clients hire me to edit their books and then get angry about my feedback

A reader writes:

I’m a freelance editor who enjoys the freedom of taking on projects that I get to choose and working my own schedule. I work regularly and finding work is not my issue — it’s the feeling of being burnt out by my clients. As an editor, I help writers develop their novels in the hopes that they can find an agent or further edit their books so in theory the work will be better before they self-publish. In reality, these books are normally nothing anyone would want to pay good money for but I take my job seriously and am empathetic to these people’s endeavours, many of whom are passionate and creative. However, I think with the pandemic, many people have had free time to take the oppurtunity to finally “write that book they’ve always wanted to” and now have it in their minds that the rest of us should read these books, which will become best sellers without a touch of editing. They come to the industry not expecting professionals to offer constructive feedback (or in some cases, flat out rejection). Colleagues have had to turn people away and been severely abused.

Recently, after delivering files, these new clients have sent me outrageous and offensive emails in response. It’s disheartening and tiring after working for weeks on their books to be abused that way. I answer professionally that I’m one editor offering professional feedback and it is of course subjective, but what I really want to say is that they should be ashamed of their behavior and stop bothering me with their dozen shouty emails in an hour. I had to block one person after telling them I was no longer engaging.

I’ve been a freelance editor for years and this behavior is new for me. I’ve informally chatted with friends in the industry who have seen an uptick in this sort of thing the past few years too). I’ve never been in love with my job, but I loved the perks of it. But now it’s becoming difficult to partition work and life. Even after I had an independent evaluation of my deliverables to the shouty client, (the review concluded my work was A++), it bothered me for a week and I was unable to sleep well or concentrate in the way I would’ve liked on a much more talented writer’s work. I’m pretty thick skinned and I’m less concerned about these people’s words and more concerned with this divide between work and my own life. I’m unable to switch off these days by the end of the week. I suppose as a freelancer, I don’t have the support one would in an office situation and have to be my own manager, colleague and HR.

I’d love for other freelance editors to weigh in on how they handle this, but my initial thoughts: Can you do more screening on the front end before accepting a client to make sure they understand the type of editing and feedback you’ll be providing? I’m assuming you’re making it clear what an edit involves — and ensuring they know it’s a lot more than just proofreading — but could you send a sample of a typical critique so they can see in advance what to expect before they sign on?

Also, could it make sense to edit, say, one chapter for a prorated fee and then pause to make sure you both want to continue with the remaining chapters for the rest of your rate? That could allow the person to realize they aren’t up for this type of feedback before they’re staring at a fully marked up manuscript.

Also, any chance you should be being pickier about your clients? Sometimes freelancers take any client who approaches them, but there can be a cost to doing that. Just as clients should be screening you to determine if the way you work is right for them, you should be screening them to decide if you want to work with them. If all these people seemed lovely until they started screaming at you, there might be no way to know ahead of time, but it could be interesting to reflect on whether there’s any pattern to who gets affronted by feedback and who doesn’t. (For example, maybe people who have been in writing groups and experienced feedback on their work that way are less likely to melt down when they get it from you, or maybe it’s the people with grandiose ideas about their chances of publication, or so forth.)

{ 478 comments… read them below }

  1. Akcipitrokulo*

    As someone who is hoping to be on the other side at some point – I’d be very happy to pay for an edit of synopsis and first chapter(s) as a trial run. You could then offer to have that as part payment for full edit if you both decide to go forward.

    1. lyonite*

      Getting an editing sample is very standard in the industry; in fact it’s recommended for most writers to do when they’re thinking of working with an editor for the first time (and presumably vice-versa). (I’m an author and while I haven’t worked with a freelance editor, I have several friends who have.) OP should talk to their friends and/or reach out to editors who work in the same general area to get an idea of the range of going rates. And I can confirm that the fiction writing community is particularly rich with people who have very strong feelings about their work, and very little experience with criticism of same, so it’s in everyone’s interest to get the expectations clear upfront.

      1. Not a cat*

        “And I can confirm that the fiction writing community is particularly rich with people who have very strong feelings about their work, and very little experience with criticism of same…”

        And this is why I only edit technical non-fiction :)

        1. quill*

          It’s one of many reasons I intend to only lurk until I have something ready to query. I barely have time to write my own stuff, let alone deal with some of the strong personalities out there. :)

        2. Seeking Second Childhood, CTA*

          I once made the mistake of agreeing to copy edit a ms for a friend who’d never been published or worked with an agent. Never again. Such huffy anger over grammar correction and pointing out racist stereotypes! (“thieving sexy gypsy dance girl” for one. ) The radio silence that followed was preferable.
          The people I’ve worked with since then all have history of working with editors previously. I make a point of asking if they want to keep dialogue in dialect or if they want that standard English as well.

          1. Kali*

            I once was in a critique group where I pointed out to a woman that if two Chinese characters are speaking to each other in their native language, she shouldn’t be writing in broken English – they’re fluent in their own language, after all.

            Well. You’d think I’d reached across the table and smacked her. “I don’t speak Chinese though. I can’t write in Chinese!” Um, that’s not at all what I was saying you should do, lady.

            The entire ms was a hot mess though, honestly – absolutely stuffed full of racist stereotypes to tell the fictionalized story of a Chinese immigrant she had met. I wanted to point out that maybe that guy should be able to tell his own story or at least someone who knew literally anything about his culture, but I think she just stopped listening to me that day.

            I have so many ‘overly precious writer’ stories from these critique groups. Oh boy.

            1. inaudible*

              My grandma was an editor in a technical field, and at one point someone she knew asked her to look at the fiction ms of someone close to them. It involved a plot that hinged on a piece of text in Chinese that no one could read until they realized they were reading it in the wrong direction. Apparently, the writer thought Chinese was written in an equally spaced grid. Only it’s not. It’s clear when the text is in vertical lines or horizontal lines. (And even if it wasn’t how much of a mystery can it be when there are only 3 options to try?) So that whole plot went out the window, and my grandma had to deliver this bad news to the aspiring novelist.

          2. Princess Trachea-Aurelia Belaroth*

            The one long-term fiction client I have had was so good on these points. English was not his first language, so he accepted all my grammatical correction fully and with absolute grace. He was not exactly woke, but he also took into consideration all my notes about how things would land–once again, I think being from a different country with a different language meant he was not as invested in his position in relation to my sense of what was PC. He was also very good at plot and structure for a first-time writer intending to self-publish, so that makes up for a lot, when you can give praise and show where things are working well (even as part of a critique, like to show where it breaks down).

            I made sure to clear up ahead of time how much he was willing to do in terms of re-writes (not a whole-scale redraft, but willing to adjust individual scenes or add through-lines and other hints) to determine how much substantive editing he wanted. So then I could give him tips in levels, like, “Honestly, I would like to see the third act go in a different direction, as the payoff isn’t great with everything you’ve done before. However, for minimal rewrites, perhaps you could make x, y, and z small changes to the climax to make it land stronger, and make sure to include this other thing in the resolution so it’s not dropped.”

            I’ve only worked with clients intending to self-publish in the short term (although this client was interested in eventually getting a publisher), so I found it important to determine how much more work THEY were willing to put in before I started, not just what level of editing they THOUGHT they wanted. I have had push-back on line edits, but it was only ever for people who wanted me to submit a sample edit of a page or chapter of theirs, so I just didn’t take them on.

            But I never made a living from editing, so I got to be very choosy.

              1. Princess Trachea-Aurelia Belaroth*

                Sorry it took me a moment to see this. If you search MT Miller on Amazon, his books come up. He has two series, and I believe they’re both on Kindle Unlimited.

    2. Writer Claire*

      Synopses and queries are such beasts. Before you pay an editor for those, consider checking out a writer’s critique forum. I’ve had very good luck with Absolute Write’s Query Letter Hell, which has lots of advice posts and successful queries, as well as a place to get feedback on your own. The forum is free and there are a number of pro authors who hang out there.

      1. squeakrad*

        I would actually go so far as to offer them an example of the kind of feedback you provide before they even spend any money. Have a few examples ready for books, nonfiction, fiction etc. if you have a white client base. Once they read the feedback they may not want to hire you and I think that’s time well spent.

            1. Reluctant Mezzo*

              And this is why I do an out loud slow readthrough of any dictated text. My hands are turning to crap and dictation the only way I can keep my shoulders from freezing up.

              That being said, practice really does improve the ultimate output even if Dragon is behaving like a cranky child who needs a nap.

      2. Akcipitrokulo*

        I was suggesting editor look over them – not the one you send off, but one to critique the flow of story. Agreed though!

    3. AngelicGamer*

      I fully agree. Also, I’ve been looking into editors for my own book. There’s a good many out there who are asking for a letter of what you’re looking for in terms of editing along with sample pages. I think that’s another good way to screen those who turn out to be abusive.

    4. MistOrMister*

      This would make sense to me as well. I’m surprised it seems like many people have an unknown editor do their entire piece without having an idea of what kind of editing they are paying for. I would think you’d have too much potential for unhappy parties doing it that way.

    5. Allison K*

      Highly recommend a sample edit. Also consider whether there’s a way to acquaint them with your style even before then. I am a longtime freelance editor and my clients come to me *because* they want exacting feedback that will help their book get better. (I market myself as The Unkind Editor.) Usually they get to know my work in a webinar or a blog post, then they get a sample edit, then they book. By the time they get their edit back, they’ve jumped through enough hoops that I can take them by the hand and walk them through a list of what to do for the next draft, like smart little lambs.

      1. Anon for This*

        I don’t know if you’re in the UK or not, but “smart little lambs” is just adorable and sounds very British.

        That aside, it’s so smart that you have essentially preselected your clientele. You might as well have put up a sign saying “Here be dragons”.

        I hope the OP sees your comment and does some tailoring of their approach to approximate more closely what you are doing.

        1. Allison K*

          Thank you! I really appreciate that word “preselected” – I just had a meeting with my biz coach and that word in particular just crystallized some ideas into a plan. Thanks!

          (Not British but my husband is :) )

  2. Eldritch Office Worker*

    As someone who would LOVE to get a marked up manuscript back (need to finish that pesky first draft first…) this breaks my heart. I love that you’re taking projects that other people might turn away and that you’re so generous with understanding an author’s perspective.

    This is such a hard thing to screen for. The idea of a sample chapter makes some sense to me. If people aren’t used to getting edited documents, getting 300 pages of edits might be really overwhelming. I work in a highly iterative field and people new to the field sometimes have trouble adjusting to getting a two page memo back with a lot of edits, even though that’s normal and expected. Some kind of lead in might help.

    But know that your work is valued and these people are jerks!

    1. Artemesia*

      I am gob smacked that people who hire you independently act this way. What did they think an editor did? when my publisher had my first major book edited –I did not approve of a number of edits, particularly structural ones. I had structured chapters in a particular way for a reason. BUT I certainly didn’t abuse the editor — I just said ‘this is all good, thanks, but this over here I want to keep the way it was written’. and so it was.

      It sounds like the clear statement of what an editor’s job is coupled with the single chapter sample edit is a great idea to disentangle yourself from jerks. Perhaps their idea of ‘editing’ is that you would catch their typos or minor grammatical mistakes and so explaining what editing means when you do it is a first step.

      1. Harper the Other One*

        Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t have a good sense of just how much ANY author’s work gets ripped to shreds and rebuilt. They things great authors’ work springs onto the page in final form, and they’re secretly hoping the editor tells them that they are one such genius. That sounds snarky but it’s really not! Few people outside the industry know just how much even long established professional authors get edited.

        1. Lily of the meadow*

          The only author who I have ever heard of whose works jumped onto the page in final form was Rex Stout. His books had very very little editing, if any. And they are VERY good!

        2. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Erle Stanley Gardner dictated all the Perry Mason and the A.A. Fair books–but he was also an experienced attorney who could dictate a complex legal document that had to hold up in front of a judge–this is strong incentive to get it right the first time.

          Very few of us are that good!

      2. Let me librarian that for you*

        You hit on a great point about structural edits – building on the suggestion to offer a sample edit of a chapter, a lot of editing is educating authors about different types of editing (developmental, substantive, line editing, copy editing, proof reading). One way to do that proactively could be to include on your website or info some quick samples of these different levels of editing (which can also inform your rates since they take different levels of effort). That way authors can better know what to ask for and expect.

        1. Troutwaxer*

          As an amateur author and someone who’s edited manuscripts for others, I think this is a great post! One of the big things I’ve learned is to find out what kind of comments people are looking or, or alternately to say to an alpha reader, for example, “I’m looking for comments on larger issues of plot and character, I don’t need copyediting or line-editing at this time.” And a definite yes to explaining the various kinds of edits and the services you offer.

      3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        I had to edit a text written by a Dutch man once. He was offended by the extent of my editing, telling me that his English was very good. Erm, let me be the judge of that?
        Basically, he always managed to sell a lot of stuff to his British clients, so his English had to be excellent, right? It had nothing to do with the fact that the products he sold were much more expensive in the UK, or that the Brits might find his accent charming or whatever.
        I pointed out that he had paid a professional writer to put together his brochure in Dutch, so surely he should pay a professional for the English version too? Harumph!

      4. Liz T*

        Well, you already had a publisher; someone had already told you your work had baseline merit.

        LW is dealing with writers who’ve received no such stmo of approval, so they’ve probably got a lot more insecurity to deal with.

    2. Gen*

      My first book was published after an editor contacted me—I had no previous experience in the publishing world just writing for fun, so I didn’t know most of the terminology and the first time I got edits back it was a shock. I was used to the sort of proofreading that comes with day-to-day office work, so ‘take out these four chapters (that I was most proud of), add about seven thousand words over here, none of this works, none of that works, etc’ it was like expecting someone to do light housecleaning and finding the building half-demolished.

      Should I have done more research into the industry before I even thought about taking the job? Absooooolutely. But I knew folks who had some success self-publishing and they made it look easy enough. I know better now. It’s a common mistake and I suspect a lot of these folks are thinking the same.

      Offering to do a chapter first as standard would probably help a lot, but bonestly I’d include some kind of ‘abuse won’t be tolerated’ clause so OP can disengage with abusive clients more easily.

      1. AE*

        As an aspiring fiction writer, this is oddly comforting to me. I often struggle with perfectionism (or more overthinking things, I don’t mean to imply that my work is close to “perfect” in any way), and it’s kind of liberating to think that it doesn’t matter if I’m not 100% satisfied with this or that section because a good editor may very well end up tearing it apart, anyway. Thank you for sharing your experience.

        1. Lexi Lynn*

          There’s a blog called Kriswrites that has a number of articles on silencing your critical voice that may be helpful to you. Since it sounds like you are leaning towards traditional publishing rather than indie, you likely will want to ignore her opinions of trad publishing and their contracts, but Google should help you go directly to the critical voice articles.

        2. Tea and leptons*

          I once said to my therapist, in all sincerity, ‘I can’t even be a perfectionist properly – I make far too many mistakes!’ She laughed a bit too hard.

    3. FloraPoste*

      Off topic but… iterative field! That’s the phrase I’ve been looking for almost without realising I need it! Thank you! (also work in one, also working with new people who have trouble adjusting to varying degrees)

  3. Sara M*

    Hi! I’m a working freelance writer.

    The profession is _packed_ with these people. I’m sorry!

    My best suggestion is this. Make your standard practice to do the first three chapters only (charge an extra high rate for this). If they like the feedback, they can hire you for the rest of the book (at a more normal rate).

    Also, be absolutely clear about what type of feedback you’ll be doing. Ask what they want too! (Some people are not self-aware enough to know that, but some are.) Ask them, “Are you okay with constructive criticism that will help improve your book?”

    In the end, you cannot screen these people out; they’ll slip through. But you can a) reduce the time you spend with them, and b) they tend to be less mad if it’s only a few chapters you comment on, not the whole book. And you can spend more time with the good clients.

    In the end, remember the jerk clients pay money too, and figure out where you want your boundaries. Good luck!

    1. Jora Malli*

      I like that idea too. It’s kind of like an audition to see if the author and editor’s expectations line up.

    2. Johanna Cabal*

      I was actually surprised to read somewhere that one of my favorite authors, Diana Wynne Jones, refused to allow her works to be edited. Granted, this was probably after she’d become established and gained a following.

        1. Corporate Lawyer*

          LOL! You just confirmed what I’ve long suspected about Anne Rice. Loved her first 2-3 books, then they got progressively worse thereafter, IMHO, and I always wondered whether the problem was that she got successful enough to ignore her editors.

          1. quill*

            Only one of the problems, I think – another seems to have been that the culture of publishing has changed since she started out (mostly for the better) and she did not like that one bit.

          2. Elizabeth West*

            I’m convinced that happened with Jean Auel’s last Earth’s Children book, The Land of Painted Caves. There is so much repetition it’s almost unreadable. Whenever I reread the series, I just pretend that one doesn’t exist.

                1. Lana Kane*

                  Yeah – I’ve read all of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, and as much as I enjoyed them there were several storylines that could have been completely eliminated without much impact.

              1. L.H. Puttgrass*

                I’d add Neal Stephenson to the list. But verbosity is so on brand for him now that I don’t know if I’d even try to edit him down now, were I his editor.

                (My favorite example of this is in “Fall, or Dodge in Hell,” where he spends 233 words to write the equivalent, more or less, of “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel”—just with lots more exposition and explanation. If that’s the kind of thing that bothers you, you probably don’t read Stephenson these days.)

                1. Alto Power*

                  I gave up reading books by Mary Higgins Clark and Janet Evonovich when it became oblivious after a few pages that they were poorly, if at all, edited.
                  And all those “free” books you can download to an e-reader –they are not worth the electrons used to load and read them.

                2. Foila*

                  Oooof, no wonder I haven’t read much Neil Stephenson lately, I was kind of over him in 2008 and it sounds like all his worst traits have only gotten worse (except possibly for sexualizing minors grossly, I haven’t heard reports of anything ickier than YT in Snowcrash).
                  Someone should have edited that subplot entirely into oblivion.

                3. R*

                  Oh man, I read five books in January and then I started Anathem and here we are more than halfway through April. I’m 300 pages from the end and it’s such an interesting mix of “how are there still 300 pages left of this?!” and “how is he going to wrap all of this up in only 300 pages?!”

                4. ThatGuy*

                  My favorite Neal Stephenson verbosity is the random several-page essay about eating captain crunch cereal in Cryptonomicon. The main character goes into amazing detail about his procedure for eating it.

                5. L.H. Puttgrass*

                  R: The other thing Stephenson is famous for is being really bad at endings. He’s gotten somewhat better since his early days, but not consistently so.

                6. Autumnheart*

                  Oh lord, that book is absolutely AWFUL. One of the worst books I have ever read. (And I’ve read most of his, and liked them for the most part.) Almost 900 pages to basically re-tell Genesis, badly.

                7. Snark*

                  Fall was a shockingly bad book from an author who’s written two or three of my very favorites.

                8. Reluctant Mezzo*

                  I gave up three quarters of the way into Seveneyes, and I was amazed I’d made it that far…seriously, there were so many examples of over-explanation combined with Sheer Stupidity (why wait till a certain perilous moment to move stuff beyond the danger zone? Seriously?) that I realized the whole book was going to be like that, and I no longer cared.

            1. Scarlet Magnolias*

              Now I love Stephen King and own ALL of his books (and personally would love to have him and his family over for dinner so he could autograph my books and I could show his wife my dollhouses)* but even I will agree that some of them could have used a tiny bit of editing. He is still the best at what he does though
              *Shout-out to Tabby King who wrote the amazing “Small World”

              1. Elizabeth West*

                Same. Tabby is also great. So is Joe Hill, and I liked the book he co-wrote with Owen.
                And yay, dollhouses! \0/ I have yet to finish one, lol.

            2. China Girl*

              I’ve actually never read a complete Steven King book. Friends tried to get me interested but, lordy, page after page after page of repetition and needless sidetracks. I thought “Has this guy ever even met an editor? Or does he just own stock in a paper company?” The two books of his I began I never finished.

              1. Nina*

                His VERY early stuff is considerably tighter writing, because he had to listen to editors. But if you don’t like his style in, say, Carrie or Firestarter, you definitely won’t like it in any of the later, longer books.

                1. AE*

                  Yeah, my faves are still his earlier ones and tend to focus on a single protagonist and antagonist, like Misery and Dolores Claiborne. Much tighter and more focused.

              2. Pennyworth*

                The only Steven King book I’ve read is his book on writing! It didn’t show obvious signs of needing an editor.

            3. Nina*

              Oh heck yeah, his early stuff is pocketable paperbacks, and I’m currently reading the latest (I think?) Under The Dome, which you could comfortably use as a lethal weapon.
              He’s still good, but someone needs to edit that man.

              1. Seeking Second Childhood, CTA*

                I was on the outskirts of a heated discussion about The Stand. It took quite some time for them to realize that they had read different editions of the book — one of which had restored large amounts of material King’s first editors had deleted.
                (I never did figure out which edition I had read, because I changed my mind about re-reading it on spring vacation in 2020!)

                1. Autumnheart*

                  If you read it in 2020, it was almost certainly the restored version. I don’t think the first version has been in print for decades, although you can probably find an old copy in used bookstores occasionally.

                  If it’s 1991 in the book then it’s the restored version. The original is set in 1981 or so.

                2. Bob-White of the Glen*

                  I read the edited first (and loved it.) But tackled the uncut one second, and it just wasn’t as good IMHO. Some story lines cut back in that I did not like, and very wordy. But I do wonder if I would have felt differently had I read the unabridged one first. Not sure it would have stayed my favorite King book.

            4. STAT!*

              And, in the non-fiction field, Tom Holland. At least, minimal editing is the reason I assume why his books have become longer, denser, and less illuminating over time. I found In the Shadow of the Sword to be so parenthetical and circuitous as to be near unintelligible.

          1. Lore*

            Another issue is that the more successful an author gets, the more important it becomes that their books publish on the agreed-upon date—the publisher’s budget for the year counts on that; publicity events are scheduled—and the bigger the print run is, the more challenging it is to shift any of the manufacturing. Which means when the author doesn’t deliver on time, the only place to cut is editing (and copyediting and proofreading).

        2. L.H. Puttgrass*

          I have long espoused the “Uneditable Author” theory of authors who (1) tend towards wordiness and (2) eventually get so successful that no one has the power to tell them no. In addition to the others mentioned here, I’d offer Robert Heinlein as an example of someone who was a better writer when the balance of power between him and editors wasn’t tilted so much towards him (how else does one explain how “The Number of the Beast” ever managed to make it to print?).

          For another example of this, Piers Anthony once published a screed-as-novel called “But What of Earth?” in which he basically pouted for however many pages about his belief that editors were all evil hacks who were spoiling his works of genius by daring to edit them. The book has his original and the edits. We, the readers, are meant to see how much better his words were and what meddling busybodies the editors were, but my impression in reading that thing was how important the editors were. (Why was I reading Piers Anthony? I dunno…youthful indiscretions.)

          Many authors can be amazingly successful and still accept editing, of course. Some even realize the importance of editing to their success. But the risk of becoming an Uneditable Author gets really high at George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling levels of success.

          1. Random Bystander*

            I remember that book (Piers Anthony)–I bought it *because* I wanted to read the editorial comments, and found it rather instructional. The story itself was a nice germ of an idea, but wasn’t at all ready for prime time, based on his “unaltered” version.

            1. L.H. Puttgrass*

              It was a fascinating look into the editing process—just not for the reasons Anthony meant it to be.

              1. Random Bystander*

                Agreed–I just remember seeing it in the book store and the “commentary on the publishing process” and buying it for that reason. Like you, I don’t think that Anthony intended my reaction to the commentary.

          2. Coder von Frankenstein*

            I suspect that when you hit a certain level of success, there’s a risk even for authors who embrace editing.

