage your network by asking your colleagues about opportunities. I exchange work opportunities with half a dozen colleagues. When I have work I can’t do, whether due to lack of expertise or lack of time, I refer the inquiries to those colleagues. In return, they refer some authors they can’t handle to me. I don’t charge a fee for such referrals; I treat it as a purely pro bono thing, which I can afford to do because I have far more work than I can handle and a good income. I do have colleagues who ask for a “finder’s fee” for such referrals, and that’s perfectly legitimate if you prefer to work that way.

How to work with ESL clients

Working with ESL authors is mostly similar to working with native-English authors, but a few quirks are worth mentioning.

Clear communication

Clear communication is important for any author­–editor relationship, but it’s particularly important when you work with ESL authors. First and foremost, self-edit your written communications ruthlessly. Don’t assume your meaning is clear. You’ll find that people who are communicating with you in their second language have much higher expertise in the language of their subjects than in the daily conversational language that relates to bread and butter issues such as specifying deadlines and contract terms for working together.

Although some editors communicate extensively with their ESL authors using online meeting software such as Zoom, particularly in these pandemic days, I find that most of my authors aren’t sufficiently comfortable with spoken English to enjoy this approach. Thus, almost all of our communication is via e-mail. To ensure that messages reach their target, I maintain two backup e-mail addresses in addition to the address provided by my service provider: the address associated with my website and a Gmail address. If one address is blocked or the service is temporarily unavailable, I can use the other addresses. For example, my service provider is often blocked by government and university networks because of their cavalier attitude toward spam. For many of this group of authors, I know I can’t use my main address. Similarly, ask your authors whether they have a second address you can use if necessary. If you don’t receive a reply within a day of sending an e-mail, try again using their second address. For particularly unreliable e-mail systems, send your message to both addresses at the same time, since it’s unlikely that both will be unavailable simultaneously.

Note: Carefully check your e-mail provider’s terms of service. For example, Google analyzes and indexes all Gmail messages, which means Gmail is inappropriate for messages that contain files that describe research breakthroughs, patent applications, and other confidential information. Most e-mail providers don’t encrypt their e-mail in any way, so e-mail can be read by anyone who gains access to their account. For e-mail that must be protected against prying eyes, consider using ProtonMail (https://protonmail.com/).

Reply as fast as possible (ideally, immediately!) to queries. Remember: If you’re working with authors on the other side of the world, the time zone difference means there can be a delay of up to 12 hours before they receive your reply, and this time can be critical for authors who are working under a tight deadline. Don’t assume your message was received. Always ask authors to confirm reception of your e-mail by explicitly requesting confirmation (e.g., “please confirm that you received both files with no problems”) or by asking a question they’ll have to answer (e.g., “which of your two addresses should I use on the invoice?”). Resend your message and any attached files if you receive no reply within about a day. It’s better to “spam” an author than to make them miss a deadline because you incorrectly assumed they received a file that you sent them.

Note: When you negotiate schedules, carefully account for time zone differences (http://www.worldtimeserver.com/). For example, I use language such as “I will return your paper on [date], eastern Canada (Montreal) time.”

Retain copies of all correspondence, in case you need to return to an earlier message to clarify some point. Disk space is cheap, particularly if you use an online e-mail service like Gmail. Although you can leave all your messages in your mail software, I prefer to copy them into a correspondence file in Microsoft Word for each author. This collects the information in one place, the search functions are generally superior, and it’s easier to move the text to other programs if necessary. Alternatively, if you prefer storing e-mail as e-mail, consider configuring your e-mail software to use the IMAP protocol (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Message_Access_Protocol), which leaves your e-mail on the service provider’s servers so that you can access it from all of your computing devices (e.g., your smartphone in addition to your laptop computer).

Until you’ve worked with an author long enough to know their needs, don’t assume you understand those needs. Learn the difference between what they want (e.g., “I need the edited manuscript Friday”) and what they really need (e.g., “but I’m not going to work on it before Monday, so Monday is probably fine”). Make these needs explicit rather than guessing. Back when I was a wage slave, I always asked each author when they wanted the manuscript and when they really needed it; the two dates were rarely the same.

For an ESL author, spend some time learning how they want to work with you; this may not be “the western way.” Some will just want you to tell them what to change; others want to understand why you recommend changes and to work with you to discuss all changes. Learn their busy periods (e.g., the date range for the school term vs. the summer research period, annual conferences they try to attend, national holidays). Add notes to your calendar, well in advance, to warn you that these periods are coming so you can plan your schedule more effectively.

