An American Editor

December 8, 2014

The Business of Editing: The Art of the Query

Over the years (31 years in another month), I have had the privilege of working with a lot of colleagues and being on the receiving end of a lot of job applications. That has given me an insight into how editors view aspects of their job and how they go about applying for work.

In a previous essay, Business of Editing: Losing the Chance, in “Error 6″ I discussed the copyediting test and how it is possible to tell whether an applicant passed or failed the test within one minute. One way to tell is to look at any queries. (Of course, the lack of any queries can also be very revealing.)

Most editors do not understand the variety of roles that queries fulfill. If you want to kill future prospects, a quick way to do so is with poor, no, or little (when more than a little is expected) querying. Queries should be viewed as playing these roles, at minimum:

  • to ask the author a question
  • to demonstrate to the author and to the client (assuming your client is not the author) that you are knowledgeable
  • to explain
  • to market your skills
  • to make the author and client comfortable with you
  • to demonstrate why you are the editor that the author and client should always seek out

Each of these roles is linked to your success as a professional editor.

To Ask a Question

Editors get tired of writing the same query repeatedly, chapter after chapter, even project after project. Repetition is deadly but let’s face it, many of the queries we need to ask remain the same author to author, client to client, and project to project. After a while, there is a tendency to scale back on the query because it is tedious to retype. This is where a tool like EditTool’s Insert Query macro is a solution to a problem.

What I have seen is repeat queries being truncated. The first time, maybe the second time, the editor will write:

AQ: There is no section by this title in this chapter. Is this the correct section title? Please either provide the correct section title or modify the incorrect section title.

But it isn’t long before that query becomes “AQ: Please provide the correct section title,” which shortly thereafter becomes “AQ: Need correct section title,” which soon becomes “AQ: Section title?” — or, which also often happens, the query starts and finishes as “AQ: Section title?”

The first query identifies the problem, asks the question, and offers alternative solutions — it shows that you are a professional editor. But the pared down versions show laziness and a lack of understanding of how to communicate with an author. More importantly, the message you are sending your client — whether the client is the author or the publisher — is that you are not a professional.

The pared down versions also suffer from being incomplete. How do you expect the author to understand what the problem is and the solutions are from a cryptic message? (The worst queries I have ever seen were “AQ: ?” How can one form a response? My initial reaction was to reply “ED: !!!”)

To Demonstrate Knowledge and Explain

We all have lots of competition. One way we convince clients to hire us again or to recommend us to colleagues is by demonstrating our knowledge, whether it be of the subject matter or of something else appropriate.

For example, it is common in books that I edit for authors to confuse “recur” and “reoccur.” Consequently, where I think they may have confused the terms, I ask:

AQ: Recur/recurrence mean to happen again repeatedly; reoccur/reoccurrence mean to happen again but only once. Which do you mean here?

This query demonstrates my knowledge of language and raises an important point, because it does matter greatly whether something happens repeatedly or just once again. (And I make my life easy by having this as a standard query in my EditTools Insert Query dataset so I only need to select it and insert it, not type each time I want to use it.)

Two additional examples of queries that I routinely use in my editing work are:

AQ: Should “/day” be changed to “/dose” or should “divided” be added before “bid”? As written it appears that the daily dose is to be given multiple times a day. Please make clear the frequency.

and

AQ: Do you mean “e.g.” rather than “i.e.”? When the items are only examples and the list is not all inclusive, “e.g.” is used. If the listed items are all the possibilities, then “i.e.” is used. If “i.e.” is correct, consider moving the material from the parens and making it a proper part of the sentence.

Notice the messages I am communicating. First, I identify the problem; the author does not have to guess. Second, I explain why it is a problem. Third, I provide solutions. Both the author and the client can see that I am carefully reading the manuscript, I am thinking about the manuscript (i.e., I am focused), I care about the manuscript and the author, and, above all, that I am knowledgeable about editing — that is, that the editor’s primary role is to help the author communicate clearly and that one tool in the editor’s toolbox for doing that is for the editor to communicate clearly with the author.

The point is that queries can serve multiple purposes and I want all of those purposes to reflect positively on me.

