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Responding to Vague Editing Requests

I’ve talked about how to cold-call potential clients in this space, but what about when clients cold-call you? If you’ve spent any time as a freelance editor, you’ve likely received an email like this:

Hello! I found your website online and I have a novel that needs an editor. It’s 250 pages. It’s been reviewed by my writing group and I’ve revised it many times. It really just needs a proofread now! How much do you charge?

Where do you start with such a request?

Start with What You Know

You should already have a good sense of your skill level and editing speed, as well as an idea of your rate, depending on the project scope, whether you charge by the hour, word, page, or project.

If you’ve been in business for a while, you likely also have a list of negotiation points for deciding whether a project is worthwhile. You might be willing to work for a lower rate if you do less work, have more time to do the work, or receive soft benefits (e.g., it’s a prestigious project you can use to get other, better-paying clients).

At this point, you don’t know much about the project and what you do know pops up a lot of red flags.

You know the project is fiction. If you’re a fiction editor, that’s a good start. The manuscript is 250 pages—though that likely means file pages. Those pages could have single-spaced text in 8-point type, effectively hiding the true length of the manuscript. That’s red flag number one.

While the project has been revised, it doesn’t sound like it has been edited. That’s red flag number two. The author’s understanding of the publishing process seems to be flawed. A writing group critique might help with some obvious issues, but it can’t address the things an edit will, and proofreading should only be done after an edit. That’s red flag number three.

The next step is to learn more and see if you can eliminate those red flags.

What You Need to Know

The first thing you need to know is how long the manuscript really is and what shape it’s in. Ask to see the whole manuscript, explaining that it will help you create the most accurate estimate. If the author seems skittish, you can offer to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Next, you need to know more about the project:

  • What kind of fiction is it? (For nonfiction, you’ll want to know the subject. If it’s not a book, what is it?)
  • Who is the intended audience? Single women in their 20s? Retired military? Hip teens?
  • How will the manuscript be published? Will the author seek out an agent or self-publish? Has it already been sold to a publisher or agent?
  • What is the author’s goal with the manuscript? Do they just want to self-publish for the thrill of it, or is this a new business?
  • Does the author have a marketing plan? This can help you gauge how invested they are in their project.
  • What’s their timeline? If it’s immediate and short, you may need to negotiate for more time or pass on the project.
  • Anything else you need to know to make an informed decision.

How to Say It

I find it helpful to have a template or two for responding quickly to prospective clients. At this stage, the possibility of the inquiry turning into paying work is remote if the author doesn’t expand on their needs—and some just won’t. A template saves me what might be a wasted effort.

Here’s one of my templates for responding to self-publishing fiction authors:

Hi, NAME. Congratulations on coming to the end of the writing process! As you wrap up, you must be feeling like you’ve run a long race. It’s time to pass the baton and let someone else run the next lap for you.

I’d be happy to provide you with a quote for editing. To do that, however, I need a few things from you.

The most important is your manuscript in MS Word. I’m happy to sign a nondisclosure agreement, if that would make you feel more comfortable. Reviewing your manuscript in full will help me determine the full scope of the project.

With your manuscript, please also answer the following:

  • What kind of story is it? A mystery? Science fiction? If you want to give me a brief synopsis in addition to the manuscript, that’s even better.
  • What are your goals for this book? Do you want to sell thousands of copies, or are you looking to hold your book in your hands and give a few to friends? Something else?
  • Who is your audience? Is the story aimed at trendy women in their 20s? Retired military men? Be as specific as you can.
  • How will you publish your book: will you self-publish or look for an agent?
  • Do you have a marketing plan? Have you started building the audience for your book?
  • Do you have a publishing date in mind?
  • When do you need the editing done by?

Feel free to tell me anything else about your project that you think will help.

Again, NAME, congratulations for coming to the end of a long process. And thank you for considering me to help you with the next step.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

[sign off]

Authors won’t always email back, but by asking the right questions, those who do will provide critical information for determining whether to take on the project.

A version of this article was originally published on on March 17, 2017.


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