The seven deadly sins of freelance editors

Last updated 15 November 2022

You’re a good editor. You can juggle serial commas and breathe fire at dangling modifiers. Your ninja coding skills can subdue even the most tortuous of manuscripts.

But, however good your editorial skills, they may not be able to save you from losing a client to certain common etiquette pitfalls. I’ve collected seven of these below. These examples particularly apply to relationships with traditional project managers (PMs) or production editors. However, they can apply to relationships with business or self-publisher clients too.

Avoid these ‘sins’ to lessen your chances of irritating your client into dropping you as a supplier.

Cartoon devil reading.

1. Bad filing

Unhelpfully named documentation can be a hindrance and gives a poor impression of your professionalism. When communicating with your PM or other members of the project team, try to pick email subjects and file names that will be helpful to everyone. For example:

  1. Never title an email ‘Index’, ‘Queries’, ‘Complete’, ‘Help please!’ or any other unspecific term. Your PM may have many projects on the go, and clearly naming your emails (e.g. ‘Kennedy indexing complete’) will help her to quickly identify them, deal with them and file them.
  2. Similarly, never title a document simply ‘Invoice’, ‘Queries’ or ‘Index’. Identify the project and, if relevant, a version number. For example, ‘Hale copy-editing queries 2’.
  3. Wherever possible, avoid writing about more than one project in a single email. If your client has separate email folders for each project, she will have to remember that key details of project A are filed in project B’s folder.
  4. If a project enters a new stage, either start a new email chain or update the subject line. Don’t reply to an email headed ‘Wells copy-editing queries’ if you’re asking a question about the index.

2. Sending haphazard emails and queries

They may just be ‘quick queries’, but receiving a separate email with a ‘quick’ one-line query three times a day is irritating and distracting. Your PM may be managing three, seven, or even twenty or more projects at once, each with their idiosyncrasies and complications, and mentally hopping between them is not easy. Help your PM by batching your queries into manageable chunks so that she can properly budget the time and brainpower to give them the attention they need.

3. Making your PM write the words ‘as mentioned in the brief…’ more than once or twice

When a brief is long, it’s only human that you’ll miss a few things. However, when a freelancer queries – or downright skips – basic or numerous aspects of a brief, it really starts to make my ears steam. What it says to me is, ‘I’m very experienced so I’m going to skim read your instructions but broadly do the same job I always do.’ Or, ‘I struggle to absorb detailed guidance but I’m not going to bother implementing a system to ensure I can’t miss or forget about an instruction.’ Determine which style points you struggle to absorb and find a method to ensure they can’t elude you.

4. Thinking that style sheet = word list

Sometimes the style sheet you supply to your client at the end of a job can just be a list of spellings. For example, if you’ve been asked to follow a specific style (e.g. APA, Chicago or a publisher’s house style) to the letter, there is no point transcribing the manual to your style sheet.

However, in my experience it is rare for a book manuscript to be edited to this degree of conformity. More usually the instruction is to follow key points of a certain style but otherwise ‘follow author style if consistent’. In these cases, it is essential to create a detailed list of style points for the basics: acronyms and abbreviations; capitalisation; citation syntax; criteria for displaying quotes, verse and equations; dates; figure and table captions; italic and bold; lists (run-on and displayed); numbers; possessives (for words ending in s); punctuation; references; and any other styles specific to the project.

Here are some reasons why:

  1. It helps you. Making yourself consider and clearly document every style decision can only lead to a higher level of consistency.
  2. It helps the proofreader. Without a style sheet, the proofreader will have to deduce what styles have been used as she proceeds through the text. Worse, if she finds inconsistencies, she may lose confidence in the copy-editor and waste time checking the text more thoroughly than if she’d had a style sheet (even a slightly flawed one).
  3. It helps the project manager. When the project manager is collating the various corrections into one set for the typesetter, she will need to check no corrections contradict the style implemented during copy-editing. Without a comprehensive style sheet, she will be reduced to wading through the book looking for examples of the style in question. And, if she finds an inconsistency, she will have to dig even deeper to find out what the predominant or intended style is.
  4. It helps the budget. Without the clarity of a well-implemented style sheet, there will almost certainly be more corrections at proof stage. Typesetters may charge for higher levels of corrections. In addition, corrections may lead to text needing to be reflowed over page boundaries, meaning that if the index has already been created it may need to be updated, again potentially at extra cost.
  5. It helps to keep the author happy. Without documentation of key copy-editing decisions, the proofreader could unwittingly reverse important points the copy-editor agreed with the author, which may provoke the author’s justified ire later on.

