An American Editor

May 13, 2015

It’s Fundamental & Professional, Too

One of the more widely disseminated and read essays on An American Editor in recent times was “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor” in which I stated that one sign of an unprofessional editor is inflexibility. As we all are aware, there are other makings, too. Some are more unprofessional than others, but all contribute to making an editor unprofessional.

Today’s makings are not only small signs of unprofessionalism, but they are contrary to fundamental principles of good business. Editing is a business, at least for me. I know that for some editors, editing is a part-time, second income job intended to bring in enough money to pay for next year’s vacation or a new car, but not intended to be the primary source for money to keep the family fed, clothed, and sheltered. But that’s not me.

I run my editing service as if it were Apple or Microsoft or General Motors — to bring in new clients and new projects, to be profitable, to earn for me a generous income. Consequently, I approach decisions that affect my business with all the care and caution that I can.

Fundamental to my “business plan” is to be seen as a professional editor. Clients may not like an editing decision I make, but there is never a doubt that I am professional. I can support my decisions if asked, and if I encounter a problem that will affect schedule, I address it head on and quickly — I do not wait for a manageable problem to become unmanageable before tackling it.

Which brings me to today’s makings of an unprofessional editor: replying to emails and answering the telephone.

Simmering in my thoughts these past few weeks have been my dealings with a couple of colleagues — or perhaps I should say “lack of dealings.” The quickest way to chase away a client is to ignore the client; similarly, the quickest way to lose an opportunity is to not grasp it when offered.

I had inquiries from a couple of potential clients for some good specialty work. By “good” I mean above the usual pay and for reliable clients. But the work was outside what I do; I have been at this long enough (31 years) and I’m old enough (“old” covers it) that I limit what I am willing to do and the types of clients for whom I am willing to work. So when these offers came in, I decided to send the clients elsewhere.

But when I send a client elsewhere, I usually contact the person to whom I want to send the client to make sure she is interested in the job and has the time to do it to meet the client’s schedule. My first contact attempt is by telephone, my second is by email — there is no third attempt.

The First Attempt: Telephone

When I telephone, I call during “normal” business hours; that is, during those hours that most of us consider business hours. I realize that my business hours do not match your business hours, and that is fine, but how about a return telephone call sometime this century? And that’s a sign that maybe I am not contacting a professional.

Every business owner understands, or should understand, that returning a telephone call is important if you want to keep current clients and gain new clients. There are several aspects to this “problem,” but two to focus on are these: (1) the call should be returned within a reasonable time, which in today’s world means no more than a few hours, and the quicker the better, and (2) you don’t return a telephone call by sending a text message or an email.

As for the reasonable time for returning a call, it strikes me that there is something amiss in one’s priorities when, instead of either answering the call or returning it within a short time, you respond to queries that aren’t directed specifically to you or that aren’t directly about either a job you are doing or want to do on lists like LinkedIn or make new posts on Twitter or Facebook. I know that when I call a colleague and leave a message that says I need to talk to her about a job but before I get a response I see her post messages in a forum, I lose interest in sending work to her. I wonder about her priorities.

If I have taken the time to telephone, does it not indicate that I wish to speak with you, not exchange emails or text messages? Explaining about a job or a client goes much faster by telephone than by texting, yet colleagues respond to telephone calls by texting.

I think not answering the telephone, not promptly returning a telephone call, and responding by texting/email rather than calling are all indications of a lack of professionalism. If there is a reason why you could not respond either quickly or by telephone, then an apology-explanation is appropriate.

Remember this: Editing is a person-to-person business that requires people skills. Being a good editor is not sufficient to be successful; interpersonal skills are important. Consequently, courtesy and good business sense as regards people are keys and indicators of professionalism. Do you like it when your doctor or your plumber doesn’t return your telephone call? How does it make you feel? Does it make you think they value you as a client?

The Second Attempt: Email

If time passes and I do not get a return call, I attempt contact by email. Sometimes I send an email immediately after leaving a voice message in which I ask the colleague to call me as soon as possible as I have a job to discuss with her. The email specifically asks for a telephone call.

I usually get a response — eventually and by email. By this time, I have decided not to pass the job on to this colleague because she didn’t respond as asked and offered no explanation for failing to do so. (There is also the question of how prompt her response was.)

This, too, is a business fundamental. When a client indicates a response method preference, a good businessperson adheres to that preference. It does not matter whether the client’s reason is silly or for national security — it is fundamental that it is the client who is in charge at this stage and the last thing that should be done is irritate the client.

I think not responding in the manner requested is an indication that the editor believes she is more important than the client, which bodes ill for the future business relationship. As I said earlier, courtesy and good business sense as regards people are keys and indicators of professionalism. Ignoring client requests and not responding promptly, in the absence of apology and explanation, is worrisome. How will my manuscript be treated if I’m treated as if my preferences matter naught?

The Professional Editor…

The professional editor cares about the impression she is making. She knows that everything she does communicates to her client (or potential client) her professionalism (or lack thereof). Most of us want to be viewed as professional. Consequently, we need to think about how we handle the mundane aspects of our business — are we communicating professionalism or giving signs of unprofessionalism?

