Dr. 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?