This guest post was written by my colleague Carolyn Haley, a talented editor and author. She last wrote a post here in 2011. Today she provides helpful insights for editors who suspect a particular project needs more editorial work than the author or other client requested.
Most independent editors, somewhere over the course of their careers, find themselves stuck with a project that needs way more work than they were hired to do. Much angst and frustration usually result, and sometimes damaged client relations.
How to fix this is a two-part equation. The first part is actually the second part: how to avoid a rerun in the future. That boils down to learning what kind of editorial work you are best suited for and how to acquire it, along with learning how to see undesirable projects coming and heading them off at the pass. Such foresight takes experience, starting with savvy communication with your prospects, and performing sample edits before you accept a job.
The real first part is getting through a project already on your desk that has expanded—or exploded—and still ending up with a happy client. The internal conflict often arises from editorial integrity—in other words, the personal need, compounded by the professional drive, to “fix” a poorly written work that seems doomed to publishing failure.
What’s Good Enough?
It’s not always possible to recast the contract. In those cases, your choice comes down to adapting to the changed circumstances or bailing out.
Bailing out is rarely desirable, leaving coping the better plan. To do so, you must spend some time thinking about broader issues. For example, what does “fix” or “make it right” mean? And what guarantee is there that any two editorial professionals are going to have the same understanding of what “right” is?
Most editors are uncomfortable working with subpar writing, at least when we do not have control and/or the remuneration to compensate for the labor and stress. As editors we are charged with helping authors make their work the best it can be, but who gives us the authority to deem that it’s good enough—or isn’t?
Is it more important to protect authors from making fools of themselves, or to accept that other parties are the ultimate arbiters of what’s “good enough” and just provide the service requested?
I had to resolve this in my conscience and business strategy early on. I make my living editing mainly slush-pile-quality material. Occasionally something excellent comes along, but for the most part I get work that needs developmental editing—if not a full rewrite—for which I’m hired only for copyediting. (Sometimes I can talk clients up a notch but that’s the exception, not the rule.)
Learning how to deal with this has been a painful challenge. It helps to remember that I write dreadful stuff, too, and know how hard it is to do even that, much less learn what’s needed to improve the work and make it sellable or comprehensible to other people.
Within that frame of reference, I am able to keep in mind that just because I think somebody’s work needs significant rewriting, not everyone else does. If the entire professional cadre of editors went to the library together and each chose one book we think is superb and another we think is awful, we would likely end up with a stack a mile high in each category with few or no overlaps.
Point is, it’s not our job to judge our clients’ work. It’s our job to help them make their work shine, and educate them as best we can without overdoing our investment of time and effort, disproportionate to our pay.
A Win–Win Option
So, when you get stuck with a crummy project, here’s one way to deal with it.
Don’t waste your breath telling authors they need to rewrite; give them an idea how to go about it. This comes from showing via your edits, and telling via your comments, along with providing helpful resources. (For book-length work, I start with recommending Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, then work down a list.)
Focus on the mechanics—clarity, consistency, choreography, comprehension—and present your comments and queries from a reader’s point of view. The work’s quality will be judged by readers and any acquiring editors or contest judges; not your problem if it’s doomed to rejection. All you can do is improve its chances in a harsh world.
When the job is finished, thank the author for the chance to work with him or her and wish them success. If the author is happy and wants to thank you lavishly in the acknowledgments, and you don’t want to be associated with the work, politely decline. You need only say that your policy is to remain neutral and invisible, as an editor’s job is to support an author’s work, not share credit for it.
Then ask for referrals.
Unless you’re operating at the topmost tier of the publishing world, it’s likely you’ll go around again with the same issues sooner or later. Only by keeping your workflow vigorous do you have a chance of attracting the best authors and enjoying the best jobs. So instead of griping about the quality of your clients’ work, dive in and become their partner to elevate it to the next level.
Carolyn Haley operates DocuMania, a freelance editing, writing, and reviewing service based in rural Vermont. She works with a diverse mix of commercial, indie, and academic clients on their works for publication, as well as teaches novice authors and editors.
Where to find Carolyn: business ▪ LinkedIn profile ▪ books ▪ blog ▪ book reviews
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