KOK Edit: Your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM)
KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf

Monday, March 05, 2012

How Do You Know When You Know Enough?

There are only a few certifications available for editors, such as those offered by the Editors' Association of Canada and the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences, and many academic degree programs and courses are out there, lots of them offered by profession-related associations. But there are no US national licensing boards for editors, and editing itself is still largely learned on the job, often as sort of an apprenticeship. And editing is a solitary occupation; we editors don't usually sit around in groups and edit, unless we're members of one of the rapidly disappearing newsroom copy desks. All of that can make it hard for individual editors to judge their own skill levels. Chris Galan asked about this issue recently on the private e-mail list of the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). She received some very helpful responses, which I'm sharing here with the permission of everyone quoted.

Chris wrote:

I joined EFA because ... I've been an aspiring novelist and have judged writing contests (which included editing) for seven years. Friends of mine later asked me to edit their [manuscripts], and I enjoyed the work so much (and they were so pleased with the outcome) [that] I wanted to know more, thinking I might be able to earn extra money editing, etc.

My problem is, how do I judge how good I am? That I know enough to be a professional at it? I want to give great quality, but I feel so uneducated because I'm 99% self-taught. I've [taken workshops], but don't want to go back to college if I can help it.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter replied:

The flip answer ... is that we never know enough; there's always something new to learn, and I don't think it's possible to either stop learning or draw a line in the sand for "enough." Language evolves, usage changes, styles vary. Essentially, I don't think there's any one way to reassure ourselves about being good enough. We keep plugging away, doing our best, interacting with colleagues, and keeping our ears and eyes open for trends and new info. ...

You can rely on client feedback. You can take self-editing tests, or tests from prospective clients. You could take a grammar refresher course, and maybe something like the EFA's editing classes. Interacting with colleagues here is helpful; so is participating in the [Copyediting-L e-mail list] and subscribing to things like Copyediting newsletter.

Patrick Inman replied:

Chris—I agree with everything Ruth told you.

At least a few people have happily paid you for writing, providing feedback on writing, and editing. Payments from clients, the state of their writing before and after we work with it, and the referrals they send us are the best external measures any of us has of "Do I know enough?"

Better questions, and the beginnings of answers:

  • How do I know what kind of editorial work I'm best at?
  • How can I market myself?
  • How can I deliver what I promise?
  • How can I learn on the job without disappointing clients or myself or undercharging?
Most editors, copy editors, proofreaders, researchers, ghost writers, fact checkers, copy writers, indexers, etc. start out learning their skills on a job or in school and begin editorial work either as part of a regular job or by freelancing for people we already knew. You started editing friends' manuscripts, and both you and they were pleased with the results. Where do you go from there?

List those jobs you did for friends side by side and categorize them: Genre? Length? State of development? Number of meetings with the author? Face-to-face or long distance? Number of rounds of editing? Fee? Relationship to writer? Etc. Also categorize the work you did in the course of each job. (For example, you may have helped the writer decide the direction of the book, article, or story; structured a ms. to meet the author's goal; queried gaps in continuity or the development of an argument or plot; cleaned up paragraphs, sometimes resequencing them; eliminated redundant passages; corrected grammar and spelling and queried word choice; conformed a ms. to a style sheet; etc.)

That list will help you see patterns. Advertise for work that fits those patterns, and for clients whose needs resemble those of your friends. Ask your former clients (including the sponsors of those writing contests you were asked to judge) to write recommendations for you for LinkedIn or for your web site. Begin working in a niche you feel some mastery in, take on jobs that won't take too long, charge low on the first job, raise your rates a little after every successful gig.

Laurie Lewis's book What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelancers and Consultants can help you with rate-setting. The key is taking on small jobs to start with, inching your rate up to find the market rate. Avoid big jobs until you have more confidence in your abilities, in your time estimation and time management tools, and in your ability to negotiate and obtain payment of a fee you can make a living on. A job you spend 5–30 hours on that you learn from and decide you were underpaid for or did not perform up to the standard you are shooting for is a problem you can learn from. A job you spend 5 days to 3 months on with one of those outcomes can be disastrous for you and possibly for your client.

When you are offered large jobs, try and break them into pieces that take no more than a week to complete where both you and the client can evaluate the results, and arrange for regular payment no less frequently than monthly, not a lump sum. (When I say "a week," I really mean at most 20 hours in one calendar week or 30–40 hours spread over 2 weeks to a month, assuming you have at least one other gig or a day job, and that work for any one client has to be slotted in and that you can do regular work each week on each job, so neither eagerness nor procrastination forces the hours higher than you can afford in a single week. The key is not to invest too much time total or in any one week on a job you have doubts about or where there is any doubt about timely payment in full.)

When you add a new genre or editing level to your repertoire, try and start small in that new area, giving yourself the safety provided by short-term commitments while you're learning it.