We spend a lot of time and effort creating our presentation to the outside world — making sure our email signature is just right, that our website looks professional, that our forum messages demonstrate professionalism — so it seems foolish to let those efforts be undermined the little things.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays —

April 29, 2015

So, How Much Am I Worth?

I recently wrote about rate charts and how I think it is a disservice to professional editors for an organization like the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) to publish such charts publicly (see “Business of Editing: The Quest for Rate Charts“). That got me wondering: How much am I worth as an editor?

In my essay, “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor,” I discussed inflexibility as a key sign of an unprofessional editor. That essay, combined with the rate charts essay, got me wondering: If I am inflexible about my fees, am I on the road to unprofessionalism?

Why the sudden philosophical thinking? This morning (i.e., Saturday morning my designated/scheduled time to write my AAE essay) I had planned to write on a different topic, one I was struggling with, when my e-mail box started chiming — ding! ding! ding! ding! ding! — alerting me to five incoming emails. I glanced over to my inbox and there they were: five offers for (relatively) small editing jobs (range: 700 to 1500 manuscript pages).

(Those are small jobs for me. This past week, for example, I began working on a chapter that runs nearly 500 manuscript pages and has 1,827 references — not a single one of which was in the correct format/style for this book. [The book has more than 130 chapters.] That’s 219 pages of incorrect references. EditTools came to the rescue. The Wildcard macro let me reformat the author names and the cite information [year, volume, pages] in less than 15 minutes [see “The Business of Editing: Wildcarding for Dollars“]; the Journals macro took a bit longer, a little more than 3 hours, to correct all but a handful of references [see “The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars“]. The Journals macro took so long because the dataset contains more than 78,000 entries. I guesstimate that the two macros saved me about 25 hours of drudgery of removing periods from author names, reversing author names, etc.)

Each of the five jobs had problems. One, for example, was authored by a group of scientists who are not native English speakers/writers and it required a 14-day turnaround. Another required reformatting of hundreds of references in a 10-day schedule. A third required a “light” edit but had a 23-day schedule. And so it went.

The question I needed to answer for each project was: How much am I worth as an editor? (I can make the calculation because I know what my required effective hourly rate is. Not knowing that would make any calculation nothing more than a wild guess. To calculate your required effective hourly rate, see the “What to Charge” series.) Once I answered that question, I had to decide whether there was any flexibility in my worth. In other words, if I quote the client $5 per manuscript page and the client counters with $2 per page, do I stand firm or do I negotiate down? That’s really the rub, the “down.”

If I have decided I am worth $5 per page, but am willing to negotiate down to $3, am I really worth $5? Was I ever worth $5 if I am willing to accept $3. Of course, this is project specific because for one project I may only be worth $3 whereas for another project I may well be worth $5, but that doesn’t really distract from the idea that if I ask for $5 on a particular project and negotiate down to $3, perhaps I was never worth the $5 I originally asked for.

Some would respond that you are worth whatever the market will bear and you will accept, an amount that can change daily or even hourly. But that makes me a commodity, which is the effect of bidding. Besides, how smart is it to bid against one’s self, which is the problem with websites that ask you to bid on editing work. Do I really want to be seen as a commodity?

If I remain firm on my price — telling the client this is my nonnegotiable price for editing project X — does that move me down the road toward unprofessionalism? Or is unprofessionalism limited to editing, excluding pricing? Does price firmness send a message? If it does, is it a meaningful message in the sense that it will be recognized by the recipient and affect the recipient’s behavior?

In the end, I think firm pricing is the sign of professionalism rather than unprofessionalism. Editors fool themselves when they believe that negotiating downward has any positive side for them; it certainly does have a positive side for the client, but not for the editor.

If I was worth $5 a page initially, I will never be worth less than $5. My price reflects the demands of the client, my required effective hourly rate, my experience, my expertise, my skills. None of those things change downward between the time I give my price and the time of the client’s counteroffer.

So, how much am I worth as an editor? The answer depends on who is giving the answer. To the client whose book I helped transform into a gazillion-copy bestseller, I may be worth $200 an hour. To the packager who is used to hiring local editors for 50 cents an hour, I may be worth no more than $10 an hour. But none of these valuations matter if I haven’t a sense of what I am worth as an editor and if I don’t stand firm on that worth. I am always willing to charge more; I am  never willing to charge less.

Professional editors are able to provide professional-level service because they are adequately compensated. They earn enough that they can afford to occasionally not earn enough on a project. Adequate compensation ensures that the editor has the time to think and review; there is no need to speed up the editing process so that the editor can make room for the next project in hopes that the next project will mean better compensation.

Inadequate compensation is part of the problem of unprofessionalism. No matter how you slice the earnings pie, you still need to earn the whole pie to pay your living costs. The thinner the slices, the more of them you need to create a whole pie — the lower you see your worth, the lower you are willing to negotiate, the more projects you need to squeeze into the set amount of editing time to create the “whole pie.”

Lower worth also means less ability to say no, to turn work and clients away, which means less control over your own business. People give the advice that you should have so many months of savings so that you can manage through a dry spell or have the ability to say no to a project/client you don’t want. That is good advice, but only half of the advice needed. The other half is that you need to know your worth and not bid against yourself.

