Ask Aunt Elizabeth: Help! I edited the wrong version of my client’s file!

By Elizabeth d’Anjou

Looking for advice on editing the editing life? Whether you’re a beginner looking for tips on starting out or an old hand looking for another perspective, veteran editor Aunt Elizabeth is ready to address your queries. Submit them to [email protected]—you may find the answers you are looking for in next month’s column.

(1) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

Recently a client sent me a book foreword he wanted edited. A few hours later, he emailed me asking if he could send me an updated version. I received the second draft on Sunday and he wanted the edit by Tuesday because he needed to get it to his publisher on Wednesday. Tuesday afternoon I returned the edited foreword to him.

But on Wednesday morning, 6:30 AM, when I checked my email, there he was, telling me that I had edited the wrong version. He had painstakingly transferred my edits into his second version so that he could meet his deadline. Gasp! Not a nice wake-up call! I told him I wouldn’t charge him; he replied saying he had to pay me; I replied saying not charging him was the only way I could acknowledge my mistake. In the end, we agreed I would charge him for three of the five hours I spent editing. Did I do the right thing?


Buggin’ Out

Dear Buggin’,

Holy version control, Batman! File management SNAFUs like this are enough to make one nostalgic for the paper-edit days when the biggest worries about a manuscript were coffee spills and delayed couriers.

I’m so sorry to hear about this sad incident. However, I think that you and the author both behaved reasonably.

Working on the wrong version was your fault. The ability to manage files appropriately is a skill a client should reasonably expect from a professional editor; indeed, Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards specifically mentions, as part of standard A11, “manage files and documents methodically” and “take steps to ensure that all parties are using the current version of a document.”

Your mistake caused your client significant inconvenience, so it is appropriate that you acknowledged your error and offered to make amends. Yet refusing all payment seems unnecessarily drastic—it suggests your client is no better off than if you had not done the work at all. That doesn’t remotely seem to be the case here. On the contrary, it sounds like the client was pleased with the work you did.

And while the error was your responsibility, it’s also worth noting some mitigating circumstances. First, the author sent you a revised draft after your period of work had technically begun. It sounds like you hadn’t started working yet when that happened, and you did okay the sending of the new draft, but it was the author’s responsibility to send you the right manuscript, and he complicated that aspect of the job. He was right, therefore, to show understanding and sympathy for your error. Second, the timelines were extremely tight, with the result that there was no opportunity for you to repair the problem—you presumably would have been willing to transfer the edits to the new version yourself for free if given a chance, and the author probably knew that.

So I think agreeing on partial payment was a good outcome for all. You’ve acknowledged your goof and essentially paid the author for the time he spent fixing it, but you haven’t let your work be devalued.

Editing that is imperfect is not the same as editing that is worthless! We are all human, and we all make mistakes: you, your author, your author’s client or publisher, and, yes, even Aunt Elizabeth. You can show your professionalism not by never making a mistake but by acting appropriately when you do make one: acknowledge the error, apologize, make it right as best you can—and learn from the experience.

So by all means, spend your three hours’ income without guilt. But if you haven’t already, take steps to improve your file management procedures now.  There is no one perfect system for naming and managing files; develop some habits that make sense to you and that you’ll find easy to apply automatically. I do have one crucial tip, however: whatever your system, never put the word “final” into a file name. Doing so will pretty much guarantee that there will be at least one more version, and chances are you’ll soon be squinting at your screen at 3:00 AM trying to remember whether you should be submitting “FinalFinalFinal” or “Really_Final_This_Time” or “FINAL FOR SUBMISSION USE THIS.”

And if you get the chance, buy that client a drink.

(2) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

I’ve just started freelancing and want to organize my client list well. Can you recommend a way to do this digitally? I want to include information on past jobs and track most recent communication as well as the typical information of name, company, email address, etc.


Organizing in Owen Sound

Dear OOS,

My own system for keeping track of clients is pretty low tech. I keep a digital folder for each client on my hard drive and stash in it all docs that relate to work with that client (deleting any old manuscripts that the client requires me to destroy for security purposes). Most of my client communication is by email, so if I want to find my most recent communications, or any content in fact, I just search in old emails. This approach works well for me; I keep emails on my hard drive rather than in the cloud, I have a good memory for people, my business is well established, most of my work is for repeat customers, and most of my jobs are at least several weeks long, so I’m not juggling dozens of clients at a time. It would take me more time to set up a digital client list than it would save me.

Lucky for you, however, I have a lot of friends and colleagues, some of whom have very different work situations. I suggest we make this a joint research project—I’ll ask around, and you do the same. We’ll both report back here (either in a post next month or sooner in the comments) with any recommendations we find.

This project will be great practice for you as a new freelancer in establishing and using your network. You can ask everyone you meet if they have advice about client-management software for freelancers—a good way to start a conversation at an Editors Canada event or on social media. Networking, of course, is the key to a thriving freelance business (not to mention to saving your freelance butt in many a sticky situation).

One thing you’ll probably want to think about a bit is what, if anything, you would like this system to manage beyond a client list. A lot of freelance editors I know really appreciate time- and task-tracking software, for example. Me, I’m in the market for a good, simple tool for invoicing and income tracking (I recently fired my bookkeeper, who did everything in Excel; I hate using Excel myself, so it’s time for a new approach!). Someone sent me this Lifehack listicle recently, and I just signed up for a trial of Thrive Solo, which looks like it might work for my purposes—and possibly yours, too. I’ll report back next month on how it goes!

With the spread of the “gig economy,” the world of online freelancer tools seems to be growing. That means more options and lower costs, so if you don’t like what you first end up with, keep your eyes open and you’ll probably be able to do better!

Elizabeth d’Anjou is a third-generation editor with over 20 years of experience. A past chair of Editors Toronto, she has worked freelance, in-house, and in-between; teaches both grammar and copy editing online courses for Ryerson; and is a sought-after presenter on all subjects editorial. She is also a rather competent tomato gardener and tweets as @ElizdAnjou.

This article was copy edited by Mariah Ramsawakh.

Leave a reply!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.