To Market and to Comfort

Every author is anxious about the editor. After all, the author has invested time and effort into the manuscript and wants it treated with respect. For those of us who work indirectly with authors, the author’s anxiety about us is even greater. And because we work for publishers or packagers, the publishers and packagers also experience anxiety albeit at a much lesser level than authors. Their concern often revolves around how the author will perceive and receive the editor.

You put everyone at ease when you demonstrate your skills and communicate effectively. Perhaps more importantly, if you view queries as your opportunity to establish your credentials with the author and client, you will be more cautious in how you write them, which means that you are less likely to antagonize either the client or the author.

I recall a book I was asked to review after it had been edited because the author was angry over the editing and had spent a considerable amount of time both berating the inhouse production staff for having hired the editor and in correcting what the author perceived as editor errors.

As I went through the editing it became pretty clear that the editing was well done; the problem was the queries. They were written in such a manner as to convey the editor’s contempt for the author. I admit the author was somewhat lazy and that had I been the editor, I, too, would have been cursing the author — but the difference is that I would not have let those feelings permeate the queries: neither the author nor the client should ever think that I have anything but admiration for the author’s work.

The editor hadn’t comforted the author or the client nor had the editor marketed herself well. The author’s anger might be ratcheted down a bit, but both the author and the client will hesitate to use the editor again, and the author will let fellow authors know as well.

To Demonstrate Why I am The Editor

Presumably we are all well-skilled, well-qualified professional editors. Put us in a bag, shake us up, and pull one of us out at random and you should get a good quality editing job. But that doesn’t bring me any business, and bringing in business is the name of the game. (If you haven’t read it, let me recommend my book, The Business of Editing. It is not enough to have editing skills, you must always be thinking and acting like a business.)

I always have the need to bring in future business in mind, so when I edit I look at the editing as a way to impress my client, and I look at queries as the way to both impress and communicate what makes me The Editor — the editor to hire for future projects and the editor to recommend to colleagues. Well-crafted, informative queries (just like emails and online posts) are like a billboard advertising my skills. Cryptic, curt queries undermine the image of professionalism that I want to project.

This does not mean that every query needs to be five sentences long or a dissertation on grammar. It does mean that every query must satisfy these criteria:

  • be on point, not meandering
  • identifies the problem and offers an appropriate solution
  • reinforces my skills and expertise as an editor
  • reinforces the correctness of the decision to hire me
  • declares clearly my status as a professional editor

Every query that I write that fulfills those criteria sets me apart from my competition and says I am The Editor.

EditTools’ Insert Query Macro

Because writing queries can be time-consuming, it is a good idea to build query templates that require minor modification based on the circumstance and project. That is the premise behind EditTools’ Insert Query macro. I have numerous “standard” queries that are saved to a dataset and that I can call up and modify for a particular project. In addition, each project has its own custom queries. By using the Insert Query macro, I can minimize the time I need to spend inputting a query and the opportunity for inputting error. It also means that I can use more detailed queries because I do not have to retype the same query innumerable times.

Consider this query:

AQ: Using this type of time reference allows the time to shift. The shift occurs because the reference was made when you were writing the text but doesn’t allow for either editing and production time until publication or for the book’s expected several-year shelf-life or for the passage of time between the writing of the text and when it is read by a reader. It would be better to write, for example, “since 2000″ (substitute the appropriate year), so that the time reference always remains static.

How long would it take you to type this query? How many times would you care to do so? With EditTools’ Insert Query macro, I typed it once into the dataset and now can either use it as is or modify it as needed, taking seconds rather than minutes and avoiding typing errors.

To get the most out of queries, think of queries as marketing tools.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 17, 2014

On the Basics: Discovering and Benefiting from a Tech Tool

Discovering and Benefiting from a Tech Tool

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

I don’t think of myself as a significantly technical person, so I was nervous about doing an editing project for our colleague Rich Adin because it meant using his wordsnSync Max Stylesheet. I was flattered that someone of Rich’s stature in our field would think enough of me to give me an assignment, and I was confident of my editing skills, but afraid I wouldn’t be up to the technical demands of the Max Stylesheet system.

For me, it’s more nerve-racking to work for someone I know than for a client who’s a stranger — I hope everyone I work with thinks well of me, but the opinion of someone I know matters to me more than that of someone I’ve never met. Using Max felt like a great opportunity to look like an idiot to someone I respect and whom I very much wanted to respect me as well. I was very worried about letting him down.

