An American Editor

June 11, 2018

Thinking Fiction – To Specialize or Generalize?

Carolyn Haley

I am a fiction editor. I wear that label with pride because it took many years to earn it, via a long and zigzag road. I love my job and don’t ever want to do anything else.

I can’t claim to be a fiction-only editor, because I still work for long-term clients in other realms. This maintains diversity and provides security, because keeping some nonfiction clients avoids the risky business position of having all of my eggs in a single basket.

I thought I had the mix in a nice, stable balance, but then I had an experience that rocked my editorial boat and revived questions about my professional choices; questions I believed I had answered long ago.

The Curse of Complacency

Late last year, the dreaded “freelancer famine” occurred after a long-lasting feast. Several scheduled jobs were canceled or postponed, and I failed to win new projects I’d pitched for. Suddenly I was facing a shortfall right when I needed an infusion of cash. Like a blessing from the gods, though, an old client appeared who had a similar problem: The editor for a book had backed out, and other editors they’d asked to step in were unavailable. They desperately needed help in a hurry. Voilà: I was available, and we merged into a mutually satisfactory arrangement.

The project involved a book type I hadn’t handled in a long time: academic. I’d done a few similar books for this client over the course of a decade, and our track record together was excellent, so I knew I could do the job competently, even though it wasn’t my daily fare.

Wrong.

By the end of Chapter 1, I was in trouble. My fiction concentration had drawn me far enough out of nonfiction that I’d forgotten many of the conventions used both in scholarly works in general and this client’s projects in particular. I hadn’t kept good notes for past jobs so I couldn’t brush up. The procedures and macros I’ve built for novels were irrelevant for academese, including references, citations, figures, and tables. I didn’t have time to study and develop the software tools that could help me, since this was a rush job.

The only smart thing I did was inform the project editor (PE) up front that I was stale on this type of editing and might need her help. Good thing, for I wallowed and flailed all the way through. I did get the job done, and on time, but I was inefficient, made stupid mistakes, and failed to ask the right questions; the PE had to do extra work to compensate for my inadequacy. She was a dream about handling it, but I was severely embarrassed, and my self-confidence took a wallop.

Yet even before we were done, the PE asked me to do more work for the company. I can’t imagine why, given my performance. Perhaps my openness was a factor. Thankfully, her next project conflicted with a novel I’d already scheduled, so I had to decline. But more projects were in the pipeline and the editor wanted to offer them to me. I had to decide fast whether to remain open to those opportunities or close the door.

That’s what brought old questions back onto the table, starting with: Is specializing in fiction the right plan, or should I go back to being a generalist editor? Which makes better business sense?

The Pathway to Decision

There was no business sense involved at the beginning of my work life, beyond the imperative of getting a job. I did not finish college, nor did I have a professional goal. I discovered editing in general through decades of corporate document production work, along with reading and writing novels. Once I learned that copyediting in particular was a valid occupation, I gained the professional purpose I’d been lacking.

I acquired a copyediting certificate from a local college, then began incorporating copyediting into my production jobs. Through work experience and self-education, I converted my production jobs into editing positions. The companies I worked for exposed me to an enormous range of documentation and subjects, providing the foundation I needed when the surprise of downsizing came along. Then I had to acquire business sense fast, because the only way I could continue as an editor was to freelance.

Like many people who find themselves abruptly self-employed, I first worked as a contractor for former employers while slowly establishing a broader clientele. I was free to pursue my real interest — editing novels — but lacked the credentials to move directly into that sphere. Thus I began as a generalist editor, starting with business documents, then adding magazines, catalogs, textbooks, memoirs, newsletters, résumés, transcription, science journals, white papers — if it led to a paycheck, I did it. And if it didn’t pay, such as editing friends’ novels, I did it anyway for experience.

I also accepted terribly paying jobs for the early author-services companies, because this gave not only hands-on opportunity to edit novels for pay, but also exposure to the novel-publishing side of the book industry. Whatever type of work I did, I performed it capably enough that no client expressed dissatisfaction, and every one of them paid in full and on time. Eventually, after taking many editing and proofreading tests, I got onto the freelancer lists of a few fiction-publishing houses, and qualified to join editorial networks that helped channel desired work in my direction. By these accomplishments, I rated myself a success and was on the road to achieving my fiction-specialist goal.

What about School?

After several years of generalist freelancing, I proved I could earn a living as an editor. To increase my income to a more comfortable level, however, I had to upgrade my expertise. That brought up the questions: Should I go back to school? How much influence would a degree, and which degree, have on my earning potential?

Research showed that best editing rates were being offered in the technical fields where I had no experience or aptitude. Simultaneously, I saw rates offered to editors with advanced degrees in any field that were no better than what I was earning without a degree.

The editors who seemed to command the best rates had specialist knowledge in a particular area, had many more years of experience than I did, were either in conventional full-time positions or solidly established with clients who provided steady work, and/or were savvy businesspeople who knew how to market themselves. What I didn’t see was any direct correlation between educational degree and income.

I calculated the rate increase I would need to offset the cost of returning to school, for either a degree or advanced certification. When I factored in the time commitment as well, I realized I would spend more time and money on upgrading my qualifications on paper than I could earn back in an equivalent amount of time, if ever.

The other element to consider was stress. The circumstances of my personal life made adding the long-term strain of schoolwork on top of full-time professional work potentially hazardous to my health.

After weighing all of these factors, I chose to keep working and self-educating toward specializing in fiction, because the combination of editing it, writing it, reading it, reviewing it, and teaching it brought joy. I inched my rates upward, and enjoyed successful project after successful project. Even on the worst day of editing the worst novel, I could still plow through the job with a sense of challenge and satisfaction. That was not true with any other form of work.