            Let’s say you’re Stephen King’s editor, and he sends you a manuscript that really needs a lot of work. If you were looking at it from anybody else, you’d either flatly reject it or send it back with a note that this needs major revisions X, Y, and Z.

            But this is Stephen King we’re talking about. Anything with his name on it is gold; you sure aren’t going to reject it. And if you demand major revisions, King might just decide to scrap the whole project, and then you might as well have rejected it. He doesn’t crank out fiction at the manic pace he used to–you might be waiting a year for his next submission.

            So you mark up the manuscript, but you hold back on the changes you really think are necessary to make it fly. In this scenario, Stephen King himself hasn’t done anything except write a not-so-great manuscript; but he’s still less editable than other authors.

            1. L.H. Puttgrass*

              I think that to avoid Uneditable Author Syndrome, a mega-star author has to have tight control over their ego and a really good relationship with their editor. The editor can’t be afraid of suggesting edits or pointing out what works, and the author has to be able to avoid thinking, “What do you know? You haven’t sold 500 million copies of a book!”

              As examples of authors who have been successful and still seem edit-friendly, I’d offer (1) John Scalzi, who has often talked about how important having a good editor is to his success, and (2) Terry Pratchett, whose books still seemed fairly tight even when he could have written up the Ankh Morpork Phone Book and sold a few million copies. But Scalzi isn’t quite GRRM or Rowling successful, and Terry may have leaned on his editors when he was dealing with Alzheimer’s later in life. But both strike me as having a certain humility regarding their writing that’s not necessarily common.

              1. nona*

                “Author, you haven’t sold 500 million copies of an unedited book either”

                That’s the thing, right? Your success was, in part, because you were being edited.

                1. L.H. Puttgrass*

                  Another instance of me wanting an edit button: if I had one, I’d have changed the author’s thought to, “You’ve never written a book that’s sold 500 million copies!”

                  But you’re right that the author’s initial success was at least partly due to good editing.

                2. Writer Claire*

                  I remember when my first novel sold, the editor wanted to make sure I was fine with being edited. I nearly lunged at her with joy because I knew a pro editor could help me be a better writer. Eight books later, I feel the same way.

            2. TypityTypeType*

              Yes — King’s refusal to be edited turned him from a satisfying horror writer to a self-indulgent and impossibly long-winded producer of screeds and grotesqueries. (IMHO, obviously, I know many people love him.) If ever a writer needed a fearless editor with a sharp machete and a strong sense of pace, it is Stephen King.

            3. Dragon*

              Agreed about Stephen King. After I read his novel 11/22/1963, I checked the Amazon negative reviews and found I wasn’t the only one less than convinced by the protagonist’s motivation.

              1. Nina*

                Wild, because that was my favorite thing of anything he’s ever written. But then I’m autistic enough (yes, really, not using that as a figure of speech) that I usually have trouble understanding characters’ motivations, so I didn’t notice that issue.

                1. GythaOgden*

                  Yeah, as another autistic reader, immersion is really easy for me too. I’m probably far too forgiving of things other people nitpick to death like ‘why didn’t the eagles fly them to Mordor?’ Unless the protagonist is just a general POS, I will go along with what the author wants for their characters, and see where it leads me.

                  What I can’t take is unpolished, grammatically bad writing. I can’t see the woods for the trees. So most of my critiques on writing sites focus on readability and prose, because the easier something is to absorb as a reader, the easier it is for me to accept the author’s rationale for their characters’ actions. (And I keep an eye on how I read so I can help writers who get too close to their own work to see how bad prose — overwrought, badly spelled, that kind of being writerly for the sake of being writerly rather than focusing on the effect the prose has on the reader) affects readers’ engagement with their work.)

                  I even got into Fifty Shades of Grey until E L James made the unforgivable sin of mixing up terminal velocity with escape velocity, and that wouldn’t have bothered a lot of people as its not something most people would even know. I can see why people like her stuff — it’s not academically good prose by any means, but it did engage me and kept me reading. That’s what a book really needs to do, and what many amateur writers need to learn.

          3. hcethatsme*

            Any Sue Grafton fans here? I have a theory (haven’t checked to see if it holds water) that it went the other way with her. The first bunch of the Kinsey Millhone alphabet series were tight little paperback mysteries. Once she got into big sales and hardcover-first they bloated… but the excess words, especially in the later ones, felt purposeful. As though she was being pressured to have enough pages to justify that $27.95 cover price, and she was signaling to the reader “this chapter, with the entire history of Peephole CA, was written under duress.” (My other theory about Grafton is that she slowed the advancement of time further and further so that William, the elderly landlord that steals every scene he’s in, didn’t have to die of old age.)

            1. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

              I think it was mostly so she didn’t have to deal with the effects of ubiquitous cell phones and the modern Internet on mystery story plotting. (“I think” because this is from the Esteemed Journal of I Read It Somewhere.)

            2. Dhaskoi*

              My pet theory regarding Sue Grafton is that as she got towards the end of the series she really wanted to broaden her writing horizons so she would write the stories in a way that allowed her to put an entire other story in the book.

            3. AcademiaNut*

              One author that also went that way is Tamora Pierce, for a totally different reason. She writes YA fantasy, Rowling blew the lid off the length limits with the Harry Potter books, so Pierce could write longer YA books and publish a duology or trilogy rather than a quartet to tell the story. You can see this happening in the Protector of the Small quartet, where the first book is old standard YA length, and the last is post-Rowling length. Her books are still excellent, and well edited.

              Lois McMaster Bujold is one author who is very successful, and takes editing seriously – her Penric and Desdemona books are self published, but she hires an editor herself, and they’re tightly written. David Weber and Mercedes Lackey are two authors where I still like their earlier work, used to buy new releases in hardcover, but where I’ve given up reading new stuff at all (even free from the library) because they hit uneditable status and their work dropped in quality. You can see the flaws in earlier work, but I think the editing process kept them under control.

              Terry Pratchett was top notch until the day he died, and after death had his hard disk run over by a tank to prevent release of unfinished work.

              1. JustaTech*

                I have to think part of the reason that Mercedes Lackey’s work feels like it needs more editing (even just simple continuity editing) is that she writes so damn fast that she’d need a whole crew of editors to keep up with her.
                (Still my favorite author, still buy at least one series in hardback pre-order, but I can see the impact of speed.)

              2. Who is the asshole*

                I did notice in the last of the Tiffany Aching books that his best friend supported him more in writing because the voice changed, but yeah, they were all well and tightly written (and edited).

            4. GooberPea*

              I love Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone – so sad the alphabet ended at “Y”. My husband and I listened to the entire series of audiobooks during the pandemic, after all the Nero Wolfe and Tony Hillerman we could find. Now we’re 7 books into Armande Gamache. But hcethatsme, I do have to point out that Kinsey’s hot octogenarian landlord is Henry! William is Henry’s dapper brother, who is married to Rosie with the Hungarian cafe/sports bar/dive.

            5. Marthooh*

              Agatha Christie’s publishers made her pad her mid- and late-career novels to keep her fans happy, even though it tended to ruin the clarity of the plot and the sense of suspense. And unfortunately her very last novels tended to wander around and around without ever getting much of anywhere.

        3. ThursdaysGeek*

          Are Lilian Jackson Braun’s ‘The Cat who…’ books edited? Because the last one I read, I kept reading hoping to find a plot, and decided the mystery was why it was published without one.

        4. Don't be long-suffering*

          I wonder if this is what happened to Barbara Kingsolver. Her 5th novel, Prodigal Summer, has entire paragraphs repeated 5 to 10 times throughout the book. Several different subjects, too. It was like some weird word processor glitch had just flung these paragraphs in at random. Yes, Barbara, we know why coyotes are showing up in Virginia. You’re actually making me care less about the environment! Other than that, still a great writer.

        5. Reluctant Mezzo*

          Laurell K. Hamilton shows signs of the same problem; the first hundred pages of one of her novels was lovely, but suddenly we were all in the middle of the colors of tigers (not making this up) and the plot had come to a screeching halt.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        I also wonder, how did this affect her writing? I haven’t read enough of her to know, but she is hardly the only writer to reach a point where she can refuse to be edited. It generally does not go well. I’m pretty sure that Tom Clancy went through this. His early books were tight techno-thrillers, and while the reader could make a good guess at his politics, the books were not political. His later books were bloated messes filled with political bloviating.

        1. Proofin’ Amy*

          I know Tom Clancy’s editor. I believe he did tell me at some point that Clancy wouldn’t be edited.

          1. Moonlight*

            Is this bad? About Diana Gabaldon. I stopped reading her books – not cause they were poorly written, per se, but because they were just SO LONG and there were waaaaaaay too many characters after the 3rd book. There was literally a horrific assault on Clare in book 4-ish (whatever that one is called) and it was 100 pages before I finally realized what happened/was happening. Maybe extraneous detail and having 100 characters I am supposed to care about IS proof that it’s not edited haha.

            1. Baby Yoda*

              Totally agree on Outlander. Stopped during the fifth volume, I think. Loved the characters but couldn’t follow all that narration any longer.

            2. Richard Hershberger*

              You have described the difference between a well written paragraph and a well written book. So yes, this is a poorly written book, even if each individual paragraph is well written.

              1. Moonlight*

                It just sucks when you’ve invested a bunch of time in a series only for it to become basically unreadable after a while. I wonder if editors exist to tell her to take out the unnecessary bull shit… clearly not though since she’s just published a new book. Can’t we just let Clare and Jamie die already?

                1. Squidlet*

                  It does suck. Not only does your investment of time (and money) feel wasted, but the missed opportunity of reading and enjoying a complete series is even more disappointing.

            3. TM*

              I don’t know that she refuses editing, but she seems determined to stuff sooo much into each of those books. It’s exhausting to try to continue to keep up. Someone needs to stand over her shoulder and point out all the things no one cares about. I’m not sure exactly what all an editor does but, to be fair, its probably not that :)

              1. MsM*

                I think one of the clearest signs that an author has started making too much money for an editor to be able to tell them “no” is bloat, because no one can tell them to cut stuff that’s not working any more.

            4. Petty Patty*

              Yes, it’s bad. Book #9 came out recently and….everyone is like, THERE IS NO PLOT (literally, just vignettes). Or character arcs. She has nowhere to go with the original characters, so she has introduced a bunch of NEW characters and wrote about them instead. Almost 900 pages worth.

                1. Richard Hershberger*

                  At first I thought you were talking about Tom Clancy and I was going to point out that he was racist about Asians in general. It literally did not matter what part of Asia. But I wondered at its being #3, which as I recall is too early. Then I realized you were talking about another racist author. *sigh*

          2. Indigo a la mode*

            Oh yeah. Her politics come through big time. I understand that we all write what we know, but there’s a difference between characterization and moralizing.

          3. Aldabra*

            Really? That would explain the decline in quality and increase in wackiness over the course of her series. I always thought that these authors were getting weirder and less-believable in later works because they were running out of ideas and were reaching, but if they’re ignoring their editors that could the the reason instead.

              1. Artemesia*

                Her first was magnificent and the subsequent books tanked so fast, I had given up on her by the third one. I thought it was ‘one hit wonder’ syndrome, but perhaps it was ‘big success, immune to editing.’

                1. Not today*

                  I read her books in high school decades ago and remember thinking while reading either the second or third, “Yes, we get it. You researched medicinal uses for plants. There’s no need to list every one!” There is a limited number of times you can say some form of, “She collected X to be used for “Y” before your audience loses interest. I interpreted it as showing off, so I found it quite annoying.

                2. Dust Bunny*

                  Sharon Kay Penman: Squeezed every fact she could out of research and then pasted them together with a bit of narrative. Agonizing. And that’s from somebody who raised herself reading bulky Victorian novels.

                3. Elizabeth West*

                  I actually loved all those little details, but yeah, the last book nearly put me to sleep. It was not necessary to visit Every! Single! Cave! and attend numerous seasonal meetings to move the plot forward.

                  I saw an online review making fun of the “HE’S MAKING MY BABY!” scene and I laughed until I almost sprained something.

          4. Distracted Librarian*

            I *adore* her work, but even I can see she needs more editing than she’s getting/allowing. It’s especially evident in her most recent book, to the point that some parts are really confusing b/c of inconsistencies. If I ever become a successful author, I hope I’ll always insist on having my work edited. It makes such a difference.

            1. miss chevious*

              EXACTLY! I want to be so popular that I can *demand* old-school hardcore editing and no one can stop me! :)

        2. quill*

          I am fairly certain that it is more common the more of your books are available in the grocery store; there’s definitely some for whom the name on the cover is such a seller that publishers have different standards for them.

          But also I wonder if everyone is thinking of the same kind of edits when they “refuse to be edited.” Because I have definitely heard of cases where editors wanted things cut or added for marketability that would have harmed the structure or message of the book. (And obviously also cases where someone spent three chapters on an unnecessary tangent and the editor was totally right it should have been cut.)

          There’s also a lot of instances of STET (I researched this, you did not) and STET (making the grim reaper SPEAK IN ALL CAPS was a deliberate stylistic choice) that on their own aren’t a refusal to be edited, though enough of them might pile up in a refusal to work with that editor again.

        3. KHB*

          I’ve noticed something similar with Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth series. The first two books were pretty great, the third was OK, but in the fourth/prequel it’s like he got 2/3 of the way through, then got tired of telling the story and wrapped everything up as expediently/ridiculously as possible. Not to mention introducing some pretty obvious continuity errors.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            Ah really? That’s too bad, I’m only on book two and I’m enjoying it. But that happens! I think writing a series is like running a marathon and not every author is up for it. They get bored, they lose their thread. I’d like to see more authors who have clearly outlined a trilogy while the enthusiasm is fresh, or who are okay with writing standalones vs series.

            1. KHB*

              In my wholly subjective opinion, book two is the clear high point, and it goes downhill from there. I assumed he figured that enough people would buy more Kingsbridge books no matter how poorly conceived they were, but refusal to submit to editing may have had a part in it as well.

              1. BubbleTea*

                This is exactly who I was thinking of too. I was saddened when the fourth book came out and I read his explanation of it. It was clear I would not enjoy reading the book.

            2. Reluctant Mezzo*

              This is what happens with an author runs out of outline for a series and has no idea how to make more. I really respect Charlene Harris for saying, ‘this is all I got of Sookie Stackhouse. Sorry’, and not budging.

              I might add that the In Death books are avoiding new story arcs like the plague…

          2. The OG Sleepless*

            His Century trilogy is a bit like that too. I liked The Edge of Eternity quite a bit, it was informative and the characters followed a nice arc, but wow could it have used some editing. Way too much time on the Cuban missile crisis, then toward the end of the 70s he starts to rush.

          3. Siege*

            This is what happened with the Paladin’s Legacy series by Elizabeth Moon. I love the first trilogy A LOT – it is a recommendation I give constantly to anyone who likes fantasy at all or anyone who wants to study the development of a series; you can plot the character arcs and the scenes really, really tightly (and yes, I know why, but I promise it is not as obvious as it usually is – see also the original Dragonlance trilogy). But the Paladin’s Legacy was supposed to be three books, ballooned abruptly to six books, shrank by one book and finished at five, and had at least four major POV characters, introduced major new species and altered the way the world works significantly, and tried to be a fantasy novel, a mystery novel, a murder mystery, a religious exaltation, a scifi story, and about three quest novels all in one. It is not great, Bob. And then on the other hand, the Serrano Legacy is 7 books and beautifully written. I don’t know that it’s the editor who’s responsible for Paladin’s Legacy; I think Moon really did bite off more than she could chew and there were consequences.

        4. EventPlannerGal*

          Honestly it surprises me to hear that about Diana Wynne Jones because I’ve always thought her books were pretty consistent in quality! I do say that as a huge DWJ fan, and there were certainly books later in her oeuvre that I don’t like as much – but I honestly couldn’t say if that’s down to an actual difference in editing/writing quality or if I just didn’t like them as much. I’ll have to do a reread and see if I can spot any signs.

          1. As per Elaine*

            There are definitely books I like less, but I would’ve said that they were less “me” than the ones I like more, not necessarily that they were objectively worse. But, of course, I haven’t read those as much/as recently, so my experience of them is fuzzier and more naive in general.

          2. Hermione Stranger*

            I agree, I think her writing standard was always very consistently excellent. Some books I liked more than others, but her last book is one of my favourites — so there was no particular dip in quality that I ever noticed.

            1. EventPlannerGal*

              Yes, I think her very very early stuff was a bit rough in places – A Sudden Wild Magic is a bit strange, IMO – but that’s to be expected, I think. I wonder if writing so much short-and-sharp standalone children’s fiction meant she never got into the bad habits that I think editorless/editor-resistant writers often fall into (excessive length, meandering/pointless plotlines and getting overattached to their pet characters).

        5. MM*

          I’m honestly surprised to hear it, because I’ve found DWJ’s work uniformly excellent. And most of her books are not very long. But it could also be that I read most of them as a teen and at this point I have nostalgia/attachment goggles.

          1. moql*

            I’ve gone back to re-read some and they definitely hold up. I am very surprised as well!

            I do know that she deliberately wrote her books to be read out loud to children and I wonder if her focus on that meant she was looking at and editing her writing from more angles than the average author.

        6. scribblingTiresias*

          DWJ’s writing stayed fantastic to the end. (I haven’t read *all* her books, but I’m a big fan.) It seems like “refused editing” means more along the lines of “did not let an editor talk her out of Absolutely Bonkers Concepts”.

        1. Pennyworth*

          Years ago I read that Tom Wolfe was heavily dependent on his editor to make his books readable.

      2. Hermione Stranger*

        I didn’t know that at all! I’m really surprised — but on the other hand, having read every book of hers I could get my hands on… she didn’t need an editor. I guess that mythical author who doesn’t need an editor really did exist, once.

      3. ferrina*

        I’m also a fan of Diana Wynne Jones. That def makes sense- in certain climatic scenes the writing becomes a little scattered and I can’t visualize what’s happening any more. It’s like it’s playing out in her head and I’m watching through a window. I love her stories, but it makes me sad when I can’t access them because of the writing!

        1. BubbleTea*

          And yet I think of her as one of the most vivid authors I’ve ever read – I don’t always visualise very clearly but I can see the scenes in her work (particularly the Chrestomanci series) even now, years and years after reading them.

      4. whingedrinking*

        Terry Pratchett once said that the problem with knowing that whatever you write will be a success is that publishers know it too. Why pay for a lengthy and thorough editing process when people will buy it no matter what? Just get it out the door and earning money as quick as you can. Pratchett actually resented this because he wanted editors’ contributions but found it increasingly hard to get them.

        1. Siege*

          And in one of his last books, it shows. It’s less in the plot (though I really did not think Unseen Academicals or Raising Steam was all that great compared to the high-water mark (for me) of Jingo and Night Watch) but the edition I have is riddled, absolutely riddled, with typos that would have been caught if time hadn’t been cut to rush it to market. It is distractingly riddled with typos, actually.

          1. Victoria J*

            I think plot wise his books suffered a bit just because there were so many of them and he wrote so quickly.

            His writing improved a lot over time (until the last couple – very very sadly).

            But they were written with so little time between them that the improvement was maybe slower than it might have been, and some stories started to feel a little too close to others. (Though consistency and a strong sense of the characters in the latest ones is also a great thing with some less great side effects).

            I’m still sad and miss him/them.

      5. Libellulebelle*

        Another huge Diana Wynne Jones fan here. I had never heard that about her refusing to be edited. On one level it’s surprising, because her writing is generally quite tight. If true, she’s very unusual that she didn’t really need editing. But she had such unusual, quirky ideas, I wonder if one too my any editors early in her career tried to make her work more conventional, and once she got successful enough she just wasn’t having it, because she knew better.

    3. MusicWithRocksIn*

      I would make up a sample standard review of what you will be doing and what an edited chapter will look like. Be sure to emphasis that this is what a edited chapter of an already published professional full time author looks like (even if it is not totally true) and this is what professional full time authors work with and working with the feedback is the hardest part of the job that can separate the people who get published with the amateurs. I would try to work in some wording along the lines of “Of course you won’t freak out about this, as any normal person would not, but some people can just not take feedback, so I make sure to give everyone this review, because the amateurs just can’t cut it in the editing part of this normal process”. Hopefully you will set up an expectation in them that they aren’t like those other guys.

      1. Jora Malli*

        At a previous job, I hired a published author to come give a talk to students in a public school. He had 10-12 books published at the time, and part of his presentation included pulling out his current manuscript, covered in red ink notes from his editor. He said that even people who write for their full time jobs need help getting everything just right, and that part of being a good writer is being a good re-writer. I was really impressed by his explanation of what editing is and why it’s important, and I like the idea of OP including something like this in their introductory paperwork.

        OP, do you have any clients who have sold well and achieved some level of success who would agree to have a page or so of their edited manuscript used for this purpose? That would let you use the “even successful writers need assistance and I’m committed to working with you to help your book become the best it can be” approach.

      2. Harried But Happy*

        Yes, this is the suggestion I make to colleagues. (Author and freelance editor here.) You’ll want to direct potential clients to a sample of marked-up pages, with permission from the author–unless this is a made-up sample. Some authors wouldn’t mind being your sample sacrificial lamb if it’s a very early draft and/or change character names/details.

        Ooh and make sure the sample has a significant number of comments/edits. Show ’em your worst! That oughtta winnow out at least some of the thinner-skinned precious literary geniuses. ;) My sympathies, OP. I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful, crazy clients who actually encourage me to be brutal AF, and even add some snark when warranted!

      3. Troutwaxer*

        Couple suggestions to go with the post above. First, you’ll need samples of every kind of editing you do; structural, character, sensitivity, line-editing, copy-editing, etc. It might even be worthwhile to use a single manuscript and show how it works across the multiple kinds of edits.

        Second, maybe not an edited first chapter, but maybe a short story or even a novelette, so the author who wants to purchase your services can see how what you do works across the entire plot/story.

    4. alt ac*

      Packed! I don’t freelance anymore, but I did for years. Didn’t matter if clients were prospective authors or doctoral students with dissertations – I encountered this all the time, even though I did samples and was clear about my rates and turnaround time.

      By the time I stopped, I was absolutely miserable and had a grad student client harassing me because she said she was using APA, but her writing and documentation in no way adhered to the current or previous style guides (the dissertation in question would never have passed). I finally gave up seeking the rest of the payment from her and wrote it off.

      That was the last straw, which was a shame because I also had some wonderful experiences working with authors and translators.

      1. Esmeralda*

        I used to edit dissertations when I was in grad school. My solution to students who wouldn’t pay, for whatever reason, was to write a letter to the student’s dissertation director. (Once I had to also write to the department chair.)

        I always got paid. Anyone who’d made a stink had to pay in cash.

    5. ecnaseener*

      I like the idea of asking what type of editing they want — no one’s going to say no to constructive criticism if you frame it that way, but you could ask which types of editing they want out of eg proofreading, stylistic notes, and big-picture plot/character critiques. (I’m sure real editors have a better list.)

      1. Random Bystander*

        Yes–and I’ve seen some editors who list exactly what they do (editing wise) and explain what that means. Starting from the manuscript evaluation (beta readers–if you get outside your bubble may be able to replace this), developmental/structural edits, line edits, copy edits, proof-reading.

        I imagine there are quite a few people who aren’t aware of the various levels (or what’s involved in each), and barely think of proofreading as doing something more than running spell-check (based on books I’ve read where, for example, the characters “walk wets” .. it’s a real word, so spell check let it pass, but not the intended word).

    6. Dad hit the soccer referee*

      Great comments. You might include a code of conduct addendum in your contract. Similar to those parents have to sign when their kids play soccer. Outline acceptable & unacceptable reactions to feedback.

    7. Gary Patterson's Cat*

      I do wonder if people think “Editing” is the same thing a “Proofreading?” The two are very different things. Sometimes they are even different people.

