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Brendan O’Brien

The Perils of Not Knowing

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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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10 Comments on “The Perils of Not Knowing”

  • I feel the same way about one of my clients and I recently promised myself that I would keep a safe “mind distance” (lâcher prise) about it in 2018. We have no control over that, haven’t we?

  • Margaret F Sadler


    Yes! Thank you, Brendan. The very thought passes through my mind as I make a change that I think improves the writing, but I realize could be debated. There are only so many comments that can be attached to a document; I have to pick and choose when to elaborate…not knowing.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    All true, Brendan – but much more tricky than the that/which conundrum and split infinitives is the broad question “How far to go?” If you’re asked for a copy edit, does that include stylistic editing too? Many managers in communications or other departments have no understanding of the different kinds of editing available, so they are unable to articulate what they want. Indie authors fall into this trap too. Result? You may be criticized for doing too little – or far too much! The only way around this problem is to ask a few pertinent questions and, perhaps, send a short sample edit to new clients.

  • Anita I. Jenkins


    Agreed. I retired when I was no longer meeting my clients. Some would email the file and say they didn’t need a meeting. Sometimes I would deliberately find a way to visit their offices and more than a couple looked at me as if to say, “What are you doing here?” I knew that the world had changed and it was no longer a fit for me.

    Now, almost 10 years into retirement, my only problem is trying to figure out why everyone is walking around with a paper coffee cup in their hand.

  • Wilf Popoff


    A client with a sound grasp of grammar and style probably doesn’t need an editor. A client without such an understanding usually cannot appreciate what we do.

    When your tooth hurts you consult a dentist who effects relief, an outcome you willingly pay for; when your car is making strange noises a mechanic solves the problem.

    Our work doesn’t provide such obvious results. In-house work keeps an editor connected with knowledgeable people but when the client is a manufacturing or resource company the freelance editor is very much alone.

  • Naomi Pauls


    In-house work as a prelude to freelance editing was my own career path — and something I strongly recommend, to boost one’s editorial skills and confidence.

    The longer I edit, the more explanation (as well as encouraging praise) I provide to writers — time permitting, of course. I do my best not to “talk down” to writers, but, as you say, as a freelancer you often “don’t know” their level of linguistic knowledge. Explaining an edit, even briefly, can increase that knowledge and also demonstrate your value 😉

    I also encourage question about my edits.

  • Yes, yes, yes. I often wonder about just how much explaining of my process I should be doing in comments.

  • Rachel


    This post really resonated! I crave feedback from clients. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few enlightening Skype conversations, where the client and I will discuss my edits in-depth. I wish this happened more often!

  • Anita I. Jenkins


    Not just feedback but getting to know the what the client is like/ how they think, etc. I used to say, to the dismay of some colleagues, that editing was similar to hairdressing. Often you have to tailor the job to the client’s needs and style.

  • Kerri Miller


    Truth. I try to anticipate which edits a client might be tempted not to comply with and leave an explanatory comment. Then they’ll do weird things like rejecting a completely objective, non-controversial correction. I figure all we can do is our best. I’ve also started providing style sheets even though my clients don’t request them.

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