(The core of this story is true, though I have changed some details to protect privacy.)
She was a well-known artist and art critic whose articles were published in a monthly journal. In high demand as a speaker and judge, she traveled frequently to art shows, conferences and competitions all over the world. I was a freelance copy editor employed by the journal she wrote for. Since she wasn’t a native English-speaker, the journal sent me her articles to edit for publication. Over time, we developed a good professional relationship.
One day, when I had been editing her work for several years, she sent me an email. “I’ve written a poem,” she wrote. “It’s in English and I think it’s good, but as you know, English is not my native language. It’s on my website. Would you take a look at it and edit it for publication?”
I asked, “Is your poem for the art journal?”
“No,” she answered. “It’s just for me, until I decide where I want to send it.”
She hadn’t mentioned payment. I sent back an email telling her my rate. She didn’t reply.
She emailed me again a few months later.
“I’ve been invited to judge an art show abroad next month,” she wrote, “and I need to send the organizers a bio. Here it is. Please take a look at it and check it for mistakes.”She had included her bio in the body of the email. I could tell at a glance that it needed quite a bit of editing, but I was extremely busy with work and didn’t know when I would be able to get to it, and I told her so.
I didn’t tell her how surprising I found her tone. She had written to me almost as if I were her own employee rather than a freelancer for the journal we both worked for.Later in the week, she sent me another email. “Have you had a chance to look at my bio yet?” she asked.
“I’m still swamped with work,” I answered. “I’m not sure when I’ll have time for it.” My workload was still extremely heavy and my deadlines tighter than usual.
“Just read it over and check it for mistakes,” she wrote back. “I need it in a hurry. It’ll only take you five minutes.”
I reread that line several times to be sure I’d really seen it. Then I took a deep breath.
I wanted to write back: It will probably take me five minutes just to read the text. But all right — let’s assume that in those five minutes, I read it and find all the mistakes. What then? Would you expect me to send the bio back to you with the mistakes pointed out — and nothing more? After all, that’s what you asked me to do: “Just read it over and check it for mistakes.” In five minutes. Right?
Of course not. You would expect me to correct the mistakes and edit the text to accommodate the corrections, and polish it until it was fit for the program of one of the most prestigious art competitions in the world. That is not something that can be tossed off in five minutes. It is serious work. Even for a brief bio, it takes time, and it takes effort.
Yet when you say “It’ll only take you five minutes,” what you’re really saying is that to you, editing is not serious work at all. In fact, what you’re saying — even as you need your bio edited in a hurry, and never mentioned payment or even asked it as a favor — is that to you, editing is worthless.
If you needed to call in a plumber or electrician for a repair and the job turned out to be brief, would you insist on not paying because the work had taken only a few minutes?
But I didn’t write any of that. I took another deep breath, got up and made myself a cup of tea. Then I sat back down at the keyboard and wrote: This is a serious editing job. It requires close reading, concentration and rewriting, and it’s going to take longer than five minutes.
All right then, she wrote back. Forget it. Thanks anyway.
Later on, I realized I could have handled it a bit differently. I could have — should have, actually — told her my editing rate as I had done the previous time, when she asked me to edit her poem. But I hadn’t done that. Chalk it up to being utterly swamped with work. Or maybe I’d hoped that she’d learned the previous time that editing, like any skill, takes time and effort and has value.