For many editorial freelancers, publisher clients provide a steady stream of repeat work. This makes them an attractive proposition for those wishing to expand their client portfolio. Publishing houses form the backbone of my proofreading business and I’ve worked for them in both an in-house and a freelance capacity for over 20 years.
So how do you get publishers’ attention if you want to proofread or copy-edit for them on a freelance basis? There are several methods but my preference is the “cold” cover letter. The term “cold” is used because the client is not expecting you to contact them. I like to include a brief CV with my cover letter.
Why go direct?
I could wait in the hope that publishers find my entries in a couple of core UK freelance directories. Perhaps they might land on my website. Or maybe they might see my Twitter profile and think I’m interesting. Actually, I do promote my business using all of these tools, but I don’t rely on them to get the attention of publisher clients. Why? Because in-house production staff are busy – ridiculously busy. They’re so busy it makes your head swim.
Walking into the production department of the London office of SAGE Publications for the 13 years I worked there was always an experience. Seeing first-hand the inner workings of this particular department taught me more about this element of book publishing than any course or training manual ever will. The first thing to mention is that it was filled with extraordinary people – people who always had incredible patience, despite the enormous piles of paper on their desks and the abundance of post-it-note deadlines marked “yesterday”. The second thing to mention is that the furrowed-brow count was higher there than anywhere else in the building.
It’s no surprise when you think about it. The marketing managers were balancing promotion campaigns with commissioning editors’ launch plans. The commissioning editors were balancing author and professional society relationships with acquisition targets. The customer service department staff were balancing sales with call-waiting times. The finance people were attempting to pay all the bills while keeping us in the black. But the production editors had it coming at them from all angles. Authors, commissioning editors, marketing managers, typesetters, printers, copy-editors, proofreaders, accountants – we all wanted a piece of them.
This taught me two things:
1) In-house production editors don't necessarily have time to scout around the internet to find little old me. If I sit around waiting for them, I'll probably miss my chance – when they do find the time to search for new freelancers, they'll be too busy replying to the cold letters sent by my colleagues.
2) Once they do know about me, they need me to hit the ground running. After all, they’re running, too, albeit on the spot and doing quite a complicated juggling trick at the same time. As a proofreader, I’m a small cog in a large production machine that never stops.
Something to keep on file
"What a lot we lost when we stopped writing letters. You can’t reread a phone call" – I love this quote from Liz Carpenter (quoted in Wagner, Cold Letters). It sums up another benefit of sending a cold cover letter: the prospective client has something they can keep on file even if they don't have use for your services right now. Then, if those busy desk editors do embark on a recruitment drive, your details are already in their "to consider" pile.
What to highlight when you first make contact
In view of this, to get their attention you need to make is as easy as possible for them NOT to chuck your CV in the bin. Clearly spell out the key points that show you’re worth replying to. They get hundreds of enquiry letters every year, so focus on your strengths. Publishers like the following:
Getting work with publishers, as with any sector of our market, is challenging as there’s a huge amount of competition. Be strategic about who you contact: focus on those publishers for whom your skills match their products. And be committed – to build up a solid list of publisher clients, do your research to make sure you’ve covered the whole field of presses relevant to your skill base.
(My sincere thanks to the in-house editors who took time out of their busy schedules to review this article.)
Related articles: To read Kate Rosengarten's advice on getting noticed by business clients, click here; for Anna Sharman's method of accessing pre-submission journal authors, click here. Gill E Wagner has written a super article entitled Cold-Letters: Using snail-mail to open doors that's also worth reading.
My colleague Alison Lees of AM Lees | Editorial services works in the STM field and often finds herself replacing hyphens with minus signs. She's created the appropriate custom stamp and kindly agreed to share it with us. It is available in red, blue and black.
It's always a pleasure to share useful resource centres hosted by editorial colleagues. Writer, editor, ghostwriter, and personal historian Pat McNees curates Writers and Editors, a website dedicated to "connecting writers and editors with each other, resources, markets, and audiences".
Says Pat, "As a writer-editor I am often asked for advice about how to make a living as a writer or editor (or both) and how to find a good writer, editor, or proofreader. I launched this website to provide frank information both for people who want to know the basics and for those who want to dig deeper in a particular field. Those looking for a writer or editor might start with the job banks or specialized organizations for writers and editors (which often have directories or job banks)."