      1. QuickerBooks*

        Thank you. I am in the book industry and come to these words from a very technical perspective (maybe more technical than is often needed).

        But yes, to anyone keeping track: copy editors edit copy; proofreader read proofs. There is a huge difference between these activities. And as a side note, people often completely underestimate what reading proofs means. you are not only checking for punctuation slippages, spelling inconsistencies, etc., you are also checking that the bottom margin of every page is properly aligned; confirming the placement and accuracy of call-outs to figures, photos, and tables; checking where each word breaks across lines; confirming the accuracy of the running heads; the appearance of page numbers (folios); checking for incorrect shifts in the typeface; the thickness of lines, rules, and arrows; and on and on and on…

        1. Princess Xena*

          I work in an accounting firm and was surprised to find that for our small clients we will often put together their financial statements for them and/or proof them. Holy heck. I was one of four people who spent two breakneck days on 30 pages of statement, just on our side, and we were able to roll forward last year’s mostly proofed statement.

          Proofing is no heckling joke and I salute you for being able to do it full time. If I tried I’d shortly end up bald through pulling my own hair out.

    8. irritable vowel*

      I’ve been a freelance editor for many years. After a few of the experiences described by the OP, I set a firm policy of not editing anyone’s manuscript outside the framework provided by a publisher. (In other words, someone else besides the author needs to have judged this manuscript worthy of publication, and it’s also someone else’s job to communicate directly with the author.) It doesn’t matter how much they’re paying, it’s never enough to quibble with someone over every comma.

      1. STAT!*

        Not a quibble over a comma, but rather the indefinite article … have you heard of the British restaurant reviewer Giles Coren? He threw a mighty tanty over removal of the word “a” from one of his reviews for The Times, viz a 1000+ word screed full of expletives, sarcasm and rhetorical flourishes. Highly entertaining. Look up The Guardian for 24 July 2008 to see a copy of it. Other online reproductions are no doubt available!

    9. Elder Millennial*

      I do think if you ask the constructive criticism question it would be helpful to make clear what that looks like. Maybe have a page you can include and if your work normally includes feedback on things beyond a page (like the structure of a story) make that explicit.

      I think the less ambiguity there is about what to expect, the better.

      (As someone who never had work professionally edited, I would not know what to expect if someone would ask me “Are you okay with constructive criticism that will help improve your book?”. Some examples would really help to better know what I should expect.)

    10. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Yes, “the kind of feedback” is worth pointing out. I do more translation than editing, and very often the text I produce is not recognisable to the client. They use the word “intelligent” in French and expect to see “intelligent” in the English text too, except that it was a context where “smart” would be more appropriate, or maybe “clever”. I pride myself on producing prose that doesn’t sound like it’s been translated, which requires a lot more work and thinking about “how would my Dad/friend/specialist I know in the relevant field put that?”
      It often involves turning sentences upside down: the French love to front-load subordinate clauses whereas in English we prefer to get down to proper business straight off, leaving details for later. I also chop most sentences in two or even three, because the French can waffle on for several lines without needing a break. The client often feels that I’ve ripped the soul out of his carefully-crafted text, and since he’s French, he just can’t tell that I’ve made the text easier to read for someone with an English-language mindset. So I explain all that carefully. Just thinking right now that I should perhaps provide a sample, with notes to explain why I changed what. I do pre-empt a lot of negative reactions with notes to explain certain things when I’ve strayed a very long way from the original text.

  4. Aleta*

    From the author side, I think starting new clients off with a trial first chapter is a good idea. It’s something I like to have for a new editor just to make sure we vibe on the goals for the manuscript in terms of voice and style. I don’t think it’ll completely eliminate the issue – someone who is Shocked, Shocked I Say! that an editor is editing is still going to have that reaction to just a trial chapter, but it will definitely involve less of a commitment to working with a bad client than a full manuscript.

    I will say it might also help to be very up front about what editing from you looks like if you’re getting a lot of brand new author clients – I’ve done informal mentorships for friends looking to move into published fiction, and one thing we always go in depth on is different types of editing, and most of the time they have no idea there were different ways to go about it! So the clients may be expecting just proofreading, and are shocked to be getting structural comments, etc etc. Jerks will still be jerks, but again, it can help cut down on it.

    1. Distracted Librarian*

      Also an author, and I agree with this (and with all of Alison’s response too). I had a less-than-optimal experience with a freelance editor because she wasn’t tough enough. I’m glad she liked my work, but when I’ve had published authors look at it, they’ve identified issues my editor never mentioned. I’ve also poured tons of time into critiquing pieces (when I was in a critique group) for someone who thought her writing was perfect as is and eventually quit the group in a huff because we offered her constructive feedback (spoiler alert: her work was a mess). A sample edit seems the way to go, followed by a frank evaluation of whether it makes sense to continue the process. Some people seem to just want their ego stroked or, as other commenters have mentioned, don’t understand what a developmental edit is supposed to do.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Do you think she didn’t notice the issues, or she just chose not to comment on them?

      2. ADHSquirrelWhat*

        oh gods, the crit group people that want adulation instead of actual /critique/ … yeah.

        I had a friendship implode in part because instead of reading over someone’s fiction and going “why yes, this is amazing and you are wonderful!” I … critiqued. Exactly as I would WANT someone to do for MY writing (another problem in crit groups! please, critique!).

        On one hand, I cannot imagine PAYING an editor and getting pissed that they … edited. On the other hand, some people are convinced of their own greatness to a level that boggles the imagination ……

        1. Boof*

          I used to draw and do comics a lot, and was part of a few critique groups. Things i know: 1) good critiques is very valuable 2) the caveat “taste is subjective” is true but depends on your goals for your craft and 3) don’t critique if it’s not requested. If you reeeeeally want to you can ask, but some people are just doing art to self express (or other times just have a fragile ego) and it’s best to “critique” by just saying what you liked otherwise

        2. wordswords*

          The thing is, taking mixed or negative feedback gracefully is a skill, and a learned one. And it’s easy to just never learn it — or, at least, never learn it about your own creative work — until the first time you run facefirst into your lack of it.

          Obviously, editing and real critique are hugely helpful for story quality! (I say this as someone who spends a lot of time both editing and being edited, professionally and as a hobby.) And if you spend a lot of time getting your work critiqued, you understand that, and you understand what you’re signing up for when you pay an editor, and you understand that a good editor’s work is a gift to you and your story.

          But if you’re not part of writerly circles already, and you’ve never been part of a critique group where critique is actually given, it’s easy to only see the final polished version of other people’s work, and to assume that that’s more or less how they turned it in. It’s easy to assume that you know what editing is, and it’s proofreading plus a few “maybe make this sentence clearer” suggestions plus what your polite friends who are either unwilling to give critique or no good at it give you. And it’s easy to not be any good at the emotional regulation work of taking comments that feel like a slap in the face about the value of whatever intensely personal work you’ve written, and setting that slapped-in-the-ego feeling aside, and sincerely thanking the editor, and then doing whatever you need to do to set your ego further aside and assess their revisions and see if there are any you do actually disagree with and how you want to go about implementing the rest and so on. It’s important work! It’s vital to being a good writer, and improving as a writer! But it’s also hard work. And it’s easy to not know that these skills exist and are important and are things you’re not good at (yet), and that paying an editor means you’re about to have to use them.

          It’s also entirely possible to be someone who IS convinced they’re the best thing since sliced bread and that they have no need for an editor and anyone who tries to critique their work is wrong and THROWING AWAY GREATNESS etc. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t, because boy howdy, have we all met people like that. But I do think there are also people who earnestly pay an editor without having any real, emotional idea of what it is they’ve just paid to get.

          All of which is to say, to bring it back to the OP’s question, that I agree with what others have said about trying to make it very clear up-front what kind(s) of edits you provide, with some combo of clear description and maybe a sample. And also about the value of starting new clients (or maybe just new clients who set off warning signals, or who don’t come with clear experience being edited, or whatever seems right to you) with some kind of a smaller sample — an initial chapter or three, or whatever. So that it’s less of a monetary and ego investment for them, and less of a time and money investment for you, to figure out whether you’re a good match for each other and whether the focused, high-quality, structural editing you provide is actually what they (and their egos) are interested in receiving, or if what they really want is compliments with some light proofreading for typos.

      3. Elizabeth West*

        I was looking for a critique group back in my old city and ran across one that insisted members “only give positive feedback. We don’t want to discourage anyone!” Lol, nope.

  5. Texan In Exile*

    I have had writing and communications jobs. When my husband (an engineer) was running for state-level office, I felt qualified to review his fundraising emails, social posts, and other copy.

    Invariably, it was wayyyyyy too long and he waited until the very end to get to the point. I would make suggestions, including shortening the copy, moving the lede to the top, and making style changes.

    He would argue. He wanted me to convince him that my changes were correct.

    (This is not good for a marriage, or, at the least, it was not good for our marriage.)

    I finally said the only way I would review his copy was if he gave me no pushback at all. He did not have to accept my suggestions, but I was not going to discuss any of it with him.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      My mom edited her colleagues’ papers when she was in grad school. Inevitably, they complained about her edits and submitted their own versions to journals.

      Almost invariably, hers got either accepted or sent back with literally one or two minor edits. Theirs came back swimming in red ink.

      I learned to take criticism of my writing at an early age, but it saved me in college.

      1. FrenchCusser*

        I’m eternally grateful to my Freshman Composition teacher.

        Man, that first paper returned was *brutal*, but I had enough sense to realize that here was someone I could learn from, and I did.

      2. Artemesia*

        I co -wrote a book with a non writing co-author. I made the mistake of letting him write the first chapter — I wrote the rest. The publisher’s first feedback was literally ‘let’s put chapter one in the shredder and start over, it really picks up and sings with chapter 2. ‘ At least I managed to be first author although he had seniority on me.

      3. ferrina*

        My mom was also a brutal editor. She once edited a four page college entrance essay for me, and when she handed it back she said “This is really good! There’s three paragraphs we can keep!”

        She genuinely meant it as a compliment.

        1. Alto Power*

          My education in grade and high school (1960s Catholic schools) had a lot of writing and we were required to provide full sentence answers with correct spelling grammar, and punctuation. My dad edited my essays and papers for me through high school and I learned a lot from him. My college courses required a fair amount of writing and the writing experience before college was invaluable. I am still proud of the “Well Written!” notation on my senior seminar paper.

        2. Gloucesterina*

          Wow, if I had high school ferrina’s keep-to-toss ratio, how amazing life would be! :)

      4. Gloucesterina*

        Ugh, I hope she was at least paid fairly for her time!

        I’m still struggling with the concept of asking for editing and then saddling ones editor with some kind of emotional reaction to them doing their job when the easiest solution was there all along (don’t ask for what you don’t want).

    2. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Oh! I liked the “sample chapter” suggestions earlier, but your story made me think of an alternative, based on web/IT consulting: the price is for the editing and some specified time (say, 30 minutes?) of responding to feedback, and then additional consultation is something more like $500/hr. or something else prohibitive. Or just don’t offer that rate, because then some rich jerk could offer, but say that any discussion of the edits is very limited or not included. The OP could always opt to NOT charge if an author makes a naive but polite inquiry, but considering they said they’ve been doing this a long time, I don’t think that they’ll be that cryptic in their editing.

      Basically, limit the feedback by spelling it out in the contract, the way some freelancers in other fields have had to do.

      1. Katie Impact*

        One complication is that a contract with a would-be self-published author is basically a firm suggestion; if the client refuses to pay, it’s rarely realistic to take them to court. The way to get paid is to make sure the client is happy with your work (which sometimes means rejecting clients who will be unhappy no matter what).

        1. Katie Impact*

          Which is not to say that contracts don’t have value, but it’s best to think of them as expectation-setting tools than as something that you can actually force people to adhere to. If someone balks at a term in a contract, that might be the time to walk away rather than to talk them into signing something they’re already having second thoughts about.

        2. STAT!*

          Good point! I think other posters’ suggestions about taster editing is a great way to mitigate the non-payment problem also. Or the LW could require a 50% deposit before commencing. Trades, building suppliers, IT consultants, lawyers, accountants: all kinds of small enterprises do some version of this. Separates the serious punters from the tyre kickers. (Perhaps the LW already does require payment up front before starting work. I realise the question was about dealing with abusive authors, not business management.)

    3. Esmeralda*

      Yeah, my husband (professor) would ask me to edit his work. He would pout (it was ridiculous!) and argue. I finally said that I was happy to review and edit his work, and he could use my advice or not, but if he was going to be an a$$ about it, I wouldn’t do it.

      He takes most of my advice now lol.

    4. TheRain'sSmallHands*

      I absolutely cannot have my husband edit me – not at all good for the marriage. And we’ve come to a means of tag teaming with our kids’ college papers “because Mom can edit, or Dad can edit, but both at the same time doesn’t work.”

        1. Boof*

          Asking someone you know to proofread/edit in college and beyond is fine. Presuming this is about editing work and not editing as a euphemism for doing everything, anyway.

          1. coffee*

            Mum used to edit my uni essays – fresh eyes to see if I’d, for example, moved half of a sentence and left the other half just hanging out unfinished and unwanted. On one particular essay with a bunch of technical terms, she was like “you are using these words with great certainty but I have no idea what any of them mean, I’m just assuming they’re all spelled correctly” lol. So it definitely doesn’t mean the parent is doing the work.

        2. Emmy Noether*

          eh, one obviously cannot edit one’s own writing, and all writing needs editing. It’s fine to get college papers and theses edited by friends or family, as long as it’s limited to editing and doesn’t turn into rewriting.

          1. Gumby*

            I think in college getting an essay proofread by friends or family is 100% ok. Though, honestly, I would go for friends over family but then my parents were never involved in my homework past elementary school (and seldom involved in elementary school though there was a fair bit of spelling practice), not even to make sure I did it, so that could just be the way my family worked.

            Editing, if it is more extensive with the “delete this paragraph, move this one over there, add another sentence to support idea X here” type of help is definitely something I would ask each professor about before using because otherwise I would be worried about possible Honor Code violations. It could be “unpermitted aid in… work that is to be used by the instructor as the basis of grading.”

    5. Jay*

      I’ve been editing my husband’s writing since we were in college and he told his college students that they should all find a good editor. To illustrate the importance of this, he would add “I married mine.” If he’d argued with me like that I would have stopped doing it long ago.

  6. anonymous73*

    I have no knowledge about book editing, but as an outside observer, if you can’t let go of thoughts of clients who get mad about your edits, you may not be as thick skinned as you think. It sounds like they’re taking your edits personally, and you in turn are taking their anger about your edits personally as well. Maybe be up front before you begin working with a new client…that your job is to provide constructive feedback and that it is not to be seen as a personal attack on the writer.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I think you need to understand from the context of the letter that this is new. Equate it to an average customer service job that has also, pretty much across the board, seen an uptick in abusive behavior in the last few years. Now increase the time and investment in each interaction by a factor of ten. You have a thick enough skin for the baseline, but now it’s a whole new beast and the mental and emotional exhaustion is real.

      Which is why I agree with Alison to invest less time up front! But this is a change in practice, and OP needs to decide how that impacts their workflow, client management, etc.

      1. Blarg*

        And all during a pandemic that we’re all experiencing. Even if you always worked from home, you also used to be able to leave said home without having to make quite so many risk calculations and decisions. It is. Stressful.

    2. Jora Malli*

      It’s hard not to take someone shouting at you and calling you vile names personally.

      I’ve been in customer service for almost 20 years, and I’ve been called everything in the book by this point. But even now, there are still some customer interactions that rattle me and that stick with me for days after. It’s a normal reaction to being abused by a customer and not in any way the fault of the person who was rattled.

      1. Distracted Librarian*

        This. Can we stop blaming people for being hurt by verbal abuse? I see variations of these comments all the time–stop taking things so personally, sticks and stones…, etc. Verbal abuse is hurtful and damaging. The blame lies with the abuser.


        1. Artemesia*

          One caveat — disagreeing is not abuse. And asking someone to correct something is not ‘yelling’. I believe the Op when she says clients are angry and abusive, but I have also been in situations where I as manager asked an admin to redo something and had it reported that I ‘yelled at her and was angry’. when honest to god all I did was say ‘we need to redo this this way because that isn’t going to work with this agency.’ I wasn’t mad — fixing things is SOP when reports or grants or whatever are being prepared. But some people do dramatize any disagreement as rage and any criticism as abuse.

          1. Distracted Librarian*

            100% agree with your caveat. I’ve encountered the same. Someone will say, “I got yelled at for…” when in reality they were politely corrected.

      2. GythaOgden*

        I’m in a backwater healthcare admin office which is not public-facing, but we still get public calls. It’s hard not to invest yourself emotionally in someone else’s issues (particularly because I’ve had experience of the healthcare process from the other end and for a lot of people we’re the last chance to even speak to a human being about some emotive issues; as you can imagine I’m very careful when approaching things from the other direction!). The process is immeasurably easier when you’re not a glassbowl about it to the person trying to forward your call while maintaining professional distance and setting realistic expectations about what you can do for them. The worst thing for me is wanting to help and not being able to, which can lead to emotional outbursts on their part and a feeling of failure on yours.

    3. Witch*

      Naw. If you were an editor working for a publishing house, or someone editing long-form corporate texts maybe there’s a point when you need to shut off your brain and just say, “Okay.” Because you’re being paid to do what you do by a higher authority in a company.

      But when you’re a freelancer, the person trying to drag you into a big emotional fight about their work is also the person paying you. And that’s a scary position to be in, because what if they don’t pay? At what point do you issue it into collections? What if you have to sue? What if they try to sue you? Being a freelancer means you need to protective yourself, and that means that people who seem to be bad for business, are /bad for your business/.

      1. MissGirl*

        This is so true. I worked in publishing and we jokingly called ourselves “baby killers” because how the authors would react to our changes to their book. It was easier to shrug things off when the author isn’t the one paying your check and holding that over on you. It also protects you from authors threatening you with bad reviews or to badmouth you to their author friends. The freelance world is based a lot on word-of-mouth.

        It’s also helpful to have a manager who says, don’t sweat it that author always acts like that with everyone. The manager can also step in when the author gets particularly vile.

        –Signed a book designer who clearly learned at a crappy community college and has no skills and no business working on a beautiful book (or so says the author who was mad I cropped an image)

        1. iglwif*

          Yes, it’s hard to overstate how terrifying it can be to not have anyone but yourself to escalate a conflict to!

      2. londonedit*

        Yep – I’m an in-house desk editor at a publishing company, and I’m the one who acts as middleman so that authors can’t get directly at my freelancers. So it’s my job to take the flak if flak is what they want to give me. It can be a weird relationship sometimes, because some authors see their book as their life’s work and want it to appear in final form without even the slightest comma having been touched, and as a publisher we obviously have standards to uphold, a house style to stick to, and we’re not going to publish anything we believe to be substandard. So that can lead to conflict. But in our situation, it’s my job to deal with that, not the freelancer’s. I brief the freelance editor, they do the copy-edit or the proofread, and then I review it and send it on to the author with a clear explanation of the comments/feedback/queries. Most of the time, people are fine with that, and they happily work through and send me their updated manuscript. Sometimes they argue a point here and there, and that’s fine – I can accept it if it’s something they’re more knowledgeable about, or I can explain that it’s house style/UK convention/just something we’re not willing to put in the book, and they’re usually fine. But when they’re not fine…they’re REALLY not fine.

    4. Sparkles McFadden*

      I believe the issue is that the LW is used to a certain level of professionalism and now there are a whole pile of people in the mix who have more time on their hands due to covid/workplace changes etc. These inexperienced folks have a decide lack of objectivity about their own talent. I’ve had people who have never written at all ask me to proofread things they want to submit for publication (or, more often, self-publication) and the items are one step up from gibberish. I have had to say “This would require more then proofreading and I really don’t have the time…” Lots of anger just from that response.

      This is what the LW does for a living so this change in clientele has to be frustrating and exhausting. I think a change in the process for taking on new clients is in order so new people understand what editing really entails.

      1. GythaOgden*

        Any time the economy tanks and there’s a large number of people laid off, a decent percentage of those people will take the opportunity to write a book. It also happens to be when the publishers and agents also start tightening their belts and become pickier. Thus was born a vicious circle.

    5. MsM*

      There’s a difference between “mad” and “outright abuse,” and I think it says absolutely nothing about the thickness of OP’s skin if they’re unwilling to accept the latter.

    6. iglwif*

      Yeah, no.

      I worked as an editor for 20+ years, and I can count on one hand the number of authors (whether at my in-house job or freelance clients) who were actually verbally abusive. It is 100% possible to object to edits (that’s why you can reject as well as accept tracked changes–or, going back to the beginning of my career, write STET in the margin) without yelling, anger, or all-caps emails, and almost every author I’ve worked with was able to do that.

      I’m a skilled and experienced editor, but I wasn’t always! When I was just starting out I did some ill-informed things, and then I learned better and did better. Surprisingly, those very few out-of-control angry authors weren’t yelling at 23yo inexperienced me, but at 30- or 40-something experienced, skilled, highly praised me. And in some cases they were yelling about tiny punctuation changes! And it’s not unreasonable to take it personally when someone is calling you names and yelling at you about what is, objectively, perfectly OK work.

      Two points about your last sentence: (1) When someone hires you for the explicit purpose of providing constructive feedback, you should not have to tell them that your feedback “is not to be seen as a personal attack on the writer”. (2) With the kind of person who would behave as LW describes, telling them beforehand that your feedback doesn’t constitute a personal attack will in no way prevent them from taking it as one.

    7. Sloanicota*

      Yeah, I freelance, and I’m a writer, but I’m not a freelance editor – but I get weird stuff with FL clients often enough. I just charge them more for my time and then do what they want. If an author wanted to pay me to do mostly copyediting and very light dev edits with mostly lots of “great job” pats on the head, I guess I’d just charge them for that (and maybe ask not to be credited with the final product, or credited solely as copyeditor or something). I’m not going to waste effort delivering thoughtful developmental edits if that’s not what they want. Who does that help? Especially if these folks plan to self-publish anyway.

    8. ADHSquirrelWhat*

      honestly, I’ve run into authors that act like any critique of their beautiful prose is akin to using their baby as a football in front of them. Just absolutely AWFUL behavior/responses.

      They also tend to be HORRIBLE writers, unsurprisingly enough. I can totally see a large number of people who’ve spent the pandemic time writing “the next great novel” totally losing their minds over the fact that .. yeah, not great.

    9. It's Me*

      Shoulda stopped with the first sentence there, champ.

      All the best,
      Someone Who Actually Knows Book Editing

  7. Kat*

    As a writer myself (one who takes editor and agent feedback well) I wonder if providing a suggested checklist of things to do *before* approaching you to edit might help, in addition to the suggestions above which all sound really sensible.

    You could say something like – ‘editing is a big expense and you want to make sure you’re coming into this with your book as ready as possible to avoid needing a secondary edit, these are things you should ideally have done *before* a professional edit…

    Then list beta readers, critique partners, writing groups, sensitivity readers (please pay these!), small feedback competitions, in addition to initial reviews from friends at different stages of development as being things you typically expect. You could add that a typical writer approaching me would be on their x round of major edits.

    A writer who is serious about receiving and acting on feedback, and who won’t blow up in your face is likely to be doing most of these things anyway so won’t be put off buying your services. For the others this hopefully gives them pause for thought and manages their expectations.

    1. Foila*

      Yeah, I wonder how many of these manuscripts have been through a round or four of beta reading, and if that’s something the LW could discuss / suggest / require before accepting a new client. For one thing, a decent beta reader can catch a lot of stuff so the LW isn’t the first outside pass at a work.