I did misunderstand one aspect of the process — I thought I was supposed to use Max to check on the style or versions of items in the project manuscripts, when the point was for me as the copy editor to actually create the style sheet as the project went along. Once that was clear, though, I found myself actually enjoying using Max — in fact, I loved it!

I knew what a style sheet was. I’ve made style sheets or notes for other projects, using Word. But that was like etching on stone tablets compared to the ease and functionality of Max.

Among other practical aspects, Max automatically alphabetizes entries for you, but my favorite function is how it handles names and acronyms or initialisms. You can enter a name with its acronym in parens as one step, and Max places each element — the name and the acronym — in its own column but together, so you can easily double-check for the right ones and don’t have to enter them as separate items or search to see what a given acronym stands for. The name comes first in the right-hand column and the acronym is first in the left-hand column, but the two elements stay together. For example, if the text I am editing has “World Health Organization (WHO),” I can copy the name directly from the text and paste it into the entry field in Max. When I click Add Entry to Stylesheet, Max automatically enters the phrase in the W/W (acronym) sections of the stylesheet as shown below — I don’t have to manually (1) type the phrase, (2) alphabetize it, nor (3) reverse it.

W W (acronym)
World Health Organization (WHO) WHO (World Health Organization)

When you enter a new item, Max shows you similar listings, so it’s easy to check for redundancy. Since you have to confirm each new entry (Max will automatically assume confirmation after 45 seconds), you also have a chance to change your mind if needed. And it won’t allow repeat entries of identical information; Max automatically rejects duplicates.

Max also permits super- and subscripting, italicizing and bolding, underlining and strikethrough, and small caps and symbols. Max has no predetermined size, so it works equally well for small projects with short stylesheets and large projects with extensive stylesheets. Searching is also easy.

Rich says that the real beauty of Max is demonstrated when a project has coeditors. All coeditors can access the same stylesheet, add to it, and see the changes made by a coeditor in real-time. Max promotes consistency in multieditor projects. I haven’t yet been part of an editing team to experience using Max in such an environment, but I hope to have that experience in the not-too-distant future.

Max also has advantages for clients. According to Rich, clients are given access to the stylesheets for their projects. The client can’t make changes to the stylesheet, but can review it during the editing and advise the editor of things to be done differently (e.g., use distension rather than distention or use an en-dash rather than a hyphen in a particular circumstance). In addition, the client can download a copy of a current-to-the-minute stylesheet at any time to share with proofreaders and authors — including years later when it is time to prepare a new edition.

There’s far more to this program, but these aspects alone make it worth using. I’m hoping that Rich can and will make Max available to colleagues who don’t work with him, because it’s definitely a valuable tool. There’s even something cozy and personal about a program called Max.

And now that I’ve mastered Max, I may feel up to trying macros!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

October 1, 2014

What a Tale We Tell

Editing is intended to provide the polish to a story. Cicero gave three reasons for telling a story: “to teach, to please, to move.” Although these are not all of the reasons to tell a story, they do form a sound foundation for telling of all types of tales. Editors take the rough tale and polish it so that the tale does teach, please, and move a reader.

As has been noted many times on An American Editor, editing is a craft. One cannot simply hang out a shingle and magically have the skills to change carbon to diamond. Editors sharpen their skills with each manuscript they work on. How well we polish a manuscript tells a lot about how good an editor we are.

We all are familiar with those books that blatantly boast of poor editing. Yet some of those badly written and even more badly edited (assuming they were edited at all) manuscripts sell well. Why is that? It is because the consumer/reader has been poorly educated and doesn’t recognize dreck when she reads it. (It is also because them author has connected with readers regardless of whether the book is editorially perfect.)

And it seems that things are getting worse, not better. Increasingly, I find editors lack the fundamental skills needed to be editors and business people — they lack both the editing skills and the business skills, a very deadly combination — but they do have one very important attribute: They can be hired cheaply.

And therein lies the tale of editing.

Editing probably began with contracts and disputes over contractual terms. Two people without advanced authorial skills probably wrote and signed a contract and discovered when brought before a third person that what they thought they had written, they hadn’t. As the need for clear expression grew, so grew the editorial profession. We may have been called other things, such as scribe or lawyer or priest, but whatever we were called, our role was to bring clarity to chaos.

