"No matter how terrified you may be, own your fear and take that leap anyway because whether you land on your feet or on your butt, the journey is well worth it."
-- Laurie Laliberte
"If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."
-- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."
-- Anais Nin

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I Fired a Client Today

Three times in my career, I have told authors to remove my name from their books. Actually, for those of you who may not "get" that statement, let me back up for a minute...

When an author publishes a book, he or she generally gives a nod to the editor with a short sentence on the copyright page or in the acknowledgments. Some writers will even list the editor on their Amazon page, so they share the byline in a search. For an example of that, click here.

The advantage for me is that good writers read. A lot. The hope is that they will read a book I've edited and seek out my services. The advantage for the writers with whom I work is that some readers actually care about the quality of what they read. A lot. The hope is that those readers will search my name on Amazon and find other writers with whom I've worked. Maybe the members of this small network can help each other.

THAT, my friends, is my motivation for maintaining high standards. I have a reputation for being a tough as nails editor with a singular focus: churning out the highest quality product of which the writer with whom I'm working is capable. My reputation is everything to me. I will not forgive poor quality or laziness.

If a writer hires me, it's generally because they know they will be pushed and challenged to do their best. However, I let them have a very long creative leash.

I will always forgive poor grammar if it means a passage reads better. I encourage using local vernacular in dialogue, but never in narration unless it's a first person POV. Even then, I keep that vernacular to a minimum. Too much flavor is simply too much.

So when a writer refuses to make changes, what do I do? That depends on the project and the writer.

Most changes I suggest are simply that: suggestions. Things like, "that seems a bit out of character for this guy," or, "this is worded awkwardly, can we try..." are really up to the author. I'm simply a practiced eye for what may or may not work.

Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are generally non-negotiable. If ever I'm unsure about a grammatical error in a manuscript, I look it up. I do not stick to one specific style guide, although I do rely heavily on The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (yes, THAT E.B. White). There's some wiggle room in those areas, but not enough to throw out the book. I'd rather have a good read than one with perfect grammar. An avid reader will call a writer out on poor grammar and spelling errors, but will generally forgive a few "mistakes" if the prose reads well.

(I once had a reviewer insist I be fired because of the plethora of spelling errors in the book he had just read. What the reviewer did not realize is that the author, and the language used in the book, was British.)

I don't normally butt heads with writers over these minor issues. I simply ask that if we are going to use toward, rather than towards, that we are consistent throughout the book, or the series. The strength of my insistence is based on my relationship, my history, with that particular writer.

I have worked extensively with certain authors like Bernard Schaffer and Tony Healey. Their edits these days are pretty much one quick pass that pulls out a few grammatical errors. They are more like proofreads than professional edits because both men have so richly developed their personal styles as writers, and I've watched it happen. I can spot any mistake either of them makes at a thousand yards. That's not to say we don't ever debate over content, but it doesn't happen as much as it does when I'm working with an author who is still green.

My job is to challenge the writer, to help him or her produce the best work possible. I am tough on all of them. And I will not "settle."

So, back to my original statement: Three times in my career, I have told authors to remove my name from their books.

The first was an author who hired me and refused to make any changes at all. The story was crap, underdeveloped, unrealistic, poorly written, and just plain bad. I called for what amounted to about a 90% rewrite. When I sent back the changes, she asked me when I was going to do the editing. Her publisher (a friend of mine who had referred her to me) and I tried to explain that I HAD done the editing.

No amount of back-and-forth could convince her that that was what editing was all about. I thought she expected me to make all of the changes. Turned out she was completely clueless and thought all I would do is proofread. (A freaking computer program can proofread, not as accurately as a human, but still...) I told her to make sure my name was nowhere near her book.

The second was a piece that was very good, but not quite ready. The author rushed to publish and put out what I considered to be sub-standard work. I knew he (we) could do better, but he didn't send the manuscript back to me. On the day I expected to find it in my mailbox, I saw his tweet announcing the release of the project. I sent him an email demanding my name be removed.

We worked it out and he made some additional changes. All is now well between us and he has agreed not to rush through projects just to publish. We now work with a set deadline for each project and if it's done early, great!

The third took place this past week. This author and I passed his manuscript back and forth for three months. During that time, he made minimal changes, and ignored numerous suggestions I made to improve his story. Because I told him his formatting was a mess, he made it plain that he expected me to fix it.

I spent hours researching for him, which is not my job. He had obviously done zero research into his subject matter. I even gave up a few hours of personal time to try to teach him how to edit in Word because he didn't know how.

When he sent me his final document, I emailed him back with (paraphrasing), "If you think this is your final draft, then please remove my name from your manuscript. I refuse to take the blame for its shortcomings."

So why am I airing my dirty laundry here on the blog?

I'm doing it because I feel it's important for newer editors to know that some things can't be fixed and it's okay to walk away from a job when you are feeling taken advantage of, or when it's putting you in a bad position. I'm also doing it so any writers might see the other side of the editing process.

That's not to say we, as editors, should strong arm our clients into doing our bidding, but sometimes there comes a point in any type of relationship when it's time for both parties to go their separate ways.

What are your thoughts on the editing process? Shout them out below.

Happy Editing!


  1. This has to be the hardest part about working FOR authors rather than being contracted by a publishing company to work WITH authors. Authors are free to disregard editorial direction and subject their work and reputations to the resulting detrimental effects. As freelancers, our reputations are our livelihoods; we cannot afford to be associated with projects of poor quality. We don't really do our clients good service, either, if we remain with them when they prevent us from doing the job they hired us to do.

    My worst example of this was the time I was contacted by an acquaintance about proofing a charitable anthology. In exchange for my services I was offered a full page ad in the back of the book. When I received the ms., I found that many of the stories needed editing, some of them seriously. When informed that there was to be no editing, I told the organizers that I would donate my time in support of the cause, because I had made the commitment to do so, but did not wish to be mentioned. I was a very sad proofreader; it's painful to see how something could be made better and not be able to do anything about it.

    1. Thank you for your input, and especially for sharing your story. I think you're right. The very first time I had to leave a client, I wasn't sure what to do. I'm not a person who gives up easily.