Monday, June 9, 2014

Editor's Notes #12: How Long Should I Wait?

I'm often dismayed to hear about authors who submit a manuscript to a copy editor and then wait for months for the edits to be completed. And yet I hear the same story again and again, which leads me to believe it must be a fairly common practice.

How long is too long? At what point should an author say, "Either finish it or give me a complete refund and I'll take my business elsewhere"?


Well, I suppose it's tough to make a one-size-fits-all statement when it comes to copy editing.  After all, publishing houses can take six months or more to edit an average-length manuscript. But I'm talking about the typical freelance copy editor, not a large publishing house—someone like me, who has a daytime job and edits in the evenings at home. 

A typical copy edit for me involves a first-round edit and a final proofread. The first round is the most time-consuming, since it involves creating a style sheet which lists character names, places, common misspellings, and other things that are unique to that author. The good thing about working with authors who write series is that most of the characters stay the same—unless you're working with G.R.R. Martin, who, in the words of my husband, "writes books with newly introduced characters who somehow manage to die thrice per novel."


Since I'm not working with Mr. Martin, my style sheet time investment pays off with subsequent books in a series, since it only needs tweaking.


After that, the rest of the edit involves the usual things: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, the Dreaded Adverb, dialogue tags and the like. For an average edit on an average-length manuscript (55-80k words), the first round might take me about two weeks or so. Once it goes back to the author for approval & changes and comes back to me for the final proof, I usually have it in my hands again for approximately a week. That's it, unless it's a busy season when I can't edit as many days in a week.

If the book is extra long, or if the edits are heavier, add about a week to that total. And toss in a couple of progress emails in the middle of it, while you're at it—I don't believe an author should have to chase down his or her editor to see how things are going. If a week goes by, I feel I should contact the author to give an update on how things are going and where I am in the manuscript. It may only be seven days on the calendar, but I imagine it feels a lot longer to an author who has sent off months, sometimes years, of hard work to someone who may be a stranger.


I've heard (from authors I know personally) about editors who can't be reached after months, or who make excuse after excuse about why they're not done with the work. I can understand (as do the authors I've spoken with) about family issues or unexpected emergency-type things, but when someone says they "didn't start yet" after having the manuscript for a month, then goes on vacation without notifying the author they'll be gone—and still not working on it—and then makes the excuse that they just "can't get into the story," then you're getting the runaround. Copy editors don't need to get into the story. That's the job for content editors and beta readers. Copy editors look for errors. The story's enjoyability is a plus, but not a determining factor for edits.

I try to only work on one project at a time so I can focus on one story with one set of characters. For the way I work, that seems to be the most time-efficient, too. I can multitask with many household things, and I can even pat my head while rubbing my belly—what can I say? It's a gift—but when I need to concentrate, I do only one thing.


Don't ever be afraid to ask your editor how long a job should take. The time may not be set in stone, but having an estimate not only gives you a goal date, but it keeps your editor accountable to you and respectful of your time.

16 comments:

  1. My publisher takes about two months or less to edit, so I imagine a freelancer wouldn't take any longer than that.

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    1. I think that's reasonable. I realize I can only edit so many hours in a day (time restraints aside) because my eyes will get blurry after awhile, but more than a couple months, even on longer manuscripts, just strikes me as ridiculous and rude.

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  2. Well, customer service is always something hard to find, these days. Sad but true.

    Copy editing is one of those things that I don't think I could ever do... too much attention to detail, it would drive me crazy. And your description of your methods (writing up a stylesheet of author eccentricities, yikes) seems to agree. It would take away my joy of reading. How on earth do people like you do it? Maybe just a case of people's brains being wired differently.

    -H.C. Dallis
    http://goodbadbizarre.com/

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    1. I *have* been accused of having a brain that's wired differently. That said, though, I think I just like having all my ducks in a row, and that makes the work enjoyable. My family thinks it's because I like to tell people why they're wrong and I'm right. I'm not sure I can deny that one.

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    2. I surprises me that more authors don't already have style sheets made. I have to make a basic one to remember everyone's names and they are not weird. D'Hana aside. Otherwise they all get mixed up in my head and they do different stuff than they are supposed to.

