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Rosemary Shipton

An Editing Scenario for Discussion

Illustration of person sitting on park bench with laptop and coffee, and big yellow lightbulb above her head with the word "Idea" in it.
Illustration of person sitting on park bench with laptop and coffee, and big yellow lightbulb above her head with the word "Idea" in it.
Copyright: arinavo

You’re a freelance editor who has been building up your business for two years now. You’ve taken a few webinars related to copy editing, you consult the Chicago Manual of Style as needed and you’ve invested in PerfectIt.

You’re excited because a prospective client has asked you to copy edit the detective novel he’s written. He’s ambitious about its potential for success, and he plans to go the indie route for publication. Like most people, you’ve read a few detective novels, and, as soon as the manuscript arrives, you skim through it, curious to find out what happens. Almost immediately, though, you realize something is wrong — the story lags, the writing is turgid and you don’t care about the characters.

The easy route is to fulfill your agreement with the author and copy edit the text: you need the money, and you want to add more titles to your CV. But if a manuscript is seriously flawed structurally and stylistically, what’s the point of correcting spelling and grammar and making sure everything is consistent? The novel will still have little chance of success.

You worry that the author does not realize there are different kinds of editing, so his request for “copy editing” may not be what he intends.

Should you try to explain the problem to him? You have no training or experience with content editing, so you could not take on these additional passes yourself, even if the author agreed to the additional fees that content editing would warrant. Besides, structural and stylistic editing have to be done before the copy edit, so your role in the project would be delayed at best — or you might lose the client altogether, simply because of your professional advice.

What should you do?


Previous post from Rosemary Shipton: Editing in the Time of Covid

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12 Comments on “An Editing Scenario for Discussion”

  • LizTaylorRabishaw


    Explain the problem(s). The different kinds of editing / the ones you feel the MS needs. As diplomatically and professionally and kindly as possible, explain the problem(s). You may never hear from/of this client again, or, you may find yourself on an editorial team assisting a Best Seller author 🙂 But you will know the standards to which you held firm.

  • Andrew Wetmore


    I would raise my concerns with the writer immediately, and lay out the options that you have outlined in the blog post. Aside from the cash payment, doing even excellent work on a flawed project will not do my reputation any good in the long run–I might not even feel that I could include the book title in my list of accomplishments. It does the writer no service, especially if they do not understand the different types of editing and cannot see what the current manuscript needs, to put a slap of paint on the outside and send in your invoice.

  • Great scenario! After being stuck in this situation once or twice, I switched to asking for the full manuscript before giving a quote (and I ask authors what degree of editing they’ve already done). I don’t read it in full on spec, but even glancing through is typically enough to flag for me if it’s not ready for a copy edit.

    From there, I’d be honest and encouraging about what I think the book would benefit from and why copy editing now could work against the author. Depending on the needs of the book, I might offer both options in my quote and let the author choose, or I might not offer the copy edit at all but leave the door open for the author to come back for an updated quote when they’re ready.

  • This is why we develop our network of trusted editing colleagues! I would talk with the author about what I believe the ms needs and what I can do, and then refer to a colleague who has the skills the author needs for the content/development work. I would offer to do the copy edit after that. If you have colleagues you can truly trust, the copy edit will come back to you.

    I am happy to spend time talking to authors about the self-publishing process and to make referrals. Being a source of help and information is good for business. Sometimes after that frank conversation about the readiness of the ms, you never hear from the author again; sometimes they resurface a year later with a better book.

    I also do not read a full ms closely on spec but do want to see it all before quoting.

    Bottom line: don’t try to do work you’re not qualified for, and don’t take money for editing something that doesn’t have a future.

  • Tim Green


    Short answer: The piece-worker industrial approach is to do the copy edit, take the money, and move on. The professional approach is to do your best to educate the client and fix them up with the sort of editor they really need, recognizing that that is not you.

    Longer discussion:

    The scenario holds some keys. «You worry that the author does not realize there are different kinds of editing…» How did that happen? What was the nature of the discussion that led to this copy edit request? Most non-editors don’t know the distinctions among the different types of editing that appear in the Editors Canada definitions of editorial skills. The client just needs their problem solved. They may need help in defining that problem. I would hope that the editor would discuss scope of work generally and editorial skills specifically before even starting in on this.

