Friends and the Freelance Copyeditor

I was a writing tutor in college, and one of the most useful things I learned in training (other than asking the student what they are trying to say and then shouting “Write that down!” when they explain), was that tutoring (editing) is a professional skill that we should be paid for, and that we should not let our friends take advantage of us. I was a soft-hearted college student (now I’m a hardened mean professional), so that was advice I needed.

I didn’t make my friends pay me, but for anything longer than a resume or cover letter, I demanded food, beer, return favors, or other items of barter. Some of you may remember the Fangs and Clause Official Unpaid Editorial Work Fee Matrix (and yes there is a typo in it, but no I’m not perfectionist enough to go back and change it).

I had an interesting conversation with my friend R, who is a quilter and a writer. A few weeks ago, she asked me to do a proofread of her chapbook. We started talking about barter, but she needed it done quickly, and so offered me money. We settled quickly on a relatively low but fair price, and after a little back and forth, we settled on a due date that worked for both of us. Although I have critiqued this friend’s work in the past, I did not do a critique. I set aside a workday, did a proofread, and after resolving a few questions, she paid me immediately. Everyone was happy.

However she was working with another friend who ran a press. She thought the press was going to publish her book, but the friend started complaining and said that it was expensive, and maybe R could sew her curtains. Now curtains was one of the things that R and I had discussed bartering before we settled on cold hard cash. But that was not part of the other deal, so it seemed manipulative.

I told her how freeing it was to not critique her work, because proofreading is about preventing the author and press from committing egregious typos and other sins of carelessness. It’s not about changing big-picture items, it’s not about reshaping the work, it’s about spit, polish, and out the door. R and I have certainly exchanged manuscripts for critique, and I do that for free because it is a return in kind. I’ll point out typos if I see them, but I don’t have to make sure “monkey’s pajamas” is set the same way each and every time it is written.

Sometimes money is cleaner than trade. I have done work for friends with a variety of results. I got blacklisted (I think) from a copyeditor job I did for someone I knew because I critiqued the fact that I had to do a 20-page editorial test for free. [Note: Editorial tests are standard in the industry, but 20 pages is far too long.]

“No one else complained,” my friend said.

“I thought I could mention it because you’re my friend and you won’t think I’m an asshole.”

Turned out I was wrong.

I have scored many a free dinner and/or beer on my friends’ resumes and cover letters, and I’m glad to do it.

When I copyedited DP’s entire manuscript, we ended up trading hours for money I contributed to the house account because it took away from my work time. Although the shorter stuff he writes I copyedit for free. Or sexual favors. Or dinner. Or all of the above.

What do you get paid for and what do you give away for free?


One response to “Friends and the Freelance Copyeditor

  1. I don’t mind when friends ask me how to find a bit of information when I’m off the Official Library Clock, but if they want me to do the research for them, I have an hourly fee.

    I critique for free because it’s usually reciprocal and I get to read awesome stuff before other people do.

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