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  • Writer's pictureSarah Lustig

What not to brief your freelancers

When it comes to briefing freelancers, it’s tempting to think that the important thing is not to miss anything. To make sure you cover as much as possible, so that no task gets left behind.

I think that’s a mistake. It can lead to overloaded briefs that expect too much of the freelancer. I have seen briefs with the same tasks duplicated at every stage of the product’s development, from development editing to final proofs.

Editorial briefs should evolve over the course of the project. And they don’t need to repeat everything that’s gone before.

Task pile on

Early on in a project’s life cycle, it's helpful to make a plan for the specific checks that need to be carried out on the text. A history book may need to be fact checked. An academic text may need its references checked.

Once an editor has this long list of tasks, it’s very tempting to pile them into one brief, for the first stage of editorial work to be undertaken. The logic is that the sooner the tasks are completed, the more time there will be to re-check the work later.

But by giving all of these tasks to one freelancer, the likelihood of something going wrong is actually higher. The more tasks one freelancer has to complete, the less time they have for each one. The risk is that they get spread too thinly.

Different briefs for different stages

There are editorial tasks that are common to every stage of the project. Every editorial brief will likely include a request to check spelling, punctuation and grammar.

However, there are tasks that should be unique to specific stages.

And there's no need to keep these tasks on every brief from that stage onwards. Once a task has been completed, it shouldn’t need to be done again. If it’s a particularly difficult and large task, such as checking references on hundreds of bibliography entries, then it is sensible to have it checked once more. But no more than that.

Editing tasks

There are several tasks that could be assigned to either a development editor or a copyeditor. These include:

  • logging permissions items, such as photos

  • styling or marking up the text for the typesetter (traditionally a copyediting task, but if it’s a substantial job, it could be carried out earlier)

  • checking references

  • fact checking.

The development editor’s role is to take a whole structural view of the text and not to deal with more detailed issues.

Briefs could ask the development editor to check for errors at the sentence level, if the aim of this stage is to tidy up the writing of the content. But they may not need to check for spelling and grammar if there are still higher level issues to resolve.

At the copyediting stage, tasks could involve checking tasks carried out by the development editor – checking that the mark up for the typesetter has been applied correctly – as well as taking on any tasks not assigned to the development editor.

I would recommend deciding on the tasks to be done at the start of the project and then dividing them sensibly between the stages.

Proofreading tasks

Recently, I have read a lot of fiction books that are missing page numbers on the page before a new chapter. In some books it seems to be a deliberate choice, applied consistently. In others, it clearly isn’t.

The role of the proofreader isn’t just to check the text, it is also to check the design and layout of the text. The raw text has been checked before, after all. The design hasn’t.

Even in a book that has a very simple design, the proofreader should check things like the page numbers and any running headers. Either might be:

  • missing

  • misaligned – centred when all others are right aligned

  • out of sequence, mis-titled or mis-numbered – especially if pages have been added or removed during the proof stages.

The proofreader’s time should be focused on checking these and other design issues. It should not be wasted carrying out checks that have already been completed at previous stages.

Essential sections of an editorial brief

An editorial brief is more than just a list of tasks to be carried out. There are other pieces of information that it's vital to include.

If you're still wondering what exactly should go in a brief, why not check out my six essential sections of an editorial brief. You will also find a handy downloadable briefing template in Word format, which you can adapt for your own projects.


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