Over the years, greater skillsets were needed and editors rose to the occasion. We were among the educated classes, and in those eras, class stratification ensured that editors had distinct skills. Not anyone could be an editor.

Then came the shift in philosophy. No longer were classes based on education. Education became free and universal. Everyone who wanted to be an editor had the opportunity to learn the necessary basic skills. The original editors had to learn every task and skill intimately and had to have mastery over language; there were no electronic aids to provide a crutch as a foundation.

The twentieth century became the great leveler; education became universal. What counted was how much education an editor received and the editor’s grasp of language and vocabulary. The editorial eye had to be sharp because there wasn’t a tool available that could point out misspellings or wrong usage except the editor’s eyes and brain.

The late twentieth century brought a revolution to the special status of editors. First came grade inflation — everyone got an A for effort. Then came personal computers with squiggly lines beneath alleged misspellings. The combination of these two at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries finally leveled the ground to a perfectly flat line. Editing became a profession of whoever wanted to be called an editor; elitism was destroyed.

Amidst that destruction one hoped that editing would suffer a rebirth, have a phoenix moment, but that is not what happened. Instead, the bane of civilization occurred — a worldwide recession. With it came job losses, yet people still had bills to pay and food to buy. Combine the Great Recession with the greatest equalizer of all time, the Internet, and a deadly cocktail for professional editors was born — the door swung wide for the exponential growth of the numbers of editors.

With that growth in numbers of editors came competition for editing assignments. Competition was done on the only known basis for competition: price. Every publisher, regardless of size and including the self-publishing indie author, wanted lower costs, which meant that hidden services, like editing, suffered greatly. Yet, surprisingly, the number of editors didn’t decrease — it increased. So, editors began competing on price.

The more editors competing, the lower the price. Ultimately, the price became a drag on the profession. Increasingly, professional editors struggled. Increasingly, there was author dissatisfaction with the quality of the editing received. Interestingly, an increasing number of book reviewers noted poor editing.

Editors are on the brink of becoming commodities. The link between professional editors and quality editing is being stretched thin — so thin that eventually it will break.

I know that many AAE readers will read this and say this is not true, this isn’t happening to them. They are still both important and relevant to their clients. But if you look at the broader picture and try to see down Future Road, you will see that the walls within which lies the editor’s craft are being assaulted and weakened by the ease with which one can hang out an editor’s shingle that says “open for business.”

We need to write a different ending to this tale while the ending is still in flux. Professional editors need to support more stringent educational standards so that upcoming workers have the intellectual skills and exposure to be good editors. As noted in earlier essays, we need to support and advance certification and education for editors. We need to sell ourselves to the publishing industry as necessary and needed participants in the production process. We must make the case for the differences between professional and amateur editing. Above all, we must believe we are relevant and proclaim it.

We need to absorb some lessons from accomplished authors. The diligence that goes into an author’s telling of a tale is waiting to be learned by editors for application to the editorial process. We need to make sure that the story we tell about professional editing teaches the value of editing and professional editors; that the tale is told in such a way as to capture the imagination of publishers and authors; and that there is a pathway to move from amateur to recognized professional.

In the continued absence of telling our story, our profession will continue to decline. Our standards will become ever more lax and our income ever lower. As that occurs, our skills will decline. Ultimately, future clients will see no need for professional editors; future clients will do as nonprofessional editors do — run spell check and call it editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 24, 2014

The Business of Editing: The Key to Success

Every business has keys that lead to success, but only one is the key to success — all the other keys just open doors on the success pathway; this one key opens the door to success itself.

We all can identify many of these keys already; all we need to do is think about what makes for success. For editors those keys include honed language skills, management skills, computer skills, proper equipment, a library that supports our work, and so on. Every one of these keys is important to carry us along the path to success, but not one alone — or several in combination — is sufficient to bring success.

Of course, there is one problem with the foregoing, and it is a fundamental problem: What is success?

If you gather editors together and ask that question, you will get a variety of answers. But I think the answers, no matter how phrased, basically boil down to these propositions: job satisfaction and sufficient income that the editor can live independently on their own income. In my view, the latter, financial success, subsumes the former, job satisfaction, because if you do not have financial success, it is hard to focus on those elements of the job that bring satisfaction.