      For another thing, you have to be reasonably pleasant to get anyone to agree to beta your work – often it’s done as a trade, so then the client would have some experience imagining being on the other side of the table. And someone who doesn’t take feedback well is pretty likely to not be able to get the kind of community engagement that would lead to anyone being willing to look at their writing.

      1. ADHSquirrelWhat*

        not necessarily – I lost a friendship over a beta read at one point, because I didn’t just cheerlead.

        You want it beta read by /actual readers/ not by people who skim or will just smile and nod because they love you or whatever. So minimum you’d have to qualify what a beta reader IS.

    2. Ali + Nino*

      +1 I think this is a great idea in terms of screening/prepping potential clients and also a service to newbie writers.

    3. MJ*

      Great idea. You could even provide this checklist as a free download on your website and use it to generate leads, if you need to find new clients.

  8. Albeira Dawn*

    What does the timeline look like? Say you finish an edit on Friday and submit the deliverable at noon the next Monday. Do you immediately get rude emails? Within an hour? Within a week?

    I ask because if it’s pretty immediate (and obvious that they haven’t actually looked at all your feedback) it might be worth setting it up so that you only look at their responses after a day or two, to allow yourself to decompress. I know when I get feedback on something I’ve spent weeks working on, even when it’s helpful, I try not to look at it for a day or so. I need that time to separate the actual work from my feelings attached to that work.

    1. Distracted Librarian*

      Yup. Also maybe have some boilerplate information you provide before sending the edited manuscript that talks about how to receive feedback and how it’s normal to freak out at first. I struggle with my emotions when I receive constructive feedback on my writing–I think most authors do–so I’ve learned to read it, have my emotional reaction in private, then go back to the feedback a day or a week later. My only immediate response to the person providing it is to thank them.

      We writers are a sensitive bunch, but we don’t have to dump that initial reaction on other people.

      1. Commenter*

        I think this could also be great to incorporate with a lot of the other helpful advice in the ‘up front’ conversation even before an agreement is reached. Something along the lines of, ‘I just want to make sure you know that this process can be difficult; my #1 goal is to get your product to the best it can be, and sometimes that feedback can be difficult to take, especially when work is deeply personal. I recognize that and I’m fair, but I would be doing you a disservice if I wasn’t honest in my feedback.’ kind of thing!

        1. Distracted Librarian*

          I really like this wording! That plus a recommendation to sit on feedback for a day or two before responding.

      2. BubbleTea*

        I like this idea, if LW wants to specialise in supporting novice authors through the process.

        At the same time, it’s fine if LW decides that novice authors will have to find another guide because they’re only taking clients who know how it works. I am/used to be (winding it down slowly) a private tutor and I reached a point of deciding I was sufficiently in demand and specialist that I would only take the students who interested me, the ones with neurodivergent conditions or complex life circumstances that meant they needed a confidence boost, or weren’t at school at all and could just learn whatever took our collective fancy. I’ve no interest in hot housing for better grades and being Curriculum Boost for Added Regurgitating Power! for middle-class kids from privileged families. I’ve had a couple of families respond badly to me (politely, and without the snideness I can recognise in my comment) turning them down. But I’d far rather that than be shouted at because little Billy didn’t get 100% on his test after three tutoring sessions.

  9. eliza*

    I’m a full-time editor, and I freelance edit on top of my day job. I stopped taking on this kind of work because it was so emotionally fraught. I very occasionally take on novels, but by referral only.

    Definitely do sample edits, as Alison suggested. A sample edit lets the clients know what they are in for, but it also lets YOU know what you’re in for, as far as quality goes. Let that sample edit act as a screening tool to keep you from taking on books that are beyond help.

    I also wonder if your pricing is set too low. I see a lot of editors who have prices that are set way below the EFA recommended rates, and raising them to the industry standard could help filter out the people who aren’t ready for editorial feedback, plus it would also reduce the amount of work you need to take on to stay profitable.

    If I were actively trying to build my client list for novels again, I’d also probably have potential clients fill out some kind of survey about their expectations, which I think would help a lot in spotting people who don’t really know what an editor does.

    1. Frinkfrink*

      “I also wonder if your pricing is set too low. ”

      Hard agree. I moonlight as a book cover designer, and my first thought when reading the letter was “Double your prices.”

      While my clients don’t reach that level of rudeness because there’s a lot of back and forth over the entire process so I can course-correct early on (and sometimes decide that well, I’ll just give them what they asked for instead of the cover that will sell, while making it clear that they’re going against my recommendations), each time I raised my prices the clients got easier to work with.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Is there a point of diminishing returns with this? Like is the idea that they’re valuing your feedback/expertise more if they’re paying more – or will some people just want to be made to feel good if they’re paying more money? I’m not sure if I’m phrasing this question correctly I just think it’s super interesting especially as I think ahead to when I’ll be editor shopping myself.

        1. Nanani*

          I suspect it’s that the unserious amateurs will balk at a higher price, especially if they think editing is just running spellcheck more intensely.
          The rich but clueless are a smaller subset of the people who nanowrimo’d their way through the pandemic.

          1. Dust Bunny*

            This. It’s to weed out people who aren’t ready to invest in the reality of what it might take to get published.

          2. Eldritch Office Worker*

            “The rich but clueless are a smaller subset of the people who nanowrimo’d their way through the pandemic.”

            I think that’s what I was trying to hear. It happens but the sample size is smaller and the compensation for their BS is more in line. Now it makes sense to me thank you.

          3. Sloanicota*

            Yeah. People who approach publishing professionally are less likely to pout, sulk, or throw fits at fellow professionals, and also more likely to accept professional-level prices for quality work. People who wrote a draft during the pandemic and want to pay $400 for editing are immature in their professional standards also. I advise amateur writers all the time and 70% of them just want to hear “good job! You’re great!”

            1. Meep*

              I am an amateur writer and I would love to communicate with other amateur writers to get better, but so much this. I mean, I /know/ could write something better than a lot of the adult best sellers I’ve read (and with minimal edits), because there are some truly horrendous ones that are popular and are published by big publishing companies, but I also know that I am not alone in this unfounded arrogance. A lot of writers think their work is perfect as is and expect to hear that. In fact, many go in expecting the editor they hired to be so enamored that they want to publish their story right then and there without understanding the publishing process.

              The reality is I may be a better writer than Katie Morton, but I lack the connections and standing she has and I have to be 10x better than her to be close to being considered being published when in reality, I am only 1.5x better than her.

        2. Sleepy cat*

          I’d say it’s more that people who value feedback this little will or won’t pay accordingly.

    2. The Engineer*

      It sounds like new clients need to be charged more. If they end up pleasant and easy to work with you can always discount. Tough to add a “rude and shouty” surcharge.

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        This is what I did when I was a freelance illustrator. Set prices high enough that the only people interested are people who either:

        1) love my work so much they’ll pay anything, so they’re likely to be happy with whatever I make, or
        2) have enough experience to know this is a reasonable price for my services, meaning they also understand professional expectations/norms

        If someone was a pain to work with, I’d turn down future projects. If they were a joy to work with, I’d give them the “you rock” discount rate… which really works out to the same per hour once you account for the time saved on communication and headaches.

      2. tinybutfierce*

        Seconding this. I once read something from a freelance artist dealing with similar client issues about how they have several (mental) tiers of pricing: their standard rate and essentially their “you are clearly going to be Difficult to work with so you will absolutely be paying for the difficulty of working with you” rate, which was significantly higher. From what they said, it noticeably cut down on problem clients, and they were at least pretty well compensated for the few they did have to deal with.

        1. Felis alwayshungryis*

          Yeah, it’s often referred to as the ‘PITA (pain-in-the-arse) tax’. If they look like they’ll be difficult to work with, you charge enough that it at least feels worth your while to deal with them.

          But as a freelance copywriter, the hardest and most demanding (and hardest to collect from) were the ones not paying very much. The ones who agreed to higher fees were generally the most agreeable to work with.

      3. learnedthehardway*

        As a self-employed consultant, I added a PITA surcharge to one of my clients. I won’t work with them unless they pay me extra, basically. Makes me feel smug whenever they’re being ridiculous.

      4. Bev*

        My father is a freelancer, and once when he was WFH I overheard him talking to a potential client that was clearly balking at his pricing. After a longish back-and-forth, I heard him sigh and say: “What you’re paying for is my patience.”

        It’s one of those phrasings that just kinda stuck with me — because yes, they were paying him to provide a service, but more importantly, they were paying him to put up with them until the project was done. Not quite a “rude and shouty” surcharge but “this will be an annoying project” built into the price from the beginning.

    3. Cambridge Comma*

      I have been an in-house editor and now freelance, and my immediate thought was also to put the rates up. At EFA rates and up you’re more likely to get people who understand and value the service you are providing.

  10. KHB*

    I’m a salaried editor, not a freelance one, but I can still commiserate. It’s not clear to me whether you’re providing feedback (telling the authors what changes they need to make) or actual edits (making the changes yourself)?

    If it’s the former, then you can in good conscience say “You hired me to tell you what I think. I’ve told you what I think.” You can also add (out loud or to yourself) “You can argue with me that I’m wrong all you want, but if your readers think the same thing, you won’t be able to argue with each and every one of them.”

    If you’re actually going in and making changes to the text yourself, that can be shocking for any author to see that done to their work. And the advice I always give my colleagues who complain about authors complaining about their edits is: Get better at editing. It wouldn’t seem like it at first, but editing is a job that requires an enormous amount of empathy. You need to see the text through the author’s own eyes, understand what they were trying to accomplish, and make your changes in a way that the author will see as an unambiguous improvement. Simply being “correct” by some third-party standard isn’t enough.

    Of course, some people are just irredeemable jerks who are going to get angry with you no matter what. But once I fully internalized the above, I seem to have encountered a lot fewer of them.

    1. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

      I love this.

      While I’m not technically an editor, a lot of what I do involves editing written material from others. The empathy concept will help me be a better editor in a number of ways.

  11. dear liza dear liza*

    I’m sorry, that’s so stressful.

    The podcast HIDDEN BRAIN recently had an episode on incivility called, How Rude! A researcher discussed how incivility is on the rise and how being the victim of rudeness- or even witnessing rudeness- affects us physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

    Sometimes knowing about the ‘process’ of an experience helps me to disengage from it, so sharing in case it’s helpful to you and others. Link in next message.

    1. HigherEdAdminista*

      Thank you for sharing this! I would be interested in a post here (or perhaps I will start a discussion on the Friday thread) about people facing increasing rudeness in their professions.

      It used to be that a rude student stood out to us, but these days there are so many people who are rude not just in a tense situation, but as a baseline of behavior and it has been noted by faculty and staff alike. It was on the rise for many years, but the pandemic seemed to accelerate things.

      1. Mona-Lisa Saperstein*

        HigherEdAdminista, I am a lawyer married to a lawyer. In 2016, it became increasingly common for us to experience previously-unheard-of levels of rudeness from opposing counsel. People were calling it the “Trump effect” at the time, and it’s only gotten worse. I am definitely curious about whether other professions are experiencing it too.

      1. Scribble*

        I adore Hidden Brain!

        Regarding the editing, I think Alison’s suggestion of a sample chapter is spot on. I’m part of a writer’s group, where we submit works-in-progress for discussion and feedback. One of the members was always difficult and argumentative about any substantive feedback — so much so that after a long pandemic hiatus, when some of us wanted to reconvene, we simply didn’t invite him back. Not worth the aggravation.

        I am personally grateful for editors — they are the gatekeepers preventing me from making a total ass of myself with a huge mistake or lapse in logic. I’m perplexed by writers who would not embrace the value in this.

        So, OP, it’s my hope that by investing less in the jerks upfront (and dumping them early once you discover they’re jerks), you’ll be able to regain your work/life balance. Just know that many, many of us appreciate what you do.

  12. kiki*

    I think with the pandemic, many people have had free time to take the opportunity to finally “write that book they’ve always wanted to” and now have it in their minds that the rest of us should read these books, which will become best sellers without a touch of editing.

    I work in a different industry (software development) and occasionally pick up freelance projects. I’ve also encountered an uptick of folks with big ideas but no familiarity with the software development process and have unreasonable expectations (e.g. Can I, one developer, build a competitor to Zillow, an app with that has been built over 16 years with thousands of employees, in 8-12 weeks?).

    I think Allison’s advice is spot-on. Breaking up the process into smaller chunks at the beginning to make sure everyone is on the same page and ensure you’re the right fit can be really beneficial. For bigger freelance projects, I’ll build a tiny MVP for the client in a few weeks so they can assess my pace and whether they like the way we collaborate. If they’re not satisfied, unreasonably so or not, they can always take what I built and try to find somebody else to expand on it.

    1. SoloKid*

      OTOH, there’s something to be said for a very local scope and not needing to wrangle 16 years of legacy code.
      /mostly s

      During the hectic vaccine rollout in my area of the states, local high school kids built a better “find a vaccine appointment” app than any of the national drugstores had out at the time.

  13. Editor*

    As a professional editor, I have loads of sympathy. Experienced professionals know they need editing and can accept feedback with grace but the newer one is to the process, the worse one often is with criticism. (Lord knows that I of course was a perfect writer in my early days; how dare you stifle my beautiful sentences with your banal edits.) This alas has been true for many of us in our teens and twenties, but as we gain experience, if we are successful, we learn to grow past it. Newbies who are having their first-ever passion project attain completion have not gone through that process.

    Anyway I think sample edits, before taking on a whole manuscript, is definitely a smart way to go. You both get to feel out the relationship before you’ve gotten burnt out on not being allowed to do the work you were signed on to do.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Honestly also even professional writers (I count myself here) are initially often dismayed by a thorough edit, but we’ve learned to stop, turn off the computer for the day, take a walk, call a friend, vent to your critique group and then make the d*mn edits. Amateurs don’t know this and that’s what OP is encountering.

  14. Writer Claire*

    I am so sorry you were put through all that abuse. I’m not surprised, unfortunately. There are so many people in the world who believe their manuscripts are works of genius, and even if they claim they want feedback, they react badly when they get some. (Source: I’m an author, and I’ve seen that behavior on critique forums *far* too many times.) Also, as you noted, the pandemic has been a NaNoWriMo on steroids.

    Sample edits on your website might help prepare clients on what to expect, but the shouty ones usually glance at those and think, “But mine is so much better!” What might work is to have a two-part approach. New clients pay for one or two chapters of editing, based on your rate/page or rate/words. That gives them a real taste of what to expect, and you a taste for how they react, then you each decide if you want to continue to the full manuscript.

    1. quill*

      My motto is never commit to critique, edits, or proofreading with a complete stranger. I don’t have time for *that* person from the internet writing forum anymore, I spent enough time being patient with people’s genius when I was sixteen to twenty.

      If I were doing it professionally and my business model was based on doing it for complete strangers, I would 100% not want to commit to anything that I hadn’t seen at least 5 pages of.

      Also, OP: how’s your networking situation outside of other editors? Do you know any agents / authors whose work you respect and who might have leads on clients who at least attempt professionalism?

      1. Writer Claire*

        Yeah, it can be extra dicey to critique strangers. I signed up to provide a 5K critique for a charity, so I’ve got my fingers crossed and thumbs held that it’s a reasonable person.

        1. quill*

          Best of luck, and remember, if you find a doozy: brain bleach isn’t a thing, but your hobbies will certainly get you part of the way there!

          1. Writer Claire*

            Hah! I hear you.

            The charity is a good cause, so I’ll keep that in mind as I critique. Also, whiskey.

      1. Boof*

        Especially since steroids can make people emotionally volatile and aggressive, not just energetic!

  15. Another Michael*

    I’m sorry your going through this and I’m glad to already see helpful suggestions here from folks in the field in addition to what Alison has suggested. The only thing I can add as an outsider is that it sounds like you’re coming off of a particularly intense period of difficulty. If it financially makes sense for your work, are you able to take some time off before you take on a new project? A slighlty extended break might be good for your overall wellbeing too – good luck!

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      +1. Burnout is real, especially when you’ve had an emotional experience leading up to it. Give yourself a little space if you can!

  16. Richard Hershberger*

    I have never edited someone else’s writing, but I have had mine edited, to widely varying benefit. At the top end, the editor force me to rigor where I had kind of slid by. At the bottom end I read the edited version long after turning in the draft, with the all-too-frequent reaction of “Did I write that?” (and not in a good way), only to look back at what I had turned in and find that no, I had not. A friend joked that I should have a rubber stamp made with STET in red ink. Sadly, that wouldn’t work with an electronic file.

    I have not had the privilege of choosing my editor. I know exactly who I will ask, should the situation ever arise. It is that guy who forced me to do better. But if he isn’t available, I would want to have a detailed conversation about expectations before I paid someone. “Editor” covers a vast amount of terrain. I would want clarity about exactly what service I was paying for. This would be true even if narrowed down to “copy editor.” My writing tends to slide back and forth between the historical present and the past tense. This is a bad habit, and I totally want my copy editor to fix whatever slips past me. Spending time changing “which” to “that” to follow an imaginary rule? Not on my dime. In my experience, more than half of copy editing is this kind of stuff, and a complete waste of time for everyone involved.

    Mostly, I think Alison’s advice about being more selective with accepting clients is spot on. If you don’t need the work, don’t take on the grief. There is an observation in the legal biz that a milestone in any lawyer’s career is when they reach the point that they can turn down a potential client for being crazy. In the twelve-plus years I have been with my boss, he took on a crazy client once. I questioned this as the time, and he did indeed come to regret it.

    1. ThatGirl*

      Sounds like you want a proofreader more than copy editor, or at least someone with a light touch. Which is fine! But it’s definitely good to set expectations on both ends up front.

      On a personal level I have done some manuscript editing of this sort, and I know that if it’s someone who’s never written a book before, they are much more likely to be touchy about editing and think themselves a genius.

    2. L.H. Puttgrass*

      The difference between “which” and “that”—an arbitrary rule? That’s it, sir. Meet me at dawn in New Jersey. You choose the weapons.

      Seriously, though: at least some of your writing is legal, right? That has its own set of dysfunctions, starting with the wacky world of student-edited journals. If you want someone to obsess over the minutia of Bluebook esoterica, a law review editor is your person. Some of them are even pretty strong on the rules of grammar. Others…not. Just hope that you don’t get one who thinks they can critique your analysis of the law.

      But even with overzealous student copyeditors, a reasonable exchange is, “Thank you for your edits, here is why they are wrong,” not yelling and name-calling. At least, not to their faces.

      1. L.H. Puttgrass*

        And I see that I somehow swapped in “arbitrary” for “imaginary.” Which I concede it is (just as most rules of grammar, style, and usage are arbitrary).

        See? This is why I need an editor.

        1. Richard Hershberger*

          I stick by “imaginary.” It was literally just made up, apparently by Goold Brown in his Grammar of English Grammars from 1851. Brown was a crank. Much of the book was Brown nitpicking earlier writers, especially earlier grammarians, and he was not above simply making up a rule so he could point out where those earlier writers violated it. Then it was picked up some years later by Alfred Ayres, (real name Thomas Embly Osmun), another usage writer, who knew it was an invented rule but was so delighted by it that when he edited William Cobbett’s 1818 Grammar of the English Language, he ostentatiously ‘corrected’ Cobbett when this imaginary rule was broken. (Cobbett was an interesting guy: an English radical who was on the lam in America when he wrote that grammar, in epistolary form directed to his son using speeches of English politicians as examples of incorrect usage. Another of his books, 1822’s Rural Rides is a classic. Pick up that one over the grammar.)

          So yes, it is an imaginary rule: not in fact a rule of English grammar. It is possible that it could someday become a real rule, but it is not there now.

          1. L.H. Puttgrass*

            There is a difference between “made up” and “imaginary.” You could complain about most rules of grammar having been made up at some time or another. But in American English, at least (British English tends ignore the distinction), the difference in usage between “which” and “that” is fairly well settled, and use of one instead of the other willy nilly is likely to be like fingernails on a chalkboard for readers who care about the difference. It may or may not be a rule of grammar (I never studied language formally enough to know the difference between grammar, style, usage, semantics, syntax, etc. without looking it up), but in American English it’s standard.

            But words however want, mostcertaidly. Brains splunge meaning goodly.

            1. New Jack Karyn*

              How many people know the difference, and how many care? I’m an avid reader, and I notice all sorts of errors when reading text. Tense agreement, subject-verb agreement, all of that, plus spelling and punctuation. That vs. which has never registered with me; I care about it even less than splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions.

              If someone editing my writing wants to fix it, knock yourself out. But I can’t be arsed to care about this one.

              1. quill*

                It’s one of those things that feels like there is a rule, but I’d really have to think about the boundaries of the rule.

                Rules that descend from older grammatical conventions, such as thou and you denoting familiarity, could stick in the mind. Rules which descend from old pronunciations of various words would be harder. In these two sentences both feel right?

                But if I were making a long sentence describing my experience, which has been a ton of reading and writing from various eras, but not actually a lot of lessons on grammar, I would say that there is a difference sometimes. If you are adding a clause that explains something and intend to use commas on either side of it, which sounds better. (To me.) If you are adding a clause that needs no extra commas… you get the picture.

            2. Richard Hershberger*

              Do readers who care about the difference respond this way when reading, say, Jane Austen? Or really, any writer from more than about fifty years ago? Or a modern British writer who hasn’t been specifically edited for the American market? I doubt it. You can carefully train yourself to be annoyed, if you are willing to put in the work. Why anyone would want to is beyond me, but that is a different matter. But in practice you can turn it off.

              1. quill*

                Literally all grammar rules are less important within fiction than style, unless they make something legitimately harder to read, which is part of what an editor will point out.

                That said, Britpicking and/or Americanization of novels is a thing. But generally publishers expect americans to be able to deal with extra U’s and brits to not go looking for them. Things that have completely different meanings that can’t be determined by the context (Brits, our pants are workplace appropriate when yours are not, you know this by now) might get changed.

                Usually though it’s more along the lines of “oh, your novel is set in britain? They should take paracetamol, not advil,” so it’s consistent within the book, and not with the audience’s expectations.

    3. Nanani*

      Which vs That is a style issue more than a grammar one, but that doesn’t make it imaginary.
      It mostly means you need to agree on a style guide ahead of time.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        Does it? There are countless instances where there is more than one possible usage. Why is it important to pick one and use that throughout? This is an honest question. I have never seen an answer better than a bare assertion that it is important. Before we jump on this bandwagon, however, consider another example of an instance with more than one possible usage, the relative pronoun as the object in a relative clause, e.g.

        (1) The school that she attends is very good.

        The relative clause here is “that she attends” with “that” being the relative pronoun. Relative clauses in English have the peculiar property that the relative pronoun is mandatory if it is the subject of the clause, but optional if it is the object. So this sentence is perfectly cromulent:

        (1a) The school she attends is very good.

        But taking an example were it is the subject, omitting the pronoun is ungrammatical:

        (2) The school that accepted her is very good.
        *(2a) The school accepted her is very good.

        So riddle me this: In (1) and (1a) the pronoun is optional. You can put it in or leave it out, as whimsy moves you. No one copy edits to make it the same way every time. I have heard of rare misguided souls who insist it has to be there (because that which is permitted is mandatory) and I have heard of rare misguided souls who insist it cannot be there (because “omit needless words”) but I have never heard of anyone saying it has to be the same every time simply for the sake of uniform house style.

        Most questions of house style strike me the same way: Stuff that matters not one whit, but which someone decided is Very Important because reasons. Which stuff gets the Very Important treatment and which go unnoticed is pretty much random.

        1. ThatGirl*

          She picked out a hat that she was going to wear later.
          She picked out a hat, which she was going to wear later.

          Those are two (slightly) different sentences.

          And yes, style guides do matter – consistency makes things more readable.

          1. Richard Hershberger*

            She picked out a student whom she was going to call on later.
            She picked out a student, whom she was going to call on later.

