Tagged: self-publishing

Should You Take The Job?


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
  • copyediting
  • proofreading

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.

When Does A Writer Need An Editor?


To round out this short series of posts on editing, I want to add something on the occasions when writers might think about forking out on the services of an editor for either developmental or structural editing, copyediting or line editing, or proofreading. I sometimes, for example, come across writers who are asking for copyediting, but after closer discussion that might seem premature, as any copyediting might be carried out on a draft that could still gain from revision. Copyediting is basically a tidy-up done to an otherwise final and agreed manuscript.

As I need to maintain the gardening analogy: when do you need the help of a landscaper, a tree surgeon, someone to mow the lawn? (In this instance, let’s say you’re too close to the grass to spot the daisies. Okay, bad analogy, but you know what I mean.)

* If you are preparing to submit a manuscript to an agent or a publisher with a view to getting published:
It should not be necessary at this stage to hire a copyeditor or a proofreader. If you know your spelling and punctuation are really dreadful, you might want to get a beady-eyed friend to pass an eye over the text to help your work look more professional. But an agent or editor is at this stage more likely to be looking for a compelling story told by an engaging voice, rather than prose that’s had every single error removed (along with most of its life). Lots of sloppy errors will, however, simply make you look … sloppy. But it’s hoped that you don’t need a professional copyedit to avoid looking sloppy.

Writers who are preparing to submit might gain more from a manuscript critique from, e.g., a book doctor or an editor. This could address matters of developmental and/or structural editing, depending on the stage you’re at in your drafting: be clear what you’re looking for. You might in fact already have this sort of input from beta readers, and feel confident enough to submit anyway – a critique is hardly a requirement. Having been read by another good reader in whatever form is a good idea, though. Sometimes even experienced and agented authors solicit the services of an independent opinion, e.g., for a fresh project that might be something of a departure.

Another alternative would be to attend a writers’ conference or similar event where writers can share a sample of writing or pitch a story idea with an agent, editor, or book doctor (as a book doctor, I meet writers in this capacity when I take part in the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York). Only a snapshot of your writing might be read, along with a synopsis, but this can give a good indication of the strengths and weaknesses of a project, in the manner of a diagnosis of its strengths as well as areas for improvement. Plus feedback will be discussed with you directly, and little beats a face-to-face discussion, however brief it might be.

If you feel your style needs some serious help, maybe you are not quite ready to submit yet? Agents and editors can sometimes go for strong ideas and help you out editorially, especially with nonfiction, but help with your prose is something of a long shot and they’d have to be pretty committed to your concept in order to devote this much time to your writing. A freelance editor could help fix obvious mistakes and even tighten some of your baggy prose, but this does beg the question about the work writers need to be able to do for themselves. For me, style is vital to the way in which individual writers convey their personalities in writing, whatever genre they’re working in, and there are no quick or easy editorial fixes for that sort of thing.

So maybe there’s further work to be done in developing your own voice? And note that I don’t talk about finding your voice, as I don’t believe in that – you already have a voice, and it’s more a matter of using it confidently and working out how to put it into your creative writing. It might, for example, be worth taking some time to read widely in your genre (and others), figuring out how a particular style is achieved by another writer. You might also want to conduct a few experiments in voice and style, e.g., I Remember is a great exercise for this. And you could try your hand at some short stories (which of course have a value all of their own – a short story is not just trainer wheels for writing a novel). You might even want to do some broader studies in creative writing.

Also, though, matters such as style and voice are often quite subjective. You might just have to test your manuscript and wait for some reactions. At a certain point, you simply submit – try out your manuscript on the world. (Another post on that later.) You can always do further work, depending on any feedback you get.

* If you are preparing to deliver a contracted manuscript to your agent and/or editor:
Some contracted authors do have longstanding relationships with independent editors and might get a critique or some help with drafting or even a bit of a line edit. But on the whole editorial work is usually done in relationship with the publisher (and sometimes the agent too).