Consequently, I define success as financial success. Let me be clear, before the uproar, that financial success is a long continuum: for some it is earning enough to pay the rent and put food on the table; for some it is earning a “professional’s” income; for some it is earning a six-figure income year after year; for some it is earning enough each year to pay for one or two family vacations. In other words, what amounts to financial success is personal; there is no magic number that separates success from nonsuccess except as we each individually draw it. The only commonality is that we are speaking in terms of financial success and not job satisfaction or some other criterion.

So each of the many keys lead down this pathway to success but none of the keys opens the magic door — none are the key to success, except for one not yet mentioned: self-confidence.

I believe firmly that the ultimate key to success is self-confidence. Those of you who have suffered through my presentations at conferences know that I keep repeating throughout my presentations this bit of braggadocio:

Three things I alone am —
— I am the greatest
— I am the smartest
— I am the best

Needless to say, each ends with “editor” or “businessperson” but it could as easily end with proofreader, indexer, mother, father, surveyor, writer, publicist…the list is endless.

In the beginning, participants are annoyed. After all, who am I to proclaim myself the best editor; there are bound to be better editors somewhere in the universe. Eventually, it dawns on some participants that I am making a point: The key to success is self-confidence and you need to think of yourself in these terms.

If, and only if, you think of yourself in these terms can you convey this aura to a client. No client wishes to settle for second best and every client will shop around until they find the editor who convinces them — albeit subconsciously — that she is the greatest, the smartest, and the best editor and there is no need nor logical reason for the client to search further.

Think about repeat business. Why do you think you are getting repeat business or referrals from clients? It isn’t because you dye your hair (assuming you aren’t bald like me) or because you are 30 and I’m in my sixties or because your name begins with R (hmmm, so does mine) or any of the reasons why one wins a beauty contest that focuses on beauty. Clients return because you have convinced them that you are the greatest, the smartest, and the best.

You convince them by the work you turn out and by the air of confidence you display when you communicate with them. You have made an editorial decision and wonder how to convince the client that it is the correct decision and the decision that the client both should and needs to accept. Experienced editors know that simply saying “Chicago says” isn’t sufficient; it also isn’t sufficient to say “because I say so” — unless you have already convinced the client that you are the greatest, smartest, and best. Believing you are adds power to communication.

Essentially you are a salesperson and the product you are selling is yourself.

When you tell a repeat client that this new project will cost three times what previous projects cost, what happens? It depends, doesn’t it, on what the client thinks of you and your services. You may have a ready explanation (e.g., it would require me to work my normal days off or to give up my holiday), but clients have their own constraints and seek the path of least resistance, which in budgeting means looking elsewhere.

Yet when you have that combination of quality services and high confidence, and you send that message to clients, clients first want to try to come to terms with you, not take the path of least resistance. I know this from my own experience; I know this from more than 30 years of running a highly successful business. In not one of those years of freelance editing have I ever had to complain of no business or business that didn’t pay enough for me to be successful. Colleagues who I know who have similar histories all exude that key to success: self-confidence.

Self-confident colleagues, like me, never worry about what will happen if a client stops calling. Why? Because we have sufficient confidence in our abilities and our salesmanship of our abilities and ourselves to know that for every client who stops calling, there are several waiting for the opportunity to hire us. Importantly, they think we are the editors they must hire.

Last week I was offered eight new projects, seven at rates higher than my usual rate. Why? Because clients understand and believe that

— I am the greatest
— I am the smartest
— I am the best

Why do they understand and believe that? Because my work is superior and because I have the self-confidence to tell clients that the three words that best describe me and my services are greatest, smartest, and best.

Self-confidence is the key to success; everything else is just a key on the path to success. Do you have self-confidence? Do you exude it so that your clients believe it?

“If you don’t believe you are the greatest, who will?”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 10, 2014

The Business of Editing: The Pride of Price

Over the past several months I have “listened” to discussions of pricing and I have also received numerous applications for employment that include statements of minimum expected fee. What I have noticed about all of these discussions and applications is that there is a wide gap between market valuation and personal valuation.