The Writers and Editors Blog: recent posts consider indexing, pricing freelance work, libraries and ebooks, and the future of publishing.
The Weekly Review offers links to useful editing, proofreading, freelancing and publishing news articles published online in the past seven days.
If you're a regular user of Microsoft Word, but you've not had a chance to delve into any tips and tricks, you might very well like Resources for Word Users on the blog of my colleague Liz Broomfield, founder of LibroEditing.
Liz's series provides detailed but easy-to-understand instructions on how to get the best out of Word using functions such as auto-correct, styles, case toggling, tabs and much more. Highly recommended.
The following publishers, professional societies, and journals publish online lists of independent language editing services for academics needing pre-submission editorial help. If you’re a provider of ESL editing services you could investigate the possibility of getting your business included on some of these lists.
Some publishers only list agencies (to prevent the lists becoming too long). The alternative in that case is to contact those agency providers already listed and enquire as to whether your skills would enable you to join their teams. Examples include Charlesworth, Edanz, Editage and American Journal Editors. You’ll see these and other organizations cropping up time and again in the online listings that I’ve linked to below.
Take a look at Anna Sharman’s excellent guest article here on the Parlour entitled Working for Academic Editing Agencies for a more in-depth look at this area of editing. Anna has first-hand experience of this market so if you're seriously considering this type of work then her overview is a must-read.
This list no doubt has some holes but it should provide some initial points of contact to help you build your editorial business portfolio, particularly if you have scientific higher-level qualifications and expertise.
(Thanks to Anna Sharman, Carlotta Shearson and Colin Woodham for their contributions.)
If you know of other similar online listings and wish to share them, please contact me and I’ll add them to this resource.
The Weekly Review offers links to useful editing, proofreading, freelancing and publishing news articles published online in the past seven days.
A note from Louise: I've been spoiled rotten recently – two guest articles in seven days! This time my wonderful editing colleague and fellow blogger Anna Sharman has written a thoroughly useful article on working with academic agencies. For those of you looking for other avenues to explore in a bid to build up your work flows and client portfolios, especially if you have a scientific background, this is a must-read. Enjoy!
And don't forget to visit Anna's journals and biomedical publishing blog, sharmanedit, if you want to learn more about journal publishing and editing.
Over to Anna ...
I am a copyeditor and proofreader specializing in biomedical journal articles. As well as working for journals on articles that have been accepted, I also work with scientists to get their articles ready for submission to journals. Some of this work comes through editing agencies.
I got into this field through doing a PhD and postdoctoral research in developmental/evolutionary biology and then working as an in-house editor on three biology journals. I went freelance in 2005.
What are editing agencies?
Academic editing agencies act as a bridge between freelance editors and authors. Authors who want to have a paper edited can find it hard to know which of the many editors out there are any good. For freelance editors, working directly for authors can be hard because each author will only have a small number of papers a year. So agencies have sprung up to help authors find editors and vice versa.
Generally, these agencies offer editing of the language. Some also offer developmental editing: a report on the content of the manuscript, with suggestions on any obvious gaps in the logic or areas that are unclear.
Academic editing agencies have probably been around for a long time, but I think they have increased in number in recent years. They have arisen in response to pressure from journals for well written manuscripts. Journals are generally happy to consider manuscripts that have minor errors or that don't read as if they were written by a native English speaker. However, if a manuscript is so badly written that peer reviewers cannot work out what experiments are being described, the journal cannot reasonably send it for peer review without further work.
In addition, journals are always trying to cut costs, and freelance editors (unfortunately) are seen as expensive. Manuscripts that do get through peer review generally still need copyediting, to ensure that they make sense, use consistent terminology and symbols and are in good English. To cut down on copyediting costs, some publishers are asking authors to get their articles edited at their own expense.
The expansion of editing agencies is also the result of an enormous expansion of science in China and other Asian countries. Although many non-native-speaking researchers ask native-English-speaking colleagues to check their work, in most Asian institutes there are not enough native speakers to check all the papers being produced. In addition, Chinese academics are often rewarded financially for publications in English-language journals, which means that it can make sense to pay for editing to make this more likely.
