I started mulling over writing this post months ago, after the first flurry of posts I’d published on my new website. My partner read one of them and he said, ‘I’m amazed at how much you give away, sometimes. You’re sharing trade secrets. You’re telling people how to do what you do!’ He looked a bit worried. So I told him, ‘That’s kind of the intention. I like to help people. Sharing stuff helps them, so I get it out there.’ Or words to that effect. He didn’t bring it up again, but sometimes I wondered if he’d had a point. Should I play my cards closer to my chest?
During the first lockdown, in spring 2020, I wrote a series of very personal posts on my old blog about the pandemic, and what it seemed like we were all going through from my particular perspective. The posts were cathartic, and I think a few people read them (fewer as the weeks went by and they got more wildly off-topic), but they were probably useless from a business point of view. No one was going to hire me on the strength of an article about going for walks around Wells, or my experience of trying to teach my kids at home, or the fluctuating size of my lockdown arse.
I was reminded of all this in the past week, when a fellow editor wrote to me and said that they kind of admired my blog, and yet they found it disconcerting how much of myself I was willing to give away on that platform. (I’m paraphrasing.) I stopped and thought for a moment, replied with thanks for reading, and tried not to dwell on it. I then discussed it with a couple of editor friends in a Zoom call a couple of days later. It was the first time someone had really called me out on my tendency to overshare from a professional point of view, and I wondered if perhaps I should tone it down a bit. My friends thought not. But still, it’s a valid question.
How much should we share on a professional blog? Does it always have to be about content marketing? Is it important to write everything with a potential client in mind? Must we remain cool and professional at all times? Should we give our colleagues free tips on managing serial commas/workflow/stress levels/style sheets? Is it ever OK to let our humanity leak through, and just write what we feel and to hell with it?
Competition or community?
I do tend to write rather personal ‘professional’ posts. For example, I’ve written about aspects of mental health, including my own, and I’ve touched on politics in the past, and the pandemic. I’ve mentioned personal things that have happened to me, including children, relationships, stress, anxiety. I’ve confessed to mistakes I’ve made at work, and how I’ve fixed them or learned from them. I think I haven’t damaged any professional prospects by doing so, or lost potential clients, but then I realised when I responded to the person who wrote to me that actually, if I had I wouldn’t know.
So why do it? I suppose I favour a confessional style partly because what we do as freelance editors is so isolating. Sometimes I think I’m used to what a lonely job it can be, and then I realise after thirteen years and counting that on some levels, I will never be used to it, and I imagine I’m not the only one. So I write about the psychology of this rather liminal working life we lead, and how to cope, and I share my lows and highs quite openly because it helps me feel less alone, and I know it makes others feel less alone. I know this because they have told me. But why would I want to help other editors, who are really my main competition, to thrive? Why not focus on thriving myself, and let others fend for themselves? Essentially that’s because we only thrive as individuals if we thrive as part of something larger. In the years I’ve been doing this I’ve watched the editorial community change and coalesce, fully embrace online communication, and it’s been largely a positive thing. All the talking, all the openness, all the sharing, doesn’t threaten our ability to do the job – it enhances it.
But can I work with her?
As I said, I’ve sometimes been open about my political leanings. Some would argue that this is a mistake. What happens if a potential client is put off by our clear differences of opinion? Again, I suppose I wouldn’t know about all the people who supported Brexit, say, and might have commissioned me but decided not to because I was a dirty Remainer. Oh well! But seriously, I edit material with which I disagree all the time. It’s just not feasible to agree with anyone on earth about every single thing, is it? That would be really unhealthy. When I come to work I leave my opinions at the door about all sorts of things. For instance, I’m not really a serial comma person, but who cares what I think about that? It’s not about me, it’s about what my client wants, and what the text needs. Not agreeing with everything I edit makes things interesting. It also, arguably, makes me more likely to ask useful questions of the text, to read it with a more critical eye. Which might turn out to be of benefit to everyone.
But is she up to the job?
Some of my past posts have highlighted and even riffed on my weaknesses or flaws, work-related and otherwise, and I suppose it might seem risky to write about these things in places where clients are likely to read about them, or even other editors who are potential sources of referrals. They might find themselves wondering if I can really take the pressure of another proofread! But I hope what my openness about the occasional struggles of freelance life shows is a willingness to learn from past mistakes and adversity, and use what I find out to do better next time. And again, a desire to help others who find themselves in similar situations feel less unusual. That said, in my email exchanges with clients, I am quite careful not to overshare. Quite often I’ll delete off-the-cuff remarks about things being in total chaos because I’m having the ceiling replastered (I’m so stupidly proud of the ceiling it’s in the main image), or being just about to rush off to pick up the children from school and take them to the dentist, because I don’t want to burden them even slightly with my concerns, when the focus of our correspondence is the task they want me to do. They don’t have time to read a personal essay – and I’m being paid to solve a problem for them, not make them feel part of a whole load more.