Just one example from an application: The applicant expected to be paid a minimum of $50 per manuscript page for editing. Just one example from a discussant: The discussant believed her editing was worth not less than $85 an hour.

In neither instance do I think that it is impossible for their services to be worth the price they want. What I do think, however, is that (a) the market will not pay that price and (b) they have not provided sufficient justification for that pricing. BUT, more importantly, they have imposed pride of price rather than viewed the market, determined what the market will bear, and figure out how to convert what the market will bear into what they think their service is worth.

Editors are like most professionals: Because we view ourselves as highly skilled professionals, we value our services at prices we think are commensurate with our skills. All of us do this, myself included. Yet some of us recognize that the market will not and cannot value our services the same.

I have, on occasion, asked these editors how they justify whatever price they have determined their services are worth. I have yet to receive a well-reasoned, carefully mapped out justification. We know that, for example, the grocery store justifies the price of a can of tomatoes on the cost to the store for the can, the store’s overhead attributable to the can, and a percentage for profit, all tempered by what the store’s competition charges. Professionals can’t do this same objective analysis for myriad reasons, none of which do we need to address here. It is enough to say that pricing is an art not a science for the professional.

Yet it is this pride of price that, I think, hinders many colleagues from finding financial success. Too many colleagues set an unrealistic price, based on what the market will bear, and are not flexible enough to work for less — as one colleague, told me, “Why insult myself?”

As you have guessed, my view is different. I, too, think my services are very valuable and were I to place a dollar figure on their value from which I would not deviate, I would rarely work. The market in which I move simply does not value editorial services similarly. Consequently, I have placed greater value on having sufficient work to keep me fully occupied throughout the year. In other words, I would rather have sufficient work for 52 weeks at a rate that pays my bills and generates a profit than to have work for only a few weeks a year at a rate the recognizes the value of my skills.

As we have discussed numerous times before, I accept the market rate and work to figure out how to convert that market rate to an effective hourly rate that exceeds my requirements. (For those unfamiliar with the effective hourly rate concept or who would like to refresh their memory, do a search on AAE for “effective hourly rate” and/or begin with this essay: Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I).)

I do not let pride of price interfere with business sense.

This always starts a heated discussion about pricing that revolves around these statements: Make your price too low and not only do you not earn a living but you make it harder for everyone else to charge a more realistic price. Never lower your price: Every year raise your price. Never accept less than you are worth.

First, none of these arguments are sound. They are emotional arguments that are not evidence-based. Second, from a business perspective they are not rational arguments, again because they are not evidence-based. Third, they fail to account for each person’s individual circumstances. It makes a difference if your editing income is the sole income that supports a family of six or is “play” money that allows you to supplement your day-job income so that you can take monthly vacations.

But it is the lack of an evidence basis that is the fatal flaw in these arguments. There is no evidence that any of the arguments can withstand scrutiny — or, more importantly, that they are of any intrinsic value.

Louise Harnby wrote a wonderful essay at her blog, The Proofreader’s Parlour, titled: “I’m a newbie proofreader – should I charge a lower fee?” Her article is well-worth reading for the insights it provides. Alas, I think she omitted the essential answer, which is the need to determine what rate is needed to meet one’s financial obligations and to figure out how to meet that needed rate when the market won’t bear it forthrightly. It matters not a whit what colleagues charge; what matters is what you can charge in your market and can you make that rate a profitable rate. I wrote in my comment to Louise’s article: “You could be the greatest editor of all time — the one that dozens of biographies will be written about — but it matters not one whit if you need to earn $100 an hour but can only manage to earn $25. The best starve as readily as the worst.”

The pride of price is a deadly trap. I know editors who are underworked (in the sense that they are not working every day and wish they were) who could be working more except for that pride of price. This is not to say that there is not a minimum price below which one should not go; there is such a price, but that price should be determined not by pride but by hard calculation that there is no way to convert a fee below that price to a rate that meets one’s needs.

As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to work year round. I know what pricing my market will bear and I can accept that pricing because I can convert it to meet my needs. That pricing is less than I think my services are worth, but I look at the broader picture — over the course of a year rather than over the course of a single project. I recognize that on an individual project I may lose money (in the sense that I do meet my needs), but that doesn’t factor into whether I will take on a project (see The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three). My decision is much more influenced by the number of projects I can expect over the course of the year, because experience has taught me that other projects will more than makeup for the losing project.