Some publishers have now entered into partnerships with editing agencies. This means that if a manuscript is rejected because of language problems, or if revision is invited after peer review but language problems have been mentioned by the reviewers, the journal suggests that the authors get their manuscript checked by a native speaker, and sometimes recommends a particular editing agency. Sometimes authors from that journal publisher receive a discount on the agency's fees. Other publishers list a selection of agencies, without recommending one in particular, in their instructions for authors (see, for example, this list from SAGE UK, this list from Public Library of Science and this list from Wiley). And some publishers have set up their own editing services (such as Elsevier and Nature Publishing Group).
What's distinctive about working for editing agencies?
I enjoy working for editing agencies for several reasons. In general, this kind of work has a lot of the advantages of working directly for authors but without many of the disadvantages.
I prefer working on pre-submission research papers because I am seeing the research soon after it happens, rather than months or years later. I like helping people get their science published despite language barriers, contributing in a small way to levelling the playing field caused by the predominance of English in academic publishing.
I also enjoy the challenge of working on a piece of writing at an early stage, because it means I can concentrate more on the meaning and less on fine points of formatting. When copyediting for journals, I spend a large proportion of my time applying house style, adjusting spacing, fonts, capitalization and other such minor style points. With pre-submission editing, I can ignore most of that and concentrate on working out what the author is trying to say and how to make the meaning clearer. Developmental editing gets even closer to the science and further from the stylistic details.
Like working for publishers, however, working for an agency has the advantage that if the author disagrees with you on any change, the agency can arbitrate. And, as I mentioned above, agencies can channel a steady stream of papers your way, from many authors, saving the time and effort needed for marketing your services to a lot of different universities and institutes.
When you work for researchers, whether directly or through an agency, bear in mind that they often work weekends and through holidays, and that weekends and holidays differ between countries. The agencies I work for all give deadlines in calendar days not working days, and if I want to have weekends off I have to specify this. Generally you can specify which days of the week you normally work and inform them when you will be on holiday, and they send work only when you are available. You have to remember to tell the agency about public holidays in your country – they won't necessarily know about them automatically.
What are clients looking for?
Academic agencies generally want editors who have experience in academia in the right field, which generally means a PhD and some published research. Some of them also want qualifications, training and/or experience in editing, though others do not – some even recruit active scientists who want to earn a little on the side. The agencies I work for, however, want experienced editors.
There is nearly always an editing test, at least for big agencies, to check whether you can cope with the kind of editing required. This will test not only what changes you make but also how you word your queries to the author (of which there will be a lot).
How to access the field
If you search online you will find lots of academic editing agencies, and many of them are looking out for qualified editors with PhDs all the time. I have heard, however, that some of them pay pretty badly, and of course it is always important to check out a potential client with whom you hope to have an ongoing working relationship. So how do you find reliable ones to start working for?
The best way is to go via the publishers, particularly any publishers you are already working for. Check in their online instructions to authors for agencies that they recommend. Then send a speculative email to an agency, giving a brief summary of your qualifications and experience. The chances are that you will be given an editing test (which will probably be unpaid). Then, if you are accepted as one of their editors, there may be a period of training when your editing will be checked carefully and the rate of pay may be lower. If you fail the test, consider any feedback carefully but don't worry too much about not being good enough. It could be that your style of editing simply doesn't fit what the agency is looking for. Try another and don't give up unless you have taken several tests. Alternatively, this kind of editing might not be for you (see below).
What’s the pay like?
Agencies generally pay by number of words rather than by the hour. This means that it is difficult to work out how much you will get per hour, and that the hourly rate can sometimes work out low and sometimes high. I prefer working for a fixed fee as I tend to be quite a fast worker and enjoy finding ways to work more efficiently.
Because they are acting as intermediaries, agencies always take a cut of the fee that the author pays them. Working directly for the author would therefore pay more, in theory – but only if you can do enough marketing to get as much work as you would get through an agency.
When trying out a new agency, check the pay rate per thousand words (this will either be supplied when you enquire or be published on the agency's website). Then try to work out the speed at which you can edit this kind of material. If you are more used to editing accepted papers, assume this kind of work will be considerably slower. I suggest giving an agency a try for a few months to see whether the rates work out OK for you.