If a client’s only concern is cost, then the client is not really looking for skilled editing; the client is looking for the ability to say the project was edited, regardless of editing quality. There is often a penalty to pay for approaching a skilled craft like editing with that view. Of course, the benefit to me is that my worth goes up when I have to reedit poorly edited material.

Ultimately, the keys to the answer to the question “So, how much am I worth as an editor?” are these: knowing your required effective hourly rate; ignoring rate charts that provide no link to reality (because they fail to disclose the underlying data and/or fail to define terms) and that act as a brake on your earning ability; and refusing to bid against yourself by standing firm on your price (which assumes that you have an articulable basis for your price). This is a sign of a professional and successful editor.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays:

April 1, 2015

The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor

I like to think that all of my colleagues are professionals. I take pride in my editing career and in my skills as an editor. Thus, when confronted with editorial rigidity, I shudder and think “there goes an unprofessional editor.”

What brings this to mind are posts in another forum in which a “professional” editor declared that using a comma before “and” (as in a serial [Oxford] comma) is always wrong and that the very first thing the editor does is search for those commas to delete them. Another editor stated that she refuses to work with authors who are unwilling to accept as gospel her punctuation decisions, including removal of that pesky comma.

If you ask editors with opinions such as these the basis for their position, it usually boils down to “that’s the rule and rules are rules, made to be adhered to, not broken!” Grammatical rigidity is not, in my book, the sign of a professional editor.

First, think about the rule of no serial commas. If strictly applied, it would be “I thank my parents, John Jones and God,” which is easily interpreted as Jones and God being the parents. Perhaps Jones and God are the parents but what if they are not? What if the thank you was supposed to be “I thank my parents, John Jones, and God,” which is interpretable as “my parents and also Jones and God.” The obvious point is that rigidity in application of editorial rules does not always produce the correct textual meaning.

Second, think about the rules themselves. It is not possible to ascribe them immortality. Language changes, especially English, perhaps French less so thanks to its language academy, and if language changes but the rules do not, we get the awkward constructions that often occur when the “rule” against splitting infinitives or the “rule” prohibiting ending a sentence with a preposition is arbitrarily applied.

Of course, the easy response is that it is today’s rules that are applied today, not yesterday’s rules. But how did yesterday’s rules become yesterday’s rules? Some professional editor had to show flexibility; in the absence of such flexibility no one would have been exposed to the change that is today.

There are many problems with inflexible editors, that is, editors who apply rules so rigidly it is hard to understand what the role of the editor is. Inflexible editors are like computer macros — they see something that fits the pattern and assume that they have the cure. Professional editors use tracking because we know that someone else (usually the author) may well have a different opinion and want to undo the changes we made.

Unprofessional editors are a problem for professional editors because they inspire their clients to complain loudly in public forums about poor editing and how much better it would have been had the client self-edited. They are a problem because they tend to cheapen the value of editing.

More importantly, unprofessional editors loudly proclaim what they are doing and thus influence other editors. There is nothing more heartbreaking as an editor to see another editor emulate an unprofessional editor, thinking that is the correct path to take.

There are lots of roads that will lead one down the path of unprofessionalism. Being unethical in one’s dealings with clients and colleagues is certainly such a road. But the more common road is rigidity in thinking and in applying “rules.” I think this road is also the more dangerous for the editorial profession.

How many times has an author posted a comment saying “I used to hire editors until I found that they were all bad” and then listing the reasons why they were bad editors, with a common one being inflexible thinking and rigid application of “rules.”

When I speak with these editors, I often ask if they understand how the “rules” came into being, what they represent, and how evolving language requires flexibility. I find that I am always disappointed in the responses. If I ask which rule book they are following, and then ask why they are not following a different rule book, the response is usually one that asks “Are you crazy? Everyone knows that the book I follow is the book to follow!”

We’ve discussed this before (see, e.g., “Dealing with Editor’s Bias,” “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line,” “On Language: Are There Rules?,” and “What Do Editors Forget Most Often?“). The style guides and grammar books and usage books change. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is in its 16th edition. What would be the need for 16 revisions if language, usage, and grammar didn’t change over time?

If the guides we use need to show flexibility, shouldn’t the editor who uses the guides also show some flexibility? Isn’t flexibility a key attribute of professionalism? Isn’t the ultimate test that the reader understands the author’s message?

I may be parochial in my thinking, but I find it difficult to comprehend how the application of a “rule” either furthers in all instances a reader’s understanding of an author’s message or makes the editor anything more than a robot. To me, the difference between a professional and an unprofessional editor is the editor’s decision making: The unprofessional editor does not need to make editorial decisions because those decisions have already been made for him; the editor only needs to apply them mechanically. The professional editor, however, needs to know the “rule” and needs to make the decision, in each instance, whether to apply or not apply the “rule.” The professional editor needs to make editorial decisions.

I make hundreds of editorial decisions in every project and I am prepared to defend my decisions. I let guides guide me, acting as advisors to inform my decision-making process. I do not let guides be the decision maker; that is what I am being paid to do — to make editorial decisions.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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