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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.