Another non-nuts-and-bolts intro-ish post.  The nuts and bolts will follow…

I’ll mostly be covering editing your own ebooks, but there are things you should know if you edit other people’s work.  Plus, if you find that you have a hard time editing your own work, you might want to consider trading edits with another writer or group of writers.

In a sense, you’re always editing for someone else.  The part of your brain that writes is not the part of your brain that edits, and I sometimes find it helps to compartmentalize them, so they don’t mess up each other’s work.  I’ll even leave my writer brain comments like, “Nonstandard usage” or “awkward phrasing; rewrite?”

Just as it’s difficult to write with someone standing over your shoulder, checking your grammar, asking you whether you really think it’s realistic for the hero to accidentally lose his shirt in the middle of the scene, telling you that the ending of Chapter 1 is lame and wanting you to go back and fix it instead of writing Chapter 7, it’s difficult to edit with the writer in the room.

No matter how crazy, messed up, unintelligible, self-indulgent, or even illegal a work is, a writer won’t (and shouldn’t) be able to see that clearly.  The urge to create is not the urge to have all your buttons in the right buttonhole.

Even if you’re right, other writers will not like your edits until after they’re done handling them.  When they are done handling your edits, they will probably like your edits (unless you genuinely over- or under- edited).

That being said, here’s how to reduce the amount of conflict that may arise with your writer:

  • Save the sarcasm for people who will appreciate it.  Never get snarky in comments, emails, or other forms of communication with the writer.  There is no such thing as a reasonable amount of sarcasm.  Assume the writer has a gun and is willing to use it.  (I have broken this rule from time to time and usually regret it.)
  • Do not go beyond your scope.  Do not edit content.  Do not tell the writer that their characters are flat, plots hackneyed, etc.
  • Find out the chain of command on the project.  If the writer is a self-publisher, then the writer is in command.  If someone else is publishing the book, then the publisher or client is in command.  The editor is never in command; all the editor’s suggestions are just that.  However, the writer’s wishes may be thrown out the window in situations where the publisher says, “It must be so.”
  • Insert a comment into tricky areas rather than attempting a rewrite.  As an editor, you must stay away from being a writer if you want your editor brain to perform at its best.  Let the writer do the writing (and rewriting).
  • If you find something consistently wrong according to the style guide/dictionary/resource list, ask if it was what the author intended rather than meticulously “fixing” the thing throughout the document.
  • If you find something wrong but you like it to the point where you’re willing to defend it, insert a comment saying so.
  • Follow a TWO-strikes rule in standing up for what you believe in:  if you point something out, the writer refuses to change it, you explain why, and they still refuse to change it, then drop it.
  • In case of conflict between the writer and publisher/client, make sure both parties have the objective information they need to know, in as unbiased a form as possible.  After you present the information, you may state your opinion, making it clear that it is your opinion and you will update the document with whatever they agree on.  And then stay out of it.

In a situation where you’re not the writer and editor for a project, think of yourself as a butler, an extremely professional, highly-trained servant, whose job is to point out that m’lord’s tie is askew but not that m’lord drinks too much.  And if m’lord says, “I know my tie is askew, Jeeves, I want it that way, dammit,” then your answer is, “Very good, m’lord.”

A further consideration when you’re editing for other people is whether you should charge them for it.

The answer is:  you should.

You can charge in trade by making them edit something of yours (or for some other price, like a favor owed), but you should never edit for free.  Editing is the work of (as previously mentioned) a highly-trained servant.  A writer gets the pleasure of creating, of having their name in print (or online), etc.  A highly-trained servant gets the pleasure of doing thorough, good work that is appropriately rewarded.  Creators take the risks; they may be paid far less than their work is worth, or far more (in terms of time spent).  Editors should not have to share the risks; they are employees, not principal creators or publishers.

So how much should you charge?

According to Writer’s Market, which has a “What should I charge” article, updated yearly, you should charge $16 (low), $46 (average), or $100 (high) for copyediting or $15 (low), $31 (average), or $75 (high) for proofreading.  However, most editing jobs are bid by the word or page instead of by the hour, so that’s not terribly helpful.

