An American Editor

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.

April 27, 2020

On the Basics — Contracts, pro and con

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of questions about contracts between authors and editors (or other editorial freelancers and other prospective clients) — should we use them, what should go into them, how do we implement them, do we need attorneys to create them, and so on and so on.

Plenty of editors say they’ve never needed contracts in their work with individual authors. I’m glad for them; I’ve also had good luck with clients who didn’t have contracts and whose projects went smoothly enough that I didn’t regret not asking them to sign one of my own. For the most part, though, I think it’s smart to have something along the lines of a contract between service provider (editor) and client (author, publisher, organization, publication, company, university, etc.).

The con

One reason, and probably the only valid reason, not to have a contract for working with a new client is that some people are scared off by the very concept of “a contract.” It seems so … legalistic … so serious … so untrusting or suspicious. Asking for or offering a contact apparently comes across as expecting problems to arise at some point in the relationship.

One of the telecommunications companies even uses that perspective by boasting that they don’t require contracts for their services, making it look like an advantage for the consumer over providers that do. The problem? The consumer doesn’t have any protection against rate increases, service reductions and other issues that can arise during the life of the relationship.

The pro

And there’s the concern: Not having a contract with a client means that neither party has any protection in case there’s a problem. It can be worth the effort to explain to a reluctant client that a contract protects both you and the client. It gives you protection against the client not paying, paying very slowly or adding to the project without additional compensation, among other potential issues, but it also protects the client against the freelancer not doing the work as expected. Not that any of us would do that, of course, but it’s something to use to reassure the client.

The process

With the disclaimer that I am not an attorney, the good news is that a contract doesn’t have to be complicated or heavily legalistic. It can take the form of a letter of agreement or a checklist, or even a confirming e-mail message. You can ask the client to sign and return the agreement, or use language like “Unless I hear otherwise by Date X, this will constitute our agreement/contract.”

And speaking of e-mail, a contract nowadays doesn’t have to be on paper. A chain of e-mail messages describing the project and setting out and agreeing to the parameters can be treated as a contract. Just be sure to include language like “As we discussed and agreed, I will do such-and-such for this amount by that date …” — and to save those back-and-forth messages, just in case.

Contract details

What should go into a contract for editing services? Here’s a checklist I use to identify what I’m expected to do (for writing assignments, I include number of interviews and who provides the interview sources).

Genre

Scope (topic and length)

Fee or rate (per hour, word, page, project, etc.)

Definition of page

Payment policy and timing

Deadline(s)

Number of passes

Number of revisions (for writing projects)

Fee or rate for additional work beyond original scope

Expenses

Mediation jurisdiction if any problems

What you don’t need or should try not to agree to

One reason contract questions come up is the increasing tendency of clients to include draconian terms in current contracts, especially businesses and companies that aren’t used to working with freelance editors. The most-common one is expecting the freelancer or independent contractor to have liability insurance. Something like errors and omissions coverage might make sense for an investigative journalist, but editors rarely need something like liability coverage. That kind of policy is usually intended for situations where the contractor works onsite at the client’s office or property, uses heavy equipment on the client’s behalf or project, has subcontractors, and otherwise is likely to have access to the client’s information or property.

Accepting liability for your work is especially an issue for writers, editors and even proofreaders, because other people are likely to change (or not accept) what you submit. The publication process is fluid and involves people we never meet; even printers/production people have been known to introduce changes — and, unintentionally, errors — after an editor or proofreader signs off and gets paid for our role. We can’t be responsible for what happens made after we finish our part of the project.

Pointing out that you are a sole proprietor who works from home and doesn’t use heavy equipment or subcontractors can help carry the day when you’re asked to provide liability insurance to a client. If they still insist, add the cost to your contract and include language to the effect that you aren’t responsible for any changes made to your version of the material.

Authors new to the publishing process also might ask you to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). These are usually benign and more valuable as assurance for an author that an editor won’t steal their precious words for some reason than for any other reason; they generally commit you to not telling the world all about the author’s work, or perhaps that you worked on their manuscript. If you’d rather not sign an NDA, you could point out that any editor who would violate an author’s trust in such a way wouldn’t stay in business for very long.

What you don’t want to sign is a non-compete agreement that limits how you can use your skills with new clients in the future, even the near future. Signing such an agreement can lock you out of doing similar work for similar (or any!) clients, which would interfere with your ability to pursue your career or business.

Protecting yourself

You might not need a formal contract of your own that’s packed with dense, incomprehensible legalese, but you at least need someone with legal knowledge to rely on when a prospective client offers a contract that seems impenetrable. It’s one thing to say, “Read any contract before signing it.” It’s another to actually read and understand some of these documents.

My attorney is an old friend from back in high school whose practice is in intellectual property, copyright and contracts. I have her look over any contract or NDA that I’m asked to sign; we swap services, but it would be worth whatever she would charge if I were paying for her help. If you don’t know anyone who would be willing to review contracts for you, check with your local bar association or chapter of Lawyers for the Arts; some professional organizations also have legal services where one consultation is free, or there’s a substantial discount on an initial request. Such reviews shouldn’t cost much, and any expense is deductible at tax time.

For a template or boilerplate language, look to professional organizations and online resources like LegalZoom. Pick one and tailor it to your needs and each project.

The ideal resource

You don’t have to take my word for any of this, and you can get a lot more advice from colleagues Dick Margulis and Karin Cather from their book, The Paper It’s Written On: Defining Your Relationship with an Editing Client. That’s a must-have for every editor’s bookcase — and well worth having no matter what kind of editorial or publishing work you do.

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, which was founded by Rich Adin. 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 (still) planned this year for October 2–4 in Baltimore, MD. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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