Early in one’s freelance career (or any career, really), it’s normal not to earn a lot of money per job. What we earn in those early projects is not so much material as it is experiential. I had an early client that became one of my first “learning experience” clients. We had good rapport at first, and we decided on an hourly structure for a job that would last a month, editing and applying APA style to her dissertation. The first two weeks went well, and I sent her weekly drafts of the work. She paid me readily for my progress on each.
After that, I fell behind a little bit but still had time to catch up. Instead of a third-week draft, I pushed forward and got my document back to her at the end of the last weekend of the month, submitting my time sheet on the bidding site we were using and thinking I had just completed a quality job. Apparently, the client didn’t agree.
Even though we had made no agreement guaranteeing weekly drafts, the two weeks without a draft had made the client nervous, and we were riding her deadline for her dissertation draft. Although I’d included a lengthy (perhaps unbelievably lengthy?) list of fixes I’d made, she had taken a cursory look at the final draft and noted that I had neglected to include running heads in the draft, which she understood to be a detail critical to APA style.
And if I had missed that critical APA detail, she surmised, then how could she be sure I hadn’t missed others?
I made the fix and sent her a new draft, acknowledging the error and hoping the correction would make everything well again. The client, however, felt that the only suitable solution to this problem was for me not to charge her for the second half of the month’s work.
Her rationale, as noted, was that if she had found one error with the document, then there were probably many others. I invited her to look. She said that it was unreasonable for me to expect her to expend the effort. The discussion was going nowhere, but the positions were more or less as follows:
Ultimately, the situation did not work out in my favor. I earned no money for the second half of the job but earned a great deal of experience. It was only very late in the process that I realized that my remaining recourse was to use the bidding site’s policy that only work that had been paid for rightfully belonged to the client, and by that time I’m not sure she got the message. It was a point I should have made early on: that she was welcome not to pay me, as long as she was happy forfeiting her right to use the work (this is part of Elance policy, and I’ve heard of other editors using similar language in their contracts, to the effect that the editor holds the copyright on the edits until the work is paid for).
Another point that had occurred to me during our unproductive phone conversation—but that I did not make—was that her argument implied that editing could never be performed within and judged by realistic standards: that if an editor spent months on a book and overlooked a single typo, the client could simply choose not to pay her because, implicitly, the contract had not been followed through with. The reason I didn’t make this point at the time was that it seemed too obvious and that she’d have felt insulted if I’d made it. She was already angry, and I didn’t want to make her angrier.
Two years later, however, something else has come up in a different context that alerted me to the fact that this perception—that a proofreader or editor could or should find themselves unpaid if their work was not flawless—actually exists.
A discussion topic in a LinkedIn group for copyeditors and proofreaders was opened about a month ago with the question, “If there is one typo in 40,000 words after proofing, are proofreaders willing to refund their fee?”
The first response, which attracted 27 “Likes,” read simply, “You’re joking, right?”
The discussion branched off in numerous directions after that: how many overlooked typos could be considered reasonable, how to define an error, whether to ask for (or give) free proofreading samples before starting a project, and many other points that were less closely related to the original question. The one thing no one implied was that a single typo could be grounds for a refund. There were, however, a lot of different explanations for why not.
I didn’t comment in the discussion thread because it had run its course before I encountered it, and it had diverged so far from the opening topic that my contribution wouldn’t have fit into the path of conversation.
My view is still that which my early client experience framed for me, that the presence of one error (or even ten, when it comes down to it) doesn’t render the rest of the work unusable. Imagine how nerve-wracking it would be to spend dozens of hours on a document knowing that if even a single error slides past you, the hours would count for nought. No editor or proofreader in their right mind would accept job terms like that.
I don’t know how widespread the viewpoint held by that client and by this LinkedIn poster is; frankly, I was surprised that it was even held by two people. But perhaps I shouldn’t be. After all, people outside a given profession can’t always know everything about what goes on within. It is often just a matter of getting on the same page about the expectations each party has of the other. Instead of being contemptuous when a client informs us they expect no less than objective perfection, maybe we should feel honored that we’re believed to be such robotic superheroes. And then dispel them of that misperception before it finds its way into a contract.
Let’s find some takeaways from this discussion:
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.