            Who/whom as the relative pronoun has no comparable distinction. No one is confused, and few even notice the absence. And, as is usual in these discussions, in the vast majority of real world cases the context clarifies the supposed ambiguity.

            1. ThatGirl*

              you’re the one who brought up that/which!

              not every “either/or” makes a difference. but some of them do.

              why be so resistant to trying to make your writing more readable and clearer?

              1. Richard Hershberger*

                The point is the that/which distinction is grammatically identical to the whom/whom distinction in my sentences.

          2. L.H. Puttgrass*

            I’d offer as another example:

            She picked out the hat that was red.
            She picked out the hat, which was red.

            The first implies multiple choices of hats—she picked the red one. The second implies that there may have been some other choice (scarves vs. hats, maybe?), but it wasn’t a choice of colors.

            Sure, you could have a rule where “She picked out the hat, that was red,” “She picked out the hat, which was red” mean the same thing and “She picked out the hat that was red” and “She picked out the hat which was red” also mean the same thing, and British English tends to do just that. But I personally find the American English convention that distinguishes between usages easier to read. But then, I’m American, so I would, wouldn’t I?

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              You certainly can make this distinction, but in actual practice it hardly ever matters, as context makes the meaning clear. And when context doesn’t, relying on a rule that not everyone knows is a tenuous strategy. If you are serious about it, recast the paragraph.

    4. QuickerBooks*

      Ok so here’s the deal with “which” and “that”: it is 100% an “imaginary” rule, just like all grammar rules are to some extent imaginary, arbitrary, or … pick your dismissive adjective.

      But part of an editor’s job is to make sure there are no stones in the road for readers to trip over. A large number of people–LARGE–have internalized very specific “which” vs. “that” rules; and if they run across a violation of that rule, they will trip on that in your writing. It won’t be fatal–they won’t slam the book shut. But do you really want your reader focusing on that even for a second? Wouldn’t you rather they just be able to get directly to your ideas?

      A good editor acts as a generic stand-in for your reader. They may or may not personally give a crap about “which” vs “that”, but they will be aware that in many contexts, other readers will notice that and it will cause a sort of hiccup in their reading. Editors will consider it their job to avoid such hiccups.

      And before anybody comments, yes, I am fully aware that “which” vs “that” rules are different in different English speaking countries. Obviously some sort of audience or context has to be assumed here.

      Oh, and the next thing someone is going to say is, “Well, which vs. that doesn’t bother me personally, so that PROVES that fixing it is a waste of time.” To you I say: “Congratulations!” You’re awesome! But it will bother some people, and editors have to think of those people as well, not just you.

      1. Richard Hershberger*

        It is simply not true that all grammar rules are imaginary. Here’s a real one: the direct object of a phrasal verb can be located either after or within the verb unless said object is a pronoun, in which case it can only be located within the verb:

        John put a shirt on.
        John put on a shirt.
        John put it on.
        *John put on it.

        We know this is a real rule because native speakers (insert usual provisos about neurotypical adults) do not break this rule. “John put on it” simply isn’t something a native speaker would say, or if he did he would recognize it as a speech error. Indeed, it is so ingrained that if you are a native English speaker and you have no linguistic training, it is unlikely that you consciously realize that this rule even exists. The exception is if you have taught English as a second language. This rule, and phrasal verbs in general, give ESL students fits.

      2. Dinwar*

        “… just like all grammar rules are to some extent imaginary, arbitrary, or … pick your dismissive adjective.”

        This is what makes constructed languages fun: you get to see which rules work and which don’t. There are people doing experimental linguistics, trying to figure out what it takes to make an intelligible language, and it turns out we have no idea. Everything we thought was necessary for a language to function can be thrown out and you can still make a functioning language. I’m nowhere NEAR that level–mine is obviously Romantic–but I know enough to have fun. Like, what IS an adjective when you get right down to it? Or a verb? Or a conjugation? Really opened my eyes to how gendered languages work–mine is gendered, more or less by accident (though only in the technical sense, as my “genders” are hominin, dragon, and everything else).

        The thing is, there’s stuff that’s made up organically, then there’s stuff that’s made up for no reason. In a conlang it’s fun; in English it’s annoying.

        An example of the first is the use of slang–everyone just sort of accepts that these words have new meanings, and yesterday’s slang becomes today’s normal vernacular, which is tomorrow’s high-class diction (and in English it always comes down to class….). No one makes you do it, you just sort of absorb it, either individually or as a culture.

        An example of the second is splitting infinitives. It was based on an attempt by some individual with, I presume, more prestige than brains to force English–a Germanic language–to follow the structure of Latin–a Romance language. In Latin you can’t split infinitives; in English you can split them all you want without affecting the intelligibility of the sentence. Same with ending sentences with prepositions–you can do so without the slightest effect on intelligibility.

        These are extreme examples, of course. The problem lies in the giant, gray, fuzzy borderland. Authors routinely break the rules of writing–to the point where there are rules for breaking the rules, and categories of rules–and knowing how and when is a skill. And I imagine differences of opinion between authors and editors as to which rules are real and which are merely made up and offer no value occurs fairly often, it being a somewhat subjective line.

    5. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

      A novelist I know has a “stet” stamp, which she takes with her to the cafe where she reviews the copyedited versions of her books. I think she may now be scanning the marked-up pages and emailing them back, rather than taking them to the post office, but the process is still much the same.

  17. AdequateArchaeologist*

    A few years ago I had my book professionally edited. It was the first time I’d ever gotten feedback in a professional capacity and I took it really, really personally. Like, pointing out issues made me super defensive. It was partially a lack of maturity (I was 21), and partially just because writing can be very personal.

    What worked/works for me is looking at the feedback then stepping away for a day to let myself be unreasonable internally then return when I can be professional. Would it be possible to institute a cool down period? Like, you return the work and no discussion on the work for 24-48 hrs?

    Don’t know if any of that is helpful, but I do want to say as someone who has had their stuff edited it is 100% on your clients to not be jerks.

    1. Girasol*

      I sympathize with the OP but I can see myself being that client. Thanks for the tips on how not to be.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        It’s natural, but I think part of what separates an amateur from someone who could be a professional writer is being able to take criticism. Which might mean needing to do some self strategizing or mental preparation or counseling or whatever it takes to get ready for that. If your editor doesn’t pick you apart and you do get published, critics and GoodReads readers definitely will!

        1. Sloanicota*

          Also in my experience all the feelings are still there, no matter how professional you are (witness the list at the top of the comments of all the best sellers egos who refuse editing!) but professionals learn not to act on the feelings – don’t send that email, don’t make that phone call, go take a walk, do some venting, let it settle in and then come back to it fresh.

  18. Colette*

    One thing I haven’t seem mentioned is that it might be good to spell out at the beginning what kind of behaviour is unacceptable. I.e. “Shouting, name-calling, and abusive language will result in the termination of the work. Full payment will be due immediately.”

  19. raincoaster*

    Ugh, I feel this. Sadly I’ve no better advice than “screen your clients” but I can definitely confirm this is a new phenomenon in the field. I got one job because the previous editor went dark for a week…the author left her raging voice messages saying “you’d better be in the hospital!” And…she was. When she got out the author fired me and begged her to finish the job. Which, frankly, was a relief to me.

  20. Nanani*

    I’m a freelance translator rather than an editor, but I suspect Difficult Clients are kind of widespread.
    Some clients will just refuse to hear that there is an error in their original (and errors generally need to be resolved to get a coherent translation), or that their tourist-in-a-restaurant level understanding of the target language does not include the words I used (so like, the professional they hired must be wrong because they didn’t use the exact wording they misremember).

    What I do is nowhere near as emotionally fraught as editing someone’s wordbaby of a novel, but the point is, bad clients exist. Working through a firm or organization of some kind can help, even if that means they get a cut of the pay, because they will have project managers whose actual job it is to manage client expectations and say things like “No, your powerpoint layout cannot be preserved as-is because it just doesn’t fit in the target language (and it’s also really bad)” so I can get on with translating.

    So I guess my suggestion is screen your clients, by way of an agency or something if that exists?

    1. Sharp-dressed Boston Terrier*

      Former freelance translator (now permanently employed in-house) checking in. Agencies can be just as bad as individual clients; I worked in-house for one such agency for several years. It can be a minefield for translators, and I suspect the same could be said of the editing business.

      The key, I think – as many others have said throughout this thread – is knowing when to fire them and find other clients/agencies to work with. Which, as LW admits, is not at all easy when you’re trying to establish yourself in the first place and doesn’t get much easier when your career has worked up a full head of steam.

      So I agree, try to find agencies – but go in with your eyes wide open.

  21. animaniactoo*

    I like Alison’s ideas about the upfront expectation setting and the pro-rated chapter.

    I also feel like you’d be okay with saying “This behavior is not professional and I will not continue to work with you if it persists.” or outlining up front “Because my time and sanity are precious, clients who express unhappiness by sending multiple e-mails in a short span of time (think hours, not weeks) will be assessed a PITA handling fee.”

    While some will find that unprofessional themselves, I suspect that it will work well as a self-screener – the ones who are offended by it will opt to go elsewhere all on their lonesome.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I agree, if you can be picky with your clients a little bluntness and humor to start relationships on a good foot is worth the occasional judgment of being unprofessional.

  22. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    I have had the flip-side of your issue (instructing various internal editors what to be looking at), and up-front communication is definitely key.

    List the things you will do, in detail. And sometimes it’s even more important to list the things you will ***not*** do!

    Eg, you’ll highlight places where the author uses the same adjective or verb repeatedly – but you won’t open the thesaurus and suggest a half-dozen synonyms they should consider instead.

    1. SofiaDeo*

      OMG, I quit reading Patricia Cornwell because she “tucks” various things way way too much. Even things that aren’t “tuckable”. But Scarpetta tucks them anyway.

  23. quill*

    As an aspiring author and someone who has traded a variety of edits, proofreading and brainstorming sessions with other aspiring authors or members of fan communities: 100% ask for a sample before finalizing anything.

    People I knew in passing who were perfectly average posters on forums turned out to want feedback on things that were significantly longer or less finished than they had told me, or they didn’t understand what kind of edit they were asking for, or they took issue with the fact that their piece did not make sense outside their head. It sounds like you were previously only, or mostly, getting people who had done at least some research and knew something about industry norms, and now you’re getting the more dreaded denizens of any writing forum, one set of whom think that an editor is a vending machine for praise and that fixing some stray commas will instantly turn their keyboard barf into a best seller, and another set of whom believe that the editor magically fixes the story and they get the credit for the mere original idea. (I’ve been on enough writing forums to be able to spot them in the wild now, but in college? Thinking I was networking? I learned the hard way.)

    Dealing with people yelling about “why won’t you edit my book!? I have money” ahead of time isn’t going to be comfortable, but it’s less of a time suck than dealing with their tantrums after you’ve done the work.

  24. Siege*

    I got out of freelance editing because it can be so awful (the last book I edited had been purchased sight unseen and when I gave the author and the press the honest feedback that this book, if published, would destroy the press, the press cancelled the book (based on an eight-page summary of the most egregious, unfixable issues with the first third of the book) and then refused to pay the rest of my fee because I hadn’t completed editing the book they were no longer willing to publish – yes I see you, multiple-Hugo-winning jerk) so I don’t have relevant advice, but I agree that a sample edit is a good idea; I’ve found that helpful with the worst books I’ve edited, so the author can see the kind of work it will take to get the book up to snuff.

    Also, you’re certainly doing this but there’s a huge misconception with what “editors” dp because it’s a catch-all for development editors, proofreaders, and everything in between. Would it be useful to come up with a cute graphic you can email to first contacts explaining that you do development editing and that means X, Y, Z, but not copyediting, which is A, B, C? Or, conversely, that you do copyediting which is this much and includes A, B, C, all the way up to development editing which is THIS much? I’m wondering less about how clear your explanation is and more how well people understand it.

    There are an awful lot of people who should lock that “book they’ve always meant to write” in a dark room until it dies of starvation.

      1. Siege*

        Unfortunately, I can’t – I’m always happy to dish the dirt in appropriate venues, but this person is a big deal in my local SF scene and I can’t afford to burn the bridge even though I’m not under NDA.

      2. L.H. Puttgrass*

        Oh, man. I’m going to be wondering who this is for a while (and really really hoping it’s not one of the ones I really like and who I’d like to think wouldn’t be this obnoxious).

      3. L.H. Puttgrass*

        In my personal fanfic, this is why we still don’t have The Winds of Winter yet—except that there’s no way a publisher would cancel that book under any circumstances at all.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          Agreed, but we don’t know how long ago this was. Could have been 20 years or 20 months or 20 weeks.

      1. Beth*

        I’m surprised that nobody has quoted the “kill your darlings” line yet. Or linked to any of Scalzi’s magnificent suggestions to aspiring writers, especially teens.

        The terrible writing that I did early in my life never saw the light, but it made very good compost for later. I doubt that I’ll ever be published, but I did become a better writer over time.

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      This is a very helpful post! I’m one of those people who think I have a book in me, but know nothing about the publishing business, the different types of editing, all that stuff. I hope I wouldn’t be a raging jerk (should I ever send off a manuscript), but I might easily fall into ‘clueless jerk’ category.

    2. Nessa*

      I agree that a graphic depicting exactly what kind of editing is being done is a good idea! Few people know the difference between developmental, line, and copy editing.

      I feel for the OP, as I have worked with these kinds of clients as well, as a graphic designer for a vanity press. The number of clients convinced they were the next JK Rowling was astounding. We even had to fire one client when he became increasingly verbally abusive to the staff when we wouldn’t drop everything to print his many terrible books right away. He even threatened to call the police!

      I had an author get upset when I told her that her book desperately needed editing, as some sentences were pretty incomprehensible. English was a second language for many of our clients and it was obvious in their works. I ended up doing a bit of line editing myself on some projects.

      One of the worst was an old lady writing a children’s novel. She didn’t want folios and she demanded the book be printed entirely in Times New Roman. After much difficulty, I managed to convince her to let me use a different serif font. My boss had to get involved to tell her Times New Roman was no good. Then when it came to illustrating the cover for her book about a fairy, she insulted my illustrations and claimed that my fairy looked like a dummy (in more offensive terms) and that the fairy isn’t supposed to look feminine and pretty because she’s a WARRIOR. All this despite there being not a single physical description of the protagonist in the entire book. There were actually no physical descriptions of ANYTHING in the book, with the reason being that the author wanted the audience to use their imagination. She was so upset with my art that she ended up drawing it herself, and she was not a great artist.

      There are many reasons I am no longer working there, but the clientele is definitely one of them.

      1. lilbangladesh*

        Oh my goodness. That reminded me of a playwright who wanted me to do a reading of his play. Except the play was literally unactable. It was incredibly wordy, with screeds and screeds of monologues. Basically long monologues the characters spoke at each other with no dialogue anywhere to be found. And no concept of human psychology at all. This guy literally thought that physicists were incapable of emotion. So this play was a huge steaming pile of dogdo that was unsalvageable. I mean, I run across a lot of bad scripts, but I can usually make them work, but there was no way that I could play this character because she was a mouthpiece not a character. And none of what she was saying made a lick of sense! No plot, no character. I eventually called him up and told him I couldn’t do it. And he responded with abuse. And then a friend of mine was asked to read it with a thought to directing this dogpile, and she made the mistake of giving him honest feedback. He got REALLY abusive on Facebook and we both had to block him.

    3. Ex Unpublished Writer*

      This thread has convinced me to delete every single file of both my books, that I was going to publish in retirement. Is the writing good? Maybe, people do praise my writing. Are the stories good? Maybe, IDK. I wanted an editor to weigh in on that.
      But I’m getting old, and this thread makes me realize I have no idea how to get through the process of publishing. It’s a bit of a mine field, isn’t it. If I were younger, maybe I’d make it to the other end, but whatever. I don’t need to thrust my compost on the world.
      Thank you. I really needed this help to make this decision. Rather than feeling bad about my babies, a weight has been lifted. A good sign it’s the right decision. More time lolling on a beach. :)

      1. Nessa*

        Oh please don’t delete you work over this! If you can take professional criticism and make efforts to improve your writing, then you’re not the type of person being vented about in this thread! Especially if you don’t have the assumption of becoming a millionaire from your books. I have worked with retired writers who were quite lovely and talented! They’re usually part of writers groups and are used to receiving feedback on their work and actively want to improve. They are also more willing to listen to professional advice.

  25. Bernice Clifton*

    I worked in book publishing as an assistant many years ago and this doesn’t surprise me at all, unfortunately. Part of my job was sending (very polite!) rejection emails to hopeful authors who sent us unsolicited proposals and manuscripts and many of the responses I got were abusive, usually falling in one or more of the following accusations:

    1) The submission wasn’t reviewed at all or by anyone qualified because the content didn’t look read through (when we returned it at their request) or because the work was so great there’s no way anyone would pass on it.

    2) I was lying about the reasons for the rejection which were vague (“outside of the content category of our list”, “subject too similar to a title we recently published”) so therefore I must enjoy wasting their time and that makes me a bad person.

    I came to realize that many people believe they have a Great Idea for a book the same way so many people think they have a chance on American Idol, and they don’t want to be told otherwise, even when it’s in their best interest.

    1. Siege*

      My absolute favorite was the guy who sent in a submission with a cover letter exposing that if we didn’t publish his book, Sumerian gods would destroy the earth. He failed to include the sample.

      My least favorite was the guy who, on Monday, I sent a letter requesting his full ms; and on Tuesday we had to get the police involved because he had decided to spend some of his time while waiting for feedback on his sample by taking extreme issue with how we handled a fictional species and sending death threats to the editorial team credited on that book. He’d replied to my initial email with such abject gratitude that it was clear this was a big deal to him, but I’m not taking on someone who sends in death threats, for more reasons than I can list in a week.

      1. Evan Þ*

        Are you sure that cover letter wasn’t actually the first chapter of his story? I’d try out reading that premise!

        1. Siege*

          Only because the cover letter was not a six-foot chunk of sheetrock, and I am fairly sure his book was written on same. But honestly, when I’m being threatened with Jubelo, Jubela, and Jubellum, I really want to read the book too, so I was very disappointed.

  26. Olive Hornby*

    In house editor here–do you have a contract? If not, get one! If so, is there a way to build expectations around feedback into the contract by doing a sample edit as suggested, or by providing more specifics about the kind of feedback on offer? I know a lot of folks who do tiers–Tier One being a read and an hour-long phone call to discuss impressions, Tier Two being an editorial letter of 8-12 pages, Tier Three being comments in Track Changes, etc. And you may want to consider an hourly fee for communication outside of those bounds, e.g. if they want to take a phone call to discuss. Also, I agree that you should take a look at your rates and make sure they’re in line with the market.

    1. iglwif*

      Yes, a contract is a very good idea! Editors Canada has boilerplate contract language that you can use, and probably the Editorial Freelancers’ Association (US equivalent org) does as well.

      And you can put into the contract any agreements you make about doing a sample chapter, agreeing on style rules, etc., etc.

  27. Lizzo*

    Building on @eliza’s comment about referrals, I work in a creative field as well, and I have found over the years that the best new clients are the ones that are referred to me, whether by previous clients who are happy with my work, or by people who know me/my work well, and can verify that I am a good match for the person in search of services. People who find me by way of Google searches rarely become (good) clients.

    I have helped nurture this referral pipeline by talking about what I do, how I am different from the other folks providing these services, and explaining the very specific benefits of working with me. I do this with friends, but also at networking events. Once folks contact me, I have a bunch of questions I ask to ensure we’re on the same page about their needs and what I can provide.

    LW, I do recall some very frustrating experiences with past clients where I honestly thought I might throw in the towel and stop doing this kind of work, but I paused, determined what this experience was trying to tell me about the bigger picture, and consequently recalibrated several things about my business. That was more than 10 years ago, and I’m still rolling along and enjoying what I do. That work/life balance + good client experiences *are* possible!

  28. Lore*

    I’m a production editor at a big publishing house who also does freelance editing work, often for private clients, and I think that marketplaces like Reedsy, which offer authors a menu of services, can also confuse the issue. I would say the majority of requests I get are for people who have checked “developmental edit,” “editorial assessment,” “copyediting,” and sometimes also “proofreading” as the desired services, and when I go back to say, Hey, those are actually four different things to be done at four different stages of the process, authors are very often not able to define what it is they need. I would recommend a one-sheet that takes a paragraph of text and shows, with track changes/comments, the different results from a developmental edit, a line edit, a light copy edit, a heavy copy edit–or whatever different levels of editing you may work at–and have all prospective clients review that and choose the style they prefer. Then you can assess whether that’s something you are willing to do for that particular project. I find that sometimes people need a heavy developmental or line edit but only want a light copyedit, and I may think their book will be the worse for it, but if all they want is the typos fixed and the characters’ names made consistent, I can do that, or decline the job.

    1. Little Miss Cranky Pants*

      The different types of edits can confuse folks unfamiliar with publishing terms and the general processes. And the term “proof read” has come to mean light copy editing, which it is not. At all.

      I use a questionnaire for new clients, and since I specialize in developmental editing, these Qs have worked pretty well. They include: 1- How much time are you still willing to put into this manuscript? Do you have other responsibilities (school, job, family) that limit your work time? 2- Is there any aspect of your book that you’re still not sure of? (plot, characters, point-of-view, etc.) Are there clear problem areas that you’d like me to address? 3- Have you taken any writing classes already? If so, from whom and what was helpful to you? 4- Have you have had editorial feedback prior to this? From whom? What was your reaction to this input? 5- Who do you think will read your book? Who is your target audience? 6- What is your intention in writing this book? 7-What message do you want to leave with your readers?
      And the like. Qs 3 and 4 really give me a sense of how this writer might have experienced previous beta reading and edits.

      And yes, sample chapter before a full contract. Always.

    2. Sloanicota*

      I’m guessing the issue is that these writers think they want to do whatever editing is required to get to the level where they can be traditionally published (without knowing what that means) but they’re not actually emotionally prepared for the professional level editing that would bring them closer to their goal. Unfortunately, they’re probably also not emotionally ready for traditional publishing, which is pretty brutal, and one of the main issues is you have to be willing to let go of your product more than most amateurs are willing to do.

  29. Dawn*

    I have never edited for a living, but I have worked as a fiction editor on a couple of small literary journals and continue to “beta read” for amateur authors as part of a writers’ group to which I belong. I calculated once that I’ve offered feedback on 2,000+ short stories or chapters, so while I can’t speak to the professional side of it, I can speak to what it’s like to work with authors, and how I establish understandings with the authors I work with.

    First, I 100% know the type you’re talking about: the people who are adamant that they want feedback (clearly, even willing to pay for it!), but what they really want (and expect) is that their work is going to be *so* mind-blowing that you will come back with nothing but speechless adulation. And when that expectation is shattered by the reality of a marked-up manuscript, rather than using that as an opportunity to self-assess and improve, they turn the full splendor of their outrage on you. Because it’s a lot easier to make it about you and your shoddy editing than it is to own up to the fact that their writing isn’t as spectacular as they’ve always assumed.

    I send authors I work with a document at the outset of our work together, explaining my role and expectations up front. I explain what I do by default on a project and give them the chance to let me know if that aligns with what they want. If they only want a work proofread, it’s not worth either of our time for me to spend time critiquing characterization, structure, style, et cetera, which is the far more intensive work. (I wouldn’t compromise on price, though.) I ask them to acknowledge they’ve read and are okay with this document before beginning any work on their story.

    I also give my authors permission to sever the relationship with no hard feelings if they find I’m not providing what they need. In fact, I ask them to do that, which might be different for someone doing this professionally; for me, it is a waste of time that I’m donating to the particular writing group I belong to if I continue providing feedback that the author has no intent to use. For you, it’s income, and income that is going to be lost if you cut a project short. However, I like Alison’s idea of providing feedback on a single or few chapters, perhaps at a slightly higher rate that then comes off the overall cost of editing if they choose to continue with you.