Speaking of schedules, carefully note your own planned absences on the calendar so you can warn your authors well in advance about when you’ll be unavailable. For example, as I’ve begun moving toward retirement, I now reserve most of December as private time, when I will concentrate on my own writing. Thus, I warn authors at least two months in advance that I won’t be available during that period and that they need to reserve my time well in advance; I warn them that once my schedule is full, they’ll wait three+ weeks before I’m available again in January.

In my experience, busy authors often forget these warnings. That’s fair, since our job is to meet their needs, and their job is to write. In any event, authors benefit from a reminder. When I plan my annual vacation, I notify authors two months in advance and again one month before I leave. One useful, if deceptive, trick: If you know that certain authors always write to you at the last minute, tell them you’ll be gone one week before your actual departure date. That way, when work arrives at the last minute, you still have time to do the work. If an author notices this trick (“I thought you said you’d be away …”), explain that you would ideally like to have left on the date you announced, but you made time to help them anyway because helping them is important to you. This isn’t a lie if it’s true; the last week before my vacation is usually filled with domestic work and other preparations.

Provide status updates about your availability. For example, if you’ll be trying to edit a large book during a certain period, warn your clients there will be delays during that period. Be willing to negotiate extensions both with the author (for yourself), and with publishers that impose deadlines on your authors. For example, most journal editors are willing to give an ESL author more time to return a revised manuscript if they know that the revision is complete and the author is only waiting for their English editor to become available. (This won’t work if the publisher has a hard deadline, such as releasing a book or special issue of a journal right before a major conference, but negotiation works more often than you’d expect.)

Note: If you’re in the fortunate situation of having more work than time, negotiate agreements with colleagues you trust to work with your authors when you’re not available. Coordinate their schedules with yours well in advance to avoid any surprises; they’ll be absent sometimes, too.

As your workload increases, start building room and flexibility into your schedule to cope with unexpected busy periods. For example, I reserve one day per week for a client who sends me a regular stream of work. When they don’t send me a manuscript, I can usually find another manuscript I can work on while I wait for theirs to arrive. Based on many years of experience with how my workload varies during the year, I’ve learned to include such unscheduled (“open”) days on my calendar. Currently, I try to keep one day open per week in addition to the work for that weekly client.

When you receive a manuscript that’s longer than the author estimated when they reserved your time, ask for more time. If you can meet the original deadline, that’s great — but if you need more time, you have it. I’ve always appreciated the advice to “promise late, deliver early”; that is, if I’m able to complete the work faster than expected, the author gets a pleasant surprise, but if not, they still receive my work on the expected date. As I’m getting older, my editing speed is declining, so I find that I need this extra time more often. I warn my authors at least annually about the maximum I can reliably edit in a day’s work, and ask them to predict the length of their manuscript and ask for more than a day when they contact me to reserve my time.

Show, don’t tell

As I noted earlier, ESL authors often speak the language of their specialty far better than they speak the common language that represents the glue for social interactions.

Although you can sometimes rely on complex words if you know your author is willing to use a dictionary, consider instead whether you can illustrate your meaning. For example:

•       If you must resort to grammatical jargon, illustrate it. For example, “In this sentence, the verb accord is the dataset is or the data are.

•       If you must name punctuation, illustrate it: “Add or delete the semicolon (;) between author names in all references.”

•       If you must refer to shapes or symbol names, illustrate: “delete the asterisk (*) and replace it with a triangle (Δ).” Similarly, showing works better for patterns and colors: “Delete the red cross-hatching: [///].” (Editor’s note: Attempting to apply red “ink? to the /// element results in the whole sentence being made red.)

Part 2 of this article will continue with a discussion of cultural considerations, related rhetorical issues, and editing tips.” The final part will include references for the entire discussion.

Part 2 of this column will be published on Wednesday, December 2.

Geoff Hart (he/him) (www.geoff-hart.com) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 28 stories thus far.

March 26, 2014

The Business of Editing: An Embarrassment of Riches

Over the past 28 years of my editing business, I have been consistently busy. Rarely did I have any down time and I nearly always had multiple projects going simultaneously. As things worked out, there was a steady flow of work and it was rare that I needed to tell a client I couldn’t undertake a project.

More importantly, those few times when I had to decline a project, the client modified the schedule so that I could ultimately accept the project. This year, however, has been significantly different.

