In my last post in this series, I wrote about the different levels of editing. In this post, I want to talk about the value proposition of having these layers of edit built in, or, more bluntly, the unquantifiable nature of that value, dollar-wise, for the individual. This is one of the disconnects that’s been bothering me: the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what it costs in time for an editor to work.
The Market Problem
There are a lot of freelance editors out there that seem to be making it just fine, but I also hear a lot of complaints about being underbid by unqualified, inexperienced editors. These disgruntled folks argue that this brings down the expected rate for real editors, and it becomes impossible for professionals to make a living without lowering their standards for their work. I understand their complaint, but I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for the argument. Markets have a way of sorting themselves out, and if it’s really important for people to have professional editing, they will only make the mistake of hiring someone cheap once. If it’s not important, well, either you’ve overinflated the importance of your work or you’re not making a good business case for your skills.
But this is where I worry. I believe wholeheartedly in the necessity of an editor if you want to your written content to be taken seriously. I’m also a pragmatist. I understand that you have to make a dollars-based case for things. How does an editor create a value proposition, contrasting the “without an editor” copy with the “with an editor” copy? And even if one could do that, would the dollar amount really be high enough to support hiring an editor, if you’re an author? It’s difficult for me to put make a case that isn’t more abstract than I’d like it to be. (As an aside, I’m planning on putting the Freakonomics guys on the case.)
These concerns are somewhat dulled by salaried employment. Your whole reason coming to an establishment and sitting in your office is to edit, so your value is somewhat decoupled from the work per hour itself. Certainly, there are deadlines, but you can just pump out a little overtime to get them perfect and then relax a bit next week. You get paid the same either way.
But what if you’re freelance and just looking to work with individual authors or copywriters? What if a particularly challenging piece would take weeks of work, and you charge by the hour? Or, worse, what if you charge by the word and you’ve underestimated the time you’d spend getting it to your standards? Now you’re talking about doing hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars of work and dealing with one of two scenarios: working for a wage that doesn’t sustain you or getting a response from a client that says “$700 to hunt for typos?” (Which is what many individuals think you’re doing–see my previous “On Editing” post.)
Now, certainly there are savvy clients and experienced writers who know this price is coming. All you need to do is go to Google and check for average editor’s hourly rates. Businesses will know what they’re getting into and know the value of a good editor, which is why scoring a business-based clientele as a freelancer is really your ticket. But the thing I find, and the thing that causes me consternation, is that the layman author just doesn’t care enough about it being perfect to pay for it, and I can’t say I blame him.
The Problem, in Anecdote Form
Let me give you an example. My husband’s a great writer. He’s a popular blogger, and I edit his posts every once in a while, when I have spare time. He’s a dream to edit, compared to most writers I’ve worked with. But when I edit him, I always find a few typos and a decent number of sentences that need rearranging or breaking up. I also read his posts very carefully to make sure I understand what he’s getting at and that I’m not changing anything that would alter his meaning. To get his posts to the level of perfect that’s up to my standards, it takes me 45 minutes to an hour to go through a 1,200 word post. One time, I asked him how much he would pay someone to do what I’m doing, and he said, “Honestly? Five or ten bucks a post. Maybe less. I write three posts a week, and people like my unedited writing enough that it really isn’t worth much, money-wise, to have them perfect.” And that is a totally reasonable thing to conclude.
I’m remembering, too, the time a friend came to me all excited about a book he was writing. He described the plot and told me what he estimated the page count to be. (It was roughly a quadrillion; he’s a man of many words.) He said he was really excited to have me edit it and asked if I could give him an estimate as to how much it would cost. After straightening out what he meant by “page”–very important to be speaking the same language of what a page is before an estimate, if you’re a freelancer–I gave him a quote with a buddy-discount of 40% off built in. He was still stunned into silence at the number.
Unfortunately, that means bad things for me. My skills and my meticulousness just aren’t really worth very much to individuals. To companies, maybe I’m a great investment, but I find I really prefer to work with people. And here I see a disconnect between what I have to offer, what I need to charge, and what my skill is actually worth. That’s a pretty rough thing to have to come to terms with.
So I’ve been thinking. When I edit, I edit for readers like me. I edit as if another editor is going read what I’m working on. I edit as if I’m claiming sole responsibility for every line that isn’t the best it could be. I want everything I touch to be something both I and the author can share pride in. But maybe this isn’t always what the market wants.
I’m not really talking about lowering my standards as much as I’m talking about filling a market need. When people want a rush on things at work and ask how long it will take, I’ll give them the option of “an Amanda edit or a normal-people edit.” They know that to mean, “Do you want me to fix the things only people like me would know are wrong, i.e., make it perfect? Or do you want me to look for any embarrassing or obvious mistakes?” Which of those two they choose makes a big difference in my estimation of time . So I wonder if there wouldn’t be a market for my “normal-people edit” service, in which an editor doesn’t concern herself so much with every sentence living up to its potential or common capitalization errors or the interchangeably used and and ampersand. Or maybe there’s room in the market for an a la carte type of edit. People can say, “I know I have trouble with homonyms. Can you make sure I used the right words in this piece?”
Even better, I wonder if there’d be a market for a partnership. What if an editor analyzes a few pieces from an author, tells him the patterns of error he should be looking out for (e.g., “you tend to use really long lists that will make people space out,” “you use nothing but versions of ‘to be’ verbs that make your writing kind of snoozy,” “your bullet points are never parallel,” “you have subject/verb agreement trouble”) and do custom edits just for those things.
The real problem with that is, for me, it’s really hard for me to limit myself. If I see a fragment, by god, I have to fix it. Double space after a period? NO. The wrong “its”? One eye will start twitching furiously like I’m some kind of maniac.
There’s also the problem with the fact that I won’t be proud of the work I’m helping people produce. It won’t be the best it could be. I won’t want my name on it, and it’s not satisfying work. Frankly, it’s a little soul-sucking, too, unless I feel like my goal isn’t really editing as much as it is making people better writers.
Maybe I’m destined to lose money freelance editing.