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Last month, Rich Adin wrote about the value of the editing profession—specifically in the context of how much editors should get paid.[1] He gives eight reasons in two articles for why editing is undervalued. Here are four of those reasons:

1. Few editors know their required effective hourly rate.
2. Our profession has failed to convince “clients” of editing’s value.
3. The market views us as low-level professionals who provide an unnecessary service.
4. It is too easy to open an editorial business.

The discussion of fees is not a new discussion. For example, Editors Canada has a page on the issue of fees, as does the Editorial Freelancers Association. But the idea that editors don’t really deserve to be paid very much tends to come from potential clients who don’t know what editors do or what it takes to be one, and from editors who don’t know how to market themselves.[2]

The fourth item in Rich Adin’s list deserves our attention. We editors should consider a universal certification requirement. Specifically, editors should have to take and pass a certification test before we are allowed[3] to call ourselves editors. In later blog post, I will make content suggestions. Today, I set out the reasoning.

It’s a problem that anyone can say they’re an editor. It’s a problem for us because it affects the credibility of the profession and it’s a problem for the consumer who doesn’t know whether their editor has the education, training, or proper experience to be an editor. It is as if, for your divorce case, you could either hire a law school graduate with a law license or a person with an associate’s degree in marketing, a law book, and an Internet browser. And so why are we editors surprised that clients think it’s okay to, say, offer us $350 to edit an entire textbook or $11 an hour to edit an 80,000-word novel? And why do so many authors have horror stories about terrible editors?

It’s true that there are several editors associations that have certification exams and standards of practice—for example, Editors Canada, the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences, the American Medical Writers Association and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.[4] But, as of this writing, an editor can’t be certified by any of these associations until after they’ve been practicing for a period of years, which to me has it backwards. An editor should begin their career with enough knowledge to be certified.

I’m going to stop here and distinguish between certification, where an entity makes you pass a test and then says you’re a member and that you can say you’re one of them, and licensure, which involves state oversight.  Licensed professionals have to go to school and get a specific degree; and then, before they can even practice, they have to pass a state licensing exam.

Professions that require licenses are regulated by mandatory state-run professional associations, which means that if the professional does their job badly enough that they cause harm, they can lose the ability to practice—and the sanction for doing it anyway is jail. Licensed professions are regulated professions, with ethical codes, professional standards, and requirements for continuing education. The requirement of both licensure and certification grants a legitimacy to those professions that the editing profession is missing, and those requirements protect the consumer. In the case of some kinds of editing, those requirements would also protect the public.[5]

People might say that of course we should license dog groomers and nail salons and not editors because editing isn’t really an essential service and, besides, nothing will go wrong if an editor does a terrible job; in contrast, if the land surveyor commits malpractice, they could cost people lots of money. But the lawyer who advises you on how to maintain your intellectual property rights to a font you designed isn’t necessarily going to cost you your liberty if they commit malpractice; in contrast, editors who do a bad job can cause a lot of damage.

Let’s start with the most benign worst-case scenario: An incompetent editor does a terrible job on what was supposed to be a substantive copyedit of a 100,000-word novel. The client paid $x,000, but because of the editor’s terrible job, the novel is a mess. Before the bad editor got their mitts on it, the book needed the attention of an editor; now, it’s a disaster. And the author has spent months or years writing it.

Let’s say that the editor introduced multiple errors into the manuscript, cut out the most interesting parts, unsplit all the infinitives, and called it a day. At the very least, the author has lost time and money. A good-enough editor would have introduced no errors, left the bloody infinitives alone, performed agreed-upon editing tasks, and handed the author a work that was a better version of the author’s work, and with the author’s voice preserved. The good-enough editor might also have flagged an epigram to remind the author to get permission to use it, or even suggested that the author run a particularly touchy paragraph by a defamation lawyer before publication.

What’s the worst thing an editor can do wrong? Get people killed. For example, they could change µg to a mg on a medicine dosage in a pharmacy textbook. Or contribute to a medication error in a medical journal article. What can a good-enough editor do? They can catch those mistakes in an author’s work.

People write content for many different reasons. From a purely financial standpoint, the least important motive for writing is for the love of it. Maybe the author is writing a memoir or a novel, and they’re clear that they only want their nearest and dearest to read it. But in that case, it’s likely that writing is an essential feature of that author’s sense of self. A professional who assists someone with an activity that the someone thinks makes them them deserves to be paid what they’re worth, but they need to know what they’re doing.

An author could be trying to write a groundbreaking novel, publish their research findings, create a textbook, or produce a creative new cookbook. It may be a means to career advancement. An editor can make the difference between publishing or not publishing the results of years of research. So a good-enough editor helps bring someone’s dreams to fruition, improves the quality of research (because clearer, more organized, free of cringeworthy spelling errors) or makes a product worth more money.

So it’s only fair that editors be required to demonstrate a minimal level of subject-matter expertise before beginning the practice of editing. Let’s not be unfair. I’m obviously not saying that no one is competent to edit unless they’ve taken and passed a certification test. That’s silly. And I’m not sure that there can be any one way to accumulate the necessary knowledge that could bring one to take the certification exam. Any good-enough editor should be able to pass a certification exam. I’m saying that it does the profession an injustice when we say that anyone should be able to say they are an editor, even though they have no education, training, or experience. Those who can’t edit won’t be able to pass the test. They won’t be able to say that they’re a certified editor. And that gives the client, the consumer, and the editor, essential information.

1. Rich Adin. An American Editor (blog), “The Business of Editing: 8 Reasons Why Editors Are Underpaid I,” April 20, 2016, https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/the-business-of-editing-8-reasons-why-editors-are-underpaid-i/.

2. For professional advice on the business of freelancing, see Dr Freelance. Meanwhile, if contemplating this issue is making you cranky, then, after you finish this post, take a look at Harlan Ellison’s profane, delicious rant on paying writers, and the The Vendor Client relationship – in real world situations. I did watch an habitually angry author once tell others on a Facebook page that authors are not very likely to make back on the sales of their novels what they would pay us to edit them, and so we should certainly edit their work, but we should certainly do it for free, because that was only fair. I did privately think that I did give birth for free, but the obstetrician got paid. And somehow I was not disturbed by that.

3. We all agree that there are editors who should be certified without an exam based on factors like length of time in the profession and contributions to the field. And just as some states don’t require a lawyer to take a bar exam if they’re applying for admission from another state, I think we’d all expect that agencies would recognize each other’s certifications.

4. The Society of Editors and Proofreaders even has a complaints and appeals process.

5. By the way, such tests should certainly contain ethics questions. Do you make your dissertation-writers clear your involvement with their supervisors? If so, how? Do you have a separate bank account for advances and only transfer the money when you earn it? Can you recognize certain forms of plagiarism and are you clear on your obligations when you see it?

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