An American Editor

April 9, 2014

The Business of Editing: Finding Editors

Last week I wrote about subcontracting and said it isn’t a difficult thing to do from an administrative perspective (see The Business of Editing: Subcontracting). I did mention the one stumbling block: finding competent editors.

Finding a competent editor to subcontract to is difficult. There are lots of reasons for this difficulty, such as the lack of universal certification with reliable standards. In some subject areas and some countries this is less of a problem than in the United States, but even in those countries and subject areas that have certifying organizations, the problem exists, if for no other reason than most editors lack the certifications that are available.

Don’t misunderstand: neither certification nor lack of certification is proof of an editor’s competence or incompetence. They may be indicators in some cases, but they do not rise to the level of proof.

The problem is that there is nothing that I know of that rises to the level of proof certitude. Editing is still an artisan’s career, which means that the same manuscript will be handled differently by equally competent and professional editors. Too much in editing is other than cast-iron rule for it to be otherwise (e.g., Is since synonymous in all instances with because? Should a serial comma be used even though the style is no serial commas?).

Another unsolvable problem regarding competency is subject matter competency. An editor may be an outstanding editor for historical romance novels yet abysmal as an editor of medical texts.

What it boils down to is that finding the right editor for a particular job is a difficult task that is not made any easier by the ease of entry into the profession.

In my early years, I assumed that an editor who was experienced in the areas in which I worked had to be competent. So if someone’s resume indicated that she had 3 years of medical editing experience, I assumed she must be competent. It took a while for me to grasp that in some cases, there was little correlation between competence and years of experience except, perhaps in the case of many years of experience, which tended to correlate very well.

Alas, even with a strong correlation between subject matter competence and years of experience, there was no assurance that the person would be a competent editor for the particular job(s). Editing is much more than knowing subject matter; editing is also much more than having edited a certain number of manuscripts.

I suppose we can say there are at least three levels of editing competency: no competency, mechanical editing competency, and inspired editing competency. The first, no competency, needs no discussion. It is represented by the person who hangs out a shingle, calls himself a professional editor, gets hired, and not only enrages the client with the poor work but gets the client to rant about editor incompetency to anyone who will listen.

Mechanical editing competency is probably where most editors fall on the editing continuum. They know grammar and the rules, know how to make sure that lists are parallel, tenses aren’t shifting every which way, and can quote the style manual rule that supports whatever editing decision they have made. They are good editors but uninspired.

Inspired editing competency is a label that, I think, can be given to a much smaller number of editors. These editors not only know the rules but know when to ignore them. (Imagine the difference between the editor who insisted on “to go boldly” versus the editor who understood “to boldly go.”) The inspired editor does not rewrite and reframe an author’s manuscript simply because he can; rather, he knows when it is necessary to rewrite for clear communication and when it is necessary to ignore the rules that have governed language for decades, if not for centuries, and leave the manuscript alone. The inspired editor understands the importance of language choices and understands when since is synonymous with because and when it should not be considered synonymous.

This is the problem of subcontracting. Which editor do you seek: the mechanically competent editor or the inspired editor? And how do you find them?

In part, the answer lies in what service you are providing and to whom you are providing it. Someone who works directly with authors on their novels and offers developmental-type services may want the inspired editor; in contrast, the editor who works with packagers whose budgets are small and tight, whose schedules are tight, and whose instructions from their clients are focused on the rules may want the mechanically competent editor.

In part the answer lies in what type of business you are trying to grow. You may already have a sufficient number of one type of editor and want the other type so as to be able to expand your business. In addition, you may be constrained by the type of clients you serve and the pay you can offer, which may dictate the type of editor you seek.

Knowing the type you seek allows you to configure your search methods to meet those needs. The one thing I have determined to be an absolute necessity (unless I know the editor and the editor’s work exceedingly well) is an editing test.

For many years I hired based solely on resume and an “interview.” What I found was that doing so was a crapshoot. Sometimes I struck gold, but most times I struck out. A test should be used to weed out, but not as the sole decision maker. I have found that since I instituted a test, 95% of applicants fade away. They do not return the test at all and so they make the decision for me. Of the 5% who take the test, fewer than 1 in 50 pass it. “Failing” my test does not mean the editor is not a good editor; it means that they will not fit my needs.

Even the editor who “passes” my test, should they be hired, needs some guidance from me, but the goal is to for them to be assigned a project and to run with it without supervision and with my having the confidence to know that I can take their editing and submit it to the client and not worry about a negative reaction.

There is no sure-bet method for finding an editor who fits when looking for subcontractors. There are steps one can take, but nothing is guaranteed — which is why when a good fit is found, it is worth working hard to maintain the relationship. Finding the editor is the hardest part of subcontracting, but it is not an impossible part. It just requires a bit more upfront work, but it can be well worthwhile.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 30, 2013

The Business of Editing: Why a Company?

In my last blog post, The Business of Editing: Domains & E-mail, I discussed having a company domain name and ended by promising a discussion of why I want to be viewed as a company and not as an individual. In this article, I’ll tackle some of those reasons.