Some agencies pay very quickly after each job is completed; others pay two months or more later. Watch out for international bank charges, too – charges can be levied by intermediate banks that aren't in the control of either the sender's or the recipient's bank. Bear this in mind when working out whether the fees are worthwhile.
Is this kind of editing for you?
Editing material by authors whose English is limited isn't for everyone. You may prefer to work on manuscripts at a later stage, when they have already been approved by a publisher. You may not know whether you enjoy this kind of work until you try it. But if you have a research background and some editing experience, I'd recommend it for the challenge. And if you want to work with pre-submission papers, going through an agency has definite advantages.
Copyright 2012 Anna Sharman
[Note from the Proofreader's Parlour: A fuller list of publishers that include language editing services on their websites, and that you may wish to contact, is available at: Getting Noticed – Web-based English-Language Editing Services Listings.]
A note from Louise: I'm delighted to welcome my colleague and fellow SfEP member Paul Beverley to this latest Spotlight feature on The Proofreader's Parlour. Paul is a freelance proofreader and editor who specializes in technical material. He is the author of Macros for Editors and Proofreaders, a wonderful resource packed with nearly 400 macros, all freely available to anyone. You can contact him by email, on his Archive Publications website or via his SfEP Directory listing.
of (and I’m reasonably technical), and the jobs that I could do with the macros so produced didn’t seem to be worth the effort. Use it or lose it? I lost it!
But then I had a job I wanted to do that I thought a more complex macro could handle, and a friend who knew about macros programmed it for me; once I had a really useful macro, I was motivated to use them more and more.
So if someone has given you the impression that a macro is "something you record that will allow you to do a job repeatedly", then you’ve been sold very, very short. It’s like asking whether a "vehicle" is a useful thing, and being told that a vehicle is "a two-wheeled device with a saddle and pedals". There are a thousand and one different types of vehicle, and they can be used for ten thousand and one different jobs. So with macros.
But they are too technical?
OK, I admit that there is a learning curve. Yes, you have to make the effort to learn how to load and use macros (notice that I don’t say "to program macros", let alone to record one), but it’s not that difficult, and if you get a feel for just how much macros can help you, you’ll realize that it really is worth climbing the curve.
And there is help out there. I’ve written a book about macros and, at the beginning, I’ve tried to give a gentle and careful introduction to what a macro is, what sort of things it can do, how to put one in your computer, and how to use it. And the book is free – click here for your copy.
So what do they do?
How long have you got? How much space will Louise allow me? My book has 370+ different macros in it!
Let’s look at one scenario and see how macros can help – I’ve deliberately chosen an example that applies equally to proofreaders as to editors.
You’ve just received a new book to edit or proofread (and I’m assuming here that if you’re reading on paper, you have at least got a PDF to hand). So what information would help you to do a really good job (and not take loads of time over it)? You’ve got a lot of questions to answer such as UK/US and is/iz spelling, serial comma or not, single/double quotes, words/figures for numbers, punctuation of ie/etc/et al/people’s initials/numbers with units, C/chapter, S/section, F/fig,/F/figure, etc. And that’s before we start thinking about the use of alternative spellings: co-oper/cooper, focussing/focusing, spelt/spelled. And what about the use of hyphenation?
I won’t go into details but my macros DocAlyse, HyphenAlyse, SpellAlyse, UKUScount, IZIScount and ProperNounAlyse will each look at different aspects of your book and inform you about what the author has done. Yes, your brief will tell you about certain things that you must impose, but where there’s no guidance given, isn’t it best to go with what the author has done as a majority? How many times have I made a style decision on the basis of chapters 1 to 3 only to realize by chapter 5/6 that, in chapters 4 to 20, the author has used exactly the opposite convention?! I’m sure you know that sickening feeling when you realize your mistake and the time it’s going to take to rectify it.
And so far I’ve only mentioned six of the 370 macros.
