Free Writing, Free Reading, Free Editing: Where Do We Draw the Line?

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As a writer, I understand very well the concept of writing for free. I do it every day. I write my novels with no expectation of ever being paid for my writing labour. (I hope but I don’t expect.) I write my blog posts and publish them on a freely available blog to educate and entertain people about writing and its offshoots. I sometimes write articles about employment and post them on LinkedIn to support my job title, which lists me as a “Freelance Blogger, Writer and Editor”. I write ads for family members with their own businesses without charging for it. I write blurbs and introductions for other people’s books without receiving a single cent.

I also understand the concept of reading for free – how could I not when I post all that writing mentioned above so people can read it without charge? Plus I read a lot of news websites, particularly The Age online, news.com.au, the New York Times online, the Washington Post online, ABC (Australia) News online, BBC News online, CBC News online and sometimes the Miami Herald online, the LA Times online and the Chicago Tribune online. When I run out of free articles to read each month on the sites that charge for subscriptions, I content myself with browsing headlines and public news websites. (I’d like to be able to afford to subscribe but I’m just a poor writer at the moment.)

But where I draw the line is at free editing. Everybody learns to read and write at school (or at least has the opportunity to) but editing the writing of others is a very specific skill and many, if not most, editors train further in order to do it properly and professionally. Certainly to apply for professional membership of the Institute of Professional Editors here in Australia, you need an eligible qualification. And with the Federal Government trying to restrict fee support for courses less than three years in length and with many educational institutions abolishing their writing and editing courses (including Holmesglen Institute of TAFE where I studied and graduated with an Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing), those qualifications are becoming harder and harder to come by. So why would anyone ask for or expect an editing service to be provided for free?

It was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) News online that made me think about this. I’ve only recently started browsing the website and I noticed that at the end of each of their articles is a hyperlink to “Report Typo”. At the start, I thought it was a great initiative. Errors on news website are an epidemic and here was an effort to rectify the situation. Except the longer I thought about it, the more I realised something – they are just trying to get out of paying for an editor who would make sure the typos aren’t there in the first place. After all, why bother paying someone if they can rely on a free service from conscientious and pedantic readers including someone like me who just happens to be a trained editor? Well, I’ve decided to conscientiously object. If I see a typo or a spelling mistake or a grammatical error or missing punctuation, I won’t report it. If CBC News online wants to hire me, I’m available – at a very reasonable cost.

Editors in journalism are a dying breed – journalists are instead expected to proofread other journalists’ work to save on the cost of employing a professional editor. Check any news website and you’ll see the signs of it – incorrect use of apostrophes, misspellings, notes referring to corrections that had to be made to the original article after it was published because details were wrong, grammatical errors, typos, the list goes on and on. And so do the innumerable examples of it. Editors are still present in traditional publishing – it’s harder and a lot more costly to fix mistakes after printing 100,000 copies of a book – but the standards are still, unfortunately, declining. In fact, it’s now often the case that people who have studied English as a second language are better at using it correctly than we native speakers are.

If that’s the case, then it’s more important than ever to make sure that when you’re ready for an editor, you are prepared to pay for someone who knows what they’re doing. Don’t expect it to be cheap – if you want cheap, then you’ll probably get the accompanying nasty to go with it. It also shouldn’t be ridiculously expensive. A writer I worked with to get his book to publishable standard by editing and partially rewriting it was quoted $20,000 by another editor before he accepted my quote for a third of that. And he could have accepted an even lower quote I provided (less than half of that third) for just a basic edit (spelling, grammar, punctuation) but he knew he was making an investment in ensuring the book was the best version of his story it could be.

So write for free and read for free but pay an editor for services required. That way there’ll be editors around in the future when you need one instead of them all having upped stumps and become health care workers or marketing assistants or teachers where there’s no chance of anyone expecting them to work for free.

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