Have Writing, Need Editor? Post the Facts, Ma’am

job_alphonse_mucha1I frequently see online postings in search of help with some written copy, and have replied to more than a few of them. You’ve probably seen them on Craigslist or TaskRabbit, too. The title is often a kitchen-sink list of all the possible skills the task might require: Proofreader/Copy Editor/Writer. The job might be described as “cleaning up” or “putting the finishing touches” on their project.

I’m sure this seems completely straightforward to the person posting the job opportunity. But this call for bids fails to provide enough information to permit a knowledgeable pro to reply with anything more than, “I’m interested in learning more about your project.”

What’s missing? As with any work-for-hire, a bid is based on the type of work to be done, and the freelancer’s estimate of the amount of time the job will require. Let’s start with the first part of that equation.

By attempting to cover all their bases instead of identifying the type of work needed, the job poster has actually made providing a meaningful response more difficult. Proofreading is not the same thing as copyediting, and there are different levels of copyediting—light, medium and heavy. While a heavy edit might include suggested recasts to improve flow, or eliminating wordy or awkward phrasing, that is not quite the same thing as a complete rewrite.

In the traditional publishing context, proofreading involved checking typeset text against the manuscript, querying for editorial corrections, and checking for typographic details like spacing, word breaks, kerning, margins, and the like.  Working from a digital manuscript, it typically includes correcting misspellings and typos and changing punctuation where necessary to prevent confusion, although technically, these improvements bump the job up a notch to become editorial proofreading.

At every level, a copy editor will correct errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage, check cross-references and any sequential ordering, and ensure consistency in formatting and style. When providing light copyediting, the editor won’t smooth out or change the writing, but will note where text is missing.

Medium level copyediting incorporates changing text or headings to maintain parallel structure, flagging inappropriate, ambiguous or incorrect statements, and changing passive to active voice. For nonfiction, it will ensure consistent usage of key terms, and verify that any previews, summaries or supplementary materials reflect the content. In fiction, a medium edit will check for continuity in plot, setting and character traits, and identify any inconsistencies. If the text was written by a team, the copy editor will make minor changes needed to maintain a consistent style and tone.

A heavy, or substantive, copyedit does all the above, and then some. Prolix, trite, or jargon-laden expressions will be eliminated. Transitions and sentence structure will be changed to improve clarity and flow. Overall structure and headings may be altered for greater coherence. The editor may suggest recasts for sentences or paragraphs, or simply add or delete text. In short, the difference between medium and heavy levels of editing is the level of judgment and rewriting brought to bear upon the copy.

There are those rare occasions when so much needs to be changed that it makes more sense to completely rewrite the text, to avoid a Frankenstein effect. This sometimes happens with documents written in haste, by committee, or by a relative novice to written English.

Some editors have argued that the distinctions between light, medium and heavy copyediting aren’t very meaningful, because copy either gets edited to read properly, or it doesn’t. They assert that the true dividing line falls between copy editing and developmental editing. A developmental editor is less concerned with the rules and technical details, focusing instead upon overall organization and structure. He or she helps the writer identify the appropriate audience for their work, and how to put the manuscript together in a way that will best reach that target group. They might find holes or gaps in the content, or identify sections that defeat the author’s intent. Copyediting comes later, to fine-tune things.

Most potential clients are not familiar with any of these terms. If they refer to a job as needing a “light edit,” it usually means that they think the copy is already in fairly good shape, and just needs another set of eyes to go over it. If they are experienced writers with objective judgment, their characterization may prove accurate. Of course, there are other instances requiring tactful education about the amount of work required to whip a piece into shape!

Perhaps the real reason job posters don’t say outright what they need done is that they simply don’t know, or don’t realize, what their writing needs. This is all the more reason to send a sample page or two, explain who you’re trying to reach or how you intend to use the piece, and let the pro figure out what level of editing is required.

What other kind of information does an editor need to estimate how long the job will take? The key variable is manuscript length. The standard measurement for this is the total number of double-spaced pages, each assumed to consist of 250 words. If a posting says the copy is 10,000 words, I’m going to convert that to 40 pages for estimating purposes; if they send single-spaced text, I’m going to convert it to double-spacing before getting down to work. You might as well save us all time and aggravation, and a bit of your project budget, and double-space your manuscripts before looking for an editor.

The other factor influencing time likely to be spent on a job is the type of text involved. Is it a scientific article to be published in a medical journal, or a marketing brochure? Does it involve highly technical information with lots of tables and specialized vocabulary, or is it a bodice-ripper? Just as we categorize less demanding literature as a good “beach read,” an editor might expect to be able to go through 10 pages of light fiction or general-interest nonfiction in an hour, but only half that amount if the material is more complex.

If you’ve posted an editing gig without much description and considered requests for additional information to be a pain, stop and think: would you hire a plumber or mechanic who quoted a firm price before diagnosing the problem and determining the cost of needed parts and labor? Part of a good working relationship between editor and client is clarity about what will be done, for what price, by what deadline. If you have a definite budget limit, it’s best to discuss that up front, so the freelancer can explain what result can be expected for that fee.






