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Seven Mistakes Many First-Time Editors Make (and How to Avoid Them)

Written by Lindsay Vermeulen; copy edited by Maggie Clark

So, you’ve decided to become an editor.

If you’re quitting a job to go freelance, the prospect of changing careers can be intimidating. And yes, there are plenty of opportunities to mess up. Never fear! They are all part of the learning process, and they will all make you better at what you do. But you don’t have to make all the mistakes on your own, because I’ve already made a bunch of them (or known others who have made them). Read on to learn how to avoid seven mistakes many new editors make.

Mistake #1: Waiting for clients to show up

Nobody is going to stumble across your profile online and decide to hire you out of the blue. Okay, they might, but it’s highly unlikely. You’re going to need to build a network.

Did the word network just make you recoil in horror? A lot of editors are introverts, and networking can feel uncomfortable, no matter how outgoing you are. Take some tips from Lynn Slobogian’s excellent seminar on networking:

  • Set reasonable expectations. Networking should first and foremost be about getting to know people, not about signing a client on the spot. Set a goal to talk to three people or get at least one business card.
  • Think of networking as a mutual exchange, not you selling yourself. Both you and the person you’re talking to are gaining a useful contact. Ask questions, listen, and be yourself.
  • Follow up. Just because someone doesn’t email you with work right away doesn’t mean they’re not interested. They may be busy, have forgotten about it, or just not have anything for you at the moment. Try following them on Twitter, emailing them resources that may interest them (but don’t do it TOO often), or sending them holiday cards. My longest-standing freelance client took me two years to land, and it would never have happened if I hadn’t kept following up.

Networking can also be as simple as letting all your family and friends know that you’re now accepting freelance work. Post about it on social media now and then. Send a personal email to everyone asking them to put you in touch with anyone who may need editorial services, and give them a clear way to learn more and contact you (like providing them with a link to your website).

Mistake #2: Underselling yourself

Nobody decides to become an editor because they dream of getting rich and famous. You’re making the move to editing because it’s something you’re good at and something you enjoy.

If a potential client wants to know more about your skills and services, avoid downplaying your talents. Don’t mumble that you’re “just starting out as a freelance editor” or that you’re “trying to be an editor.” Have you looked over essays or job applications for friends or family members? Have you proofread writing for co-workers? Then you are an editor.

The same goes for your job title. Some people assume that the title freelancer is a euphemism for unemployed. Instead, think about presenting yourself as a contract editor or a consultant or saying that you’re self-employed. It’s the truth! You can also choose to operate under a company name—even if you’re the only employee. (See tips on registering a business here.)

Present yourself as a professional online too, and maintain a website for your editing business. It doesn’t have to be huge or complex, but at the very least, it should let people know a bit about your background, what kind of work you accept, and how to get in touch with you.

Mistake #3: Taking any and every job

A client wants you! They really want you! But…do you want them?

When you’re just starting out, it can be tempting to take every opportunity that comes your way. (Money! Experience! Referrals!) But don’t. Here are three red flags that a job is not for you:

  • You hate the manuscript. Sometimes a manuscript comes your way that you just can’t stand. Best-case scenario: you struggle through the edit, manage to feign interest for the sake of the writer, and get referred to some similar clients to do more work you hate. Worst-case scenario: you and the client grow to loathe each other, you leave or get fired partway through the project, and you have to go to small claims court to get any money out of it. Either way, it’s not worth it.
  • You have an iffy feeling about the client. Your intuition is worth listening to. If anything at all feels a bit off about a potential client, just don’t work with them.
  • You have no idea how to do the project. Yes, taking on projects that push you to learn new things and broaden your skillset is a great idea. But if you’re asked to edit a thesis for someone pursuing a PhD in math and you haven’t touched a calculator since Grade 10, or a self-publishing author is looking for an index and you’ve never made one before but figure you could Google how to do it, think twice before signing on. If the genre or skills required are beyond your scope, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad editor. It just means this is a job for someone else.

You don’t have to go into great detail when you’re turning down work. There’s no need to put down the author’s writing or mention that you don’t have even a basic understanding of the subject matter. Just send a polite note thanking them and saying that the project isn’t a fit for you at the moment, but you’d be happy to recommend someone else (if you know someone) or provide resources for finding another editor. I send clients I’m rejecting to Editors Canada’s Online Directory of Editors, or I suggest they send a posting through Editors BC’s job hotline.

Once you’ve got a client signed, though, there’s a whole new set of things that can go wrong.

Mistake #4: Failing to set clear expectations

Part of your job as an editor is to educate your clients about what they need and what you can provide. Many clients know little to nothing about the editorial process. Nine times out of 10, a client who asks you to proofread something actually wants you to copy edit or even do a substantive edit. Or they may say they just need a quick clean-up of spelling and grammar, but a quick read reveals serious structural issues in the piece. To help clients understand what they need, you can direct them to Editors Canada’s definitions of editorial skills.

Before you commit to a project, ask to read the manuscript (or at least an excerpt) to see what you’re getting into. Then, send the client a clear note with your proposed course of action that answers the following questions. What does the project need? What would your workflow look like? How much would the client need to be involved, and at what stages? What kind of a timeline can they expect? Resist the urge to commit to an unreasonable timeline. The better option is always to under-promise and over-deliver.

