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Anita Jenkins

Getting Paid a Living Wage: The Editor’s Constant Challenge

Illustration of a long-haired person in red heels and a tight red dress over a white collared shirt walking a tightrope. They hold a long bar for balance: a clock is hanging from one side, and a dollar sign from the other.
business woman making decision between time and money
Phittavas Phupakdee © 123RF.com

I have been retired, or semi-retired, for almost a decade now. My career as a freelance writer and editor has gradually given way to new and different pursuits. But recently, a couple of projects for pay showed up in my inbox, and I succumbed. One was related to local history, a lifelong passion of mine. Another involved a “friends and family rate,” but was not going to be a freebie.

I told my husband I would be earning some extra money that would pay for a new laptop, or cover the cost of an airplane ticket or two. Maybe I also just wanted to demonstrate that I was still of sound body and mind — that I could still do it.

But my business skills had become rusty, and I forgot to ask the freelancer’s most important question: “Do you have any money?” Put another way, “Do you know that writers and editors expect (and need) to be paid a professional fee?” That is, a fee that reflects a skill set and expertise acquired through lengthy training and experience. A fee that recognizes the editor’s need to buy groceries, wear clothes, pay rent and even go to the occasional play or concert.

In my working life, I regretfully turned down jobs that were interesting and worthwhile but had no funds behind them. Or I took them on sparingly, like the pro bono work lawyers do while charging the bulk of their clients hefty fees.

As the two projects evolved, I learned that funds for the local history job depended on grants that hadn’t come through yet, and might not materialize at all. The other client didn’t really have any idea what a professional fee entailed, or even what a grocery-store clerk might be paid, let alone an editor.

Fortunately, I can slink back into my retirement life, and maybe write an entry for the Editors’ Weekly about lessons learned. It makes me think, though, how difficult it often is for editors to get paid a living wage.

I find that fact doubly intriguing in that editing is considered a craft, not an art. At least that’s generally the case if editors (or their associations) apply for grants from the Canada Council and similar agencies. We are not part of the artistic community that has traditionally signed up to starve.* Or are we?

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* As just one example, read about Bruce Springsteen’s early impoverished days as he describes them in his memoir, Born to Run.

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Previous post from Anita Jenkins: Conferences Are for Everyone.

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3 Comments on “Getting Paid a Living Wage: The Editor’s Constant Challenge”

  • Wilfred Popoff

    says:

    This reflects my experience as a self-employed editor and writer and I believe it reveals a cultural attitude: editing and writing don’t involve physical effort like plumbing and carpentry, nor special training like law and dentistry. Many clients have told me they could both write and edit, only they didn’t have the time. That is nonsense.

  • Claudia Kutchukian

    says:

    Thanks for this, Anita. This has been the editor’s reality since I started editing over 30 years ago and certainly during my years as a freelancer. Even as a salaried in-house editor for the past 17 years I seem to have to justify my existence—and explain my skills—way too often.

  • Anne Brennan

    says:

    Excellent piece, Anita.

    The only way this will change is if we all insist on real pay for the very real work we do. As you say, this requires solid business skills–something editors sometimes forget we need.

    Don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth. If the client says no, your time is freed up for another client who will say yes.

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