One of the downsides of freelance editing is that you’re not there (wherever “there” may be) to explain your thinking on occasions when it might be appropriate to do so. Furthermore, you’re probably unaware that such occasions have even arisen.
When I had in-house jobs, I learned a lot from bosses and colleagues. In my first job I would walk the three metres to my boss’s desk to point to some aspect of a sentence, or I could ask a question without moving at all. In my second job I sat near my boss and six or seven editors and production controllers. As well as learning from them, I could convey my thoughts and ideas to the group. My boss hence had some idea of the “why” as well as the “what” of my working style (or, if she didn’t, she could simply ask me).
Now, as regards what goes on in clients’ minds, I don’t know what I don’t know. For example, in my training I learned to always change “which” to “that” in restrictive contexts; I’ve tended to do so ever since, and I observe the distinction in my own writing. But many editors feel that this is unimportant in British English, and that we should make only “essential” changes.
If I follow this advice, some managing editor, on scanning my work, may sigh, “Brendan doesn’t know the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’! That’s the last time I’ll use him.” And I won’t be at hand to say, “But I do! I have a reason!”
If I worked for publishers with detailed style guides, this problem might be less relevant, but it would still exist. Much is left up to me. I can make notes to explain my thinking, but I can’t predict and address every possible area of doubt and confusion. For all I know, there are still people who would balk at my split infinitive in the third paragraph.
My clients don’t generally give detailed feedback. Like many freelancers, I rely on repeat work, which is feedback in itself. If a client stops offering me work, it could be for many reasons: someone else is cheaper; the desk editor’s cousin is doing it; the company is struggling; they have nothing suitable. Or, just maybe, I did something justifiable that someone, out of prejudice or ignorance, didn’t like, and that I could have explained if I’d been sitting at the next desk.
I’ll never know. This low-level angst is part of the freelance condition: a price we pay for the privilege of sitting at home and never having a paid day off. The inadequacy of human communication increases with increasing geographical and psychic distance; all the training courses in the world won’t change that. Remote communication has become much easier, but we freelancers still can’t know what we don’t know.
Previous post from Brendan O’Brien: The Reluctant Editor.
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