Here’s my rough guide to how to give a pricing estimate.  Keep in mind that you may end up charging more (because of your experience) or less (because of lack of experience or a really bad market for editing services); if you’re trying to make a living at just editing, I would do more research on rates for your particular speciality.  But here’s a way to guesstimate:

  • First, find out if it’s fiction or nonfiction.
  • If it’s nonfiction, get a sample before you estimate.  If you have to deal with a lot of bolding/italics, section headings that need to go in the Table of Contents, indexing, glossaries, quizzes with answer keys, cross-referencing, etc., charge double or triple what you would charge for fiction.  I suggest not editing complex nonfiction until after you have handled a few fiction titles and a collection of short stories or two.
  • Find out whether the text was originally a file or has been scanned in.  Charge at least one and a half times your normal rate (or double) for scanned material.  Dealing with scanned text is a pain and often difficult to get into a reasonable state.
  • A page (8 1/2″ by 11″) of text in standard manuscript format is about 250 words.
  • A page of single-space text is about 500 words.
  • For straghtforwardly-formatted fiction or nonfiction, like a memoir, I suggest charging from 1-2.5 cents per word for proofreading, 2-5 cents per word for copyediting, $1-2 per 2500 words for formatting, or 2.5-7.5 cents per word for all of the above, after you’re sure you can do a professional job by taking on a few free or very low priced projects for the experience.
  • Fancy formatting should always equal a higher rate, if you’re doing ebook formatting.  Troubleshooting is a time sink.
  • Ask for 1/3 to 1/2 of the money up front.
  • Always have at least a Statement of Work agreed upon, detailing who does what, by when, for how much, and how the money will be paid.  (Note to self:  add a couple of sample SOWs at the end of the blog series.)  I’m no lawyer or contract specialist, so take due diligence before sending a SOW out or agreeing to one.
  • It is sometimes worth it to go through a third-party website like Elance that will ensure you get paid and that the client can’t screw you over.
  • Never turn down a bonus.  When you edit, you’re in the service industry, and people in the service industry get tips from time to time, even if it isn’t standard.  This is perfectly acceptable.

On the other hand, you may need to hire an editor that you don’t know personally.  In that case, I strongly recommend reading the rest of these posts as I put them out before hiring one.  Any time you hire an employee, you’re responsible for everything that employee does in your name, so you better know the process well enough to make sure your employee is doing a good job.  The tips on guesstimating rates apply here as well; do not hire an editor for a percentage of the profits.  Editing involves NO risks with regards to the content of your work, and editors should not be paid as if they are taking those risks (they shouldn’t get screwed if the work doesn’t sell, and they shouldn’t get rewarded if it’s wildly popular).

If an editor does not complete the job (or pretends to complete the job but obviously spent no time doing so), do not pay the additional amounts and register a formal complaint through a third party, if using.

If the editor completes the job poorly, first (politely) attempt to get the editor to fix the situation.   Do not pay any extra money, unless you mis-represented what the editor was supposed to do in some way.  If the editor can’t or won’t, pay the agreed-upon amount, spread the word as professionally as possible (leaving an honest review on a third-party site is appropriate), and never hire the person again.  It is often better to be able to wash your hands of a person by paying the full amount.

If the editor goes above your expecations, give a bonus.  Whether you are paying your editor through trade or by cash, you can always tip your editor:

  • Thank them profusely, publicly, and often, especially if you lost your cool at any point during the editing process (they will probably tell you it happens a lot and not to worry about it; nevertheless, it’s not fun).
  • Send a bonus via PayPal.  There isn’t a rate for bonuses, like 15% for wait staff or anything; whatever you send will be appreciated.
  • Write a glowing personal recommendation, post it on your social networks (and any third-party sites) along with a permanent link to their site, and send a copy to them personally.
  • Acknowledge their help inside the finished work.
  • Send a copy of the finished work.
  • If you see them in person, buy them supper, chocolate, or whatever is appropriate.
  • Recommend them personally to other people who need editors.

Really good editors (I’m not counting myself here) have a passion for serving others (no matter how sarcastic they are about it) and love to be appreciated.  Please do so.

And finally, if you’re an editor, it is perfectly acceptable to ask your clients to give you feedback on third-party sites or write recommendations for you.  If they don’t do it, let it go, but it’s acceptable to ask.