Bottom line: a good style sheet can make a huge difference to the enjoyment or aggravation your PM gets from the project and thereby to her satisfaction or dissatisfaction with you as the copy-editor.

5. Not knowing what your PM’s remit covers

Most PMs will be and should be willing to help you out if, for example, you need to get in contact with another department, have a general query about how the publisher operates or need help chasing an overdue invoice. But avoid sending PMs emails that they simply won’t be able to do anything with. I once had a freelancer of many years’ experience repeatedly email me out of the blue with vague and insubstantial book concepts a particular publisher might like to consider, forcing me to explain several times that I had no contact whatsoever with the publisher’s commissioning department. Whether your PM writes back explaining why she can’t do anything with your email, struggles valiantly to send it to someone who can, or ignores it, you will have irritated her.

6. Responding poorly to feedback

One of the rewarding aspects of managing freelancers is seeing their skills expand over the years, and the process of giving feedback is vital in helping freelancers to improve. Unfortunately, though, sometimes freelancers react in a hostile or otherwise unhelpful manner to feedback. For example:

  • ‘Oops. Oh well – better next time!’ Acknowledges responsibility but gives no indication that the freelancer understands exactly what was done incorrectly or plans to take quantifiable steps to address the issue for the future. The PM is left unsure of the freelancer’s professionalism, attitude to improvement and ability to improve.
  • ‘Here you go – I fixed it.’ If you choose to immediately send your PM a ‘fixed’ version of your work, be very sure you understand everything that needs fixing and that you fix all of it. I have several times had ‘fixed’ work sent back to me implausibly quickly with residual mistakes, which only makes you look worse.
  • ‘That task isn’t my responsibility.’ If you choose to respond in this way, you need to be very, very sure that you have a leg to stand on. Your PM likely manages many projects and knows the publisher’s requirements for its freelancers more thoroughly than you, so she will have an excellent overview of what is within your remit. That being said, it is sadly the case that editors often aren’t briefed sufficiently (or at all), so do stand up for yourself if you believe this to be the case.
  • ‘Your instructions weren’t clear enough.’ If this was the case, why didn’t you ask your PM to clarify the brief earlier on in the project?

It is not your PM’s responsibility to become your mentor or to directly assist with your professional development. But, if she points out an issue with your work, it is important to succinctly let her know that you acknowledge the error and to explain how you will ensure it won’t happen again.

7. Reacting emotionally to a professional situation

We are all guilty of this at times, and freelancers can be particularly susceptible. In certain situations of stress or tiredness and without colleagues to bounce off, we can be prone to losing perspective and reacting emotionally when something goes wrong professionally. But too much of this can force a PM to drop a freelancer for being simply too much to handle.

If you make a mistake, a PM should understand that you may feel guilty for letting her down or causing her extra work. Some expression of your feelings of culpability is human and professionally appropriate. But try to strike a sensible balance. A rambling tome of regretful self-flagellation helps nobody and only serves to cause your PM to expend further energy calming your nerves and refocusing the discussion in a more productive direction. Start and end your email with an apology that makes clear you understand the impact of your mistake and will take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. These framing sections should take up no more than around 25 percent of your message, with the central section objectively discussing what went wrong and how you offer to fix it.

Similarly, if the situation is reversed and a personal situation is affecting your professional world, the PM will likely be sympathetic and understanding. But in all but the most dire circumstances it should be possible for you to let her know what you can and can’t achieve so she can calculate the knock-on effects and make sensible decisions for the good of the project. If you press on blindly based on emotional reasons rather than objective judgements (even well-intentioned reasons such as not wanting to let your client down), your PM won’t be impressed if catastrophe occurs and it turns out it could have been averted.

