Editing Someone Else’s Book

This past week I picked up a new customer. A mutual friend referred this gentleman to me as a potential editor for the book he wanted to write. Thanks to a mix of my own experience working with clients and some input from friends who have done this type of work before, I was able to approach the assignment confident that I knew what I was doing.

Seeking Advice

Before calling the client, I reached out to Laura, my ghostwriter friend, and Betty, who edited my book.

Betty’s input was to read the whole document to understand what the author was trying to achieve; then make sure the organization meets that purpose; then start working on the details like grammar, consistency, and punctuation. She also recommended using the Chicago Manual of Style, plus the usual quality dictionary and possibly an industry-specific dictionary for technical terminology.

Laura’s primary advice was to confirm the client’s expectations up front and to be sure you can meet them within the budget they set. The specific expectations related to what type of edit they want you to do: comprehensive, copyediting, or somewhere in between?

Armed with these inputs and my own experiences working with clients, I felt I was ready to take on this assignment.

Talking Content

I’ll admit that I was a little bit intimidated when I was told that this client worked in the sciences. As I’ve said more than once, I’m much more comfortable writing for engineers than scientists. And the hardest type of nonfiction writing for me is scientists writing for other scientists. I’ll freely admit that I currently lack that skill set. However, once we talked on the phone, I was put at ease. The gentleman* who was referred to me is a retired professional who has important things he wants to say about his industry–not just to fellow professionals, but policymakers and the general public.

He was doing outreach. I’ve been doing that for 15 years!

Talking About the Work

Once I knew what the client was writing about, the next question was to determine what he needed from me. I am not a ghostwriter by trade, after all (that’s Laura’s job). The good news was that he had written at least a draft or two, so he had the content there. What he wanted help with were the words: grammar, punctuation, and style. He is a long-time resident of this country, but while his spoken English is excellent, he is not confident about his writing. Not a problem, I assured him. I can work with that.

Reviewing and Providing Feedback About the Work

Another promising sign about the working relationship was that he wanted direct feedback about the style–was the content holding my interest? What could be made better? Again, I can do that, too. He forwarded me the introductory material and a couple of chapters so I could get a feel for his style and how much work I had in store.

The good news there was that his writing, while occasionally using long sentences or challenging vocabulary, is on a par with the sorts of engineering writing I’ve worked with over the years, which is to say good, just in need of polishing. After doing my first pass, I uploaded the documents onto a shared Dropbox site I set up and sent him an email providing my overall impressions of the work. While I am prone to make a lot of little markups for the sake of proper grammar or punctuation, I wasn’t finding problems with the content or arguments he was making. This will make my job and our future interactions much easier. My job will be to help him make his work approachable and engaging to a broader audience. If I can’t do that, I’ll have to rethink my skill set.

Talking About the Business Side of the Work

Having determined that the content and work were mutually agreeable, it was safe to talk money. I explained that I worked by the hour, though I worked pretty fast. I quoted my hourly rate and explained how many hours it would take–as a first guess–to get through a review of the whole thing. We both acknowledged that there would likely be multiple passes through the manuscript, but at least he had a good idea of my reading/editing speed and how much he was likely to spend to work with me.

Time will tell how well I worked those estimates. If I did this more often, I could probably quote a price for the full project and not worry about tracking my time. Things to think about in the future. The goal, for now, will be to make certain that my client gets good value for his money.

(* Note: I’m keeping his name confidential for the time being.)

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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