September 2021 marks ten years of Carla DeSantis Editing! After ten years, I still relish the feeling of digging into a new manuscript, always learning something new in the process. To mark this occasion, I did some reflecting on where my numbers stand, where I started, where I am now, and what I have learned over the years.
Numbers over 10 Years
69 editing projects
48 professional development courses/seminars/meetings/conferences
6 indexing projects
4 professional memberships
1 indexing award
Where I Started
What has changed from September 2011 to September 2021? A lot! Ten years ago, a university press brought me on to my first professional editing project as a subject specialist who had also done some editing in the past. Since the author wanted to work on paper and not onscreen, I was handed huge boxes filled with stacks of pages of a two-volume, one thousand-page manuscript and a copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. I would be editing with pencil and paper, using traditional proofreading markup.
I had to hit the ground running and learn on the go, researching proofing symbols, best practices, etc. “And of course you will have to check what Chicago says about this,” said the series editor in reference to a particular point. “What is Chicago?” I asked. Awkward silence. “You will have to know Chicago; you can buy a copy.”
I was lucky that the other copy editor for the series, who had been working on the volumes for years, was patient and ended up serving as a mentor to me, fielding any questions that I had, elucidating the series style sheet that she had developed, discussing points of style that arose—even coming to my house to instruct me on how the pages should be marked up for typesetting.
They didn’t give me a deadline. I worked on the pages very part-time, as it fit into my schedule. But at one point, I remember thinking how incredibly happy I was to be doing this work: engaging with the text and the language in such an intimate way, using my academic skills to help another academic achieve their publishing goals, drawing on some of my subject specialties for a new purpose, feeling intellectually stimulated every day. I knew then that I had found my new career.
For a few years, I had only this one client, until I realized that I could make a real business out of this, get training, and expand my client base. I read everything I could about editing and the profession.
Where I Am Now
10 Things I Have Learned
1. The experience of editing on hard copy with a pencil was actually very good training! I wouldn’t want to go back to it now, mind you, but engagement with the manuscript and proof pages in such a physical way helped to deepen my understanding of the full publication process in many ways. For one thing, I had a lot more interaction with the typesetter when dealing with the hard copies; now I have none.
2. Professional memberships have been crucial to my business for several reasons. First, most of the training I received has been through professional editing associations. Second, my online profiles in their member directories have helped me to expand my client base, as many clients find me there. Third, they have allowed me to develop a network of fellow editors and indexers. We learn from one another, send referrals to one another, and discuss aspects of our business that only those in the field can relate to. And editors and indexers are just nice people!
3. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. This goes hand in hand with number 2 above. When I started out, I wasn’t making a lot of money and resisted joining professional associations, since the membership fees seemed expensive. However, once I did spend the money and join one, my online profile gave me the exposure necessary to bring in new clients. Getting even one client from the online profile usually covers the cost of membership. So, little by little, I increased my exposure by joining more associations, and it has paid off. Also, investing in software will make your work more efficient and keep you up to date.
4. Specializing is an advantage, not a limitation. When I started out, I thought that I could do everything, including possibly scientific plain language. Nope! Stick with what you know. By focusing on my expertise in the humanities and languages, I am able to provide expert service to my clients without compromise. I have expanded my editorial areas to include social sciences and some business topics, but I will leave STEM and other subject areas in which I am not versed to editorial specialists in those areas. I would not attempt to edit fiction, for example, as the criteria for editing fiction differs significantly from that for nonfiction.
5. Track your time from the very beginning. Knowing how long it takes to edit or index is crucial when estimating how long a project will take and therefore how much you will charge a client. You don’t need anything fancy; I use a simple Excel spreadsheet for every project to track my time. At the end of the project, you can then figure out how many words per hour you edited (or pages per hour you indexed) and use this information to guide future estimates.
6. Be realistic about how many hours you can work in a week. Most editors seem to say that five hours a day is the limit for actual editing tasks, and I would agree. You will spend the other hours doing administrative tasks, marketing, fielding emails, etc. But the intensity and concentration involved in editing or indexing onscreen means that you may not be as effective after five hours of dedicated work. If you can limit your work to Monday to Friday and have your weekends free, all the better! I have tried to do this so as to align my schedule with the other members of my family who work traditional business and school hours.
7. You don’t need to know everything—just how and where to find the information. Although I say that I know The Chicago Manual of Style “only too well,” of course it is impossible to know or remember everything in the 1144-page volume. No editor will have completely memorized any style guide, I think! So, whether an edit is based on Chicago style, MLA, or APA, it is crucial to have access to the guides and know how to find the information in them.
If you are dealing with citations and bibliographies, WorldCat and Google Scholar should be open on your screen for easy access to that information. Google is your friend when fact checking, and if your brief does not include extensive fact checking, do not hesitate to query the author when necessary. Dictionaries, in conjunction with your style guide, can serve as the authorities for spellings, hyphenation, and/or capitalization.
Blogs by fellow editors contain a wealth of editing knowledge, such as those by Erin Brenner, Louise Harnby, and Denise Cowle, and Grammar Girl helps to tease out some of those pesky grammatical rules. And sometimes, if you just can’t find the answer yourself, you can ask in an online editors’ forum, within a professional association forum, Facebook group, or even on Twitter (editors are very generous with their time and information).
8. The first few years may be lean, until you build up a client base and get your name out there. This seems to be the norm when developing a freelance business, and patience (and possibly a small nest egg) may be necessary.
9. A standing desk is worth it. If you can get one, do so. Sitting all day is hard on your body. I try to sit half the day, stand half the day. And a second screen is extremely useful (essential for indexing).
10. I learn something new every day! This is the true joy of being a scholarly editor and indexer. I constantly have the privilege of reading new research on a variety of interesting topics every day and helping my clients to get their important message across in the clearest way possible. Here is just a sampling of the varied topics I get to work on:
I owe much to my fellow editors and indexers for their collegiality and generosity over the years, to those who have instructed me in the craft, and to my clients for their always interesting and challenging written words. Thank you! I look forward to meeting more editor and indexer colleagues, and welcoming new clients in the years to come!
If you run your own business, how have your work and processes changed over the years? What have you learned? What would you change?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.