By the time I accepted the project recounted at the start of this essay, my project proportion had settled at around 90 percent fiction, 10 percent nonfiction. My poor showing on the textbook shocked me into realizing how, in upgrading my qualifications for fiction, I had downgraded my qualifications for nonfiction. I had to do something to prevent such a professional gaffe from happening again.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

The obvious solution to my specialize-or-generalize dilemma was to stop accepting scholarly book work. The equally obvious alternative was to learn or relearn tools, techniques, and knowledge to bring my nonfiction qualifications back up to snuff. The first option jeopardized my financial security, in that I would lose periodic income that would have to be found elsewhere, and marketing is my weakest skill. The second option jeopardized my state of mind, in that I would have to endure misery for money. I find scholarly work painfully dull and frustrating, even though I always learn something useful from it. Not only would I rather avoid such work, but I’d spent my entire pre-freelance career enduring misery for money and didn’t want to backslide to that status.

I’d learned from concentrating on fiction that the joy of doing what you love for a living is a luxury beyond price. As well, loving one’s job creates the motivational difference between a carrot and a stick. Pursuing a carrot — reward — is much easier to do, mentally, emotionally, and physically, than evading a stick — punishment. Even if you make better income because of the stick, what value is it when your life is dominated by dread, resentment, boredom, and, often, health or relationship problems? If you’re motivated to keep doing what you love, then you can find it within yourself to do what you need to do, such as marketing and self-educating, because the reward is getting to do more of what you love.

Looking at it that way resolved my dilemma. Instead of eschewing nonfiction altogether, I reexamined and affirmed my priorities: fiction first, general nonfiction second, academic and technical nonfiction last. That enabled me, in turn, to prioritize my marketing and education efforts and expenditures.

It also allowed me to keep a good client. I told the PE that I’m happy to keep working together and would brush up on the appropriate skills. She expressed willingness to help. I updated her on my current workflow, dominant focus, and average lead time for taking on new projects, so she can reasonably anticipate what to expect when projects come in for assignment. I’m also helping her find other editors to call upon in case her main roster falls short again and I’m not available for backup.

Whether it all comes together in a successful future project will depend on timing. For now, I’ve weathered a jarring wake-up call, saved a good relationship, and laid the groundwork for better. I should send that PE flowers and a thank-you note for inadvertently pushing me to make an overdue but important mid-career evaluation and course correction. Now it’s by design, instead of impulse combined with accident, that I am a specialist fiction editor. And I have a much better idea of how to apply that commitment to maintaining and growing my business.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

4 Comments

  1. Great article! As an academic who left academia to pursue an editing career, I especially liked the carrot/stick part. Thanks!

    Like

    Comment by Marieke Krijnen — June 11, 2018 @ 5:49 am

  2. There may have been one point at which you didn’t know how to market yourself, but the articles you write about editing fiction seem to me to be brilliant marketing tools. And this piece in particular should be invaluable to young editors trying to figure out what path to take. For many years I did work that paid well but that I couldn’t say I loved–editing World Bank and other DC-based policy papers, etc., which were interesting in their way and paid well, but they were just work. Then I covered a conference of women from Third World countries who were figuring out how to get things like water to their resource-starved homelands, and realized it was the human element of what they were doing that I was excited about. (I later learned that the first biography I was hired to write came to me because they were impressed with my World Bank experience.) Little by little I moved into helping people and companies telling their stories, and began getting more of the kind of satisfaction you write about. For me, there’s more emphasis on writing than on editing, but sometimes it’s a mixture, and as you say about fiction — it’s getting to know how the genre works and to realize that you are happiest working in that genre. Thanks for all the good pieces you write and this one in particular.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by patmcnees — June 11, 2018 @ 1:39 pm

  3. Carolyn, sounds as if you are marketing your editing skills quite well. Interesting how you analyzed your editing path and came up with a stable plan. That’s impressive! 📚 Christine

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    Comment by C.E.Robinson — June 11, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

  4. Carolyn, I applaud your enterprise in seeking (and finding) the kind of work you love. You have clearly established yourself as an excellent fiction author who can take on some academic work. I’m your inverse: I have edited some fiction, but I found most of it so irritatingly second-rate that it made me grouchy to edit it rather than rewriting it from scratch (for which I wouldn’t be paid).

    Having finished graduate school at a time when academic jobs had dried up, and having 8 years of volunteer editing under my belt, I found my first scholarly editing job at a university press. I happily took on any subject that came my way, from nuclear physics to medieval French poetry (I’ve always soaked up new subjects quickly, thanks to an eclectic education and inveterate reading). During 40 years of steady employment, I kept a part-time freelance business going on the side. Clients came entirely by word of mouth. Publishers and agents recommended me to their clients; former clients recommended me to their colleagues.

    I agree with you that specializing is a good strategy for establishing yourself as an expert. Nevertheless, versatility comes in handy in keeping bread on the table when your chosen field hits a dry spell. My specialty is helping scholars broaden their audiences. That skill is useful to people writing grants as well as those who want to have their research published. Museums and nonprofits often need to punch up their communications to donors and patrons. Even some businesses care about clear, informative writing—and they pay much better than publishers and academics.

    Publishers usually want to have an edited manuscript copyedited to conform to their own style, so I leave reference formats and suchlike for the in-house staff. I’ve made a good living concentrating on the accessibility and the accuracy of the writing. My authors and their publishers know they will never be embarrassed by grammatical or usage errors; their arguments will be coherent.

    I wouldn’t tell you to avoid editing for academics, but you might think about using your fiction-editing skills in service of businesses, too. Clear, concise, colorful prose is beneficial for lots of clients, and most businesses don’t require memorizing inch-thick style sheets!

    Like

    Comment by theoriginalbookdoctor — June 17, 2018 @ 11:53 pm


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