Any submitted project is likely to go through further editing and revising: maybe some developmental or structural editing with agent and/or commissioning editor, and definitely rounds of copyediting and proofreading with your publisher’s editorial department. Occasionally authors have preferred freelance copyeditors, and even though they have moved publishers they continue to work with the same copyeditor for all their books.

At the time of delivering your manuscript, it is worth asking how your book will be handled – keep channels of communication clear and open, and know what to expect and when. I always think it is a good idea for authors to see a copy of the copyedited manuscript before it is typeset (and I am surprised at how often this seems not to be the case).

Note: authors should not be charged for editorial (or other) work done by a publisher, unless you are working with a vanity press, which is basically self-publishing (see below).

Sometimes an author will be delivering a draft of a manuscript to an agent who hopes to sell it to a publisher. An agent should not require payment for reading a manuscript or other editorial work; an agent earns a living by taking a percentage cut from any deals made on the author’s behalf. Scams have been known; though in practice such dealings are rare, they can make writers unduly wary. In fact, agents do sometimes recommend the use of an independent editor for a critique or a fresh view or some other editorial input, and this can be sincere and helpful for the writer. As in all business relationships, this is a matter of trust.

It can be reassuring and informative for writers at this stage of their careers to join professional or genre organisations that can give advice on matters such as working with agents and editors. Sometimes a bit of networking or lurking on Twitter or other social media can be instructive (though I recommend that discussions about personal transactions are conducted privately rather than in more public forums). And you’ll also find many similar resources on writers’ blogs and websites.

* If you are self-publishing:
If you are self-publishing, do make sure you have at some point shared your writing with other readers before charging money to book-buyers or giving it away for free. Beta readers or professional editors see errors and incongruities that you miss in your own text. They will help you to improve your own work and avoid any embarrassment.

If you are publishing in print formats, certainly make sure your book is copyedited as well as proofread; typos and spelling errors make your book look amateur. Before that, you might also want to have done some sort of structural editing, or have taken the book through revisions after getting feedback from beta readers. It will undoubtedly be a good idea to make sure that at least the proofreading is done on hard copy. The human eye catches different things on a printed page.

If you are publishing in both print and ebook formats, you should also aim for a structural edit, a copyedit, and a proofread. In practice, the work for both editions can usually be combined.

If you are publishing in ebook format only, again aim for structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Though the work is being published in a digital format, it is still worth introducing a hard-copy read of a print-out for either the copyedit or the proofread. It might also be worth having a final proofread on files converted for reading in their ultimate format on an ebook reader or tablet.

When briefing an editor, be clear about whether you want a light or a heavier copyedit – you might discuss this with the editor and even ask to see a sample of editing (which might need to be paid for) to be sure that any work done is to your liking. You might also ask a proofreader to look out for specific things you might feel need double-checking, e.g., a change to a variant in spelling that you made after the copyedit was done.

Editing and proofreading are often offered by many of the self-publishing operations that also provide design, formatting, printing, and distribution services. It’s worth inquiring about who’ll actually do the work, and again asking for samples. In some ways, though, it can make sense to arrange your own copyediting and proofreading – it will give you more control over the outcome. It might be a little more expensive to use an experienced editor, but it can make a real difference to the work that’s done.

Whatever else you do (even more important than copyediting – and it pains me to say!): hire a good designer to create a striking cover image that will look good on screen as well as on a print copy (print copies need to be sold online too).

Of course, you don’t have to do any of the above. As I often stress, if you want to be published, you don’t have to write a good book as much as a book that other readers want to read, and we know there’s no accounting for taste, right?!

* Who to hire?
A personal recommendation is ideal – ask around, particularly of writers working in your field. It’s a good idea to know the editor’s track record: books they’ve edited or proofread, and publishers or writers they have worked for (sometimes discretion is required).

