A note from Louise: The Parlour's series on Work Choices for editorial freelancers continues with this super post from my colleague Liz Jones. It's particularly pertinent given a recent discussion on the Society for Editors and Proofreaders forum about getting work based on particular subject specialisms.
Several contributors made the point that it's not only the freelancer's education and career skills that come in useful, but also practical and hobby-based skills and knowledge. With that in mind, I was delighted when Liz suggested a guest article on editing cookery and craft titles. Read on ...
When you’re thinking about potential areas of publishing to target or publishers to focus your attentions on, it’s worth considering the cookery and craft* genres. They account for a big chunk of the market, with hundreds of titles being published anew every year, or updated or repackaged. The two genres share certain characteristics and considerations.
*Under the banner of "craft" I’m including a range of practical subjects, including knitting, crochet, dressmaking, spinning yarn, quilting, painting, drawing, origami, calligraphy, jewellery making … the list is long.
Who can do it?
In the case of both cookery and craft books, while practical experience and a working knowledge of the subject are both helpful, common sense and a willingness to engage with the material are arguably more important.
It is your editorial skill set that you’re being hired for, and any subject-specific knowledge is a bonus. If it’s a subject area that’s a little outside your comfort zone, by all means confess this to the in-house editor, but don’t necessarily let it stop you taking on the job.
Having said that, if you are passionate about any particular practical discipline, do draw attention to this when you approach a publisher in these genres. It’ll make you instantly more memorable – and employable.
Does practical experience help?
You don’t need to be a fantastic cook or a highly accomplished needleworker to successfully edit or proofread a book on the subject. However, some practical experience helps.
Take cooking: it’s desirable if you can picture what a pinch of salt looks like, or 4 tablespoons of flour, or 50 grams of butter. A basic understanding of the science behind baking a cake, or a working knowledge of how to make pastry will stand you in good stead. You might not be the next Heston Blumenthal, but you need to care about why a recipe might work … and why it might not.
It also helps if you’re into food – possibly even passionately so, even if you don’t do much cooking yourself. (In our house, my husband is the main cook, but we talk about food and recipes all the time.) Know your ingredients. Keep up with food trends. And read lots of cookery books!
If you love food, this won’t be a chore. By reading around the subject you’ll get a feel for how recipes are put together, what new ingredients are on the market, how different publishers present similar kinds of information, and what’s desirable in a finished recipe.
For craft, it’s important to understand how publishers like their instructional text presented, and to be able to get to grips with the specific jargon relating to the subject. Again, familiarity gained from reading the kinds of titles you’d like to work on is essential. Once you get to know the conventions of the genre, you are as equipped as anyone else to spot problems and inconsistencies in the text. This applies especially to proofreading, and once you’re more comfortable with the subject area it’s straightforward to move into copy-editing if you want.
It can be reassuring to know that for cooking, crochet and knitting titles, publishers will often employ a freelance tester or pattern checker who will make up the recipes or projects, as well as an editor and proofreader.
What characteristics do these books share?
Both genres depend on the reader being able to understand a set of instructions in order to be able to exactly reproduce something at home. Therefore these instructions need to be unambiguous and clear. They should also be free from waffle – the reader does not want to get lost in flowery descriptions while they’ve got their hands covered in icing sugar or superglue.
It’s likely you’ll have to wrestle with units of measurement. Sometimes these are given in both metric and imperial, and many jobs therefore require a certain amount of conversion or checking of measurements, or adding-in of missing information. This may seem dull – but it becomes considerably less boring when you consider how much your reader is depending on these measurements being accurate.
You need to develop a sixth sense for those that seem "a bit off". Surely they can’t mean 15 kg salt? Why on earth would a patchwork skirt for a human take 35 metres of corduroy? How could a delicate beaded necklace possibly be threaded on wire 25 mm thick?
Practical texts are often integrated with images, often in the form of numbered step-by-step sequences. Sometimes the publisher will send you the pictures to look at, and sometimes they won’t. If you have the pictures you need to look closely at each one against the text it accompanies. In this way, especially for craft subjects, a willingness to engage with visual material is important.
With instructional text, editing can be about moulding the material to fit a publisher’s paradigm. Many craft titles are templated before they are written, with the author writing to fit a set of presentation layouts.
