Setting client expectations

What Does the Client Want?

Because editorial functions can go by different names, the first rule of freelance editing (whether developmental or otherwise) is to figure out what your client wants. If your client says, “This manuscript needs a good editor,” you need to verify what that means. You may think it means a thorough review of the plot, characterization, and setting, whereas the client may just want you to make sure all the words are spelled correctly.

A client may come to you wanting a copyedit but really needing development. The two shade into each other—a heavy copyedit can look a lot like development. A developmental edit that requires a lot of line editing can look a lot like a copyedit.

What we have to do is make sure we’re on the same page as the client. We have to describe exactly what we do (“I’ll look at issues like character development”) rather than assume that saying “I’ll do a DE on your ms” means that same thing to the client as it means to us.

Make Editorial Recommendations

But the job of developmental editing isn’t merely doing what the client wants. We’re not fry cooks filling orders. We’re educated professionals who often know better than the client what the ms actually needs. In essence, the job of the DE is to teach the author how to write a better story. Part of the job, then, is making recommendations about what a particular project requires for that to happen.

Sometimes editors are afraid of getting blowback from clients who want one-stop shopping or who don’t want to listen to their recommendations. Remember, just because someone wants us to work a certain way doesn’t mean we have to.

When you’re first starting out, you’re probably not going to feel you can be very choosy about your clients, but here’s the problem: Suppose your client asks you to do a combined DE/CE (which I talked about in a previous blog post). Suppose you agree because money. Some errors slip through because how can they not? Readers bring these errors to the author’s attention. Who gets blamed?

Now your client is unhappy with you for doing something that was against your better judgment in the first place. There is nothing more frustrating than this situation.

Instead of thinking in terms of blowback, think in terms of setting expectations: “This is how I work, this is why I recommend a separate CE round, this is my fee.”

Many dev editors provide samples of previously edited material (used by permission of the author) to show various levels of editing—”This is generally how I do a dev edit, this one is a light copyedit, that one is a combination.”

Heading Off Scope Creep

Setting expectations from the start helps keep the project you’re doing from becoming never-ending. If you agree to do one round of editing, that does not also include three hundred hours of personal coaching while the author is trying to finish the revision.

It’s very common for the scope of an editing project to change, what we call “scope creep.” In some cases, it offers the opportunity for creating additional income. When you deliver the ms, if the author does want those three hundred hours of personal coaching, you can charge for that separately.

The problem occurs when we don’t push back against scope creep. It’s one thing for the author to send a few emails after you’ve delivered the edit, asking you to clarify a point you made or to ask if you think a solution s/he’s devised will work. It’s another to be on the hook for questions the author asks for the rest of her career.

So, be as clear as possible: “I provide two hours of email support after the edit is delivered; by request I can arrange additional coaching at my hourly fee of $X.”

Many times authors don’t realize that what they’re asking is different from what they agreed to. Almost always when I’ve brought this to their attention, they’ve recognized right away that they pushed the boundaries and they adjust their expectations accordingly. In other cases we will work out additional compensation for the additional work.

Some authors want the dev editor to actually fix all the problems in the ms, which is far beyond the scope of what a dev editor does; that’s a coauthor or ghostwriter, and you would have to charge significantly more. Some writers need more teaching than we can provide in an edit; in those cases, you may be able to begin a coaching relationship with the author.

How to Handle Client Quirks

One common question I’m asked is, “What should you do about authors who send their materials in strange fonts or nonstandard file formats?”

In general, we develop mss in Microsoft Word. It’s possible to use Google Office for this as well (though that has some drawbacks, such as people being able to view your edits before you’re finished or making changes to the ms while you’re editing).

Although sometimes editors are asked to proofread a PDF or in some other file format, for development it’s best to use Word. If the client insists, it’s easy enough to use virtual sticky notes on a PDF to leave queries, but unless you have the right software, you won’t be able to do any line editing.

Some software that authors use, such as Scrivener, automatically export to PDF, so they will sometimes think that’s the file they should send to you. Other times they’ll save a Word document as a PDF, thinking that’s more professional.

It’s perfectly fair to expect the client to provide an appropriate file format with the appropriate formatting such as a standard font. Most formatting issues take only moments to correct, so if the only quirk is that the author has used two spaces after the period, or has used a weirdly undecipherable font, I’ll just fix it instead of kicking it back to the author/client and waiting three months for them to get around to it.

If it’s not an easy quirk to address (perhaps the author has sent you the file on floppy disk), then just state what the author needs to do instead.

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