    If you’re not providing positive feedback on what works in the writing, that can also be a way to soften the blow for authors who aren’t used to the realities of professional-level feedback. And, as I tell my authors, it’s just as important to know what works and what not to change as it is to know what could use improvement.

    I’d also be firmer in drawing boundaries with the people who are disrespectful to you. This took me a long time to do myself, so I know it’s hard. Being a writer myself, I do empathize with how difficult it can be to hear that something you’ve worked hard on and often put a lot of yourself into isn’t quite up to standards yet. I put up with a lot as an editor from writers with delicate sensibilities. But I don’t anymore. I would answer the first disrespectful email with something like: “I know that it can be hard to receive professional editing and feedback on a piece of work so important to you, and I empathize with that. However, your words are outside what is considered acceptable in professional communications in the publishing field, and this will be the first and only time I will respond to a communication that is disrespectful toward me. I would suggest mulling over the feedback I gave in the days and weeks to come, and if you have questions or if I can be of further assistance, please don’t hesitate to reach out.* However, be advised that all further communications must be within professional bounds, or I will not respond.”

    * If, in fact, you are willing to do this.

    This can also go in whatever materials you send up-front, or in the return of the manuscript. Then stick to it. Remind yourself that you’re doing these authors no favors by encouraging them to communicate this way. Other professionals they encounter as they try to get published will not be so forgiving.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      Within my field of early baseball history, an author asked me if I had found any factual errors in his just-published book, “for the second edition,” you know. As it happened, I had. What I learned from the ensuing experience is that I will agree to this before a book is published, but not after. I think I got a third of the way through before I stopped. Were this before publication there would have been a point to it, at least potentially. I had a reader for my book, whom I fed individual chapters as they were written, and whose feedback improved the final version. But after publication? Let me know if the publisher actually asks for a second edition. As it is, it is a small field and we run in the same circles, making things a bit awkward.

    2. Critical Rolls*

      I’ve been scrolling through looking for a comment like your third paragraph. I think education can play a role here, making sure that clients understand whether they’re getting deep-cut developmental editing or a proofread, and getting it clear in writing that there will be red ink involved. It’s not a universal fix, and I think any contract should include a termination clause for a unacceptable behavior, but it would probably help.

  30. Baby Yoda*

    Have participated in various writing critique groups for over 30 years, and the same thing plays out there. A lot of writers only want to hear how great their work is, nothing negative. It’s sad because they Will never improve without feedback.

    1. Baby Yoda*

      Until reading this thread I almost forgot that for a year or so I was a “first reader” for a small press. They paid me $5 per manuscript to decide if it moved up to the next level. Sounds good at first…. but they insisted I read each manuscript entirely, even if it was terrible and needed to go back to the writer. Life is too short.

      1. quill*

        I remember with horrified fondness my days beta reading fanfic / machinomics. At least when someone is paying you to read they’re not sneakily asking you to promote their web series to your audience and freaking out when you fix their spelling and tell them that their chapter makes no sense instead of saying “Welcome to the medium-name-fan inner circle!”

            1. quill*

              $5 for a novel that you read in say, four hours is $1.13 per hour, enough below even tipped minimum wage that it actually surprises me.

  31. catsamillion*

    I’m a freelancer who works with artists and writers of many different disciplines, and OH MY GOD. YEAH. This is a THING.

    The pros want me to be brutal–but I’m not really brutal, just honest with my recommendations and feedback. They’re usually well-versed in how the editorial process works, and they accept my offering and decide for themselves what to incorporate. Most of the time, that’s that, and I try to make it very clear that what I am offering is kind of like a menu: this is what I think you should get at the restaurant, but you can decide to order a special instead, or just have lemon water.

    The amateurs are often convinced they are the new voice of their generation. I’ve had people straight up lie to me about whether their work is self published (I don’t take self-published clients), be aggressive in responding when I explain the basics of why we can’t do something the way they think it should be done, and go off into weird dramatic sad tangents about how discouraging this process is. Honestly, these are the clients I fire. There is no amount of money that would make me excited to pick up the phone for a person like that, and because my work is in high demand, I can say no whenever I think I should.

    I think that is pretty much your answer unless someone is actually forcing you to work with people like this. It might be good to keep a list of colleagues you can refer them to, as long as those colleagues are OK taking on this kind of client. Some people are OK with it!

  32. Cambridge Comma*

    I am a freelance editor and have been in-house in the past.
    Firstly, if you have any doubts about your tone have another editor read your queries. If you are female authors are much more sensitive (in-house we often compared and my male colleagues could be much more direct than I was and still have positive responses).
    Otherwise, get some publisher clients to give yourself a break.

  33. AnotherSarah*

    I always prefer the term “feedback” rather than “criticism,” but I wonder if you might want to use slightly harsher language when you describe what you do? I can imagine a newbie thinking that “feedback” ought to be positive and then being surprised. (To be clear, they shouldn’t be, and you shouldn’t have to do this, but it might be helpful.)

  34. Ellen Ripley*

    NPR Hidden Brain just did a podcast about incivility and rudeness that is related to what you’re dealing with. I’d definitely recommend checking it out!

  35. iglwif*

    Former freelance (and in-house) editor here! I mostly did line edits and copyedits, rather than the kind of developmental editing and manuscript evaluation LW is talking about, and I have never edited fiction … but unfortunately horrible clients with expectations that don’t match reality exist in every genre.

    Editing a sample chapter to make sure client and editor are in sync on expectations is an extremely common practice! It’s good for both sides and saves both time and angst, because they can decide not to proceed … AND SO CAN YOU.

    Very clearly setting out what tasks you will do can really help (although of course there are always people who will ignore everything you say and freak out anyway). If you have a website or a directory listing, you can list different kinds of editing and exactly what’s involved in each one, and then you have something to point to if they object to something you did. That also involves specifying what you *don’t* do as part of the process.

    And you could also try charging more! Like, figure out what amount of money will make the project worthwhile to you, and if they don’t want to pay that … oh well. (Call it constructive dismissal for freelance clients, I guess.) Obviously this only works if you have work that you can afford to turn some down.

    Unfortunately, a *lot* of people think they want honest feedback, until they see what honest feedback actually looks like, and neither they nor you will realize it until you’ve given them some. Which is why sample chapters are such a good idea.

    1. Sloanicota*

      “a *lot* of people think they want honest feedback, until they see what honest feedback actually looks like” – this is so true.

  36. Catbug*

    I’m not an editor, but I’ve been on the writing and accepting criticism side many times. I learned early on in college that my writing, while okay, did not come out of my pen as instant-money-making unicorn sprinkles.

    However. This reminds me of a guy who came to my writers’ group once (pre-pandemic). He brought a hard copy of the Wikipedia entry on “science fantasy” for every single person in the group to read over before he presented his incredibly groundbreaking prologue pages. According to him, science fantasy was a dead genre that hadn’t been explored since the 50s.

    He was not best pleased when we told him to read some Ursula K. Le Guin and maybe work on his overambitious world explaining and robotic dialogue…

    1. Catbug*

      All that to say I 100% agree with everyone’s comments about screening out potential problem clients. I definitely think the reaction to an edit of the first few chapters will tell you everything you need to know about doing business with the person.

    2. MsM*

      Did…uh, did anyone alert him to the existence of this tiny cult property called Star Wars?

      Oh, never mind, I see it’s actually in the Wiki entry. As is Star Trek. Allow me to amend my question: bzuh?

      1. Catbug*

        You know, I’m not sure he DID read the wiki himself…

        It was quite the evening, I tell you what. It was *so* painfully obvious that he’d come expecting to be praised as the best thing since sliced bread, and basically shut down when we got to the feedback/criticism stage. He didn’t come back, so I’ll never know if his two main characters ever finished their extremely wordy convo about genocide over high tea.

    3. quill*

      Ah, I had one of those, except she believed atlantis was an allegory, but LEMURIA was totally real and the ancestral homeland of all pacific islanders.

      I spent that hour and a half wondering if I had been teleported into an alternate dimension where she made a lick of sense.

  37. EditLife*

    OP, I too am a freelance editor & story coach. I feel your pain.

    Aside from developing a different vetting process, I’m not sure if there are many great suggestions for making the disconnect between your clients inability to tolerate intensive feedback, especially if it’s increasing in volume/intensity, because I’m not sure there *is* a way to disconnect them.

    Clients are making personal &/or professional attacks based on you doing the job they hired you to do. It’s inherently weird, unsettling, unfair, & emotionally intense. And as you mentioned, you don’t get to access validation from coworkers/colleagues, where they’re all “yeah, that person is ridiculous, unreasonable, off base, and the WORST and you are the BEST.” :) I love those collegial relationship moments. The validation is an emotional offramp, and when you’re freelance, you don’t get that as much.

    But maybe worst (?), is that you can’t explain yourself/the process, and move the client into a place of understanding that. They just keep thinking you’re awful.

    I hate being misunderstood/misperceived (part of why I like words so much! They can prevent misunderstandings & misperceptions!) I don’t care if we end up disagreeing, but I don’t want to have things attributed to me/the process that aren’t accurate.

    I don’t know if this is true for you, too, but if so, it can make it more difficult to establish that professional/personal disconnect.

    All that said, I suspect a different vetting process is probably the most effective way to get that emotional separation. (I assume you’re doing developmental, not line or copy editing?)

    Some thoughts (some overlapping with others’ feedback):

    * Do the “sample editing” Alison & others have mentioned. Definitely charge your usual price. You don’t have to call it “sample” if you don’t want. You can call it “exploratory” or “preliminary” or something. It can help identify the Intolerable Ones, but also, you’ll be giving them less of your time & effort, which will likely make it easier to disconnect;

    * Explain on your website/agreement docs what developmental editing actually entails: telling people where their story/work sucks & where they can improve (you may want to reframe that a bit :) );

    * Explicitly state that this can be difficult, that you get it, and that “being ready” for developmental edits includes being ready to handle the discomfort this may cause. I know that’s getting more personal/woo woo than is usual in business relationships, but honestly, ripping someone’s fictional baby to shreds is a pretty personal act, so I think we do everyone a service by acknowledging it;

    * Tell everyone that, unless you’ve worked with them before, you only accept clients on a provisional basis, for the “sample/exploratory” edit, to ensure your styles mesh. This give them ‘permission’ to not like what you do, without them feeling like they have to (get to??) fight you if they don’t like it. If their response to the initial, shorter edit is “this is an outrage!”, you can casually reply ,”yeah, agree, it’s probably not going to work. i wish you the best!” It’s a very judo-esque move, which can be astonishingly powerful, emotionally & psychologically;

    * Only accept clients based on referrals. This would greatly limit your client base, so might not be viable, but if clients are signing up for editing because they know someone else who’s worked with you, they’re more likely to understand what they’re going to get. People usually refer others because their ms DID get ripped to shreds :)

    Sending good edit-y energy.

    1. Sloanicota*

      On the “being ready” point – if I truly believed that OP’s clients were well intentioned but just flailing with creative FeelingsBombs, I would try to give concrete steps for how to process edits. Literally, “often receiving edits is difficult for a first time writer. Remember, a lot of edits doesn’t indicate that your work is poor or that you’re not a good writer. Rather than reading the edits all at once and being overwhelmed, I recommend tackling one chapter at a time. Read the edits straight through and then go take a long walk or do something while you process like gardening, working out, or chores. Do not email me or call me until you’ve digested the edits for at least week. Remember, you can choose not to take my advice and that’s fine!” etc etc. Sadly, I doubt many of these people are truly ready to receive feedback and just wanted to hear how smart they were, so they will always argue with any correction.

  38. three soft tacos*

    I typeset for self-published authors. Occasionally, I get a client with expectations that are way out of step with norms, and they very obviously are convinced that some specific thing they wanted is right, thus there was no need to ask for it, and straying from that meant I was a complete idiot.

    I think it comes down to a lot of em not having worked with someone in this capacity before, plus heightened anxiety wrt possibly getting taken advantage of. It’s like, you’ll get folks that are kinda green and are way too humble about it, folks that are kinda green and are just nothing in particular, and folks that are kinda green that just rage easily–and you can’t really prepare for that last category, because those folks get to 11 pretty much instantly, and you can’t de-escalate because you can’t catch it early.

    The only things that have worked for me are creating samples up front (as others mentioned) to weed out folks that are expecting something way different than I’d be starting with. Raising rates (also mentioned) helped too. And I’m way quicker to just decline jobs from folks that “feel” like they might go that way. I also take that stuff real personally, even if its not founded, and so I am extremely avoidant of it now. It distracts me to the point of making it hard to do my other work, and that’s not gonna work.

    1. Nanani*

      ” they very obviously are convinced that some specific thing they wanted is right, thus there was no need to ask for it, and straying from that meant I was a complete idiot”

      I see these in translation, too. They think they know the target language word for X, but they’re wrong, and even if they have a correct fact memorized it’s just not the right place to use it in that sense (think: they know “right” as in the opposite of left but the sentence called for the opposite of wrong) and decide the translator must be an idiot for not using the word they expected to see.

      1. three soft tacos*

        Yeah, I sometimes get em linking me to e.g. blogs meant to help authors DIY it, and it’ll have some completely subjective thing in there (a specific font choice, maybe), because why overwhelm folks following the guide with a million options? But then if I happened to not pick that one, they’ll point to the guide like, “what were you thinking?”

    2. QuickerBooks*

      I’m glad you brought this up as this is a weird little corner of the universe I also inhabit. I get the feeling that many authors see book design and typesetting, cover design, etc. as a chance to be pampered. Like it’s their chance to indulge their fantasies of being a Powerful Person who can order Custom-Made Things. Often this is harmless enough. But when it devolves into abuse and condescension, things have gone off the rails.

      1. three soft tacos*

        That, and the sense of scale of the money involved is often out of whack. There’s a real vibe of a few hundred bucks being a lot of money, and I mean, it can be, but in the context of hiring someone with a specific skill to do time-consuming work for you, it is nowhere near “you will bend to my will” money.

  39. Delta Delta*

    True story. My neighbor wrote a “romance novel” that she self-published. She didn’t have anyone edit it, as she didn’t think she needed that because the story was so good (spoiler alert: it most definitely was not). She asked my husband for some legal advice about whether she could mention certain places and historical information by name without getting in trouble. (Think: can I mention “Chicago” or will I have to make up a fictional town?). She sent him a few pages and his response was not that it could cause legal issues, but that what she sent him simply wasn’t interesting. We came home one day to find a copy of the book stuck in our front door. Friends, no editor alive could have saved this disaster. It is one of our most cherished possessions.

    All this to say, had this particular “author” (I use that loosely) submitted a test chapter (which I think is an outstanding idea, and might be some of my all-time favorite AAM advice), she would have either submitted the boring chapter and the reaction would have been “this isn’t interesting” or she would have submitted the “romance chapter” and the reaction would have been to laugh to the point of not breathing, and not even be able to formulate an answer. And even then, someone like this author wouldn’t take the feedback. I imagine there are many people out there like her, who don’t realize you don’t just barf up a book, and who can’t handle feedback.

    1. Nanani*

      This is a great story!

      I do wish fanfiction (or other fully-free, no expectation of publishing and polish writing) was more well-known. People like this probably want to barf up a story and not have to think about structure or pacing or anything, and fanfiction is a good audience for that.
      Paid publication is not.

      1. MsM*

        And fanfiction feedback culture, at least in the circles I’m familiar with, is very much geared toward “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

        1. quill*

          And AO3 will be allowing you to filter specific authors out of your search results any day now, hopefully, for people to not only don’t like don’t read, but to don’t like don’t see.

          (Personally I can’t wait. I have a few fandoms where there are very prolific writers whose idiomatic mistakes have just irritated me beyond what is at all reasonable, or whose style I just dislike and I keep disappointing myself because their tags and summary are so up my alley. Neither of these are things that are wrong, precisely, I just want to add it to set search so I don’t go “why haven’t I read this yet – oh, nevermind.” )

          1. if you're in Classic Who fandom we may know each other*

            (Not to derail the thread, but: if you happen to access AO3 using Firefox on desktop, I swear by an add-on called “AO3 Enhancement Suite.” You can block writers, tags, ships, and entire fandoms if you like. You see that there is a fic there and why it was blocked, but you don’t have to wade through the title, tags, and summary.)

            1. quill is only classic who adjacent via friends*

              Thanks! And with that done, I will now stop the derail

            2. scribblingTiresias*

              Oh thank goodness. We can avoid all the imitators of ***y Times With Wangxian now.

    2. Dad hit the soccer coach*

      OMG. You should be a writer :) I’ll edit! Seriously, I’m laughing out loud. I’m waiting for extra details on the “romance chapter,” referencing anything throbbing or any kind of desire

        1. Jora Malli*

          Oof. I used to be an award judge for a local chapter of the romance writers of america. I have read so many nonsensical sex scenes at this point, and so, so many euphemisms for body parts.

    3. Sloanicota*

      On the other hand, if I was OP, I would just … disconnect a bit from this product. I’m not sure who this woman is really hurting by self-publishing a crappy book. She’s probably not going to make money on it and the market will sort that out. Readers will be able to filter by ratings and stars and people who read self-published books know how to find the ones they like. Maybe someone else will weirdly like this thing, or if not, maybe this woman just gets to feel good about herself knowing she did it. If my job is to fix the grammar to the best of her abilities, provide suggestions inoffensively knowing they won’t be taken, and collect my fee, there’s probably a way to do this and still feel okay.

      1. Aggresuko*

        Yeah, it’s just the abuse portion of it that OP has to take that sucks. She gets paid to take abuse, is what it sounds like.

    4. Aggresuko*

      Oh, I got one of these from a distant relative, once upon a time! It was a hoot!

      From what I recall, one character was named “Case” and another was named “Chase.”

      A lot of people can’t handle feedback/have to be kicked out of writer’s groups. I still feel bad about a guy I recruited to a group years ago who politely ignored all feedback until the entire room was all “We hit the Line of Death at page one.” Sigh.

  40. Workerbee*

    I commiserate, and secretly wonder if these are the writers of those “I push a book out a month!” series in their race to get to $$. Maybe the world is legitimately full of these super-talented writers who have that much time and need little to no editing. Cynical me doubts it, having peeked into a few of those expansive series and been turned off by the formulaic and dismal writing, but tastes do differ…or they wouldn’t be making all that $$, I suppose.

    Since these writers have time to abuse you (repeatedly!) but not to use that time to accept your edits and improve their books, all I can say is, maybe you can turn this experience into a book of your own and make some of that $$ yourself.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yeah, as someone who straddles both worlds, there’s really just two reading audiences; the bookstore crowd who has high expectations of editing etc, and the people who are often voracious readers who read mostly for plot, don’t mind things being formulaic, and can overlook weak writing in favor of quantity. They read these books in 12-24 hours and what they really want are long series to keep them occupied with consistency.

      1. Workerbee*

        Oof! That would drive me nuts. I am a voracious reader and cannot understand how someone can stay “in” a story riddled with errors, plus lack of ingenuity. The thought of it gives me the creepy-crawlies.

    2. Higher Ed Cube Farmer*

      I’ll let you in on a secret: some of those “book a month” writers are actually groups using a shared pen name, not individuals — using the “many hands make light work” principle to produce a high volume of work that undergoes a full revision and editorial process for consistent quality and style, where a single writer simply wouldn’t have time to manage all that. Each of the writers in the group will be drafting one work while another is going through developmental and style edits and another is going through line edits, formatting and copyedits, all on a staggered schedule. Depending how many actual people are behind the group pen name, and how rigorous is their editorial process, each actual human may only need to produce one or two books per year for the pen name to produce one a month.

      The quality of writing from group pen names can vary as much as quality of writing from single authors. Some beloved classic series (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins are among the most-well known in the US) were produced by groups using a shared pen name. A certain amount of formulaic-ness is common in genres where this is a practice, and formula certainly facilitates rapid production– but it’s not necessarily a lazy or low-skill choice. Savvy writers in know under which circumstances formulaic writing sells better than more creative or individualistic style of similar production quality, when readers *prefer* formulaic for the comfortable confidence that the story will give them what they want–whether that’s action/suspense with an where they know the hero will triumph, or cozy mystery with a plucky amateur detective and not too graphic crime, or a romance with guaranteed happy ending and not a surprise twist where the love interest turns out to be a terrible person, or a kid’s series about basketball, or ponies, or skateboarding, or whatever a kid’s obsessed about.

  41. I edit everything.*

    Yeah, I always do a sample edit, for a lot of reasons–it helps figure out how long the edit will take, and it helps the client see what kind of feedback you give. Some freelancers charge for it; I offer a free sample. But on top of that, I suggest some screening questions that will help both you and the client:
    * What are you hoping to get from this edit?
    * Have you ever been edited before, and how did that work out/what was that experience like?
    * What problems/issues do you specifically want me to look for in your work?
    These all help set expectations and the second one, if they have been edited before, can be revealing (“I can’t find an editor who gets me and my unique writing style!” or “Every editor I’ve hired has been a jerk/utter failure” or similar are indicators that the client is a PITA).
    I have yet to experience any clients who come back with rudeness or outrage (knock on wood), but I suspect that’s because I just don’t have a very large client base. If you’re on Facebook and haven’t yet, join the Editor’s Association of Earth and/or Editors Backroom groups. I have found both to be supportive communities, good for not feeling so alone, occasional venting, editor humor, and general sense of being among “my people,” which can be very helpful when the job gets you down.

  42. Paperback Writah*

    I’m a much-published novelist who has done a bit of critiquing-for-hire. I do always have a little exchange of emails to start out with, finding out how much experience the client has had with being critiqued, easing them into the idea that the goal is to find ways to improve their novel so it will sell and that that’s going to involve some criticism.

    But I’ve been lucky. The clients have all had lots of experience with being critiqued. Usually they regard hiring me for a critique as a step in their careers, something they’ve prepared themselves for and are now willing to spend money on because they think they’re ready.

    That’s a far cry from what LW is running into, which sounds like entitled folks who have plenty of money and an ego to match. I have not run into that and if I did I’d probably turn tail and run.

    LW, do you have a contract that you give your clients? Is there any way to add wording so that they acknowledge that they’re going to get some negative feedback and they’re not allowed to go postal in response? That the price includes ONE follow-up email?

    If not, I’d recommend writing something up. Short, so they’ll read it.

  43. Jinni*

    Have you considered either/both raising your rates and/or only working with professional authors? I’m an author who went from traditional to self-published as have most of my friends in this profession. We know what to expect (or not) from a developmental edit and act accordingly. Also, a number of the editors I know who were laid off from the big 5 over the last few years only freelance for traditional publishers and Amazon imprints. It really will limit your clientele.

  44. Heffalump*

    I’m reminded of the preface to A Confederacy of Dunces, my all-time favorite novel, where Walker Percy explains how it came to his attention. Thelma Toole, the deceased author’s mother, contacted him and said her son had written a great novel, and naturally Percy was skeptical. As he related it, he thought he’d read enough to be able to tell her in good conscience that it was no good. With many manuscripts he’d been able to make that determination on the first page. He dug in, and his perception went from “Oh no, it isn’t bad enough to quit” to “It’s great!”

    Mrs. Toole was fairly scathing about Robert Gottlieb, who had rejected the novel some years earlier.

    If the OP is seeing any manuscripts of A Confederacy of Dunces, caliber, they must not be the ones she’s writing AAM about.

    1. Aggresuko*

      Olivia Goldsmith’s “The Bestseller” (fictional) clearly copied this situation for the author of “The Duplicity of Men,” who killed herself in the book’s opening and then her mother was trying to find a publisher.

