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Virginia Durksen

Inner Editor: Tasks Without Edges

Copyright: quartadis / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: quartadis / 123RF Stock Photo

As the oft-paraphrased Leonardo da Vinci would have it, art [or poetry or writing or editing] is never finished, only abandoned.

Writing is like a teenager. Eventually you have to send it out into the world to fend for itself. (Or should I say it’s like a young adult? Most North Americans freak out at the thought of teenagers leaving home … unless they’re joining the army or the circus that is a college campus.)

Writing is “a task without edges,” a phrase David Allen uses in his classic book on time management, Getting Things Done. Even the most trivial writing tasks can absorb all the time there is.

As editors, we work at the hard edges of a project, where time and money run out. But editing itself is also a task without edges. Editors are most often involved at the point where revising, querying and proofreading soak up oceans of time while the budget slows to a mere trickle. This is where every piece of writing and every bit of editing meets its true edge, in the form of a deadline (or abject poverty).

Finding the project’s edges

Sometimes even the edges — timelines and budgets — are not clearly defined. Here are three ways to find the edges of every editing project:

  • Ask about deadlines: Test the edges by asking about interim delivery dates for tasks that lead up to and follow your part in the project. This will help you anticipate whether the client will deliver the project to you with enough time to meet your deadline. It’s also an opportunity to negotiate how changes to your start date will affect your delivery date. Locating the edges of tasks that follow editing can also help you assess whether your deadline is hard or soft.
  • Ask about budgets: Editors often don’t ask this question early enough in the conversation. It can save immense amounts of time and frustration. Only rarely will clients keep this information to themselves. If they do, it’s probably a sign that they have no idea what they are asking you to do for them. In other words, it’s a task completely without edges.
  • Clarify the level of edit: This is where editors can help their clients find the edges between different levels of editing. Too often, clients will claim a manuscript just needs “a little proofreading” when in fact it needs heavy stylistic or even structural editing. They can see the typos, of course, but they can’t see the chaos in the draft.

The problem here is that many editors also have difficulty recognizing the fine edge between copy editing and proofreading, for example. If a client is paying you to proofread, it’s almost certainly too late for stylistic edits. And it’s not what you are being paid to do, even if it causes you physical pain not to flag and fix everything you notice.

The pro tip for finding edges at the start of a project is to go in knowing that all edges are negotiable: time, money and even the type of edit. The trick for editors is in remembering that the point of negotiating is to find clear edges that work in your favour.

How do you find the edges on an editing assignment? How do the edges find you?


Previous post from Virginia Durksen: December Is the Cruellest — and Shortest — Month.

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5 Comments on “Inner Editor: Tasks Without Edges”

  • Wilf Popoff


    Deadlines and budgets are subjects clients understand; levels of edit, not so much. Most clients have little idea of what we do.

    After struggling with a document to make sense of it I have had this response: “Great! I see you didn’t have to change much.”

    • Virginia Durksen


      Wilf, your comment reminds me that I still, after all these years of editing, underestimate the time it takes to bring order to the chaos in such a way that the client recognizes it as the order they had in mind all along.

  • Donna-Lee Wybert


    Loved your “edges” framing, Virginia. My projects so often spill out that I no longer take things that are supposedly JUST proofreading. They never are, of course, in the academic work I usually do. What I do struggle with is whether to correct people’s language around this – if they pay me and appreciate the deep edit I do, but then still thank me for the “proofreading,” is it worth explaining the differences at that point? No one right answer here, but something I ponder. As necessary, I provide clarification at the outset, but STILL, this language persists.

    • Virginia Durksen


      My thinking about edges keeps expanding (of course). Sometimes the edge we need to accept is the limit on how much our clients want to know about what we do and what we call it. If they could truly appreciate what we do, they might be equipped to do it for themselves. Academics are also writers who often lack edges. Their writing drifts when their thinking drifts. Or does their thinking drift when their writing does?

  • Donna-Lee Wybert


    Yes, I agree. Sometimes clients don’t care what the work is called, as long as it is ‘fixed.’ And, some drifts are good, as the writing shapes the thinking and vice versa.

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