Editing a document for someone is a lot like dating: there is a relationship between the two of you. However, it is unlike dating in that no matter how much a friendship might develop, the relationship is still based on professionalism and one of you is still going to be paid.
Similar to dating, both of you can also be dumped. Yes, freelance editors can “fire” their clients. I’ve done it more than once.
How do you know whether to accept a new client or show that client to the door? Over the past two decades of editing the work of others (and being edited, myself, for more than that), I’ve developed a radar for “high-maintenance” clients.
Cave summus sustentationem Lorem! So what is a high-maintenance client?
- She wants to tell you why she wrote everything she wrote.
- He pushes back on your corrections and wants to explain his logic. There is no explanation needed for putting an apostrophe in “their’s.”
- She sees your meetings to review your critiques as a conversation and does not understand that the meter is running.
- He doesn’t learn from one project to the next and repeats the same mistakes.
- She expects you to be available at all hours, placing her work before any other clients’ and valuing her needs more than your personal time.
- He doesn’t accept your expertise.
How can you tell if your editing relationship is not going to work? It’s better to figure this out up front, before you’ve wasted your time and (heaven forbid) completed a project for which you never get paid. (And that’s happened to me, too.)
- Pay attention to how the person communicates orally. That gives you one clue to his or her written communication skills. They’re not the same: lots of writers can’t talk well, for example. But if someone is arrogant in person, he might be arrogant on paper and when receiving criticism.
- Or the person might have a lovely personality but have trouble recognizing boundaries. Does it bother you if someone from work calls you at home? Do you want to communicate through e-mail and this client keeps calling you? Do you give your clients your business e-mail and one leaves you messages on your Facebook wall? Pay attention to these details.
- Ask for three to five pages on a “trial” basis. Some editors don’t charge for this; I do, usually, unless I’m doing it as part of a workshop. You’ll get to see what their writing is like and they’ll get to see how you edit. You’ll also get to see how they take feedback. The benefit to charging for even a few pages is that sometimes you get to see if the person is a tightwad.
- If the writer is also a college instructor, check out “Rate My Professor” at ratemyprofessor.com. It’s a website for college students to talk very bluntly about their instructors. (If you’re an instructor, you might want to pour yourself a drink before you check it out for the first time.) Here’s what one student said about a potential client of mine: “Not for the young or opinionated. Hard headed and not open minded. You will never be right, ever! Only good thing is makes your brain work harder just to try and shut him up.” A student three months earlier said, “Would not recommend taking his class because he’s always thinks he’s right on every topic.” This is exactly the kind of client I do not want.
- Just because you went out on one date doesn’t mean you’re now in a committed relationship. I give my clients an estimate and ask for half up front. At the end, I bill them for the remainder, based on my time spent. Recently a new client sent me her manuscripts for two books but neglected to send the deposit. Foolishly, I edited them anyway. I should have reminded her about the deposit and waited. When I told her that I was finished with the editing and billed her for the remainder, she had a family member call me to demand her manuscripts back. I calmly told her that as soon as my bill was paid she would get them. “That’s all?!” Well, yeah, just like at the dry cleaner, I wanted to say.
What about you other editors out there? What have you learned?
And writers: read these warning signs and take heed. Don’t say to yourself, “Yeah, but I’m different. She knows I’m just kidding….” Or “But my book is really good, so I want to make sure they read it.”
Usually the efforts that writers put into “making sure” that the editors read the book would be better spent making sure that the book was written well.