Forgive me if I blow my own trumpet a tad, but I believe that the vast range of macros that I’ve provided – for free – can completely change your work effectiveness. Since 2007, my average hourly rate (since I always try to insist on working for a fixed fee) has increased by over 40 per cent. OK, that’s partly experience and partly being able to pick and choose which jobs I take on, but if I suddenly had, for some reason, to stop using macros, the consistency of my work would drop, and my average earning rate would drop, too. And since I went freelance, I have never missed a client’s deadline.
At the beginning of my book I’ve tried to give an overview of the different sorts of macros available, and have tried to order the book in a vaguely logical way, but it’s difficult for the macro newbie to know what’s worth using. The book isn’t exactly what you would call "bedtime reading", so your best bet is probably to ask other people which macros they find are the biggest time-savers – I know that for Louise it’s my reference citation checking system, CiteCheck, which she uses for proofs where the short title system is in place.
When I’m proofreading, the macros mentioned above are the ones that increase my efficiency most, but when I’m editing, it has to be FRedit. This is not just a macro, but a whole new concept in automating the editing process – but that’s another whole story!
Why not start the ball rolling by telling us what your favourite is?
Case study: using macros to prepare for book work
In case it’s of any use to anyone, here’s what I do as I start a new book job. I claim no more than that this is what I find useful. This is all investigative work – no changes are made to the text in any of the following macros.
Copyright 2012 Paul Beverley
The following is a summary of the articles related to editorial freelance training that have been published on The Proofreader's Parlour to date.
The Weekly Review offers links to useful editing, proofreading, freelancing and publishing news articles published online in the past seven days.
The Fiction Freelancing series presents the individual experiences of editorial freelancers working on the genre of fiction within both the publishing sector and the independent-author market.
For Part III, I'm delighted to welcome another fabulous guest blogger to The Proofreader's Parlour. Journalist, editor and copy-writer Louise Bolotin shares the joys and perils of editing adult material.
Other posts in the series cover proofreading for trade publishers (Part I; Louise Harnby), editing fiction for independent authors (Part II; Ben Corrigan), and editing genre fiction (Part IV; Marcus Trower).
Working with adult material is clearly not for everyone, and it can occasionally be challenging, but it requires the same care and thought as anything else on the editor’s work pile. Louise Bolotin discusses the editor’s guide to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, with a bit of blasphemy thrown in for good measure.
What’s your first thought when an editor offers you work that is quite clearly what’s usually described as “adult material”? Do you think, “eww, how disgusting!” and reply with a “thanks, but no thanks”? Or do you, like me, say yes because, you know, it’s just work and there’ll be a nice cheque at the end of it? Hovering around as I do on professional forums, on the rare occasions the topic comes up it’s clear that most editors fall into the “no way!” camp.
Working on anything explicitly sexual is always going to be a personal choice, although there’s a world of difference between editing a sex guide aimed at teens, with info on STIs and using condoms correctly, and hardcore or even medium-core erotica, the latter being the kind of material I’m most likely to work on in the genre. I’ve yet to be offered any Mills and Boon titles.
I’ve often found that when I’ve been approached to take on projects, it’s been accompanied with an apology and a warning of the content, particularly from large, well-known publishing houses. Most memorably, an email I received offering work came complete with a chain of internal emails below the line, suggesting that the project should probably be given to a man as it was potentially offensive. Heaven forfend that a woman should edit anything explicit because we all know how difficult it is to buy smelling salts these days! I assured the project manager that I’m neither prudish nor easily offended and the manuscript was duly sent to me. Editing strong language doesn’t bother me at all. I cut my career teeth as a journalist and newsrooms are renowned for their high swear word count – you won’t survive if you can’t cope with your editor telling you several times a day to “get your fucking act tofuckinggether or get your fucking P45 on the fucking way out”.
However, there’s more to editing explicit work than not fainting at any effing and blinding in print. Material needs to be handled sensitively, whether it’s fiction or factual – this is someone’s work, after all, and it’s essential to put personal feelings aside. All the usual editing decisions need to be made – clarity, consistency, cutting and queries, plus creating style sheets for those trickier spellings.