Buck, back in the day

Buck, back in the day (source: www.heehaw.com)


Ann Elliott Sherman was born and raised in Bakersfield, CA. (She once collected grits and black-eyed peas for a high school canned food drive from Buck Owens. Two years later, Buck asked to buy her a drink in an airport lounge during a layover.) Ann’s formal education and former legal career are her equivalent of an ill-fated first marriage. In the mid-1980s, she hosted a weekly poetry show on KALX, studied with poet Tom Clark, and lived in a warehouse in East Oakland. After moving to the South Bay, Ann started at Metro Newspapers as a proofreader, became copyeditor of their community newspapers, and from 1992–2000, wrote art reviews for their flagship alternative weekly, Metro. During this time, Ann was a member of Writing in the Margins, a women’s writing group led by Margarita Luna Robles, and a founding/performing member of a multidisciplinary arts group, the Collaboratory. Ann has published various handmade chapbooks, the guerrilla chap-pad Free—Take One, and has not published several other manuscripts of which she remains inexplicably fond, including Stubborn Desire. Her work has been published in Blind Date, Carbuncle, Galley Sail Review, Skanky Possum, Little Elegy, Log, Shampoo, Big Bridge, can we have our ball back? and The Pedestal. She was featured in the Monday Night at Moe’s Books series in Berkeley in January 2007. From 2007 to 2010, she published an email poetry newsletter, The Monkey’s Paw, founded and ran the annual Luna Park Chalk Art Festival, and served on the advisory board of ARTSHIFT San Jose (www.artshiftsanjose.com ). Ann is a freelance inkslinger and lives in San Jose with her husband and two sons.

“Why would I ever need a writer or editor?”

Here is a quick list of seasonal projects you may have on your to-do list that could benefit from a little Inkslinger attention:


  • Holiday newsletter
  • Annual report
  • Holiday party speech or toast

Let me help make your words as merry and bright as the season!

For a Few Dollars More

I received an election brochure from a candidate for the local school board. The glossy, full-color trifold was printed by a union shop and mailed first class, so this guy’s election committee wasn’t pinching pennies.


What a shame that they didn’t bother to proofread the darn thing, or better yet, pay a professional to do it! So many errors jumped out at first glance, out of curiosity, I decided to wield more than my mental red pen. A quick markup yielded over a dozen needed corrections to punctuation, capitalization, grammar, tense and syntax! Persuading voters to support this candidate’s efforts to improve educational quality might be easier if his campaign literature better reflected an awareness of basic writing skills.


A campaign pamphlet is the most obvious example of a document that, for better or worse, represents the sender. Effectively communicating your intended message is hard enough without the distractions and negative impression created by error-riddled text!


Because we use language daily, and have done so for most of our lives, it’s easy to assume that translates into the ability to write clearly and correctly. Yeah, and running five miles a week makes me an elite athlete. Unless you read and write extensively and have years of training and experience applying rules of grammar and following style manuals, I’ll wager your written communication might benefit from a professional touch.


I don’t question his sincerity or desire to improve local schools, but for just a few dollars more, this candidate’s brochure might have demonstrated that his stated focus on accountability and excellence begins with his own efforts.

True Confessions of a Professional Stickler (with thanks to Katrina Loera)

It is always lovely to learn that one is not alone. A friend gave me a book that I certainly knew of, yet somehow had never managed to read. The introduction to Lynne Truss’ lively book about punctuation (yes, you read that correctly), Eats, Shoots and Leaves begins, “Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t.” From that point, the soundtrack of my inner thoughts might have been borrowed from the phony off-track betting joint in The Sting. In particular, Truss shares this pet peeve:


To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive “its”  (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has”. If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.


Before my fellow American sticklers rush to their keyboards and phones to point out that the periods were mistakenly placed outside the quotation marks in the passage, note that Ms. Truss is British. Her book observes British punctuation usage, which, as she says, “picks and chooses.” Sometimes they put their terminal punctuation within the quotation marks, but more often, they do not.


Who cares about punctuation, you ask? Those who wish to be clearly understood and to avoid appearing illiterate, certainly. Most people would at least pretend to belong to this endangered species. And then there are hardcore punctuation vigilantes. As you might imagine, membership in this group is often kept on the down-low. Admitting that you compulsively wield an invisible red pen when reading anything and everything seems tantamount to requesting assignment to text-message Siberia.


We are surrounded by bad punctuation, yet only some of us seem to notice. Truss likens us “sensitive sticklers” to the little boy in The Sixth Sense who sees dead people others do not. Witnessing dead punctuation at every turn, those gifted or cursed with the “seventh sense” experience mild shocks of horror, and must decide whether to speak up or simply whisper to ourselves in disbelief. In the eyes of the world, we are 1) annoying; 2) freaks.


I’m prepared to accept that my fascination with English and its idiosyncrasies renders me an anachronistic idiot savant in the digital age. If the tender sensibility of a natural born stickler is not yours, and you have no idea how to use apostrophes, nor the time or desire to learn—why, you need to hire an inkslinger.


Application Season

Deadlines for applying to many graduate schools and programs are nearing. Put your best foot forward by having a professional editor polish that application essay!

A new site for a seasoned pro

Although I have been a professional inkslinger off and on for over 30 years, I spent the past five working in our family window coverings business. After retooling the business model, my role ended, and it was time to get back to doing what comes more naturally—tailoring words to fit your message, purpose or need.