An American Editor

December 17, 2014

The Practical Editor: Triaging Your Time and Editing

Triaging Your Time and Editing

by Erin Brenner

Editing at the end of the year can be challenging. We struggle to motivate ourselves. The days are shorter and colder (for some of us, anyway), encouraging us to stay in bed for just five more minutes.

We struggle, too, to fit the work into our available time. There are holiday activities crowding our schedules, and we want to go have fun. As freelancers we’re more tempted to do so. After all, the boss won’t mind, right?

Then there are the year-end activities associated with running our own businesses. Understanding how well we did this year and planning for next year take time, but the health of our business depends on them.

Our needs aside, though, there’s another problem. Many of our clients are in a mad rush to finish everything by December 31. What is it about the end of the year that makes us want to tidy everything up and be finished? Even clients we don’t work with regularly might pop up because another editor they depend on is on vacation.

Suddenly we have more work than we can reasonably edit in the usual timeframe, never mind the client’s shortened deadline. It’s time to triage, both our schedules and the client’s work, the latter with the client’s consent, of course.

Triage Your Schedule

There’s no getting around the fact that there are more demands on our time come November and December. When practical, the best course is to plan ahead of time how many hours you can reasonably work in the last two months of the year. What kind of time off do you need or want to take care of year-end business tasks and your personal life?

To maintain your sanity, build downtime into your schedule. Do something you enjoy. If decorating a tree gives you life, prioritize it. Schedule it if you have to, and don’t let it be taken from you. Even if it’s just one special activity, do it. It will make the busyness easier to handle.

Which leads us to the flip side: Do you need that extra work coming your way? Expenses rise at this time of year, and January can be a slow month. Review your expenses and make a conscious decision about how much extra work you need to reach your financial goal. This will make it easier to tell some clients no later.

Also consider whether you need to take the extra work or not. Will the client make that last-minute work a nightmare? Will they appreciate your efforts later? Sure, the extra money is nice, but if the wolf isn’t at the door, are you just teaching bad clients to disrespect your time? Or do you need to do the work because the client will walk away if you don’t, and you need that client?

Everyone has different needs. Take a moment to define yours and how you can best balance those.

Triage the Editing

Before you jump into a manuscript, determined to edit it as fast as you can, make a plan. Triaging is about consciously deciding what you will edit and what you won’t in order to meet a looming deadline.

Discuss with your client first how you will triage. If this is an ongoing client, you can generalize the triage list enough so you can use it whenever the situation calls for it. Always discuss your list with the client beforehand, however. The client has a right to know what kind of edit they’re paying for.

Your client may need educating, as well, on why some edits are more important than others. Clarity outweighs style every time, at least for the reader. Be willing to negotiate, too. Sometimes whether you cap an industry term is all a client’s boss cares about. Your client should know the politics of their situation and what needs to be done to keep everyone happy.

When triaging, try to take at least a few minutes to skim the document. Does anything jump out at you as a particular problem? Anything you can safely ignore? For example, perhaps you can meet the deadline if the author checks their own math. While you’re skimming, ensure sentences start with a capital letter and end with the appropriate punctuation.

Use your time-saving tools to the max. Run those macros, use shortcuts, and apply anything else that saves time. Don’t forget to spell-check; let the software catch as many spelling mistakes for you as it can.

Once you’re ready to edit, keep your prioritized list at the front of your mind. Accuracy and clarity go to the top of the list. A missing serial comma will be the least of your worries if the author has a giant hole in the argument.

If you’re responsible for legal concerns, such as trademark use, plagiarism, and libel, keep those high on your list as well.

Fix awkward constructions and duplicate words. If there is easy-to-spot, easy-to-fix wordiness, fix it. If you start to get bogged, though, and the meaning is clear, leave the wordiness.

Correct egregious errors in word choice, but leave the debatable ones alone.

Check names and headlines. Both of these things will jump out at skimmers, and there’s never a good time to misspell someone’s name.

Fix anything that will jump out at readers.

If you distinguish between a light, medium, and heavy copyedit, you can triage at those different levels, as well. Go through your usual edit list and prioritize those items that affect accuracy, clarity, readability, and legal concerns.

Remember the purpose of triaging: doing the best edit you can in too-short of a time. Prioritize your time and your editing, and you’ll preserve your sanity for another day.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

August 25, 2010

Time Goes By and is Lost

A common discussion topic among self-employed editors is “What can I do to increase my income?” As with everything in life, one has to begin by examining one’s current situation in detail. Only by understanding where I am can I determine how and where to go. Freelance editors often neglect the most fundamental aspects of running a successful business, of which time management is the most fundamental fundamental. Learning how you spend your time during the workday can be revelatory.

How much time do you spend each day on various activities? Do you really know how much time you spend working? Surfing the Internet? Answering questions at LinkedIn? On the telephone? Twittering? Perusing and updating Facebook? Actually editing? Few of us really do know and fewer still apply time management techniques to our workday.

Yet time management is fundamental to maintaining or improving our income or gaining more free time for the pleasurable things in life that aren’t work related. There are lots of time-tracking software programs available, ranging in price from free to very expensive. I personally use, and have used for 10+ years, Timeless Time & Expense from MAG Softwrx (TT&E). It’s expensive these days ($79), but I haven’t found a less-expensive program that tracks time as this program does. TT&E has a lot of features that I don’t use, such as billing, but I like the way it keeps track of how I spend my day.

Whatever program you use, it should be easy to start and stop timing activities; it should be capable of tracking multiple activities simultaneously; it should cumulate the time; and it should be very easy to switch between activities. For me, TT&E fits the bill, but I am interested in learning of other programs that work similarly but cost less.

Anyway, to move back to the topic at hand, knowing how you spend your workday is important. You should track your time over a minimum of 2 weeks before drawing any conclusions so that you can see a pattern. If every day but 1 day you spent 3 hours surfing the Internet and on that 1 day you spent only 1 hour, your pattern is to spend 3 hours, not 1 hour. If the amount of time varies each day, figure out the average and use that number in your evaluation.

You also need to track how many new projects or clients — or even inquiries — were generated by the time you spent on various activities. If you average 3 hours a day surfing and socializing on the Internet but got no work or inquiries, perhaps 3 hours a day is too much time to devote to the Internet. Yes, I know that sometimes one doesn’t see results from one’s efforts for months, which is why I wouldn’t suggest stopping surfing altogether. But the fact that I might win the lottery some day doesn’t justify continuing to spend large sums of money on lottery tickets; perhaps a nominal sum, but not a large sum, and the same rationale applies to time spent on activities that are tenuously related to work.

The key is to associate activities during your workday with work and productivity. It doesn’t mean no water-cooler time; it means managing water-cooler time. Managing time means allocating a limited resource to the most productive endeavors; not abandoning those endeavors that we like as distractions, just limiting them. It’s the same concept as that which lies behind the use of macros when editing. I use EditTools — and spent the money and time to develop EditTools — because cold, hard analysis demonstrated the clear financial benefit to me of using these macros in my daily editing work. Similar analysis commanded the purchase and use of Editorium macros and PerfectIt (see the earlier articles on The 3 Stages of Copyediting for a discussion of Editorium, EditTools, and PerfectIt macros). Every second of my workday is precious because I can’t ever retrieve past time and reuse it.

To repeat: The first step for a freelance editor in figuring out how to improve her income is to discover how she spends time during the workday. Once the editor has that information, the editor can begin to figure out what changes need to be made and work on how to make her work time more efficient and productive. Every editor can reach their income goals by applying sound business practices to their business.

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