I worked five years as a freelance copy-editor and commissioner for the fetish magazine Skin Two, aimed at people into rubber sex and clothing. While the photo spreads tend towards the erotic and daring, most of the feature articles are distinctly intellectual in tone rather than sexy – during my stint we ran serious articles on everything from censorship and depictions of non-mainstream sex in mainstream film to the subversion of Nazi symbolism for erotic enjoyment and the works of illustrative authors such as Alan Moore. These features were usually between 3,000 and 5,000 words in length and on a par with anything you’d find in a dedicated arts magazine.
Flicking through back issues, it was clear my first task would be to create a style book suitable for such a distinctive magazine. I recall lengthy discussions with the editor about whether to opt for “perv” rather than “perve” or “pervert” – our readership, chiefly A, B and C1, liked to call themselves thus with a knowing and cheeky nod to the more tabloid usage of such words. The style guide needed to reflect both their intelligence and their community’s own home-grown terminology. Putting it together was an interesting crash course in the culture of a distinct sexual minority.
Perhaps the most memorable title I worked on was Jack the Ripper’s Secret Confession, one book in a long line of theories on the true identity of the UK’s first known serial killer. I’ve worked on several Ripper books and as an avid reader of crime fiction I’m used to gore. This particular book theorised that the Ripper was a wealthy Victorian gentleman known only as Walter, a rapist who was obsessed with prostitutes and knives. His deeply explicit diaries were published in the same year as the Ripper began his spree. Fewer than 20 copies were printed, they were banned for obscenity and the few surviving editions even today remain locked in the British Library’s famous “closed cupboard”, where scholars need to apply for permission to study them.
The diaries are, of course, out of copyright so the book authors were free to quote as much of them as they wished to stand up their theory – and quote they did. Whole chapters often consisted of fifty per cent or even more of passages from Walter’s pornographic journal. Every sexual encounter of his was described in explicit four-letter word detail. I quickly became desensitised to the repetitive use of “fuck”, “cunt”, “cock”, “minge” and more on almost every page. The temptation when this occurs is to glaze over the explicit passages and focus on the author’s own words. A bad mistake, as even filth needs editing – I made an editorial decision to leave all spellings in the original (and being Victorian, they varied a fair bit from the standard spellings of today) as long as they were understandable, but to edit the punctuation rigorously for clarity. Walter didn’t care much for commas or speech marks, you see, and some of his passages required extensive scrutiny to figure out what on earth he was saying.
These were highly challenging issues for a book that not only needed to be accessible for the modern reader and ensure the authors’ edited work was of sufficient merit as any other Ripperology title but also paid tribute, bizarre as it might seem, to the diaries the book had inspired. I was secretly rather chuffed when one of the authors emailed me after publication to thank me and let me know that the Los Angeles Times had described it as a "hyperventilating noxious stew wallowing in depravity" and called for it to be banned. At least it was a well-edited noxious stew…
In truth, I found an earlier manuscript I worked on, about Jack the Ripper and other notorious serial killers throughout history, much harder. There was little sexually explicit material but a very graphic description of what one murderer had done with his victims’ body parts burned my eyeballs and gave me sleepless nights for some time after. Sometimes you edit stuff you’d rather not know about, but like the intrepid blokes who clean our sewers it’s a dirty job but someone has to do it. With pride for doing a job well done. And, frankly, my trauma must have paled in comparison to that of the police officers who had to deal with that.
More recently I copy-edited a debut novel from a youngish author – a blackly comic yet highly literary tale about the Norwegian heavy metal music scene, rippled through with wall-to-wall blasphemy and explicit sex scenes that were nasty, brutish and (thankfully!) short. Having begun my career as a rock journalist, this project was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever been offered but, like the others, it came with a warning – about the blasphemy in this case. I’m an atheist so I was able to approach this with no misgivings but I completely understand that an editor with a faith, of any sort, might find this difficult material. The explicit sex I took in my stride but dealing with the religious issues, which were as much about Satanism as Christianity, needed a lot of care to ensure that the novel rang true while avoiding causing offence unnecessarily. I did a huge amount of fact-checking on the internet – mainly on the Christian issues plus the heavy metal genre – as well as coming up with a style sheet that provided consistency on religious and other central themes.
My take on editing adult material is that it really shouldn’t be beyond any experienced copy-editor worth their salt although I can understand that some will feel it’s not for them because of their personal beliefs, as is their right. Such work needs the same meticulous attention to detail as any other. For those new to the industry it could be as good a way to gain experience as any, particularly as there seems to be a dearth among us who are willing to tackle the more challenging manuscripts.