  45. Aphrodite*

    I get it. As a former book reviewer with a popular website for a number of years I got that same abuse. Less than you–and I offer you my deepest sympathy–but it was there. Inexperience combined with a dream is often a collison and so others may get caught in the detritus and disappointment.

  46. BritSouthAfricanAmericanHybrid*

    I am an editor by profession – my day jobs in cybersecurity, so I edit loads of technical documents, white papers etc., and I freelance on the side, mostly working on novels for clients. For my freelance clients I do exactly what Alison suggests. I send them a sample of previously edited work, and if they think they like it, I edit one chapter/section of their manuscript so we can all assess whether we want to work together. This has worked well for me. Some (most) people get sticker shock when they hear going rates for editing, but once they see the work, it opens their eyes. I have managed to avoid horrible clients almost 100% of the time as a result.

  47. Sara*

    I’m a salaried editor. What you’re seeing is a misalignment of expectations: You have a professional view the type of service, comments, and strict feedback an editor should provide, and your new amateur clients do not. They might expect general typo cleanups and a few content pointers, but nothing major; I’m assuming you do much more. Sample chapter editing, as others mentioned, is one way to address this, but it might still lead to conflict with new authors. Two suggestions: You could offer varying degrees of editorial help (at different price points)—say, typos/grammar and then typos/structural critique/etc. Two, for new clients, it’s helpful to baseline expectations (“these are the kinds of things I’ll be looking for when I edit and this is how I share my feedback. If this doesn’t work for you, we may not be a match.”). Hang in there!

  48. Lacey*

    I’ve dealt with a number of these types. Some of them are fine, because they’re just lovely people even though they’ll never understand writing or your edits. But the others really just want to hear themselves talk. They also don’t understand writing or your edits, but they’re angry that anyone might want to cut them short.

  49. Lisa*

    Professional ghost/editor here. I work with high-end clients, and how I got there was to charge more money, and be brutal about cutting off people who aimed to waste my time with drama.

    I literally tripled my rate over the last two years, gave clients zero time/space to negotiate, and had no compunction firing clients, including household-name authors-of-record. It sounds too good to be true, but it ended up weeding out the crappy clients, decreasing my workload, and increasing my revenues all at once. Doing so also raised my profile with publishers, as they only recommend top projects to me now.

  50. Arabella Flynn*

    I first read this as, “children hire me to edit their books and then get angry about my feedback,” and I thought, welcome to publishing!

    Most authors are perfectly lovely people who just have something to say on paper, but a few of them think they are God’s own prophet, sent down to self-publish the wisdom of the ages. They don’t want editing; they want adulation. And they don’t want to pay your hourly rates for it, either.

    Good luck and Godspeed! I wish you a long line of reasonable people who value your input, and agree with whatever your opinion is on the Oxford comma.

  51. Not Australian*

    I’ve been on both ends of this situation, and really wished I could find another editor as tough as me! I completely agree with everyone who says you need to establish some kind of understanding right from the start; be very clear about what the service you’re offering entails, and what it doesn’t. Have you got an editing blog anywhere? It might be useful to write the occasional short piece about the pitfalls of the process, so that aspiring customers have a better idea of what they’re getting into. (If someone else has already suggested this, I apologise; it’s late where I am, and my eyes are too tired to read all the comments.)

  52. Reeny*

    I am a copy editor by profession, having an in-office job in a marketing department. I also offer freelancing services.

    I agree with Alison’s suggestions, especially the one about providing a chapter (or a few) as a trial (paid, of course), so both you and your client have an idea of the scope of the project (you get an idea of how much editing it will take, and they understand your feedback).

    I also tell those I freelance for that they can take or leave my suggestions. They hire me for my expertise, and I’m there to make their final product as polished as can be. If they don’t like what I suggest, that’s fine.

    You may also want to consider upping your fee. That might take care of a lot of the problem clients. I have had several people approach me, but balked at the cost. I have 20+ years of experience. There’s a cost to that.

  53. Kate, short for Bob*

    You say you have no colleagues to bounce off – but you do. The whole internet full of freelance writer types you could be buddying with.

    Obviously you can’t talk on public SM about just why Deirdre Wibblethorpe’s homage to Bridgerton needs to be rewritten by someone with familiarity with UK English and without a thesaurus, but you can build a network of people you can shout ‘meet me in DM’ at and have a proper vent followed by an action plan if required.

    And I don’t know if anyone else has said this, but check out the podcast Death of a Thousand Cuts for the joy of someone being properly, unsubtly, no softening the message honest about bad writing.

  54. miss chevious*

    I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with this type of reaction. As someone who has self-published two books, I *loved* working with my editor and getting objective feedback from an outsider on what worked and what didn’t, but I also have a lot of experience with feedback through writing groups, and the publishing industry and, honestly, the fanfic community (as well as more generally in my professional career).

    I second Alison’s recommendation to screen clients more carefully for some sort of experience with feedback or some level of exposure to the publishing industry before taking them on. In my (non-professional) experience, that kind of reactivity indicates someone who’s more of a novice in their creative endeavors, and you may be able to avoid a lot of it by refusing clients who are complete newbies.

  55. Agent Diane*

    Your aggrieved clients are taking criticism of the work as criticism of them. Obviously, their lockdown novel is personal and has a lot of emotional weight for them so it’s not actually surprising that they’re reacting like this. Plus everyone thinks their writing is great. I’d agree with Alison’s advice, and I’d also suggest you make it explicit as part of the sample chapter work that you are providing a critique of the words on the page and not of them.

    You may also want to provide a list of three links to articles about editing/critiquing, how to separate work from self, how to get a free beta read before paying for professional services. Essentially giving them a mini toolkit on how to cope when someone brings rigour to the writing world.

    1. El l*

      Yeah, I think OP’s going to have to have a standard disclaimer when taking on a client (besides doing 1-3 chapters). Something like:

      “You are paying me to improve your novel. As F Scott Fitzgerald [or whoever] said, ‘Great novels are not written, they are rewritten.’ He would know – he completely threw away his first draft of the Great Gatsby and started over. Well, you are paying me to improve your novel via rewrites. I can help you connect with a reader – but the price is that there will be lots of edits. Do not think you will be an exception.

      “I get that writing is personal, and that you have invested this project with much of your time, energy, and perhaps even identity. I respect that – but know that I have a job to do, and when I tell you to cut sections or re-do things you love, it is in service of making it better. There is nothing personal in any of this, and after some bad experiences know that I will not tolerate any client making it personal with me.

      “Sound good? Let’s write!”

  56. Sloanicota*

    I don’t know if it will help but I think this kind of reaction has a lot in common with Alison’s past musings on offering feedback for rejected candidates. Some of them may benefit, but honestly, a lot of them cannot; they’re just going to be argumentative and mean, take everything extremely personally, and there’s probably no point in trying with them. If my job was providing editing services I’d probably try to figure out ways to tell the minority from the majority here.

  57. Megan Smith*

    Ugh. My twin edits for copy & content & also writes. When she wrote a book she did not edit it herself. She said thanks to her editor it was a better book & that the changes she most resisted were the ones that improved the book the most. It sounds like these people wanted praise, not editing. Some of those big famous writers I know don’t get much editing – boy it sometimes really shows, doesn’t it? I can think of a few exceptions but not many.

  58. Cafe au Lait*

    Last year I took my much beloved cat to the vet for testing. The tests showed that she had lymphoma and her life expectancy was either very short, or a few years depending on treatment options.

    The vet sent the results on a Sunday, and said “I’ll call you tomorrow so we can discuss in treatment options in more detail.” It was brilliant because —

    1. I cried my feelings out on Sunday, and with my husband.
    2. She kindly but firmly prepared me for what our conversation would entail. I did cry more during our discussion, but I also came prepared with a list of questions to ask. I had a loose flow chart of my end desire for Beloved Kitty, and we were able to create a treatment plan based on that.

    Maybe you could so something similar? Send the final edits on a Friday afternoon, and say “we can discuss the edits on Tuesday/Wednesday of next week.” Then don’t look at any emails the client sends until the day before the planned conversation.

  59. Budgie Buddy*

    I’m freelancing right now as an (amateur) fact checker. In my case I still got to do a (paid) read through of the entire manuscript and a demo of the first chapter so the author could evaluate my style.

    In a way I like fact checking over editing because I can keep that emotional distance. Aside from flagging the rare typo or confusing sentence I don’t have to mess with the content, just make sure all the quotes are verbatim and all the names are spelled correctly, etc. I read for fun so editing fiction would just be too soul draining if I did it for money.

    As a veteran of several writers groups I can definitely say there’s a segment of over 60s who decide one day they HAVE to write their memoir who are just *shudders.* If they can even write coherently (not all can) they have no clue how to fictionalize real life incidents into a structure that’s interesting to read. And any feedback is a direct attack because y’know it’s their life.

  60. Chickaletta*

    Not that it helps you, but it seems that society as a whole has just become a whole lot ruder and aggressive in the past year or two. Teachers, nurses, you hear me.

    1. Too Many Dogs*

      Librarians, too. Just about anyone who deals with the public. I repeat: the first fatality of Covid was civility.

  61. Writer Claire*

    One more thing. A friend of mine was a freelance editor, and she offered the option of one chapter edited for free, so she and the writer could see if they matched. The problem was, she got LOTS of writers who took that one chapter edit and vanished forever. Editors deserve to be paid for the work they do. I would also argue that one chapter’s worth of edits are often useful for the entire novel.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yeah to me the whole chapter is probably too much to do for free (and I know chapters can range wildly in length) – I’d probably agree to do five pages or something quicker than a chapter. Particularly in trad pub the first chapter is all that agents look at before they decide if they’re going to request a full, so having (multiple?) professionals provide detailed feedback for free on that chapter would be pretty valuable. Then again, if the system works as intended a certain segment of potential clients are going to decide your style doesn’t mesh with theirs and walk away, so I wouldn’t necessarily pick that as a sign of process failure.

  62. Atlantis*

    So much sympathy for you OP. I can’t fathom how rude these people are. I can understand feeling overwhelmed or downtrodden after seeing a ton of edits on something you’ve worked on and are passionate about, but to abuse you for doing exactly what they hired you to do is absurd. I’m not an editor, but I’ve submitted papers to academic journals for publication. In those journals, my manuscripts are required to go through peer review, which I believe is volunteer-based. The review is double-blind, meaning that the reviewers don’t know who the authors are, and the authors don’t get to know who reviewed their papers.

    That helps me as the author because I know the edits are based solely on the written content, though it still sucks to get a paper back absolutely riddled with comments and recommended edits. It can feel personal when that happens, but I always have to remember that the reviewers are judging my hard piece of work to ensure it is the best it can be, so I get over it quickly. I bet the OP’s clients have rarely if ever dealt with a professional editor on their work, and don’t have appropriate coping skills for dealing with the emotional responses to getting revisions done on their passion project. In my case, in order to get my manuscript actually published, I then have to respond to every single edit made by the peer review (either an acceptance, or a justification for not making the edit, or an explanation of how the text was adjusted to address the reviewer’s concern, etc), which the publisher then uses to make the final decision on publishing the manuscript. I’m assuming the clients don’t do that in this situation, which makes their harsh response even more sad.

    Hopefully those who are actually editors can give you more advice, and I like the suggestions of doing a trial chapter to prepare the client and get them used to your edits. In the bottom of my petty heart, I wish there was a way you could add a “rudeness” fee charge to your contract with the clients so that they get charged extra for abusing you. The OP is definitely too professional for that, but I can dream!

  63. Meep*

    As someone who enjoys writing and engages sometimes in the “creative community” in a bid to gain feedback, this behavior is pretty common among amateur writers and artists. I guarantee 9/10 times it is how you are framing the criticism. If you aren’t piling on 10 kudos for every mild critique, they are going to think you are rude every single time and escalate it. The online creative community is weird asf. You are best asking for their experience before taking on the project and running far far away if they tell you about their follower count over actual credientals. Most authors who want to be professionals will start by publishing short stories in journals.

  64. Minor Editor*

    A lot of people new to writing think that 1) writing is easy and 2) they are a lot better at it than they actually are.

    Writing is hard work: developing your writing style, developing characters and plot lines and proper pacing, researching particularly for anything historic or technical in the plot, getting the hang of dialogue, getting the right balance of description and action, how to sprinkle in your worldbuilding, etc. There are a hundred other aspects to writing that are all hard work; and they can change depending on what type of story you are writing! Different genres, different lengths (short story vs novel is an entirely different world in terms of developing your style.) (Speaking particularly to fiction writing here, as that is where I have the most experience; I am sure there are different but equally important considerations with non-fiction writing.)

    I got a minor in editing and have done a little freelance editing and only in a small circle of people who I know will not react in that manner. My roommate has done more freelance editing than I have and she sometimes vents to me about just…absolutely terrible writing, characterization, storytelling and worldbuilding that she has encountered.

    Some have this view of, “Hey I can snap out a novel real quick, self publish it on Amazon and then make lots of $$$$. So easy!” Sometimes people can, if their readers aren’t particularly picky and don’t care about spending $.99 on a poorly written e-book.

    For budding writers:
    I haven’t done much professional writing or tried to get published, but I have in my life done a LOT of fanfic writing. If you want to dabble in writing and experience criticism and feedback (sometimes really abusive unfortunately), maybe start in fanfic! Fanfic can help you develop your skills and voice in a pre-established framework and world that makes some parts of the writing process less difficult. It can also help build a thicker skin for feedback and learn how to separate good critical feedback that can help you strengthen your skills from personal attacks.

    1. Jackie Daytona, regular human editor*

      I’m an acquisitions editor, primarily nonfiction, so I see this too but with memoir. So many people think they’ve lived an interesting life and all they have to do is sit down and write it and everyone will be interested too. Rarely do they think about writing as a *craft* – how to build a narrative, how to create a compelling scene, how to handle characterization and dialog in a memoir setting, what to highlight, what an appropriate length might be. It’s not unusual for the proposals for these memoirs have nothing in the comp title section – “my story is unique, there are no comparable books.”

      So I’ll tag onto your advice for budding writers, but for those who might be interested in memoir: A memoir is more than just a chronological recitation of your life in grammatically correct sentences. You need to build a compelling story. Take writing classes, join a writing group (and be open to honest and constructive feedback). And read other memoirs! Think about the craft and the structure. How is dialog handled? How long are they? What works for you, as a reader, and what doesn’t: Is it boring? Did you want more of Topic A or less of Topic B? Think about what elements of your story will draw readers in and who your reader is – and no, it’s not “everyone.” What other books have they read? What kind of memoir are they interested in – family dynamics, overcoming hardship, interesting careers, travel adventures, etc.? There are expectations for each of these, beats that readers expect and tropes that have been beaten into the ground. Know where your work fits in the larger genre, because that’s how you’re going to find your audience.

      Bonus advice for those working on nature memoir: Everyone has been saying their book is just like Wild/perfect for fans of Wild for a decade now. Pick a different comparable title when you send out pitches.

  65. Let's not name names*

    Tangentially, I’m working in a comms position with a focus on writing, editing, to the point that I’ve been given a title similar to “Head of Narrative.” When I was hired, I was promised this was meant to be a position that spread across org initiatives, where I’d be imbedded in the the development of projects to be able to effectively synthesize and distill communications and create compelling stories about the work we do. Amazing! However, I’ve found myself a glorified comms manager, fielding all manner of (at times unnecessary) edits and revisions of work I’ve carefully calibrated. When I dare to edit others—my job—I get a lot of pushback and assertions that I’m misrepresenting concepts, or overlooking some crucial part, or missing the mark. At the end of the day, I spend most of the time pushing for very minor control of aspects that should be my job (such as a short web blurb or the subject of an organization email) while whole aspects of story are just piecemeal what everyone else involved things it should say, which I edit to just make stylistically consistent, at least.

    I’m hearing from some folks that these “head of narrative/story” type jobs are a trap. Orgs are creating them because it’s trendy to focus on narrative now, but nobody really wants to make the space for someone to put their mark on it in the way this needs to be done to be effectively. Collaboration is one thing, and I’m truly interested in developing and synthesizing various POV—also my job—but I feel like I’ve been tasked with making sure that everyone else feels represented in the public facing comms of our work, while my own POV and editorial prerogative is sidelined or faces incredible scrutiny and micromanagement. Anyone doing this type of work successfully? HOW?

  66. breamworthy*

    Not specific to editing, but reviews in general have changed dramatically in the past few years. I teach at a post-secondary institution, and both my official and unofficial reviews have become unhinged in the last 2-3 years. Instead of writing “Breamworthy did X thing that I didn’t like” students who are annoyed about something will post that I am malicious, fat, lazy, ugly, that my family must be miserable, that I ruined their lives, that I’m the worst teacher in the history of post-secondary education, etc., etc. (And it’s not just me – every single one of my colleagues has suddenly also become the worst teacher in the history of post-secondary education.)

    There’s something about the culture of online reviews, combined with general anger and frustration culturally (I think) that has led to this response in a certain subsection of people where they experience something mildly unpleasant and their knee-jerk reaction is to respond as though the person just committed the most unfathomably horrific acts.

  67. BerlieGirl*

    I have been working with self-publishing authors for 18+ years. I pick up where you leave off, the design work, and consulting to get them to the self-published stage. I contract out any editing work needed.

    I am really here to let you know that I totally understand where you are coming from. I use to have editors work directly as my employees and they would often get so much grief and abuse from clients if they dared to suggest any improvements. I had to fire a few clients due to this. I now subcontract out any needed editing. I get it to some degree with the design work, but not to the same level editors get.

    I do strongly suggest doing a sample edit before proceeding to the full job so they know what to expect. And maybe just doing basic proofreading/copy editing instead of developmental editing would be best for those that think their work is perfect as it is.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Actually it might be nice for OP to have an intermediate boogey man; in traditional publishing the copy-editor is a subcontractor that I don’t know while the acquiring editor is the one I have a relationship with, which means if I dislike the copy edits I don’t really have anyone to complain to about it, I just mark STET or make a different correction or whatever. It’s not personal when there’s no person. If OP really can’t any more with the one-on-one, perhaps she can explore a subcontracting option.

  68. thc*

    As a person in customer service in this not-quite-post-pandemic world, this reads VERY familiar to me; customers, clients, whomever, they’re impatient and they’re loud about it these days. I do agree it’s important to set expectations. I’d also frame that with, it’s simply (unfortunately) the temperature these days, and suggest you do what you can to protect yourself and your own well-being.

  69. Morgan Hazelwood*

    People like that contributed greatly to why agents quit telling us WHY they were rejecting us. (Now, of course, it’s the massive numbers of submissions, but still.) You’re lucky if you get the “I just didn’t connect” (chosen so people can’t argue that the agent is wrong about their feedback), instead of the “if you don’t hear back in 6-8 weeks, move on with your life without me.

    1. Sloanicota*

      Exactly like job seeking! “Many qualified applicants” is the rejection you usually get because if people get a more specific response they’ll just argue. It stinks.

  70. pcake*

    I’m a freelance editor. I never offer feedback unless it’s specifically asked for because I find many people – especially hobby writers – don’t want any opinions, and they’re often combative about any feedback offered.

    Before I accept a client, I try to get a feel them and their expectations. I’m pretty blunt (not rude, but to the point) about the process, telling them I want to be sure we have compatible expectations. When someone argues or expresses they feel they’ll be entitled to all my time, I tell them respectfully that a regular client popped up, so I’ll be tied up for a while, then I point them to another editor, one who is willing to deal with difficult clients.

  71. Maltypass*

    not related to editing but ive been in retail over ten years and there has been -behaviour- from people in the last few months i’ve never seen, even in pandemic times, where it seems the convergence of war, rising energy prices, ongoing pandemic etc has resulted in some of the crappiest behaviour from the public en masse ive been subjected to yet. theres great advice all over the comments, but i say that just to commiserate that people all over are really being their worst right now, so please dont dwell on it

    1. Paris Geller*

      +1. I’m in libraries, so a different field than the OP, but people have been particularly more rude, aggressive, & hostile over the past. . . 6-ish months? My colleagues and friends in other jobs have all noticed it too.

  72. Too Many Dogs*

    I work for a library. We get many self-published books “given” to us in the hopes that we will buy many copies. Most of these books needed editing. When we let the author know that we will not be adding their book to our collection, we also get unhappy/indignant responses like you do. As a smart coworker said, “Writing a book is like having a baby. And now we’re telling them their baby is ugly.” Intellectually your clients (I hope) know their book needs work. Unfortunately, they are responding emotionally, which is hard for you.

  73. Let me librarian that for you*

    Are you a member of ACES (The Society for Editing)? They frequently have great programs and chats about managing clients. Worth checking out!

  74. Sharon*

    1. One perk of being a consultant is that you don’t have to convince the client to actually implement your advice. Thank the stars you aren’t the editor at the publishing house, or an in-house corporate lawyer, or the privacy person at a social media company.
    2. Be as bland and businesslike as possible – don’t engage further, don’t try to convince them your comments have merit, don’t try to please someone who is upset about something ridiculous .
    3. Taking a break to go for a walk, read a book, pet your dog, etc. can help you distance yourself from the impact of the enraged customer interaction.
    4. A truism of freelance work is that the clients who pay the least tend to be the neediest and most disagreeable. Evaluate whether taking on these clients is worth it or whether your time would be better spent on acquiring higher paying clients that are a better match.

  75. Celia*

    I self-publish, and hangout a fair bit in discussions of self-publishing. (My actual editor is a longtime friend with editing background.)

    It’s getting really common to do a sample so both sides are comfortable with what they’re getting. I’ve seen “free first 1,000 words”, or a “first chapter” based on whatever your per-word rate is (usually given a priority for time, so everyone can see if it makes sense to schedule the full work.) I’ve seen some people ask for a sample from the middle of the book, because it is often less fully edited than the first couple of chapters, and gives a better sense of the bulk of the book and what it needs.

    Having a list of resources you can point them to (either wherever they might find you from, like a website) or in your initial communications might also help. Both “here’s different kinds of editing, I do X and Y, but not Z” with links to examples, or self-pub resources (Facebook groups, websites, etc.) can be really helpful. It establishes better that you’re working in line with industry practices, such as they are.

    I’ve also seen people do a “Let me edit a chapter to give you a rate quote” which allows you to charge more for something that’s going to be more work, or if you suspect the author is going to be difficult to work with.

  76. Miss Katonic*

    I’m not an editor, but I am a published author. I know this is a luxury for me because editing doesn’t pay the bills, but I straight up say no to almost anyone who asks me to look at their work. Most people don’t want an honest critique – they want someone to tell them how great they are. I 100% always respect the effort. Writing is hard af. But good, publishable writing is even harder. That first draft is the beginning of the beginning.

    Anyway, I just don’t do it. That’s not helpful for the OP, but I’m adding my sentiment to that of many other commentors. A good critique is honest. People think they want that, but they don’t, and the abuse isn’t worth it.

  77. Web of Pies*


    Sure, you’ll lose clients, but you’ll keep the ones who actually value you and you can probably make enough with a higher rate to cover the loss of the jabroni amateurs who are using their sparkling writing talents to yell at you.

  78. Katrina S.*

    I do a lot of beta-reading/editing, and one of the ways I soften negative feedback is to be upfront that I don’t tend to give a lot of positive feedback. Only when something really jumps out at me. (Like, “Wow! What an opening line!”) But I will always stop and make a comment when I think something can be improved even a little, because I feel like that’s more my job as a beta-reader. So a lot of suggestions for improvement in a row does not mean I don’t like it. (It doesn’t mean I love it, either, but I don’t say that.) Everything I read and comment on is mostly a list of improvement ideas, and the biggest compliment from me is a page with zero comments. I feel like a lot of writers really want to know, “Yeah, but is it GOOD?” and many of them weigh the number of positive comments against the number of suggestions to answer that. So as long as they know upfront that they can’t do that with my feedback, it usually goes pretty smoothly.

