The caller said she wanted me to edit a 200-page doctoral dissertation—and several more projects would follow in the next few years.
I did a little happy dance around the living room. This was my first inquiry for my freelance business, and her research was in my field. I hadn’t even finished my website or ordered business cards.
She didn’t hesitate when I gave her my price.
This is great, I thought. How hard could it be to make a good living doing what I love?
In this case, plenty hard.
A few months later, I ended our relationship—and did another happy dance.
These are the red flags I look for now (but thankfully have not seen again):
She isn’t ready to work with an editor. The sample she gave me was okay, but when I got her complete dissertation, it was a structural mess. I thought I could rework it, but didn’t know enough about her specific topic to feel confident doing so. I gave her an outline that specified what should go where. I talked to her for an hour and a half about it. I even volunteered to spend an afternoon with her to go through it all until everything was in the right place. She wasn’t interested.
She expects you to do much more than she hired you to do. In her discipline, direct quotes that are more than a certain length must be indented. She had a lot of long quotes, so she told me that she didn’t want any of the quotes to be more than ten words. In other words, she wanted me to rewrite as well as edit. She also sent me articles about her topic and asked me to “work them into” her dissertation. No, thanks.
She doesn’t respect your time. The client had a fairly demanding job, so I didn’t mind talking to her after business hours and during weekends. But when she started calling at nearly midnight, or before seven a.m., I let her calls go to voice mail. I had to remember to silence my phone to avoid the dings that announced the barrage of text messages that followed.
She brings other parties into conflicts. I tell clients that they are the subject matter experts. I leave comments and suggestions for things that are confusing or inconsistent, but ultimately, it’s their work entirely, with their name on the cover. When I questioned her use of a particular statistical analysis that I was familiar with, she didn’t talk to me about it, but sent a blistering email to her committee chair, complaining about me. The committee chair copied me on her reply (which is how I found out about it), telling her to do as I had advised.
She does not communicate for months, then expects you to meet a tight deadline. When nearly nine months went by without a peep, I assumed she had found an editor she was happier with. Then, she emailed me her dissertation, completely rewritten. And by the way, she needed it four days later. I thought about telling her it would cost more, since this was a different document entirely, or saying I didn’t have time. Instead, I did the work, not wanting to give her a reason to badmouth me.
A few weeks later I got a text: “I’m officially a Dr. now!! Woo hoo!! Couldn’t have done it without you!”
“Congratulations,” I replied.
“And I have reworked it into a journal article. Check your email in a few minutes.”
I sent her an email explaining why it would be best for her to find someone else, and gave her a list of other freelance editors. I wished her the best of luck.
I wished her new editor luck, as well. He or she was going to need it.