    The pre-work discussion should be all about the client in their language, not about the editor in editorial dialect. Editors who insist on discussing «pages» (an arbitrary unit of 250 words unrelated to the physical page layout the client imagines) or using words like «stet» with a client don’t serve anybody well. Failure to translate editorial skills into the client’s specific context and language falls into the same category.

    A common theme in the professions is duty to the client. Editing is not a profession in the same league as law, medicine, or engineering so there is no hard standard. That means the decision on the balance between «it’s all about the client» and «it’s all about the editor» is up to the editor.

    The answers to the questions above, then, come down to where the editor sees themself on the spectrum of professionalism.

  • Anita Jenkins


    Nice to see you back on Editors’ Weekly, Rosemary.

    This is a question that haunted me all through my career (agreeing to copy edit what you know is a bad manuscript that needs major surgery). I had the privilege of doing a lot of major surgery, even rewriting, but many don’t.

    I think this happens far too often, and the result is a bad or weakened reputation for the profession of editing.

  • Margaret Sadler


    To avoid regrets years later, think first of what’s best for the manuscript, as has already been explained by the earlier responses.

  • Kristina Bercier


    I would explain what I see going on in the manuscript and advise the author of the type of editing I think it needs at this point. I would provide a description of each level of editing and let the author know which one I provide. I certainly hope the author would come back to me when a copyedit is needed because I didn’t just work on it to get paid but was honest and offered my professional opinion so he could have the best manuscript possible.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    What a stimulating conversation we’re having about this scenario. Thank you to everyone who has responded so far for your well-expressed comments and the high standards you hold for our profession. I suspect, however, there are many editors who take the practical approach that the client gets what the client requests – and plunge right in. I recall a conversation I had with one editor who ran a thriving business, mainly with indie authors who learned of him through his website. I asked him if he kept in touch with his clients and knew how their books were doing in terms of sales and reviews. «I have no idea,» he replied, «and I’d rather not know.»

  • Anita Jenkins


    Letters to the Editor, November 4, 2022 TLS

    Alan Taylor writes, about a recently published edited version of Alan Rickman’s diaries:

    «My task as the book’s editor was to distill well over a million words to a manageable and readable length. Jensen [the reviewer] would like to know how I went about this. Is it not self evident? It’s what editors do. What has been left out? A lot, obviously, that could have been accommodated given more space but nothing that needed to be highlighted. Uppermost in my mind was the need to ensure that Alan’s inimitable voice is heard loud and clear, and that Madly, Deeply is true to his spirit.»

  • Kate Merriman


    Hello, Rosemary,
    What a great thought experiment! I’m going to accept your assumptions about who I am as an editor as given in the first two paragraphs and say, yes, I would take the «easy route.» In fact, I did so a few times back in the day.
    This discussion is reminding me of the distinction between the things we know we don’t know and the things we don’t know we don’t know. The latter can be very dangerous.
    It also brings to mind my exchanges with a distant relative a few years ago. He had written a novel in his retirement, a completely new area for him. He asked for guidance. I made some inquiries and recommended two editors. He picked one. The result? She provided excellent guidance – clear, professional, honest. His response? He was furious. So authors must accept some responsibility for their decisions about hiring an editor.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      You’re right on two key points here, Kate. The work by beginning editors is always going to be less confident and less correct than that by experienced editors. And yes, indie authors do have a responsibility to find out something about the editing process and to do some research or seek advice about appropriate editors for their project.

      Now that many universities and colleges are offering good in-class and online programs in publishing and editing, however, I think there are ample opportunities for people who want to be editors to get the necessary training. The best ones are the credit courses, where class numbers are limited and you get excellent feedback on real assignments from knowledgeable instructors. At Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson U), for instance, three courses should, if you do well in them, set you up to begin your professional career: Copy Editing, Advanced Copy and Stylistic Editing, and Substantive Editing. Is it too much to expect that people who want to be editors should invest in three basic courses before they hang out their shingle?

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