Industry Insider: What does an editor do (and how do I find one)?

INDUSTRY INSIDER: HOW TO CHOOSE AN EDITOREditing is on my mind this week. Not only am I editing a manuscript, but I’ve had several different queries over the past little while, all of which had one answer: get an editor. I think a lot of people are scared of editors, both the magazine and book variety, without really understanding what it is that they do. So I thought it was time I invited one into the Fibro to clear a few things up.

Kylie Mason is a Sydney-based freelance editor with a long history of working with Australian publishers, both on staff and on a freelance basis. I met her on Twitter (where else?) and she graciously agreed to follow me home and answer a few questions (you will note that she knows how to use a semi-colon… something that always makes me sit up and take notice).

What exactly is the role of an editor?
Kylie Mason: “There are different kinds of editors. In Australia, it’s most common for writers to work with a structural (sometimes called substantive) editor and a copy editor. There are also developmental, content and line editors, but these are increasingly being included in structural and copy editing roles.

“Structural editors are often among the first readers of a manuscript and look at the big picture: they want to see if the plot, pace, narrative arc, voice, tone, characters, etc, are working, and if not, why not. They work with the writer to figure out what can be done to improve a manuscript and how; sometimes structural editors will offer specific ways to fix perceived problems but part of the skill of being a good structural editor is helping a writer find their own solutions. After receiving a structural edit and consulting with the editor, the writer will create a new draft. This redrafting process can involve just one more version, or many, many versions – whatever it takes to get the manuscript into shape.

“Copy editors read the redrafted manuscripts closely, looking – of course – at spelling, grammar and punctuation. But copy editors also keep a close eye on anything that might pull a reader out of the story. Since writers, I think, hope their readers will immerse themselves totally in the story being told, anything that might jar or distract or interrupt the reader’s experience needs to be eliminated. So copy editors look at word choice and language use, whether these match the tone of the book or the characters’ personalities, whether they they are repetitious or redundant, or whether they seem, well, not quite right. Copy editors also look for anomalies (Would school students in the 1950s have had pocket calculators?), inconsistencies (Would a girl who considers herself a tomboy also be able to sprint in a pair of stilettos?) and continuity (Didn’t the hero have stormy grey eyes when he met the heroine fifty pages ago, not deep pools of chocolate brown?).”

How did you become a freelance editor? Do you specialise in certain genres or types of manuscripts?
KM: “I became a freelance editor after working in house for a couple of trade publishers. After completing a BA in communications and creative writing and an MA in creative writing – and being a bookseller for a long time – I finally got a job as a publishing assistant in the fiction department at HarperCollins Publishers, where I was given excellent training and mentoring and was promoted to editor. I moved on to Pan Macmillan publishers, where I continued to learn – editing is a career in which you learn something new with every edit – and branched out into narrative non-fiction.

“After six years in house, I went freelance, offering structural and copy editing and proofreading services to both publishing houses and aspiring writers. I work mainly on adult fiction and narrative non-fiction, and have a special interest in historical and literary fiction, as well as fantasy, romance, crime – basically, if it’s fiction, I want to work on it!”

When you’re presented with a manuscript, how do you go about ‘fixing’ it, without taking out the integrity of the author’s voice or intended story? Is it difficult?
KM: “I don’t find it particularly difficult to edit a manuscript and retain the author’s voice and story, because I keep in mind the golden rule: it’s not my book. Writers work hard to get their story onto the page, sweating blood or bullets, typing their fingers to the bone, and the last thing they want is some stranger waltzing in and stomping all over their manuscript.

“If I’m working on a structural edit, it isn’t my job to turn the book into something it’s not; my job is to figure out what the writer is trying to do and offer whatever help I can to make the manuscript the best it can be. If I’m working on a copy edit, then the writer’s purpose should be clear and it’s important that any changes or suggestions I make improve the manuscript rather than introduce new problems. Editors are often great mimics, which helps them make suggestions and corrections that naturally reflect the author’s voice and story – once  they get the ‘feel’ of a manuscript, of course. And nothing is ever changed before a writer sees it; the writer gets the final say on what happens to their manuscript.”

Do you have to like a work to do what you feel is a great job?
KM: “I don’t think it’s necessary to like a manuscript to do a great job. Having said that, every manuscript has something that can be praised: even if the narrative is not to my taste, I can appreciate the hard work that has gone into producing the manuscript; I can admire the fine job the writer has done in creating characters or in managing an intricate plot, or their amazing ear for dialogue.

“Every editor starts from the same place: Is this book the best it can be? Whether I like or dislike the manuscript is almost irrelevant; I still start by looking at it the way I looked at the manuscript I worked on before it, and the way I’ll look at the one that follows. But working on a manuscript I love can be troublesome, especially if I get caught up in the story and forget to keep my eye on all the things I’m supposed to be checking!”

If I were looking for a freelance editor, to either help take my manuscript to the next level or in the process of self-publishing, how would I go about finding one? Is it expensive?
KM: “The best way to find a freelance editor is to check out the website of an editors’ society. Every Australian state (and the ACT) has an editors’ society (see below) and they all have freelancer directories that writers can browse to find an editor to suit their needs. Another great resource is the Freelance Editors’ Network, which features a great range of editors.

“When looking for a freelance editor, a writer should consider what kind of work they want done: Would they like a professional eye to check their manuscript before it’s submitted to publishers? Do they want a developmental editor, someone they can work with to improve their writing and manuscript? Have they decided to self-publish and would like both a structural and a copy edit?

“Once that’s decided, email your chosen editor and ask them to give you a quote for the work you want done. Good editing isn’t cheap: structural editing starts at around $1500 for a manuscript up to 90,000 words; most editors work to an hourly rate but can also offer a flat rate based on the manuscript’s word count and the work required. Some editors will also offer to edit a sample of the manuscript, say, five or so pages, so the writer can decide if they’ve found the right editor.”

You’ll find Kylie Mason listed in the Freelance Editor’s Network, or say hello on Twitter. Visit the website of the editors’ society in your state to find the right editor for you: NSW, QLD, VIC, SA, WA, TAS, ACT.

Comments 9

  1. Allison, this post came at an incredible time for me, because I recently got back the editor’s notes for my novel and only today published the post I have been compiling containing lessons from my experience. It’s so valuable seeing the dimension’s of an editor’s work, especially as I was disgruntled with my process and really overwhelmed by it. This at least helps people know what to expect.

  2. “Good editing isn’t cheap.”

    Nice way of putting it, I’d say it’s absurd. You can tell from one page if someone is hopeless as a writer. So what do you do, ingenuously plow through 90,000 words and hit them for $1500 dollars.

    Not a bad racket.

    Hey, get some conscience, just tell them the truth, poor saps: they’re hopeless.

    1. Thanks for your comment RH. Fortunately, reputable editors are very good at sensitive feedback and will let authors know if their manuscript requires more work, without, as you say, ploughing through 90,000 words and charging. it’s also worth noting, however, that some of the best writers need a lot of structural help with first and second drafts. Not all writers can edit their own work. It is a definite skill.

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  4. Hi! I’ve been reading your weblog for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a
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