Learning From Mistakes

By Julie Klein, JKlein-Editor.com

Has this ever happened to you? You accept a new manuscript project for copyediting. You think you’ve correctly assessed the level of editing needed and bid accordingly. Indeed, the writer claims to have already paid for an editor, though she is a bit vague as to what she paid for.

You get to work, thinking you know how many days and hours it will take to finish the project. But wait—something is very wrong. That’s an odd expression for a novel set in medieval times. Ah well, must be a fluke. She did have another editor work on this manuscript, after all.

You press on. WTH? Here’s a bizarre setting: an English peasant living in the 1400s flips on a light switch? Yeah—no, that won’t work.

And on you go with the edit. Only now it seems to be taking a lot longer than you anticipated. You’re going to lose a lot of money on this project. Not only that, but your planned free time has disappeared and your stress level has reached the ceiling. Ack!

What just happened? Let’s look at some clues.

Clue no. 1: The client stated up front, “I’ve already paid $X,000 to have this manuscript edited.”

Clue no. 2: The sample I edited had at least one bizarre scene that I assumed was an isolated instance.

Clue no. 3: Because I needed the work, I kept my bid under $2,000 for a 95,000-word project.

So what did I learn?

Lesson no. 1: Never assume. Remember the TV show The Odd Couple? In what may have been the first time we heard this joke, Felix goes to court to defend himself against a traffic citation. When the witness answers a question with “Well, I just assumed…” Felix writes “assume” on a chalkboard and circles “ass,” “u,” and “me.”

And that’s exactly what I did. I assumed that after five years of working on her novel (according to the client) and previously working with an editor, the manuscript would be in pretty good shape. Did I even ask for clarification about the previous editing? If I did, I didn’t get a response, and I failed to push for one. All other assumptions followed from this one.

Lesson no. 2: Ask for the entire manuscript when doing a sample edit. In this case, I asked for a single chapter to get an idea of the writing. I knew enough to tell her not to send the first chapter, but even a chapter in the middle may not give you enough information. If you have the entire manuscript, you can spot-check for repetition of issues. If you are seeing red flags at this stage, it may be worth your while to have a 20-minute conversation with the writer to clarify where she is in the process.

Lesson no. 3: Don’t underbid. Once you’ve assessed the level of editing needed, calculate your hours based on the sample edit. If that times the rate you charge per hour comes to $3,000 instead of $1,990, so be it. Be clear in your proposal about why you think it needs the level of editing you are recommending. It’s up to the client to accept, decline, or negotiate. Recently I prepared a bid for a new client backed up by a deep and thorough sample. The client countered with “I’d like you to take a lighter touch.” Fair enough. I resubmitted a lower bid with a new sample and got the project.

Lesson no. 4: If after accepting the project you realize it’s really not ready for copyediting, STOP WORKING and send it back to the client with an explanation. Offer to do a manuscript evaluation and/or line editing instead. Renegotiate your fee accordingly or offer to refund a portion of the deposit, keeping what you feel is fair. Whatever else you do, put the brakes on until you’ve communicated your concerns.

Freelancing is a business, and any business has a learning curve. If you’re going to make a living, you’ll need to learn from your mistakes as quickly as possible. Your time is valuable, and if you are doing good work, you should be compensated accordingly.

After this experience, I developed an outline of a client interview, and I schedule a 30-minute phone call to cover essential points before I even accept the manuscript for initial review. I’m still developing my process, though, and the order of events may change. One thing I know for sure: I won’t make such a huge and costly assumption again.

Editing ImageGUILD NOTE: We can’t tell you exactly what to charge for each project or else we could be accused of price-fixing. You should set a rate that takes into consideration your level of experience, how quickly you edit, and—of course—the scope of the individual project. However, it is important that you don’t set your rates too low. The Editorial Freelancers Association’s Editorial Rate Sheet is generally considered the best guide for setting a range of prices for your freelance services, but specific rates will depend on the editor’s experience, the type of work, and many other variables.

Be leery of other online sources that cite significantly lower rates for services. You may earn a rate a bit lower than the listed EFA range, but it is important for editors to value their services enough to charge a professional rate. Don’t accept projects that pay you less than a livable hourly rate.

The Guild plans to conduct its own rate survey in late 2017 so we can provide a more specific range that applies to editors and publishers in the Pacific Northwest. In the meantime, don’t sell yourself short!


This past week I was contacted by a potential client who would not schedule a phone conversation, did not want to show me her manuscript, and did not want a sample edit. Instead, she asked me for an estimate based on a light copy edit of 150,000 words. Based on the red flags, I bid a high range of $3,000-$4,000. Not surprisingly—and with some relief—I didn’t get the job. What would you have done?

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