Rates vary significantly. I tend to quote on a job basis after seeing a sample of work, for example, while other editors set a page rate or an hourly rate. Don’t be afraid to say that you have a certain budget to work within. Don’t be surprised if an editor turns down a job, but too sometimes an editor can read opening chapters and a synopsis instead of a whole manuscript: this might help steer you in the right direction, whether this might be further work on your book, or some studies in creative writing.

I don’t give direct recommendations for editors on this site, though I do have various experienced associates whose services I can suggest, depending on the sort of book that needs help.

How To Avoid The Self-Published Look

I just read a very useful article with lots of practical tips: ‘How To Avoid The Self-Published Look’.

To that I add:

* If you are printing a book the traditional way, choose good, quality paper. Don’t go for bright, whiter-than-white photocopier paper, else your book will look as if it’s just come off a photocopier. Ask for paper samples, or even show your printer or paper supplier the sort of paper you like from a book whose production you admire. Better paper might be more expensive, but it will look more professional, for sure; maybe you’ll just have to charge a little more for it, or print a few less? But it’s probably better than having lots of brighter-than-white copies lurking unsold in boxes in your garage. Make your book something that people want to possess.

* A good cover. A very good cover. Outsource it, if need be. Make your book beautiful, desirable. (Some publishers could pay heed to that too. Make your book look something more than a full-page advertisement in a magazine sold at the checkout in the supermarket.)

* Understand the differences between structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading, and introduce these as separate editorial stages in your production process.

* At some point, make sure that other sets of eyes read the book. You’ll never catch everything yourself.

And oops, I see that I go against the grain on this site in at times ‘improperly’ capitalising the first letter of every word in titles, including articles, conjunctions, and shorter prepositions. I follow that style in print, but for some reason I’ve found myself using initial caps online; it just looks tidier? Not least given that in email and other online contexts we don’t always italicise titles. Well, that’s my logic/excuse. Someday, maybe I’ll go all OCD on this site and change that, perhaps. Or maybe not. Ow, one of those editor dilemmas to keep us awake at night.

Round-up, 25 October 2012: Murderous Self-Publishers, DRM, Supply and Demand, Handwriting, Serials

A lot of noise this week (quite rightly in my view) on how Amazon controls your Kindle content, and can shut it down at its own whim, it seems. More on this another time, perhaps, but here is the original blog that kicked up the fuss, and some other links with perhaps some of the most useful commentary:

Outlawed By Amazon (original blog)

Amazon Inspires Wave of Anti-DRM Sentiment Following Customer Kindle Shutdown (links from Booktrade.info)

I increasingly favour the DRM-free approach to publishing, at least for many aspects of content. What you give away comes back to you some way or other, I feel (but then I am a generous kinda guy, I hope). Here is an article from Publishing Perspectives describing a succesful DRM-free venture: Top SF Authors Raise $1m With Pick-Your-Price, DRM-Free E-Titles. May their success ever increase (and I love how its the genre writers who’re pioneering this).

From IndieReader, some provocative views on whether self-publishing is killing the publishing industry (basically, self-publishers need to get a bit more professional):

If indie authors are going to make their mark, they’ll need to band together, put out reputable works, and stop looking for get-sales-quick gimmicks.

And from the Globe and Mail, a pertinent discussion on the creative writing industry and whether we’re creating more writers than can or will be read, with Canadian examples: Writers: graduating by the bushel, but can they find readers? Given the laws of supply and demand, I’m inclined to think that Mexican critic Gabriel Zaid is right when he (only half?) jokes that perhaps writers need to slip a five-dollar bill into their books in order to pay their readers …

And from earlier in the week a lovely blog on the lost art of letter-writing in the Guardian. Do follow some of the links therein, and also back to the extract from Philip Hensher’s book on handwriting: Why Handwriting Matters.

And finally: I am a big fan of the idea of serial fiction, and I am enjoying the reports on Naomi Alderman and Margaret Atwood’s serialised novel The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home. I can see (see above too) I am going to have to look into Wattpad some more.