By John Niland
In a recent conversation, a copyeditor posed the following question: How can I justify a higher rate, when I’m ‘just’ being asked to review a couple of thousand words of text?
I hear a similar question nearly every week, from accountants, lawyers, web designers, video producers, trainers … all professionals who are constantly being asked to ‘just’ do something. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if certain clients use the word ‘just’ to devalue a job, even before a professional ever gets to quote for it.
Nevertheless, I had to issue a gentle challenge to my copyeditor friend. It is apparent to me that she is already doing more to devalue her work than her client is. Can you see how?
You may wish to take a moment to reflect back before reading on. What’s the problem with the way that she is looking at value?
Value is all about context, as the following story illustrates. A father once said to his son, ‘You graduated with honours. As a reward, here is a car I acquired many years ago. It is now several years old. But before I give it to you, take it to the used-car dealership and tell them I want to sell it and see how much they offer you.’ The son went to the used-car place, returned to his father and said, ‘They offered me £1,000 because it looks rather old.’ The father said, ‘Take it to the pawn shop.’ The son went to the pawn shop, returned to his father and said, ‘The pawn shop only offered £100 because it is such an old car.’ The father asked his son to go to a car club and show them the car. The son took the car to the club, returned and told the father, ‘Some people in the club offered £50,000 for it since it’s a Nissan Skyline R34, an iconic car and sought after by many.’
In the usual telling of the story, the father then lectures his son: ‘The right place values you the right way. If you are not valued, do not be angry, it means you are in the wrong place. Those who know your value are those who appreciate you. Never stay in a place where no one sees your value.’
So far, so good. However, there is a more fundamental point to this story: that value is extrinsic (ie based on context), rather than intrinsic (ie based on content). It’s not the condition of the metal that defines the value of the car, any more than the quantity of text defines the value of the copyediting job. It’s not the age of the car, any more than it’s the age of the copyeditor. Nor is it even the mileage of the car, any more than it’s the experience of the copyeditor.
The copyeditor is looking in the wrong place to find her professional value. As professionals, we will never find our full value in the content of our work: it’s the context that makes our work valuable. Needless to say, this distinction often produces howls of protest from purist practitioners. ‘What! No! It’s the quality of my writing / design / coaching etc that’s the key to my value!’ Well … not really. Most clients see quality as fitness to purpose and the value of that purpose lies squarely in the client’s world (context) … not in your content. No matter how good your content is.
Let’s walk through another illustration. Two web designers draft identical webpages: same text, same images, same design, same call-to-actions. One of those pages sits on a busy site, on a ‘crossroads’ often visited because of links from partners and associates. The other page is part of a standalone website, rarely visited, with no links. Which page has the most value? Which page would you spend most money to enhance?
Value depends on context, not content. When I work with my professional clients to fully master this distinction, it’s often quite liberating. They become much more fluent in the issues of their chosen client world; hence more compelling in first meetings. Their time-management improves – often quite dramatically – as they align their hours with the value added by their work. Over the course of a few months, they often learn to double and triple their fees, because they are no longer competing with generalists and instead can point to the true benefits of their unique value-centred approach. Younger professionals learn that they don’t need to first amass years of experience, but can differentiate themselves early on in their career, simply by becoming masters of context, not content.
There are many practical skills to learn here. Let’s look at some opening questions that our copyeditor friend might ask, to focus on the context (rather than the content) of her work. Here are some examples:
- How will the client judge the success of this project?
- Who will be making that assessment? When and how?
- What impact could this project have on sales/engagement/signups, etc?
- What’s their experience/history so far? What happened last time they tried to engage someone like me?
- What other initiatives are going on that we should take into account?
You can quickly craft some of your own questions, to fit your style and market. As a rule of thumb, ask yourself if your questions are about them and their world, or about you and the work you are being asked to do. If it’s the former, you are well on your way to uncovering context, wherein lies the real value of your work.
Of course, there are challenges along the way. There are clients who block professionals from context. There are agents and middlemen who could not care less. There are last-minute clients who constantly suffer from hurry-sickness and just don’t have time for a value conversation. This is when your own self-worth is vital. Whatever happens, you know you don’t belong in a place where people don’t want to see real value. So find better clients and move on.
© John Niland, August 2020
John Niland runs regular webinars for professionals to improve the value of their work. See www.selfworthacademy.com/webinars/ for the current schedule. John’s book ‘The Self-Worth Safari’ is available on Amazon.
The CIEP’s Pricing a Project guide looks at preparing quotations for editorial work.
Photo credits: Plant in coins – Micheile Henderson; Nissan Skyline – Ondrej Trnak, both on Unsplash
Proofread by Emma Easy, Intermediate Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.