    All of this is volunteer work, so I know it’s not quite the same, but I hope it’s helpful!

  79. ResuMAYDAY*

    Something to consider: A few more of these clients might put you in danger of becoming one of them, to someone else. These people could be perfectly lovely, reasonable, and pleasant in normal times but got kicked around to the point of being who they are now.
    Make sure you’re doing whatever you need to do to fully decompress, rather than internalize.
    And raise your rates.

  80. Fellow Editor*

    I am an editor at a literary journal and much of what your saying resonates with me! Although I am fortunate to be able to easily reject work that is terrible or decline to go forward with pieces when the writer is not receptive to feedback. I get horrible emails regularly from people whose (often hilariously bad) work has been rejected. You might get some helpful scripts and contract advice from this Captain Awkward post. The situation is different but I’ve found the advice for level setting at the start and cutting lose from clients with, shall we say, unrealistic expectations to be very helpful myself.

    1. Fellow Editor*

      Oh goodness! I just noticed a very embarrassing your/you’re typo in my original post. I am a real editor! I blame autocorrect on my tiny phone screen.

  81. small town*

    Not an editor. But in the same book group fir 24 years where the most common comment has been “this needed a good editor “. Thank you for what you do! I’m a consultant in a very specific field and I’m always a little surprised when folk tell me that I don’t know anything. After decades I do know a bit. Well, get the results you desire. AoK with me.

  82. estalaine*

    Why, why, WHY are so many clients like this?? I am in the camp of always providing a small sample with a quick turnaround before taking on a large project. If the client has a sample of what to expect (and what it’s going to cost), then I have no sympathy if they’re grouchy about the finished product.

  83. sarah*

    I’m not familiar with publishing so I’m not sure if this will be helpful, but I read and give people feedback on screenplays as a freelancer. I’ve done similar work in the past for production companies considering scripts, and I tell writers up front that I give the same feedback to them that I would give if it were a company hiring me to screen their script. This gives writers a little bit of an “out” for taking the feedback personally, ie “It’s not that I’m a bad writer, it’s that Hollywood isn’t ready for a Grease remake but it’s set on Mars.” Any way you can frame the feedback process as part of a larger industry, part of doing business, I think is useful for that.

  84. Vanny Hall*

    I was an acquisitions editor for years. I quickly learned that books are like babies, and authors have a deep need for praise and validation. So I would begin every editorial letter with at least two paragraphs of praise. I tried not to be dishonest; I would just look for anything and everything that was RIGHT about the project and praise it as well as the effort and dedication it had taken. THEN I would move on to criticisms–always couched in terms of “the narrative would be even stronger if…” or similar.

    You may feel this is a waste of time when you are technically hired only to make improvements. But most authors truly cannot hear criticism until they are reassured that you find the overall project worthy. (And remember, they are working alone too.) Think of yourself as a teacher: you may know all the right answers, but you’re only really successful if you have the skill to make your students engage with and be receptive to what you can teach them. It’s a fundamental part of the job, and you have to learn to be good at it or you’re just not an effective editor.

    And, by the way, you have a misplaced modifier: “am empathetic to these people’s endeavors, many of whom are passionate and creative.” :-)

  85. Pickled Beets*

    As one of those authors who could be your client, and a full time (non-freelance) editor…well, your letter doesn’t make me want to hire you as an editor, and if you worked for me, I’d be asking if you were okay.

    You don’t sound like you *want* to be reading what people are sending you, or even recognizing the level of work that went into finishing a project of that size. I’m not trying to be mean; I’m genuinely concerned you’re inadvertently hurting your business.

    I hope it’s just the terrible situation of shouty people that’s put you in a temporary funk. If not, perhaps it’s time for a career switch. As a short term fix, I also recommend a chapter pre-edit test to see if you’re a good fit for your client – and vice versa.

    1. QuickerBooks*

      …or even recognizing the level of work that went into finishing a project of that size.

      But it’s not really the job of an editor to consider the “work that went into” a project. Who cares? The reader certainly doesn’t. It either reads well or it doesn’t. It’s the editor’s job to better the manuscript whether someone spent half a lifetime polishing it or dashed off on their iPhone in an Uber on the way to the meeting. The editor’s process is the same either way.

      1. Things that make you go hmmm*

        Agreed! I empathize with you LW. Now that literally millions of people are writing books every year, there are bound to be a significant number of authors whose writing and personalities are both awful.

        1. Things that make you go hmmm*

          I mean I empathize with *the* LW, not that I think you are the LW, QuickerBooks.

      2. Pickled Beets*

        The LW said “In reality, these books are normally nothing anyone would want to pay good money for,” but they’re being paid by that same potential profit. LW doesn’t sound like someone who enjoys their job – at all. I was just trying to come up with an example about why that’d possibly mean a poor fit. As an author, I wouldn’t want to work with someone who hated my genre. And I’d walk away, giving my money to someone else. I suspect LW could be losing business over this, in addition to my very real sympathies as a full time editor about people taking feedback poorly.

    2. Beth*

      I think the LW does love their job — horrible clients are horrible clients. The more joy you take in your work, the deeper the wound a horrible client can inflict.

  86. Things that make you go hmmm*

    I self-published in the early 1980s, then went on to do a few other things in the world of books, including presenting seminars for wanna-be published authors. I remember standing in front of a class of writers in 1982, warning them of the steep competition for readers’ attention because there were “more than 50,000 books published every year!”

    Forty years later, thanks largely to self-publishing, there are now more than 50,000 books being published every WEEK. As of midnight EST on April 20, more than 817,000 books have already been published in 2022. You can find real time statistics for book publishing (and lots of other interesting things humans want statistics for) at

    P.S. I’m not a copy editor myself (I employ editors), so please excuse any grammatical errors.

  87. It happens so soon*

    Today my 12 year old daughter came to me, “Hey, I finished rewriting my story for school. Can you proofread it?”

    5 minutes later, “Ugh, what do I have to change now?”

  88. Editrice*

    Freelance editor here. Extreme pickiness about which clients I take on and paying close attention to how my feedback sounds has helped me to avoid this problem almost altogether. It’s a jungle out there!

  89. Unreasonable Clients, Fending Off*

    I am a long-time freelance book indexer. I work both for publishers and directly for authors (and various combinations). The clients that have taken up large amounts of my time and energy are self-published authors, and occasionally scholarly/academic authors. These days I turn down most self-published jobs (or ask for high fees). For scholarly authors, I say “the first two hours of changes are free; additional changes will incur [high rate per hour] above the basic fee.” This has pretty much ended the unreasonable demands.

    Maybe you can find a variation of this for your situation? Hours spent responding after editing is finished will be charged at [very high rate]?

  90. Phil*

    I was in a freelance creative/technical field myself-audio-and I can say that picking the right clients is the most important skill to have.

  91. UpsideDown*

    I’ve done some editing in the academic space having come from a background in newspaper copyediting, and wow yeah, egos hey? Some people really let their ego get in the way of a clear and readable product, no matter how polite the editor is in trying to provide necessary feedback. Also sometimes people just can’t see that they are too emotionally involved or invested in something to see its flaws clearly.

    I like the sample suggestions, another thought is maybe a short survey with each new client to get their vibe? You could ask some questions about what type of edit they are looking for, or even some questions that might give you an idea of whether they have an overinflated sense of their skills/the state of the ms and if they have worked with a professional editor before. That way you might be able to see some red flags for yourself on a client before agreeing to work for them. Like any first time author who thinks their ms is near perfect already = run for the hills.

  92. The Other Katie*

    My job is in part doing the exact same thing. One of the ways I’ve resolved it is essentially, doing a one-chapter sample for free. This helps them decide if my feedback is going to be something they want to receive, and me to decide if I’m going to want to work with them.

  93. "It was hell," says former child.*

    Freelance and in-house editor of ~30 years here. I like the advice I’m seeing from other editors–such as offering to edit the first chapters as a trial run–and wish I’d thought of this sort of thing when I went pure freelance in the last decade. I spent 15 years of my career editing for a national literary journal, and many of the writers were biggish names, on their way to becoming biggish names, or could’ve been…good writers who had already passed through a round or two of submissions editors. All were happy when editors caught things, and I can’t remember a single instance of backlash. But since the paid-editing world has more or less collapsed–in the sense that even major publishers rarely have in-house editors these days, and writers often must find their own editors and pay them out of pocket–I started encountering lots of the writers that OP writes. The main site where freelancers and potential clients connect is Upwork, where freelancers get rated on a 5-star scale. (Yes, thoughtful editing is now a product, like toothpaste.) The ONLY non-5-star ratings I’ve gotten on Upwork were from two writers who didn’t know what they were doing and were shocked when they got actual, detailed feedback (both line-editing and developmental editing). When the writer said one thing on page 7 and then contradicted that on page 25, or if the character was born in a 1968 Ford Pinto, long before the first Ford Pinto had gone into production, and I would catch these things, the writer would say that her readers would know what she was saying, and I would then get comments in my Upwork rating that “the editor just didn’t get what I was trying to achieve.” On the plus side, there was no YELLING IN CAPS.

    If I were a bad editor, I’d totally accept getting docked points–but it has only happened with writers who have a not-so-tight grip on the fundamentals of storytelling and/or language. Since then I’ve generally avoided editing genre writing–of course there are plenty of exceptions, but most of the people who believe their writing is sacrosanct tend to dive into genres rather than literary fiction. (At least, that’s been my experience.) And the first-chapters-trial-run method sounds great. That said, on one occasion (before Upwork existed) I agreed to a three-chapter tryout that I saw on a message board. The client and I agreed to a price–in a detailed conversation–and I got to work on her chapters. When I returned the work with detailed commentary and an invoice, she was shocked that I expected to get paid, because she said this was just a tryout. Turns out she had “hired” three editors to edit three chapters apiece of her nine-chapter book. I told her that, had she hired three doctors or plumbers to make house calls, they would all expect to be paid. She begrudgingly paid me $25 as a token of her good will. Sigh. (Good luck with future clients.)

  94. "It was hell," says former child.*

    Oops, I meant “that OP writes about.” Yes, I swear I can edit!

  95. SadieMae*

    Book editor here too. I’m sorry to hear you’re going through this, OP!
    I started doing sample edits about two years ago, and it’s saved me a world of trouble. If it turns out the author takes umbrage at being edited in general, we can just not move forward; if the author is generally receptive but wants me to be more or less strict on the rules, or provide more or less commentary on why I’m making changes, we can easily course-correct for the rest of the book.
    Another option is to offer a manuscript assessment. This is where, instead of editing line by line, you read the manuscript (I read it 2x) and then write up an assessment of it. This might include suggestions about plot, structure, characterization, and other major elements of the work. An assessment can be a good compromise, when you get a manuscript that is pretty awful, between trying to go ahead and edit it (which is frustrating for both editor and author; you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and trying to do so is bound to create conflict!) and just saying “I’m sorry, this isn’t in any condition to move on to editing and publication.” (Though I’ve said that too, sometimes.)
    Also: if you don’t already do so, always get a letter of agreement signed. That way if your client walks and refuses to pay you the balance of your fee, you’ll have legal recourse. (In many years of editing I’ve only had to deal with this once…but boy, was I glad to have the LoA, because it was a big fee, and I’d worked my butt off on this jerk’s manuscript!)
    Good luck, and thanks for posting! I’m always interested in learning more about how my colleagues navigate these types of situations.

    1. SadieMae*

      Just realized the site doesn’t add line spaces between paragraphs; I thought it did! Sorry for the block of text above, folks.

      (I’m laughing at the fact that I made a formatting error while writing as a professional editor on a post about professional editing! At least it’s not as bad as the time I accidentally wrote “There will be time for T&A after the meeting” [instead of “Q&A”]. Now THAT was embarrassing.)

      1. "It was hell," says former child.*

        I too apologized for an error in my own post. (I’m expecting tons of apologizing editors in this thread. After all, grammatical/formatting/syntactical perfection is the only thing we have going for us!)

  96. Yellow*

    If you have many clients upset and feeling insulted that sounds to me like a significant mismatch in expectations. A short initial edit is a good idea, but I think you need to go before that and look at how to clearly explain what services you offer.

    Are there any generic “so you need to see an editor” style information pamphlets (online resources) you can point potential clients to? Something that explains what editors do and how it all works etc? These might help educate your potential clients so when they come to you you can have a more informed discussion about the specifics of what services you provide.

    If your clients think that you will be looking for typos and picking up that you’ve named 3 different people Martha, and instead they get – you need to change your plot, I can understand why they could be annoyed (I don’t understand the abuse – that’s not ok).

  97. LW*

    Hi All,
    This is the Letter Writer – it’s very kind of you and Alison to consider my query and weigh in with your experiences and thoughts on this. It’s also interesting to hear from editors who have stepped away from this sort of work. I thought I’d add more info and what I’ve been doing recently.

    Generally, I always ask for a brief when someone contacts me: so a little about the person and their project. They are also required to upload sample chapters of their work. Sometimes, I will write if ‘I’m not the best editor suitable for their project’ before I engage any further (e.g., they just started writing last week, they seem too chaotic, etc). I explain the types of editorial work I can provide, which are two types and when people first seek me out, they really have their hearts set on the more intense one. I really, really try to dissuade people from this because it’s often overwhelming and repetitive, especially for new writers. I will even attempt to dissuade them by sample editing their work to show how intense and scrutinising this can be (for someone not prepared for line editing; it’s great for someone ready for it). Most issues for beginner writers (and any writer, really) can be picked up in the first type of edit which is an editorial report. I also encourage clients to ask follow up questions after the deliverables but also caution against reading reports quickly and only looking for the ‘critique’. There will be elements that are working. It’s common in the publishing industry to emphasise the concept of putting your work aside and letting it rest for a bit before figuring out what to do next, so I encourage this and say this upfront. Lately, with the nasty clients, they read their deliverables and shoot off their messages straight away. I included one to Alison so she had an idea of what I was dealing with (it was one of the mellower ones, too). Friends and colleagues have self-reported similar, so I know I’m not the only one.

    After I started to notice the first trickles of negativity, I crafted a cover letter that I hoped clients could use to help with receiving feedback – a reminder that one should take the feedback that works for them; redrafting isn’t surface edits and you may find yourself rewriting entire sections of your book (which might be the disconnect here for these people); and the ultimate goal is to make their book better. This is why one comes to an editor.

    I also have a FAQ that has samples of what to expect and have rewritten my initial info that people see to make it very clear that they will be receiving feedback with suggestions; the idea that I’m not here to praise them seems to be lost at times or the concept that writers wouldn’t re-write huge parts of their books is also lost too. I think some commenters here are right – that there is a confusion for some people that they think they will be told to clean up some sections and not to completely clip characters or plotlines. So it’s a shock for the new hobbyist. For example, a woman reached out last year who had been rejected by 48 agents and one of the last ones recommended an editor. When I explained my service, she decided this was not for her. I think then becoming an author will not be for her. Recently, I declined to work with an 18 year old, who in her brief was very attached to her characters and thought her book was great; I assessed that she might not be ready for a professional editor.

    I prefer clients that have some sort of community background, e.g., writing groups, online communities, etc. But, alas, a lot of people isolate themselves or don’t know these exist.

    It’s running me down, but I’ve always enjoyed debuts and finding new talent. Coming up I will be working with new writers on their debuts for a publisher and I hope I have more of that work in the future.

    As an update, since my last shouty client, I’ve had three who were lovely (one who was a repeat). We’ve had follow up discussions about their work and what their next steps will be for their manuscripts.

    1. Beth*

      At least you’ve had some clients who DO appreciate you. Best of luck with finding ways to weed out more of the bad apples (with apologies for the mixed metaphor).

  98. LW*

    I should also include that I have a contract with all clients plus they pay part up front then the remainder upon receipt. They are locked into my payment processor.

    For the commenters who think clients might be confused about the nature of the work, I too get confused by these few extreme reactions after explicitly outlining the process but also the price point is really high (think £1000+ sometimes). If I were paying that I wouldn’t expect to only be told to change some surface issues.

  99. Beth*

    This is also endemic amongst people who write for fun — I used to do a fair amount of volunteer editing within an online fan community, and eventually cut back to nothing. Too many people claimed to want editing when all they wanted was gushing.

  100. Three Goblins in a Trench Coat*

    Everyone has had such great suggestions (particularly editing a sample chapter). I think people who aren’t in fields where having colleagues and peers edit their work is the norm are often offended and overwhelmed when they get a page of edits and suggestions back, never mind a full manuscript. That’s on them, of course, because if you want to write you have to expect that, but I could see first time authors freaking out a bit. I’m one of the people in my social circle that people send cover letters, papers, and professional correspondences to for editing and style help, and I always have to explain to them ahead of time what to expect. Usually it starts with “don’t freak out when you see all the red marks.” It’s about setting expectations.

  101. Karen Grove*

    I only have two suggestions. The first is to screen your potential clients. I tell potential clients upfront that I’m picky about the projects I will take on, and if I don’t think my work will help them to reach their publishing goals, I won’t take their money. This means that I turn away a LOT of work. But that’s okay because it opens my time for the people who will most benefit from a professional edit. In some cases, if the manuscript or client shows potential, I’ll suggest resources for improving the weaknesses in the manuscript–resources they can study on their own–and I’ve occasionally turned some of these into book coaching (though I usually limit it to no more than two coaching jobs a year because it takes a lot of time and that’s not where my focus is.) I always ask for the entire manuscript before I agree to edit/offer a quote. That way I can see exactly what I’m about to get into. My rates are also on the higher side, which weeds out the tire kickers. Then, when I do take someone on, I offer both praise and criticism throughout the edit and provide a “next step” to keep them looking forward, not back. On occasion I’ve had a writer become paralyzed at the work before them, but we often work through it together in a simple phone call or with further suggestions. I’m happy to say that 99% of my clients are kind, professional, eager writers who want nothing more than to have their words published. Oh…and I don’t do samples. I believe they can be detrimental when it comes to developmental edits, which is my primary focus. Expectations are set through initial conversations.

    The second suggestion is for your own peace of mind, join a respected group of editors–either through direct networking with chosen professional colleagues or in FB groups. (But be careful, not all FB groups are created equal. Some can be very negative and whiny, so don’t get sucked in to those. Find those positive people…we don’t need more negativity in our life.)

    Remember, not everyone is your client. This is your business and you can pick and choose who you work with and what you work on. Screen your clients carefully, set expectations, offer kindness and praise in addition to your criticism, work as a partner to your authors, and have a supportive group of other editors you can talk to.

  102. Fez Knots*

    I have experience in editing/creative writing freelance and I think you could absolutely use a screening questionnaire for all clients if you aren’t already.

    Ask what inspired them to write their novel, whether they’ve been published before, been in any writing groups or had group/one-on-one critique. I think it’s also appropriate to ask if they’re nervous about receiving feedback. Of course people might say no even if it’s not true. But my experience is that even seasoned writers who have been critiqued many times are still nervous about feedback. Knowing what those nerves are and what their editing process has been like until that point goes a long way to relieving some of that anxiety.

    I can’t go through all 400-some comments, but I’m sure I’m not the only person to encourage you to stop interacting with abusive clients from the absolute get go. Additionally, I’ve had seasoned writers repeatedly ask me for editing help and while they’re not abusive in any way, they don’t utilize any of my feedback and keep submitting projects with the same issues. I don’t keep working with those people either. I’m obviously not the right editor for you and I don’t think there’s any point in continuing to spend time and money without results.

    As a freelancer you have complete control over who you work with! A lot of times it doesn’t feel like that, especially when work is hard to come by and money is tight. But it’s one of the biggest benefits of being a freelancer. Right now I work full-time for an agency and can’t choose any of my clients (Lord I wish I could!) So try and feel empowered by this and since you say work is easy to find, feel no guilt cutting out those jobs that don’t serve you!

  103. Drama Llama*

    This is just a thought because I wasn’t fully clear on some things in the writers letter. Can you include info on how your editing fits into the whole editing process? In case they are shouting at you because their books isn’t perfect and immediately publishable.

  104. Alyssa*

    I’ve worked in publishing for 11 years, both fulltime and freelance copyediting. And I can say authors rarely like seeing edits made to their manuscripts. On the one hand I can understand; they put a lot of time and effort and energy into the research and writing, so it’s precious to them. On the other hand, publishers have specific style guidelines and if your manuscript does not fit with them, there will be edits. I like the idea of doing a chapter/section first to see if you’re both happy with the editing style.

  105. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    I do a fair bit of editing books prior to publication. I would never work for weeks without any feedback.
    I’m pretty proud of how I negotiated it last time. A friend contacted me to say she was writing a book with a colleague and thought someone might need to edit it before they sent it to publishers. I had already worked with this friend and she was a wonderful client so of course I agreed. The two writers were French, but were going to write the book in English, so my experience as a translator was going to come in useful.
    Turned out, her colleague had a rather inflated sense of his writing ability. There were several important terms in the book that he had translated wrongly. I sent him a sample edit of the introduction, and he tried to push back on some of the changes. I told him that I hadn’t seen the term he was using on any English-language websites on the subject matter, he retorted that there was an Italian website that used it. I told him that Italians were not an authority on the English language, their English is seldom better than that of French people.
    He started to bluster that the important thing was not for the book to be in perfect English, but for everyone to understand.
    I told him that I produced texts in British English, and it was not possible to use any reference than the language actually spoken as a native language, because otherwise anything goes and there’d be no point editing anything, and Globish is not a language, only a means of getting a message across in the absence of a common language, and you can’t possibly write a book that everyone will understand unless you dumb it down to a level suitable for kindergarten, because there’s no way of knowing exactly what people have learned in class.
    He started up again, and I told him point blank that if he wanted the book written in Globish, I was not the right editor for him.
    There was a very loud silence as he processed this. He was possibly wondering how reliable my friend was, recommending someone like me, how he was going to tell her that no, he didn’t want me to edit his book. Finally he asked if I could send him a memo on why I chose to replace his term with another.
    I sent him a list of links to the websites I had consulted, pointing out again that none of the professional websites on his subject matter seemed to use his term. I showed him pages using the term I suggested.
    Finally he wrote back to grudgingly accept that I was probably right. He’d been feeling bad because he’d basically been teaching for years, using the wrong term and it was hard to accept that he was wrong on such a basic term.
    I went on to edit the rest of the book and in the end he was so pleased with my work, he took me to dinner at a high-end gourmet restaurant.

  106. Elizabeth West*

    Late to the party, but I saw this post title and made an *eep* face before I ever read a word.

    Working with a good outside editor makes my writing BETTER. I don’t always know how to fix something. I don’t always see when something doesn’t make sense. This is completely normal. We spend so much time immersed in our work we start to assume we put it on the page the way it is in our heads. And that’s not always true, whether you’re writing a novel or a business proposal!

    I agree that sample pages are a good way to see how the client accepts feedback, as well as an initial discussion with the client exactly what kind of edits they’re looking for. Let me librarian that for you suggested upthread that the OP put examples/explanations on their website, which I think is an excellent idea.

    You could also tell newer writers they don’t have to make every single change you suggest, but the reason you’re here is to help them put out the best product they possibly can, and it’s not personal at all.

  107. Rectilinear Propagation*

    I think it would also be fair to state up front that abuse won’t be tolerated. Something like, “Due to an uptick in inappropriate responses to feedback, I have instituted a zero-tolerance policy for abusive communication. Any insults, threats, [etc. just explain what counts] will lead to an immediate block.”.

    I’m sure you can come up with better wording. You shouldn’t have to say this but it might stop the ones who think they’re going to intimidate you into saying what they want you to say if they know up front that you’ll just cut off all communication. (It won’t stop the ones who are just venting or trying to hurt you but the other strategies will hopefully help with those.)

Comments are closed.