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    3. One author I work with has a multi-paged spreadsheet with names, places, species, and more; another has a multitude of spiral-bound notebooks with character information. I make my own, but it might be nice to have someone share theirs with me. Still, making my own helps to cement the details in my mind, and I can list words that are used too frequently and scan for them before even beginning the read-through.

      Remembering that your main character has green eyes, not blue, and that he can fly but not read minds is pretty important.

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  3. One thing I've learned about the writing world is that it revolves around waiting. Querying an agent, working with an editor... hell, even when we were going to get picked up by Random House we'd be contacted in 3 month intervals. Personally, I don't care how long it takes, just please do me the courtesy of sending me a 10 second e-mail to let me know if there's a delay. Just common courtesy, right?

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    1. A ten-second email is the key to good relationships. I swear it. It's not like anyone should have to wait for the paperwork to travel across the ocean on a six-month voyage (or a three-hour tour with the Skipper). The common courtesy aspect goes such a long way!

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  4. I agree with the commenter just above me. Waiting is part of the business; however, I've been very lucky (knocking on wood before continuing). I've had very quick turn around on my books. Partly, I think, because I create my own stylesheet. Usually, I don't have many edits and when I do I'm appalled. I mean their instead of there? How could I have done that?

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    1. Creating your own style sheet is phenomenal! I'll bet your editors love you for it.

      I've missed things on the first round that I could swear the author added prior to the final proof, and kick myself when I realize that no, it was just me being momentarily inattentive. And I'm so grateful for style sheets, because in certain books, there are a lot of created words due to fiction being fictional, with species and materials that don't exist, according to Merriam-Webster's files. If I can't keep track of what's always hyphenated or a spelling the author and I agreed upon, I'm not much good to anyone.

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  5. The bottom line here, it seems, is that courtesy will keep the author from thinking that he or she is getting the runaround.

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    1. You nailed it. I would never want someone to think I'm making excuses for just not getting the work done.

      I just can't understand why people don't realize a little bit of communication buys a lot of goodwill.

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  6. An author friend of mine engaged an editor for her book and they signed a contract. Two weeks before the book was to be released, nothing had been done. My friend promised not to reveal the editor's name if she could have her money back. She received the money, and a couple of her friends edited the book. I was quite shocked that she had paid in full, in advance, and that the editor didn't abide by the contract. I have pretty loose agreements with the people for whom I edit, and I don't expect money until I'm finished. I edit as swiftly as I can, but I don't have to go to a day job since no one will have me. Even so, I don't edit as quickly as I did in the past because I know more now (good problem) so I know about more areas to correct, and my eyes can't take the light (bad problem). Do you have a contract with your authors? Do you give an estimate for how long the work will take?

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. I have the same good problem you do: I pick up more (and slow down a bit) now that I know more. Not a bad thing, certainly. I've also learned to look for certain common errors with the find/replace before I even start reading, which saves a lot of time overall.

      I have three authors I know well enough to only bill at the end (close friends outside of the business end of the relationship), and one of them insists on paying me as we go along, to space out the payments and come out even at the end, and all the rest. "The rest" pay half up front and the remainder when the work is finished.

      I can't imagine having the . . . um . . . guts to demand full payment up front. In fact, I almost feel uncomfortable asking for half up front, but if I don't know the person, the relationship isn't there and I don't know if they're going to rip me off any more than they know if I'm going to do a good job. I've been fortunate so far that nobody who's hired me has been shifty, and all of them have stated they'd like me to do additional work for them. I've liked every one of them, and I think just being myself and communicating consistently really helps.

      I don't use a formal contract. I have one written up, but have not had the need to use it yet. I try to give an estimate for the length of time, but if they aren't on a deadline, I still try to let them know how things are going at various points. Some, I'm in regular communication with anyway due to friendship, so that makes it easy to let them know of progress or delays, since they already know what's going on in my life.

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  7. Oh I hear ya on this one! I sent a story out several months ago. The longer it was gone was just time spent beating myself up and not to mention the feelings of dread especially until I heard that she liked it. I understand that the person doing mine works another job and only does this on the side but it didn't ease the emotions.

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    1. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to simply sit and wait, with no word in between sending it off and receiving it back. I would probably react the same way you did, feeling that no news must mean things were going poorly or that the story wasn't any good.

      I'm going to hazard a guess that many freelance editors have other jobs which may be their primary source of income, and that will certainly alter whether a book edit can be completed quickly or not.

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