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.
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:
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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:
- It helps you. Making yourself consider and clearly document every style decision can only lead to a higher level of consistency.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!