Ian Dury sang “sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, is all my brain and body needs” – I like to think they are an important sector in the manuscripts I edit, too.
Copyright 2012 Louise Bolotin
If you need a professional editor, proofreader or editorial project manager, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders' free, fully searchable, online Directory of Editorial Services provides contact information for almost 500 SfEP members including details of their skills, subject specialisms and services.
The Fiction Freelancing series presents the individual experiences of editorial freelancers working on the genre of fiction within both the publishing sector and the independent-author market. Here in Part II Ben Corrigan focuses on editing for non-publisher clients. Ben has been a freelance proofreader and copy-editor since 2009. Prior to that he was a proofreader for Yell and a TV-listings writer and sub-editor. He lives in Bristol. You can contact him via his website: The Whole Proof; and on Twitter: @thewholeproof.
Other posts in the series cover proofreading for trade publishers (Part I; Louise Harnby), editing adult material (Part III; Louise Bolotin), and editing genre fiction (Part IV; Marcus Trower).
As a freelance proofreader and editor with a passion for fiction, I consider myself extremely fortunate whenever I have the opportunity to work on poetry or prose.
Independent authors might approach an editor or proofreader for a number of reasons. In my experience, a significant proportion are thinking of sending their work to an agent or publisher and want to make sure the manuscript has been polished before they do so. I have also worked with authors who are planning to self-publish their work, or who have already self-published and want the next edition to be free from mistakes; who are intending to enter their writing in a competition; and who are curious about what an editor will bring to their work.
I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, graduating in 2008. The MA was a challenging, occasionally terrifying, and always inspiring experience. I would do it every year for the rest of my life if I could, because if you are passionate about writing, then being able to write, to share your writing with other writers, and to talk about writing week in, week out, is an amazing way to spend your time. As a colleague of mine said after the course, you really felt, for that year, as though you were a writer.
While I do not think that you need to be a writer to be an editor of fiction, the course taught me two important lessons: first, how to be a better reader; and, second, how it feels to receive feedback on your work. I can remember all too clearly how I felt the first time my writing was workshopped. I had not really shared my writing before then, and to have it subjected to such close scrutiny was bizarre. I understand that, whatever your subject, writing is extremely personal and an extension of yourself, and I try to keep that in mind whenever I am editing fiction, and to be sensitive when suggesting changes.
In the vast majority of my work with independent authors, my role has been as a copy-editor, or has covered the area between copy-editing and proofreading that Louise mentioned in her post. To date, I have not worked with an author who has wanted a structural edit. I have found that authors are generally happy with their story and are more concerned with the nuts and bolts of the writing. Naturally, having a clear brief before starting out is a must. For longer pieces, I will always offer to provide a sample so that the customer can see the kinds of changes and suggestions I might make.
My own approach to copy-editing when working with independent authors is to intervene as little as possible. Unless they have stated otherwise, I will assume that the writer is happy with what they have produced. This might seem self-evident. But it is important to be aware of how easy it can be, when editing, to start imposing your own style. For instance, I am aware that I am quite fond of commas. Where commas are preferential, I will prefer them. This may not be in line with the author’s style, and may not be appropriate for the writing. Of course, we all have our preferences, and that is one aspect to be conscious of when copy-editing. Does the writing have three or four semi-colons in each paragraph? Do you keep noticing the same adjective or the same expression? This kind of repetition might have been employed for effect, but if you are certain it hasn’t, you might feel you can improve the writing by varying the style. Any verbal or grammatical tic that might distract a reader, and break their suspension of disbelief, is worthy of consideration while editing.
The layout of the document can be a thorny issue, and is best discussed with the client. Poetry is a separate case, but for fiction, I will encourage an author to adopt a traditional layout that is easy to read: double spaced, a simple font (Times New Roman is fine), with paragraphs indented and with no spaces between them. (I use Word 2007 and do not understand why the default setting is to have a space between paragraphs … But that is a gripe for another time!) It helps to have an understanding of how fiction is (more often than not) presented: for instance, how to indicate a break in a chapter. The author might not know, and you can therefore help to bring clarity to a story by making the right changes.