This year the projects are more numerous and larger. I always handled large projects (greater than 2000 manuscript pages) but the projects this year are larger than the large projects of the past (one runs close to 20,000 manuscript pages, and several others exceed 5,000 manuscript pages). For the first time, I am facing the problem of advising clients that I cannot take on their projects even with a schedule change, unless the schedule is altered by months rather than weeks.

Within the past two weeks, I have had to turn away seven projects; within the past month, I turned away 11 projects.

The problem occurs from a mix of things: (1) client projects are bunching rather than being spread across the year; (2) this is the time in the publishing cycle when new editions of many large books are coming to fruition simultaneously; (3) books that had previously been offshored are being brought back; (4) authors are more faithfully fulfilling their commitments to deliver manuscript on time; (5) the books are larger than the “usual” large; (6) in-house production editors are having to handle a larger number of books and so want to minimize the number of freelance editors they need to supervise; etc.

The question is: How do I resolve the problem?

One client suggested I hire more editors. I explained that the problem with that solution is that I cannot get a commitment from my clients for enough work to keep additional editors busy year round. The suggestion might cure the short-term problem, but it will create a long-term problem. Besides, it would add to my workload as I would need to monitor and supervise their work until I was comfortable that I could rely on the new editors to submit work that met my and the client’s expectations.

The embarrassment of riches (i.e., having too much work offered) is a real problem that freelance editors need to face at various points in their career. The editor doesn’t want to turn work away for a number of reasons, not least of which is a fear that the client will not call again. In addition, there is the worry that when the editor is ready to take on more work, there will be no more work to take on — that is, the editor will have hit a dry spell, which means a loss of income.

As you can see, the problem and the worries are not unique to the solopreneur; the problem is one faced by all forms of business. The solutions are not easy and all solutions amount to a form of gambling.

I see basically two alternative solutions (when change of schedule is not possible). The first is to accept the work and increase the number of hours the editor works. This solution has its own problems, such as trying to extend the workday may jeopardize the quality of the editing; most editors can only effectively edit for a maximum of five hours a day. And what happens when the next project comes along? How do you extend yourself even further? At some point, editing quality diminishes and you then jeopardize your relationship with the client.

The second is to say no to the new work and hope that the client will call again. The merits of this solution depends on the nature of the client. If the client is new, then you really are taking a big gamble that the client will return. If the client has been a regular client, the gamble is not very large because the client already knows the quality of your work and wants you to continue working for them. Here the gamble is more that when you are ready for additional work, the client has additional work for you, than whether the client will return.

In both instances — extending yourself to take on the additional workload and saying no — whether the client returns has much to do with the niche you have carved for yourself. For example, in my case, my “brand” is that of excellent editing service by a cadre of editors who require minimal supervision (basically, “here are the files, here are the peculiarities of this manuscript, please return edited files as quickly as possible”) and who use tools designed for large projects, including multieditor projects.

Clients return because they know they can rely on my company to handle projects with minimal problems and supervision, thereby freeing the in-house production editor to deal with other freelancers, other projects, and the myriad other things they need to deal with on a daily basis. Consequently, I feel more comfortable saying no to projects that cannot be squeezed into the schedule.

I admit that I did not feel so comfortable 25 years ago. The comfort with saying no has grown over the years as my reputation grew and the demand for my services grew and when I discovered that I had more work than time each year. (I would add that a good part of that rise in comfort came about as a result of my recordkeeping habits, which gave me a better picture of how I was really doing and, more importantly, what I should be doing. It is not enough to know how much I earned and how much it cost me to earn that; good data can give lots of insight into a business. See The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping I and The Business of Editing: Recordkeeping II.)

Scheduling remains a problem for the freelancer. We’ve previously discussed the problem; see, for example, Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules and Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations. All I can do is hope that I am making the right business decisions. My data say I am, but the tricky thing about data is that data are ever-changing.

I keep searching for a better solution than saying no, but I have yet to find one. Do you have any suggestions?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 17, 2013

Business of Editing: Workdays & Schedules

Every business has business hours. Some businesses are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In the Internet age, people too often assume that because they can access your website at any time, they can contact you at any time and get a response. Unfortunately, I have seen an increase in the number of clients and prospective clients who pay no attention to day or hour and calculate editing schedules as if an editor works 24/7/365.

When I am hired to edit a project, I make it a point to discuss schedule. This is important for many reasons, the most obvious one being an assessment of whether I can take on a project based on the expected starting date or does it conflict with current commitments.

