The Difference between Doing a Job and Serving a Role

Cristen Iris

*While I am specifically talking about editing and editors in this post, much of this applies to ghostwriting and ghostwriters as well.

When my son and nephew were seven and five years of age, my father asked them to help him do some yard work. He would pay each five dollars in exchange for their labor.

Before starting the project, my father gave the boys a set of instructions:

  • Pick up any trash.
  • Pull the weeds in the rose garden.
  • Move any rocks from the grass or flower beds back into the rock garden.

Off the boys went.

I was watching the work through a window and chatting with my mother when my father reported that the boys were doing an excellent job.

Not long after, the two hot and sweaty little men trudged around the side of the house in search of their boss. Moments later, they proudly ran through the list of what they’d done as they walked their grandfather around the yard to inspect their work.

My father stopped them under the willow tree mid-way between the rose and rock gardens.

“Boys, you didn’t pick up the willow branches.”

My son’s face fell.

“But, Grandpa, you didn’t tell us to do that.”

“Boys, I expect you to think about the reason I asked you to help and to pay attention to what you’re doing. Our goal is to make the yard look good. The yard won’t look good if the branches aren’t picked up.”


Like the boys, many editors are task-oriented. They take on jobs. They systematically accomplish the task of editing.

Like the boys who pulled every weed and picked up every stray rock and scrap of garbage, they do their jobs well.

  • They clean up grammar errors.
  • They clean up punctuation.
  • They remove unnecessary sentences, clauses, and words.

When they are done, the words in the manuscript look good, but how does the “yard” look?

My son’s experience taught him what most adults understand, the labor-dollar exchange.

He also learned something many editors and authors do not consider: A job consists of a set of completed tasks, but the role supports the goal.


The role of an editor is to support you and your purpose: to perform the tasks while paying attention to the bigger picture.

The role of professional editors is to make sure everything about what you’ve written supports your brand and the purpose you had in mind for your book.

Professional editors see themselves as guardians of your investment and active players in your mission.

Many editors can do the job of making your writing look good, but few understand you, your topic or genre, your reader, and your critics enough to make you look good: more to the point, to keep you from looking bad.

Like my father who is goal-oriented, role-oriented editors see the big picture.

  • They understand the topic and identify areas where the author’s point runs counter to the facts available and that can, therefore, undermine the author’s authority.
  • They watch for logical fallacies and nonsequiturs.
  • They keep the readers’ experience at the forefront of their mind.
  • They identify potential liability (copyright infringement, defamation, etc.) and make referrals to professionals who can help their clients mitigate those risks.

If the author-editor relationship is to be strong, we must define expectations, the value associated with meeting those expectations, and the price associated with the value provided.


When my father hired the boys to do the work, he hired them to perform a role. The value of the services each provided was worth parting with ten dollars.

When the boys committed to pulling weeds, picking up trash, and relocating rocks, they thought they were being hired to do a job for which they would be paid $5.00 each.

The cost of editing varies by type but generally falls within a range that caps at about $80.00/hour. After all, there are only so many rules and styles to apply, so there is a limit to value a job-oriented editor can provide.

However, a professional who operates in the role of an editor may charge much more just like some attorneys and physicians command higher fees.

Why? They have access to the same knowledge and tools as their lower-paid colleagues. Why are clients willing to pay more for their services?

The answer is simple: They provide more value per hour than their peers. They perceive more, identify more, and help clients avoid more exposure than other professionals in their respective fields.

What an editor charges and what you can expect to pay depend on your needs and goals.

When my father hired the boys, he just wanted a little help with regular yard maintenance and to provide an experience that might serve the boys as they matured.

A few years later, when my parents put their house on the real estate market, my father opted for more experienced and, therefore, more expensive help.

The goal was the same: Make the yard look good. But the risk was higher when the house was going up for sale. What looks good to family members and neighbors doesn’t necessarily impress home buyers.

Before hiring an editor, wise authors define “good” and consider only those service providers who are up to the challenge.


  • Understand your brand and goals.
  • Articulate your values and needs.
  • Assess the risks associated with publishing a book: reputational, financial, career mobility, etc.
  • Determine a budget based on your goals and risk tolerance.
  • Seek editors with the education, perspectives, experiences, and skills who have the potential to match the experience and outcome you want.

Editors must also be prudent.


  • Understand your business model and brand by identifying your niche based on your expertise.
  • Articulate your values and needs.
  • Assess the risks associated with working on a project: reputational, financial, career mobility, etc.
  • Determine your rate based on the value you can provide.
  • Seek clients who understand your services and respect your role.

The best editors are those who think and perform beyond the job of editor, and the best author-editor relationships are those in which each party understands and respects the other and works to accomplish the goal: to serve the reader.


Photo attribution: Pixaby, CO0

Cristen Iris

WriteNow, LLC