In this regard, the layout of dialogue is probably the most demanding area when working on fiction. Louise made the important point of authors choosing to break with convention, and there are many ways to present and indicate dialogue: inverted commas, quotation marks, em dashes, or no punctuation at all. Cormac McCarthy is a good example of a writer who prefers not to use punctuation for dialogue. He is skilled (together with his editor, perhaps!) at making sure that, despite the lack of punctuation – and thus no obvious distinction between action and dialogue – there is no confusion over who is speaking and when. Whatever style the author chooses, an understanding of how to present dialogue simply and clearly, so that there is no doubt about which character is talking, is a must. This can be a particular issue if there are more than two characters in a scene. If I can’t follow the conversation, I will flag the offending lines for the author to clarify if they wish.
Character consciousness can also be indicated in a variety of ways. I have just started to read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, in which thoughts are presented in the same way as speech. This is perhaps unusual and old-fashioned, but is it wrong? ‘This is how to present character consciousness,’ he thought. This is how to present character consciousness, he thought. This is how to present character consciousness, he thought. I think these are all valid ways to present a character’s thoughts. The important point is to ensure a consistent approach has been taken.
I might look to sharpen up the writing by cutting out words that are redundant. An author may use multiple adjectives without realising that two are synonyms, for example. Similarly, adverbs can be abused and overused and are an element that I will sometimes be more ruthless with. If I was being pressed – which I am not, but this is my first blog post, so I am going to be bold and tell you anyway – I would say that the words most commonly (over)used by budding authors of prose fiction are ‘quickly’ and ‘slowly’. I think they are often employed to bring urgency to the writing – even in the case of ‘slowly’, which seems to be trying to add some drama to whatever action is being described. These kinds of words can be used once too often, in which case I will look to intervene and draw the author’s attention to the repetition.
There are of course basic aspects to editing fiction, such as ensuring characters’ names do not change inexplicably and that the action and description are not contradictory or unclear. I think there can be a certain mindset involved in carrying out a line-by-line edit – where you are looking closely at each sentence and the way it works – which may not involve seeing and understanding the bigger picture of the story and the way it unfolds. Louise highlighted the danger of enjoying proofreading fiction too much, and getting lost in the story. I don’t think this is such a problem when copy-editing fiction. In fact, I think the opposite might sometimes be the case, and the problem is that you don’t get lost in the story enough, and therefore fail to see holes and inconsistencies. Depending on the nature of the project, it can be helpful to read the text more than once so that you have a full appreciation of the setting, the characters, and the story.
In some cases I might go deeper into the writing and consider issues such as point of view (if the writing is in the third person). Point of view can be subtle and tricky, and I don’t want to go into it in too much detail in this post. I will say that it is generally more common for contemporary writing, when written in the third person, to take a close or limited third-person point of view, rather than an omniscient one. That means the action is seen from one character’s point of view. Authors might adopt this for the most part but slip into the points of view of other characters, turning a limited point of view into an omniscient one. If this is a mistake rather than deliberate, intervention may strengthen the writing. I might also look to move action into the moment, if possible, or at least suggest this as a possibility. For instance, a passage that begins ‘I often went to the shops’ might be more powerful if it can be turned into concrete action: ‘I went to the shops.’ This kind of intervention can involve significant rewriting and is best discussed with the author.
Freelance editing can offer up a great variety of interesting work, and, to me, fiction is the best example of this: always unique and never a chore. In a selfish sense, writers can also be a good source of repeat work! If you can develop a good working relationship with an author and perhaps bring something extra to their writing, they are likely to come back and use you again. Having gone through the process of working with an editor myself, when producing an extract for the MA anthology, I can testify to the virtues of having another set of eyes look at your writing.
I will end with a quote from a writer to an editor (the editor of a newspaper, I understand; the writer is Raymond Chandler): ‘when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.’ The method – ‘eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive’ – sounds to me like a sound one to adopt when editing fiction, too.
Copyright Ben Corrigan 2012
Have you copy-edited fiction for independent authors? If so and there's something you want to add about your own experiences, please let us know in the Comments section.
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