When is it OK to own up to difficulties?
There are times, though, when you really will need to come clean to clients about problems that are preventing you from doing your job. If a personal crisis is likely to affect your ability to meet a deadline, it’s crucial to be open and honest about this, even if you don’t go into excruciating detail. And it’s also OK to be human. I didn’t understand this in the early days of freelancing, and went to great lengths to push myself really hard with work quite soon after giving birth to both my children, because I didn’t want to be seen to be compromised by my extra role as a parent. I was scared that if I said no to work I wouldn’t be asked again, but this attitude put me under a huge amount of extra pressure at a time when I really didn’t need it.
My humanity is what makes me a good editor
I’ve come to the conclusion that I would find it hard to change the way I blog, and actually I don’t want to. Openness about the challenges of freelancing is part of my personal style – and it’s served me well, and I hope others too. I know some existing clients read my blog, and have found it helpful (especially at the moment, when so many more of us are working at home than before). I have made friends in real life as a result of sharing sometimes quite personal material online, and this has led not only to mutual moral support but also actual work. My (over)sensitivity and flaws – my humanity – are part of what make me a good editor. A machine probably could do some aspects of my job better, but not all clients would want a machine, and I hope that remains the case.
Liz, I like your style very much. A writer often will choose to work with a specific editor because they get the idea that their own working style and personality will mesh well with those of the editor.
Thank you, Katharine. And yes, that’s a very good point!
Smashing post, Liz! Though I think that letting our humanity through *is* ‘content marketing’. Content that doesn’t make someone feel something, that doesn’t evoke some kind of emotion, isn’t doing its job. Maybe someone will feel grateful because there’s a useful tip about commas, in which case fine. But another person might feel grateful because they’ve found an editor with a good-fit mindset (political, emotional etc.). It’s still ‘content’ to me – stuff I want to read, engage with, stuff that makes me react and want to engage, stuff that helps me think things through, contemplate how I’m feeling and what I might learn. ‘Content’ is such a soulless word though!
Thanks, Louise. And good point about content marketing! I suppose I sometimes feel that my waffling on serves less of a purpose than it actually does! But you’ve educated me 🙂
Liz, I found your post through Katharine O’M-K, who directed us EFAers to it (thanks, Katharine!). First, let me say that I landed on your page about 4 times in the past 24 hours, each time eager to read it and each time getting a little further and each time being pulled away before I could finish it–but I kept saving the link so I could come back and fully drink it in. I love your thoughts and the way you describe your way through this challenging question. I have struggled with these concerns at various times, too. For me, it has shown up in two places: my recent website redo and my weekly yoga emails. In my website, I have woven together two aspects of my life (editing and teaching yoga) into one overarching picture of here’s what I do and therefore who I am. I landed on feeling comfortable with losing editing clients who might not resonate with who I am as a yogi because at this point who I am as a yogi is too important to me to deny. I’ve kept my personal sharing within my weekly email to my yoga students, yet even there — a sphere within which we are gathering in community to support each other’s strengthening, facing challenges, and becoming more fully “us” — I have worried that I’m oversharing my weaknesses, my failures, my humanness. I am bolstered by your post. Thank you. And I am inspired by it to bring some of my editing reflections into my weekly yoga emails. I don’t currently communicate with editing clients in any public way, so at the moment this isn’t an issue, but if/when it becomes one, I think I will land just about where you are. Thank you for this post. So useful and supportive!
Thank you very much, Deb – I’m really glad you found the post useful. That sounds like a very interesting combination!
I found your website a few months ago prior to joining freelance editing. I had resigned from my job and without a background of Literature or any reasonable experience in publishing and editing, I followed my passion. Yours was among the first websites I saved to always read to learn a thing or two about editing. The uniqueness about yours is you share personal experiences like dealing with freelancer anxiety, being a mother in your 40s, all which have been an inspiration to me as a young freelance editor in a third-world country.
Thank you so much, Violetta – and good luck with your new career!
Liz, your blog makes me feel less alone as an independent copyeditor. And I’m trying to summon up a smidgen of your courage to become more open and human in my own occasional blog posts (which I don’t enjoy writing when stifling my voice to maintain an image). Thank you for being a role model.
Thank you so much, Ranee.
Hi, Liz, I love your blogs! I think showing your humanity is a very positive thing because people can see that you are a real person with feelings and opinions and not a serial-comma-hunting automaton! Good writing reveals a lot about a writer and I’m sure most clients are looking for someone kind and understanding, as well as professional, who can show them the way through the editing maze. And you come over as that kind, understanding person so well.
So don’t change or hide your inner self – keep on as you are.
And I think your ceiling is something to be immensely proud of – ceilings don’t get nearly enough credit.
Thanks very much, Hazel. 🙂