When heavy editing weighs you down

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heavy editingDr. Freelance: I recently acquired a new client who hired me to edit her blog posts, which she writes herself. Let’s just say she’s not the world’s greatest writer, and I did some heavy editing to the first few posts. It was obvious her feelings were hurt, and she chose to return a lot of the copy to the original (including the lead, which was terrible). I saw your post “There’s no crying in freelance editing” and was hoping you could provide some thoughts on how to address my situation. I really want to help her make her blog posts better, but I’m going to lose her as a client if we can’t agree on what “better” is or how we get there.—Better You Bet

My instinct is that your challenge revolves around differing expectations. She thinks her writing is solid, and only needs light editing. As a professional editor and writer, you have a higher standard based on your skills and experience, knowledge of style guides, and so on.

Trust me, I understand what it’s like to get a fairly simple project such as a blog post, jump right in, and start doing the heavy editing that it clearly needs. For some clients, that’s exactly what they want and expect: They don’t even want to see the tracked changes, it’s a matter of “Just fix it and make me sound smart.”

Other clients—the ones who believe (correctly or not) that they’re above-average or excellent writers—may be more likely to take edits personally. As discussed in the “no crying” post, these folks need and deserve an extra measure of empathy and positive reinforcement along with the polished text, whether you’re editing heavily or not. This excellent post and comment section from Peter Bowerman’s Well-Fed Writer blog underscores how not every request for a writing critique is actually asking for an honest critique.

Before You Assume Something Needs Heavy Editing…

Given your description of the situation, I have a couple of thoughts on how to smooth out this bump in your client relationship:

  • Hold a quick meeting on your mutual expectations. Have a brief, honest conversation with the client to come to agreement on what editing weight—light, medium, or heavy—she expects, and have her explain what she means. If she says she wants light yet you think it needs medium or heavy editing, you need to defer to her. “Better” means make it as good as you can within those parameters. (Yes, I know that can be a challenge!)
  • Gain an understanding of your client’s no-go zones. For example, you mentioned that she had issues with how you edited the lead. When you receive a new assignment, ask which parts of the post she believes need the most and least attention. That shows you’re being responsive and want to deliver a positive experience. Freelancing is NOT just about the work product.
  • Unsure? Query rather than edit. Before you just start chewing through a section of text, ask yourself if it might be more strategic to make a thoughtful comment or suggestion instead. Adrienne Montgomerie’s “How to Cushion Author Queries” at Copyediting.com offers some savvy tips on the topic.
  • Verify that you’re on track. After you edit her next post, have another discussion to get feedback. Were there still places where she felt there were too many red pixels or did you hit the mark? Again, this is about customer service.
  • Make sure you don’t take rejected edits personally. Not every client is going to accept every change, even the ones you believe make a piece far better. Ultimately, it’s their name that goes on it—and if they’re happy, you need to find a way to be, too.

In the comments: Have you ever had a client react poorly to editing that they believed was too heavy-handed? How did you manage the situation?



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  1. BJ Dooley says

    Expectations are everything. Probably the most common disconnect is when the editor is going for straight prose that meets normal writing standards, while the client is trying to establish a colloquial style. Preserving tone can be very difficult. I was once editor of a Bluegrass music magazine and learned to step into a character to edit this kind of material. The normal rules might not apply. Tricky.

  2. says

    Since this is an ongoing job, I’d definitely have that talk with the author that you mention, but also keep in mind that you probably can ease her into better edits. Edit lightly at first, even though you’d rather go deeper. Stick to what is absolutely not right with a few tweaks. As she gets used to that level of editing, go a little deeper. Move slowly in your editing relationship with her and you may find she’s gradually more receptive!

    I know that means sacrificing the best quality content in the early days, but once you get her up to speed—and once she realizes you’re only looking out for *her* best interests—you could offer to re-edit those early pieces. 🙂

    • says

      Susan, thanks for the comment, which I rescued from spam. (Not sure why it went there, but your future comments should approve instantly.) Great strategic point about easing into deeper edits after the relationship has developed a bit.

  3. says

    Perfect advice, Jake. I’ve often struggled with this one myself.

    I tend to warn them in advance that I’m not light on the edits. I tell them that they can expect me to get a little heavy, but that it’s a process, and they’re ultimately the ones with the final say.

    Also, if I know there will be an issue, I turn off Track Changes. Sometimes if they see all that red, they go a little mental. Better to have them believe they wrote it in the first place!

    I have had clients who were upset by edits. In one case, he would simply change it all back. Then he showed the entire thing to his colleagues, whom he suddenly claimed were editors, and of course they hated it. I hated it — he wouldn’t let me change anything. It ended badly and I was quite happy to be rid of him.

    Another client simply ignored my edits and had his friends change my “numerous errors” (that meant they inserted pull quotes into his original content).

    • says

      Hey there, Lori! I agree that it’s smart to give a warning in advance and provide a clean copy sans track changes. And don’t you just love third parties getting involved?!

  4. says

    Hi, Jake,

    Wow, thank you so much for this post! As you know, I really needed this advice and think it is so spot-on. I definitely see the value in giving clients a feeling of choice and control, even when you’re editing their work. And maintaining excellent communication is definitely key to ensuring smoother processes in the future — wonderful advice, as always! Reading all the comments on this post has been really helpful, as well, such as easing into heavier edits a little bit at a time. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this great blog post! Nicki

    • says

      You’re very welcome, Nicki! I always enjoy hearing from you and seeing how far you’ve progressed in your career. Keep me posted on the outcome from editing with the slightly lighter touch (for now)!