The reality is that, however good an editor you are, your client will be less likely to rehire you if dealing with you is difficult or unpleasant. But following some simple points of etiquette and always endeavouring to keep your client’s and the project’s needs in mind will make this much less likely.

Project managers, what other editorial irritations really get to you? Copy-editors and proofreaders, what strategies to you employ to ensure you avoid these or any other deadly sins of editors? Please let us know in the comments!

About Hazel Bird

Hazel delivers editorial services that empower non-profits, charities, businesses and authors to confidently share their expertise and impact. An editor since 2009, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.


  1. Sophie Playle on 11 February 2015 at 11:35

    Really excellent post, Hazel. Such an important topic, and one where a little consideration goes a long way.

  2. Denise on 11 February 2015 at 12:41

    This is such an excellent article! I recently received a compliment from a PM on a style sheet I had provided and of course was very grateful for the praise. It surprises me that other editors sometimes think that style sheets aren’t that important!

    Also—this is now my new favorite blog.

  3. Lyn on 13 February 2015 at 07:25

    Excellent article Hazel, thank you kindly.

  4. Nicole on 13 February 2015 at 11:17

    Thanks for this valuable piece, Hazel. As a busy PM, I simply need my copy editors to make my job as easy as psooible. I like them to insert comments that can be sent directly to the author, rather than comments to me that I have to rephrase for the author. I don’t like it (and neither do the authors) when they meddle unnecessarily with the text just to show that they are supposedly doing their job. I like it when they make an effort to learn how I name my files, and use the same method to save me the trouble of renaming. And I like it when they alert me to particular queries in the document in their email, rather than simply inserting a comment to me in the document itself, which I then have to scroll through to find. Yay for thoughtful copy editors!

  5. […] Sometimes doing a great job with a manuscript isn’t enough. As Hazel Harris discusses, a lack of professionalism can create headaches for your client and leave them with a bad impression of your work. Are you committing one of these deadly freelancing sins? (Editing Mechanics) […]

  6. Weekly translation favorites (Mar 13-19) on 20 March 2015 at 17:49

    […] Find Your Cost of Doing Business English Resume – How to Avoid 5 Common Written Mistakes The Seven Deadly Sins of Freelance Editors Editorial self-promotion – banish the worry Double and half (freelancer […]

  7. Loren on 13 November 2015 at 16:13

    Loved reading this. Rand bells all over the place! I’m afraid to admit I’m very guilty of no. 7. But on the plus side, my filing is superb!

  8. […] typesetting, proofreading, collating and indexing. I’ve previously written about how editors should never fail to provide a proper style sheet (see point […]

  9. Chrissie on 3 June 2016 at 01:27

    This is incredibly helpful advice, particularly the tips on not taking criticism emotionally. We often advise authors not to be too defensive about having their words edited, but it’s good to have that reminder that we need to take our own advice!

  10. Katharine O'Moore-Klopf on 8 June 2016 at 14:27

    Bravo, Hazel, and thank you!

  11. Liz Dexter on 8 June 2016 at 14:46

    This is excellent. I don’t work with a huge number of PMs, and I could turn some of these back into things for my clients (especially not asking one quick question a million times!) For those who work with PMs all the time, this will be invaluable.

  12. Elaine Firestone on 8 June 2016 at 19:14

    Excellent article, Hazel! i think a number of these should be taught as part of Netiquette, especially the one about giving descriptive subject titles in emails. So many times I get subjects like “Copyediting” or “Your services” when legitimate potential clients are contacting me. I often think they might be spam until I open them and read them.

  13. […] wrote a bit about this back in 2015 in my post The seven deadly sins of freelance editors. Everyone misses something on a brief occasionally (some of my combined briefs and style sheets for […]

  14. Rachel Thorne on 28 June 2018 at 13:23

    Loved this article thank you! I’m a freelance permissions consultant, but recognised a lot of the things you spoke about and it’s a very good refresher for best practice! Plus I’m only down the road in Cinderford – so nice to say hello to a relative local!

    • Hazel Bird on 28 June 2018 at 13:31

      It’s always interesting (and good!) to hear when my observations from the editorial world cross over to other worlds. Thank you, and hello from just up the road!

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