What to do when an edit turns into book doctoring

As a developmental editor, you’ll occasionally (maybe even frequently) encounter clients who need more than what you can offer in a developmental edit. Sometimes they don’t have the skill to do the necessary revision or they simply don’t have the time to do the writing.

In these cases, instead of sending the client off to someone else’s website, you can consider doing some book doctoring, ghostwriting, or coauthoring instead and keep the pay.

Book doctoring is the process of taking a messy draft and revising it into shape. In this case, you’re not making recommendations to the author (“I recommend creating a stronger central conflict”), you’re actually doing the work of revision and rewriting yourself.

Ghostwriting is writing a book, or helping to write a book (or other type of project), that is published under the client’s name. Coauthoring is writing or helping to write a book for which you get cover credit/a byline (along with the client).

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, you have to charge a lot more for these than you do an edit because they take a lot more time. For that reason, they can add a nice fat sum to your bank account.

Typically you know ahead of time that your client needs a book doctor or a ghostwriter and you can deal with it from the beginning. But now and then, you don’t know ahead of time that your project is going to change into something else.

In those cases, I strongly recommend you hit the brakes early, in order to get scope, deliverables, and pay sorted out. When the author first says, “Revising this book is so haaaarrrrrrrrd,” that’s when your spidey senses should start tingling.

Do not, under any circumstances, make the rookie move of saying, “Here, I’ll do Chapter 1. You’ll see it’s not so difficult!” You can offer some resources and suggestions (“I would start by giving Margaret a stronger motivation for quitting her job and moving cross country as that will drive many of the other plot events”). But I would be very careful not to do more than that.

You can offer a (paid) coaching session to further explore the problems the client is having with the revision. If the author resists clear solutions (“try working in consistent one-hour increments”) or seems to want you to do more work, then just bring that out: “I can certainly revise the project for you, though it would cost more than editing does.”

See what they say. They might opt for a few more coaching sessions to see if they can get on track or they might decide to shelve the project (at least for now).  Or they might decide that the best path forward is to hire you to do the work.

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