Note: This post was originally scheduled for 5/30/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.
First, find a professional you can trust.
For example, I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting. It costs less than you think.
Thomas D. Morrow wrote that “Advertising may be the only business in the world where the clients with the most money can make demands until they get the agency’s worst product, while the small client with little to spend must meekly accept the agency’s best.”
So if a guy walks into an ad agency with his hat in his hand, a small budget and the willingness to listen that usually accompanies a small budget, he will walk out with a much better product than the Know It All who barges in, perfectly willing to pay extra to force the professionals to do it his way.
But Mr. Morrow was wrong. It isn’t just advertising. The same holds true for other artistic endeavors.
Let’s read the important part of the statement again: “The clients with the most money can make demands until they get the agency’s worst product.” (Did’ya get that?) “While the small client with little to spend must meekly accept the agency’s best.”
Here are a few examples of wrong thinking on the client side:
Cover design clients often believe the cover must reflect the main characters or the storyline or both.
That isn’t the cover’s job, and most of the time it will render a cover that’s far too busy. Reflecting the main character(s) and the story line is the writer’s job in the story.
The cover’s job is to attract the prospective reader’s attention and convey the theme or concept of the story. The cover’s job is to entice the reader into buying your book or at least sampling it.
When I was designing covers for others, I charged a low rate to design a cover based on the client’s ideas but on my preferences. I charged a lot more to design a cover over which the client demanded full artistic control.
And when I was designing websites, those clients often expected me to explain each nuance of web design as I was progressing. For example, if I told them I would host their website, free of charge, so I could more easily access it and work on it, they immediately became suspicious. The conversation usually went something like this:
“What do you get out of hosting my website free?”
“I get the ability to provide you with better, faster service than I would if I had to jump through hoops at your hosting service.”
“Yeah, but how much do you charge for hosting?”
“Umm, free hosting is, you know, free. What part of ‘it costs you nothing’ do you not understand?”
But that wasn’t good enough.
They expected me to spend a few hours explaining why it’s easier for me to access their site when I’m hosting it. So before I learned better and got out of the business, I would explain what I have to do—the actual process—to upload a particular premium theme framework and then access and change the permissions on certain folders and files through an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) client.
Eventually, finally, they saw the benefit. Or more likely, they tired of the explanation. Then they’d say something I knew all along was coming: “Ahh, well I didn’t know it was that involved.” At that point, they would usually giggle and say, “Oh, okay. Well go ahead then!”
That really sent me over the top with frustration. Why couldn’t they just believe up front that I know what I’m talking about instead of making me explain it all before assenting? I mean it isn’t like they learn anything they can use.
And then, having gobbled up two or three hours of my work day, they say something radically uncool like, “Well, I’m off to an evening on the town (or off to boating on Lake Havasu or off to board a plane for Hawaii or off to take a nap). You just have a really great evening!” Giggle giggle.
Right now, some of you are thinking But don’t we have a right to ask questions?
Sure. Yes, you do.
But why would you want to cost your professional service provider a lot of time that he could be spending on your project?
Seriously, think about it.
When you put new tires on your vehicle, if the guy at the tire store says he’s going to balance and mount them on your vehicle at no cost to you, do you grill him for a few hours about WHY he wants to balance them and mount them on the vehicle?
Do you then question him about the process of mounting the tires on the rims, balancing them, and finally putting them on your car?
Or do you just say, “Thank You” and let him do his job?
Finally, amazing as it sounds, Morrow’s statement about advertisiting also holds true for freelance editing.
A couple of years ago, I spent two precious hours (my fault… won’t happen again) explaining to a writer why most of the changes I made to his manuscript were very light nuances. After all of that, in his best the-reader-will-know-what-I-mean tone he said, “It makes a difference, sure, but not much.”
I said, “That’s specifically because I don’t want to change your voice. I just want to smooth out the reading experience for the reader. The reader won’t even realize the work has been copyedited. He’ll just know it reads like polished glass.”
Folks, it isn’t the presence of something good that the reader notices; it’s the absence of anything bad. In other words, the reader will never notice that something’s written well; he will only notice if it’s written poorly.
The client said that was fine, but insisted that I never replace (for example) “he said to himself” with “he said quietly” because “all ly adverbs are bad.” Sigh. And he laid some more pretty strenuous requirements on me regarding his edit.
He responded by saying that three published authors had read his manuscript and “gave it a passing grade.”
I know, I know. The customer is always right. Blah blah blah.
Except that if he were always right, he’d be providing the service instead of purchasing it.
But I digress.
What I should have said is this: “Y’know, you’re absolutely right. You’re paying for this, so it should be your decision whether to pay me to actually do my job or subsidize me for not doing my job. Tell you what. I’ll charge you 1 cent per word to draw on my expertise and edit your manuscript the way I want to, or I’ll charge you 5 cents per word to edit it the way you want me to. I mean, it’ll read like crap but hey, it’s your call.”
But I didn’t do that. Instead, since he’d mentioned those “published authors” giving it a passing grade, I reminded him that a D is a passing grade.
Yeah, it all went pretty much downhill from there. Now he’s back in chasing-an-agent land wondering what happened. Well, he was back then. Today he’s in “whatever happened to” land.
Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind at all when other writers ask me questions in an attempt to learn something, but it bugs me to no end when they ask with an inflection that implies they believe I’m trying to put something over on them.
I’m too busy to waste my time trying to con anyone, and I’m too busy to spend time convincing them that I’m not trying to con them. Eventually I got to the point where I would sigh, shake my head and say, “Remind me again, why did you hire me to edit your manuscript?”
Here’s some friendly, completely free advice: if you’re going to insist on doing everything your way, save your money and do it yourself. Remember, the reader will never notice that something’s written well; he will only notice if it’s written poorly.
‘Til next time, happy writing!
(Thanks to my friend Dan Baldwin for bringing the Morrow quote to my attention in his weekly Business Communications Tip of the Week. You may subscribe by emailing Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.