Try and ensure you reach an agreement with each client before you start work on each job on the services the client is paying you for, on your fee, and on the obligations and deadlines of both parties. Avoiding misunderstandings saves you time and effort you won't be paid for. An agreement needn't be a complex contract, but it should be in writing. After you hash things out with the client, send a concise e-mail to which the client can reply, "Yes, I will pay you as specified for the work specified." Communications will go better if you each have a clear work plan to refer to.

If you screw up, own up to it, fix it, and don't accept payment for time lost to your errors or for work you didn't do. If the client proves unwilling to pay—and some will even if you do great work—make a reasonable effort at collection, then write them off. Take the time to review your communications with them to determine if possible how to avoid that sort of client in the future.

Some jobs will go badly. Keeping jobs small to start with limits your disappointments, wasted time, and wasted investment.

Go to a local EFA chapter meeting and ask fellow editors what market niches they work in and how they found them. Share your marketing plan (asking clients to pass your card or website address along is fundamental), and you'll find colleagues will share their own experiences you can learn from.

It sounds like you are already doing manuscript editing in fiction, working directly with writers either before or after the author finds an agent or begins submission to prospective publishers. Fiction is not my usual niche. The one book I'd recommend to read in that area is Thomas McCormack's The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and The Novelist: A Book for Writers, Teachers, Publishers, and Anyone Else Devoted to Fiction, because he is so good at explaining what makes someone a good editor for a particular manuscript. Also, Gerald Gross's Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know About What Editors Do (3rd edition, 1993) is great on the different sensibilities required by different genres.

Ally Peltier replied:

It sounds like Chris is doing developmental editing [DE], so I'm going to answer based on that assumption. It's more difficult to gauge where your skills are with DE than with copyediting or proofreading—in the latter types of editing, things are less subjective and skills are a little more straightforward. As other listmates have suggested, there are classes, tests, etc. that will show you where you are on the skill spectrum and help you improve. But for DE? There are few such tests and courses.

I really like what Pat said about trying to identify how you can learn on the job without disappointing clients, and also the books suggested. The rest really is on-the-job training. The more you edit, the better you'll get at it, so if you can charge some clients and keep practicing on friends in between, that's one approach that can be practically helpful and also bolster confidence, which is pretty important when you're trying to convince someone to pay you to work for them!

Also, I think this is where networking with more experienced editors comes into play—one of the most important ways I learned to edit books was basically an apprenticeship. I worked under two senior editors and as part of a team at Simon & Schuster. In the beginning, my boss had me read her edits as I photocopied them to mail to authors. Then she started asking me to write up notes and a report so we could discuss. Then she actually started giving me manuscripts that had already been edited once or twice and had me do a second or third pass, which we would review and discuss before sending to the author. Finally, when she trusted me, she started letting me edit certain manuscripts myself. And by that time, I was acquiring and inheriting my own projects to edit as well. All throughout this process, I also read submissions and wrote reader's reports to help her and other editors select which submissions to consider, which isn't editing but which trains the way you think about a piece in terms of its strength and marketability. And I read as many of the bestselling books as I could, analyzing them, paying attention to what critics said and what other editors said in-house.

Since then, I occasionally have had the opportunity to see what other editors are doing. I've built relationships with other [developmental editors] and will sometimes swap edited manuscripts or editorial letters to see how my process stacks up against others'. If I come across sample edits online, I read them. (Remember that famous series of editor–author exchanges making the rounds a while back?) I adjust when I feel like I've learned a good new technique or when I see a new approach that I think will benefit my clients. I also found that participating in a writing critique group gave me a lot of practice in identifying problems and discussing them—but of course, I also write fiction, which is the main reason for joining such a group. If you aren't a writer, it doesn't make sense to do something like that just to practice editing, but I will say that I think it's super beneficial for editors to have their own work (could be anything) edited from time to time as a reminder of what it's like being on the receiving end of criticism.

One thing I've considered recently is the value of fiction writing courses. I studied [creative writing] at both undergrad and graduate level, and it absolutely informs how I edit a novel. You're learning in a slightly different way, but I do think it's valuable training for an editor because you're learning how to construct different types of stories, how to develop authentic and believable characters, how to use description to set a tone or foreshadow events, etc., and you want to be able to show your clients how to improve their work when you identify a problem. Better than fiction writing, I've come across a couple of fiction courses focused on revising, and these seem like good potential resources for polishing up old or picking up new editing techniques. I will probably try one in 2012.



Carolyn Haley said...

Great article. Thanks for posting!

A reference book I'd like to throw into the ring is Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. Although it is aimed at short story writers and novelists, it dissects the story-telling process so thoroughly and clearly that it informs editors in what to look for and how to discuss and correct it.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Thanks so much for that recommendation, Carolyn. I respect your opinion a great deal on what's a good reference work, especially because you're both an author and an editor, so I'll be adding that book to the Copyeditors' Knowledge Base.

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