In The Business of Editing: Thinking About Invoices, I gave one reason: I like to have the terms of my invoices honored, not dismissed. Dealing with clients on a business-to-business basis seems to make honoring my invoice terms happen with significantly greater regularity than when I was seen — and treated — as merely an individual freelancer (which was when I first started in the business).

Yet there are even more important — to me — reasons why I want to be viewed as a company rather than as an individual.

As I have noted many times in this blog, I like to work on very large projects — much larger than one editor working alone could probably handle, especially if the turnaround time is at all tight. I find them financially more rewarding. It is not unusual for me to receive a project that requires multiple editors. In the olden days, on such projects, I would receive a few chapters to edit and some other editors whom I didn’t know would also each receive a few chapters. The client then expected us to coordinate our stylesheets — but to do so on our own time.

I don’t disagree about the need to coordinate style among multiple editors, but why complicate the situation? Once I began convincing clients that I really was a business and not an individual (I always speak of we, not me, when speaking about Freelance Editorial Services with clients), clients would send me the whole project and I could determine whether I needed additional editors or not.

If I do need additional editors, then I hire them, not the client. And the client has no input on whom I hire (of course, I am responsible for the job and its ultimate quality; if I make bad choices in whom I hire, the client will complain about poor work and not hire my company again). As a company, I do not discuss personnel issues outside the company. This does not mean that I do not tell the client who the other editors are who are working on a project, if I’m asked, because I do tell them. In fact, because I use an online system to which the client has access, the client can see who all the editors are on a project just by logging on to my website. But I remain in control, which is as it should be.

As a company, I often receive multiple projects from a client simultaneously. Clients rely on me to manage the editing aspect of projects and to deliver a quality-edited manuscript on time. This allows me to increase my revenue flow and helps prevent the most dreaded of all freelance problems: a period of no work!

Being viewed as a company also means that I receive inquiries for work that goes beyond copyediting and into other aspects of the editorial/production process. This gives me the opportunity to expand my offerings and to earn additional income, without sacrificing basic copyediting work because of a lack of time to do the work myself.

Because I’m viewed as a company, clients expect me to have multiple editors available. Consequently, the only inquiry I receive these days is “Do you have an editor available for _______?” Clients do not limit me to what I can actually do myself.

Another matter is perhaps even more important than any of the already-mentioned items: privacy.

How many times have you been asked to produce proof that you are a freelancer? It used to be that I would be asked to produce a copy of my tax return or 1099 forms. I have never provided that information, and won’t. I always politely responded that, as a privately held company, such information is not disclosed as a matter of company policy. However, I do say that the company would, I am sure, make an exception if they would provide me the salary information for their employees or a copy of their (i.e., the client’s) tax returns. Once you are accepted as a company, it is assumed that, like all other companies, you work for multiple clients. Proof is not requested.

Ultimately, being viewed as a company rather than as an individual means being treated as the client would treat every other company vendor. This means minimal interference with how I conduct business. It also means that I can have company “policies” that I will not violate, which clients, especially corporate clients, understand because they face the same situation. Here is a good example: Have you ever been told that you must sign an agreement prepared by the prospective client or not get any work from the client? Have you tried negotiating the agreement but been rebuffed?

Over the course of my 30 years as an editor, I have had occasion to be presented with these sign-or-no-work agreements. I have always carefully read them and I have always offered counter terms. The agreements are so one-sided as to be wholly unfair (I remember one that wanted me to file any disputes in a court in a province of India, even though the prospective client had U.S. offices). I make it clear that my company’s policy prevents me from signing such agreements without the changes in terms I indicated. Sometimes the prospective client has said sorry, but either sign or get no work, in which case I opt for no work, but more often they either agree to modify the terms or simply to disregard the agreement as a precondition for work. As a company, and because I always speak of we and not I, the relationship is viewed as more of one between equals and less of one between master and servant.

Being viewed as a company has yet another advantage. It has opened possibilities to me that would be foreclosed if I were viewed as an individual. For example, a client recently consulted with me about doing a joint bid for a very large project. They made it clear that they were asking me for several reasons, including the quality of my company’s work (based on our existing relationship) and because, if our bid were to succeed, they “know” that my company could expand and hire the additional editors needed to complete the work. Whether or not we win the bid is beside the point. The point is that, because I am a company, I was given the opportunity to make the bid. If it was work I wasn’t interested in, I could have declined the opportunity but being seen as a company meant I had the opportunity to bid or not bid. An individual — someone operating as a freelancer rather than a company — would not have been offered the opportunity to bid.

It is important that you not misunderstand the idea of being a company. Being a company doesn’t mean that you must have employees other than yourself. It doesn’t mean that you must use subcontractors. It is very common to have a company of one. But regardless of whether you are a company of one or several, you do need to act, think, and speak in terms of a company and of we rather than I. A company is a second persona, distinct from you the person, and you need to act accordingly — just as if you were employed by someone else, rather than self-employed.

Think of being a company as having opportunities that would otherwise be foreclosed to you.

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