Today I led a session called Should You Take The Job? at a professional development day on Editing For Fiction organised by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders here in London.
Freelancers usually know where their strengths lie, and what their skills and preferences are, so they can make sure any job is a good fit – most of us are suited to some editorial tasks more than others. At the start, I described those main tasks in editing fiction as:
- developmental editing
- structural editing
- line editing
In practice, of course, various of these functions are merged as editorial stages – line editing can often be done with copyediting, for example. (I’ve blogged about this and various other matters in more detail in another post: Definitions in Editing: Key Terms.)
When working with less experienced writers or self-publishers, it can help to explain these terms to clarify what you can do, and what the book might need. And a clear brief can help when working for a publisher too. I am sure every freelance editor can think of a ‘light edit’ that needed more work than was bargained for.
I emphasised the principle of transparency in communication. Email can be useful, particularly for straightforward copyedits, but when working on developmental edits I often find that meeting clients or speaking to them on the phone or Skype at some point really helps us to clarify the intention and expectation of the writer (and/or publisher).
It’s possible for any editorial job to go on and on, of course – there is always room for improvement or experiment. We have to keep check on how we spend our time – and our clients’ money. So we often need to be clear about a budget too. Maybe the principle of transparency needs to be joined with the principle of sufficiency: what is enough to make the book work? (The idea of sufficiency is something I sometimes raise in another context, when working on a manuscript that can feel overwritten.)
Someone asked a good question about working with self-publishing clients who have a limited budget: thinking realistically, should they (we) focus on structural editing, or copyediting? On reflection, it occurs to me now that the above list of editorial functions moves from the idea of improving the writing (let’s say: making it more interesting) through to the idea of correcting the writing (making sure it abides by conventions of practice and usage). And though we all probably like the idea of making a book more interesting, I’m inclined to think an editor’s first duty is to make sure there are no howlers of spelling and grammar and punctuation. Deciding upon the merits of a book can be subjective; some books that I feel are overwritten are certainly enjoyed by other readers. But typos are typos, and are often read as the sign of a sloppy mind: they should be fixed. So perhaps this too is something to ask the author (tactfully!) – are you more interested in being improved, or in being corrected? (A good question, perhaps, to ask of the many imitators of Fifty Shades of Grey, hahaha.)
I do think it’s more important to prioritise structural editing on other occasions, e.g., when unpublished writers ask to get their manuscripts copyedited to increase their chances of getting taken on by an agent or publisher. Any book that is acquired should be copyedited by its publisher, so I often stress to such writers that copyediting might seem premature, and that an editorial report might be more valuable. This might cover matters of developmental or structural editing, and perhaps use a few examples of edits on the text to model ways to strengthen the voice in writing too, assuming that style as well as structure can be improved through future drafts (and that the writer is actually interested in doing future drafts). The occasional slip of the keyboard can be easily fixed, after all, and will surely not discourage a good agent or editor as much as a manuscript that lacks suspense or engaging characters or lively prose.
I discuss some of this in more detail here: When Does A Writer Need An Editor?
I also suggested that editors might gain from studying creative writing, either taking a course, or simply reading useful books in the field. Many of us became editors instinctively, learning from collating proofs and proofreading before diving into manuscripts ourselves, fixing clunky sentences or awkward transitions simply because they, um, sound clunky or awkward. But sometimes we need ways to describe matters more coherently, and we can also gain from a little guidance in what to look for. I don’t think I used the word ‘transition’ about writing until I was myself later studying for my MFA, for example, and it’s such an efficient way to describe features in writing that commonly present editorial flaws.
I have a post on creating your own programme of studies in creative writing here: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing, and I am also teaching an afternoon-long workshop on this topic at this year’s Festival of Writing in York. I recommend various resources on this site, and particularly recommend the following books on creative writing for editors:
- Alice LaPlante, The Making Of A Story
- Stephen King, On Writing
- Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer
- Constance Hale, Sin And Syntax (fantastic for grammar and usage)
- Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
- Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel
- Susan Bell, The Artful Edit
- Ursula Le Guin, Steering The Craft
- Harry Bingham, How To Write
- Steven Pinker, The Sense Of Style
- and good books on genre can be invaluable (and not just for specific genres, but for their practical grounding in craft as well as commerce), e.g., Emma Darwin’s Get Started In Writing Historical Fiction
And though I am sure all editors will have a copy of Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing on the bookshelves beside their desks, I also recommend the following American works on editing for their practical advice and detailed examples:
- Carol Fisher Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor
- Scott Norton, Developmental Editing (mostly nonfiction, but super insights on working with writers)
- Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook
- Mary Norris, Between You And Me: Confessions Of A Comma Queen
Copy-editing, copy editor, copyeditor: we can’t even agree among ourselves, can we?!
Thank you to Jane Moody and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders for asking me along.