A “perk” of being self-employed is that I can set my own work hours. The reality is that I am not wholly free to do as I please when it comes to setting my work hours. For example, once I accept a project I commit to meeting the deadlines that accompany it and so my freedom to determine my work hours is curtailed to the extent that I need to accommodate the project schedule. In addition, if I want to remain in business, clients have to have some idea of when they can reach me.

Yet I am a business and I want to be treated as a business. At the same time, I want to make it clear to clients that I — not they — determine my work hours. Consequently, I always have the schedule discussion.

Editors are effective for a limited number of hours a day. Some editors can effectively edit for 5 hours a day, some can do more, some can do less, but the longer the editing workday, the more likely errors will be missed or introduced. Productivity and efficiency are subject to the bell curve phenomenon.

I have set my workday hours to be 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Monday to Friday, excluding holidays. That doesn’t mean I am not in the office at other hours or on holidays (alas, I usually am at my desk much earlier than 10 a.m.); rather, it means that a client can expect to be able to reach me during my business hours.

Having those hours is, of course, less important these days because most communication is done electronically and the expectation is that if you are available, you will respond promptly; if you are not available, you will respond as soon as you become available. But those hours are important — very important — for project scheduling. They establish a standard against which expectations can be measured.

I scrutinize schedules that I receive from clients. I make sure that clients understand that the normal workweek for an editor is 5 hours a day, Monday through Friday, exclusive of holidays. Thus the client who wants a “heavy” edit of a manuscript and wants the first 500 pages returned in one week is told that such a schedule is impractical for a single editor. It would require churn of 20 pages an hour, which is much too high for a “heavy” edit. (For a discussion of light, medium, and heavy editing, see Business of Editing: Light, Medium, Heavy?)

I also make it a point to explain clearly to the client that I cannot require editors to work on weekends in the absence of extra compensation. Too many clients just pull schedules out of the air. (For a discussion about schedules, see Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations.) I want clients to see me as an equal, as a partner, and to reinforce that view, I make sure that I act as an equal, as a partner, as a business. One way I do that is by having established business hours and by making it clear that when I consider a project’s schedule, I weigh the proposed schedule’s demands against my established standard workweek.

The standard workweek is also important when negotiating the rate of pay for a project. The worst bargaining tactics that can be employed are those that have an aura of desperation about them. A client who knows you are desperate for work is less likely to negotiate pay or schedule. But a client who wants you to do the work and knows that you are willing to say no as readily as you will say yes, is more willing to negotiate. Again, this status of negotiation with an equal is one that is gained by making it clear that you are a business, an equal, a partner, and by reinforcing that impression each and every time you speak with a client or potential client.

Even one day matters. A client recently approached me to edit a book. The end date for the project was scheduled for July 31 and the start date was to be July 8. The first chapter had to be edited and submitted by July 12. I replied to the client thanking them for asking my company to undertake this project, but that I had to decline. I would not have an editor available until July 15 and I would need until August 5 to complete the project.

The client came back the next day and after stating they wanted us to do the editing, said they could modify the schedule so that the end date would be August 5 with a July 15 start date, but that they needed the first chapter by July 16. The first chapter was 84 manuscript pages. I pointed out that it was not possible for me to guarantee to meet that deadline, and countered with my own deadline for the first chapter. In my counter, I explained, yet again, that we work a 5-hour day, Monday through Friday and that I could not assume that we would be able to edit the 16 pages an hour that would be required to meet the one-day deadline. Until we actually start on the project, we have no idea of how well or badly written the manuscript is or whether such things as references are in proper format or need to be modified to meet the style. If it is well written and if the references are in proper format, it might be possible to meet the deadline; if not, then more time will be needed. Consequently, any deadline has to accommodate the possibility of problems.

In the end, we got the project with a modified schedule that fit my needs. But we got it because the client negotiated with us as an equal. I was as willing to turn down the project as to accept it. More importantly, when I explained our workweek to the client, it was the umpteenth time they had heard the explanation. I have been consistent over time as to what constitutes our workweek and workday. Similarly, I am consistent about the cost of working weekends and holidays. Even if a client is prepared to pay for such work, I make it clear that doing so is voluntary, not something I can require an editor to do.

The reality is the editors who work for me, and myself, set our own work schedules based on the time we need to devote to a project to meet the deadlines. But those are schedules we set; they are not imposed on us. That may seem like a small difference, but it is not. It is the difference between being regarded by a client as a business and thus as an equal and a partner, or not being regarded as a business but as someone to whom the client can dictate.

The first step toward negotiation equality is to have well-established business hours that you faithfully maintain and repeatedly letting the world know what those hours are.

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