Finally, we’ve all been taught to reject the received wisdom that the passive voice is inherently evil. However, this is less the case when editing cookery and craft texts. The active voice is often preferred – some publishers will even specify this. And when editing instructions, the imperative is often used to get the point across quickly.
How should I approach a craft or cookery edit?
The heart of any cookery or craft book is the recipes or projects. These often break down into three parts:
Editing the introduction is just like editing any other kind of text – try to retain the author’s voice as much as possible, as this is what gives the book its particular flavour.
Then there’s the list of ingredients, or tools and materials in the case of craft. This is where you need to start getting really picky about consistency. The publisher’s house style will often tell you what units of measurement they prefer – metric, imperial, by volume (spoons and cups), or some combination of these. It may also detail exactly how you should phrase the specification of particular items.
For instance, is it "a handful of chopped fresh parsley"? Or "a handful of fresh parsley, chopped"? It doesn't only look messy to vary this kind of information – it also makes a difference to accuracy.
The ingredients (or materials) should usually be listed in the order in which they are used in the method or instructions. This area often requires your attention, and it should go without saying that every ingredient listed needs to be mentioned in the method, and that every ingredient mentioned in the method needs to be listed.
The method or instructions for a dish or project are essential to get right. You need to weed out any ambiguities and inaccuracies; don’t leave the reader wondering what to do with that bowl of freshly melted chocolate, or one bead short of a pair of earrings.
Eliminate as much redundancy as you can so that the text is clear and to the point. If a process is repeated throughout the book, try to keep the wording that describes it the same or very similar each time, so the reader understands that it’s the same process.
Make sure you understand everything, and can picture what is meant to be happening, even if the subject matter is slightly unfamiliar to you. Don’t assume that an expert reader will be able to understand a description of a process that makes no sense to you. And do watch out for silly mistakes, such as an oven that gets preheated the night before the rest of the recipe happens.
What work opportunities are there?
In terms of the work you might be asked to do on craft or cookery titles, of course there is copy-editing and proofreading, as well as project managing. There is also plenty of work to be found if you can turn your hand to Americanizing or anglicizing text.
Cookery and craft titles, as mentioned, frequently feature units of measurement, and converting these into a format acceptable for the US or UK market is a bit of a headache. This is where you come in.
In this case, being prepared to work onscreen, in InDesign, can be a major benefit; publishers often make the UK or US edition of a book in a great hurry after the primary edition has gone into production. As well as the measurements, you’ll also need to adjust the grammar and vocabulary, of course. Both craft and cookery subjects feature a lot of jargon that is different in UK and US English (frying pan/skillet, coriander/cilantro, selvedge/selvage, double crochet/single crochet, cast off/bind off … etc.).
There are many specialist publishers out there, and it’s worth approaching packagers, too, who often produce complex, highly illustrated titles for major publishers and can be a great source of freelance work.
So … should I go for it?
Craft in particular might not seem the most highbrow area of book publishing (let’s face it, no one is ever going to win the Man Booker Prize for a book about painting watercolour flowers), but it can be interesting, and reasonably well paid once you get used to the subject matter. You’re also fairly likely to work on books that you’ll later see in your local Waterstones, which can be a buzz in itself. Cookery and craft books are often gorgeously designed and produced, which is nice if you’re a bit of a book fetishist (aren’t we all?). You might even have the thrill of working on a high-profile title that receives lots of media attention – though in this case, don’t necessarily expect to be able to tell anyone about it.
At the end of the day, you’re not helping to disseminate information that will one day bring about world peace, or a cure for some terrible disease. But you will have the satisfaction of knowing that the books you work on are helping to make a lot of people happy – or, if you mess up, extremely frustrated.
Copyright Liz Jones 2013
About Liz: Liz Jones has worked as a full-time freelance book editor and project manager for the past five years, following ten years as an in-house editor for four different publishers – the last of which was a packager specializing in practical art and craft titles. Her work has two distinct strands: highly illustrated non-fiction books, and educational resources. When not editing she is usually playing with her children, playing the flugelhorn or writing. Visit Liz Jones Editorial Solutions for more information.
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