Knowing enough about what you’re doing but always being willing to learn more is essential for editors. Yes, there are some general rules of good editorial practice to learn, but you also need to develop the common sense and sensitivity to know when to bend or break them. There are also the fake rules sent to tempt you, based on arbitrary preferences and prejudices, that good editors know to reject. Experienced editors generally don’t die on hills – or at least if they do, they do it with a wink, a wry tweet and a weary shake of the head at their own fatal self-indulgence.
Being a ‘good’ editor is only half the battle, though. The other half, and the half that arguably carries more weight in terms of whether you can run a viable editorial business, is convincing the client that you are actually good at what you do. You need to make the client feel that they can hand over the work, not worry while you get on and do it, and happily pay you at the end for a job well done, without feeling the need to reject all your careful changes.
Convincing a client you’re an expert can be tricky, though. If the person commissioning the work is not an editor themselves, it’s quite possible they have no idea what they are asking you to do. In this case, preparing to part with hundreds or perhaps thousands of pounds (or other currency) is a fraught, unsettling experience. What are you actually doing? Are they paying you for nothing? Will you make the text worse? Without inviting the client to watch you while you work, which is hardly practical or – let’s face it – desirable, there’s no way you can convince them you’re the real deal by showing them everything that you do. But there are some ways you can give them more confidence in your work.
Understand the client’s needs by asking sensible questions
Before you start the job, you need to understand the level of editing the client requires. If it’s a publisher, they’ll probably tell you – but even then, don’t take the words ‘light edit’ at face value (or you may live to regret it). Have a look at the text and assess it yourself. If the client is not a publisher, ask sensible, jargon-free questions to find out what they want for the text. Where will it be published? Who is the intended reader? How important is it to preserve the author’s voice? Would they actually like you to perform a virtual rewrite? If the client is a publisher, ask for guidance on style, and make sure you are both clear about what the budget covers and what’s possible within the schedule allowed.
Show you understand what matters
I’ll use an example from my own work. I have a first degree in architecture, and often work on architectural texts. When copy-editing we should all be checking names of things, of course, but I have a special radar for incorrect names of architects or their projects, or the places where seminal buildings are located. If a client sees that I really care about these small details, I hope they will also trust me in other ways. Clients aren’t always that interested in an erroneously italic full stop, for example (unbelievable, I know, and do correct it anyway). But they are extremely interested in you saving them from making howlers in their area of specialism.
Be polite and professional in all your interactions
This should go without saying, but every communication you have with the client will affect their perception of you. Humour can be fine, but don’t overdo it. Obviously they’re unlikely to fire you for a single typo in an email, but still take extra care when writing to them. It’s all part of the overall picture they have of you as a competent professional. As well as being accurate in your communications, you should also be responsive within the working hours that you’ve agreed. Don’t leave them hanging around for an answer longer than you have to, which risks increasing their anxiety. Try to answer quickly and efficiently; lead by example.
Be prepared to explain your working
When you send a job back, it’s nice to imagine that you’ll never see or hear of it again until a package drops on to your doormat containing the real thing, or the website goes live to viral acclaim. In reality, you’ll often get a trickle of follow-up emails or phone calls asking you to explain your working. At this point you’ll be grateful that you didn’t make any changes that you couldn’t justify to yourself by reference to another part of the same document, or another text in the same series, or a style guide or other trusted reference source. It can feel that your work is being critiqued or even criticised, but try to get over this. Retrace your steps and explain your working to the client. If you used reference sources to support a knotty decision, cite them. If you followed the client’s own dominant preferences, this can be even better. Don’t take offence at the questioning, just keep the answer clear – and hopefully the client will be reassured enough by your thoughtfulness, care and attention to detail to need less reassurance on all the other changes.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008.