Make sure you discuss terms of payment too. I include a note on all my invoices that payment is due within 30 days of the invoice date and that late payment will be subject to a 10% charge for every week the payment is delayed. Confession: I’ve never actually charged a late fee—but having that clause in the invoice gives me a concrete reason to email a client about payment. (For example, I can say to the client that “I just wanted to give you a heads up that next Monday will be 30 days from the date of my last invoice. If you’re able to send over an e-Transfer before then, you won’t get stuck with any late fees!”) And more often than not, it means I get paid on time.

If you do have challenges getting payment for a job, you’re not on your own. If you’re a member of Editors Canada, you have access to a free mediator who can help you claim your fee.

The best way to be sure you and client are on the same page (and to protect yourself) is to sign a contract before you start work. Editors Canada has a sample agreement you can modify to fit your needs.

Mistake #5: Undercharging

Repeat after me: “I am a professional. I deliver a valuable service, and I deserve to be fairly compensated for my time.”

Setting rates is one of the biggest challenges for editors starting out. Should you charge by the hour, or by the project? What do you say when a client balks at your rates? How much do you actually need to charge for editing?

It’s always helpful to have an idea in your head of how much you charge per hour, but generally speaking, it’s better not to quote that to a client. That’s because charging by the hour means that as a novice editor, you would charge more for the same project than you would as a more experienced editor.

If you do decide to charge by the hour, remember that your time doesn’t start the moment you open the document. The other tasks you are doing around the job (such as emails, meetings, and research) are all part of the project and count just as much as your editing.

Here’s my strategy for deciding how much to charge for an editing project. I assess each project and decide how long it would take me to complete. (If you’re not sure how long a project will take you, check out Editors Canada’s estimates.) I add a little more time for administrative tasks, such as emails, invoicing, research, meetings, and so on. I multiply the total number of estimated hours by my hourly rate. Then, I send that quote to the client as a fixed price for the project.

The bonus with this approach is that as you get faster, you can keep charging the same amount for the same kind of project—but it will take you less time to complete, so you get a raise on your hourly rate. If you find you do the same kinds of tasks over and over again, use your estimates to build a rate sheet you can send to clients.

If the quote you come up with feels too high, it probably isn’t. Send it to the client anyway. The worst they can do is say no.

If a potential client has a budget that’s too low for you, that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. One idea is to offer to do a smaller task instead. Did they want the whole piece fully edited? Offer to do a thorough edit of a smaller section or read the whole piece and send a note with a few bigger-picture matters they can work on. Ideally, this work will show them the value of your editing, and they may even find budget for more. But if not, you get your rate and they get some editing done.

Don’t let prospective clients try to get you to charge less or work for free by telling you it’s good exposure or practice. You are a professional. There are better ways to get exposure and practice than by working for nothing.

Mistake #6: Going for grammar off the bat

You’ve negotiated the rates. You’ve signed the contract. You’ve set your deadlines, and this is it—you have the document you’re going to edit! You open the file and leap in with enthusiasm. Comma splices! Dangling modifiers! Excessive exclamation marks! None will survive your red pen (or your tracked changes).

That does kind of sound fun, but it’s not a great approach. You may get halfway through the manuscript and realize that it needs huge structural changes. You may find that some of the things you changed were actually there for a reason. There’s no point in copy editing work that needs a huge overhaul—it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

The first time you receive the document you’re editing, put away your red pen and read the whole thing through once. If you really can’t help it, keep a scratch pad open where you can jot down ideas and impressions. Understanding the bigger picture will make the rest of the job a lot more efficient.

Mistake #7: Giving honest feedback

“But,” you say indignantly, “the whole point of an editor is to give honest feedback!”

Yes—sort of. The whole point of an editor is to work with the writer to make a piece the best it can be. You and the writer are on the same team; you aren’t adversaries.

It’s very easy to charge through a manuscript and leave comments on all the things you think need to change. But as you’re wording those comments, remember that this manuscript was written by a real person. A person with hopes and dreams. A person who, when they get their tattered manuscript back, riddled with your excellent and well-meant changes, is going to lock themselves in their bedroom to have a little cry.

Writing is inherently personal, and sharing your writing with another person takes courage—especially in the case of creative writing. Treat your writers gently. Always start by praising something you liked about the work, and include plenty of positive feedback along with the things that need to change. The best way to appreciate the importance of this approach first-hand is to get your own work edited.

Of course, once you’ve worked with a writer for a long time and built a rapport with them, you may be able to be a little more blunt with your feedback. But especially when you’re starting out with a new client, be polite, positive, and gentle.

Editing, as a career, is hugely rewarding. You will learn a ton, build relationships with interesting people, and get to spend a lot of your workday reading. And as with any new job, you will make some mistakes along the way, but ultimately, they’ll help you learn. I hope these tips were useful. Best of luck!


Lindsay Vermeulen is a Vancouver-based writer and editor who loves travel and dessert. She works as an editorial assistant for Appetite by Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada.

Maggie Clark is a post-secondary student and copywriting specialist whose goal in life is to work as a professional editor. On her way to achieving that goal, she has earned a Professional Writing Diploma from Douglas College and a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communication from Royal Roads University. Her next step is to complete her studies in SFU’s Editing Certificate program.

Image by Pixabay.

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