Pride of price requires one to focus narrowly on each individual project; meeting one’s needed rate allows for the more expansive view.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 8, 2014

Thinking Fiction: An Overview of the World of Fiction Copyediting

Today’s essay introduces Amy Schneider and a new monthly series, “Thinking Fiction,” to An American Editor. Amy’s focus will be on fiction editing and writing. Please welcome Amy as a new columnist for An American Editor.

________________________

An Overview of the World of Fiction Copyediting

by Amy J. Schneider

When I mention that I spend a fair amount of my professional life copyediting fiction, colleagues (especially those who have edited only nonfiction) and laypeople alike are fascinated. Wow, so you earn your living by reading romances and thrillers? Neat! Well, as with all editing there’s a bit more to it than just reading. Nonfiction editors recognize this, but they worry about getting so caught up in the story that they forget to edit judiciously. Or they worry about sullying the author’s creative work. In my contributions to An American Editor, I hope to address some of these issues and share my approach to copyediting fiction.

What Fiction Copyediting Is Not

  • If you are an aspiring or actual novelist, this is not the time or place to try to take over the telling of the story or critique the work. Your job is mechanical only. You may certainly set your writer’s or critic’s hat off to the side and glance at it from time to time as you copyedit, but do not even think about putting it on. A common saying among editors is “It’s not my book,” and this certainly applies when we are copyediting fiction.
  • This is also not the place to apply your own moral code. Unlike in most nonfiction, you may encounter naughty words, unpleasant people and actions, blasphemy, and (gasp!) sex scenes. Your job is to copyedit the narrative and dialogue in all its unsavory glory. You may certainly choose not to accept projects in genres such as erotica or violent military or paranormal thrillers — but once you do, you’re duty bound to edit the text respectfully and keep it true to itself. (Is that term for a sexual act one word or two? Decide and put it on the style sheet. Not every style sheet is one that you would show to your mother.)
  • In fiction, grammar, punctuation, syntax, style, and the like are much more fluid. Fiction authors often use words to paint a picture, create a mood, wax poetic. Characters may or may not speak grammatical English, whether in dialogue or in first-person narrative. If you are a stickler for language perfection, you must retrain your brain a bit when copyediting fiction. Mind, it’s not a free-for-all, and when copyediting for a publisher you need to balance house style against the author’s voice, but you must also be aware of when it’s okay (or even necessary) to break the rules.

Making the Transition from Nonfiction Copyediting

When I started freelancing, my bread and butter was copyediting college textbooks. Very formulaic, strong adherence to rules. So when I started editing fiction, like my nonfiction editor colleagues mentioned earlier, I worried about interfering with the story or offending the author. But really, copyediting fiction is just wearing a different hat. Instead of keeping the text 100 percent in line with the real world, it is your job to ensure that the story is internally consistent within its own world, whether real or fictional. This means checking both real-world facts (are there mountains in Wisconsin?) and fictional ones (which colors of magic stones are sentient and which are not?); errors in either case may interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of the story (keeping in mind that authors sometimes deliberately fictionalize locations and other facts for various reasons). If the book is part of a series, ideally the same copyeditor will have handled the series from book one onward to ensure continuity across the entire story arc (I’ll talk about series copyediting in a future essay). Here are some of the things you’ll handle as you copyedit:

  • General style sheet: Every book needs one, and fiction is no exception. You need to track treatment of numbers (e.g., they are usually spelled out in dialogue, but not always). You need to keep a list of abbreviations for both real and fictional entities. How is dialogue punctuated? How are we treating internal thought, telepathic dialogue, remembered speech, handwriting, text messages, and so on? These need to be noted on the general style sheet. Which terms of address are capped (Officer, Detective) and which are not (ma’am, sweetheart)? The author may choose one style or another. Or the publisher may request that the author’s style be changed. Because these choices are so fluid in fiction, you need to note them for each book.
  • Characters: Some authors keep rigorous track of their characters’ attributes — but many do not. Or they make changes but don’t catch every instance. Marcel becomes Malcolm. Julie’s eyes change color from blue to green. Greg is left-handed but wears a golf glove on his left hand (oops — most golfers wear the glove on their nondominant hand). Lee is single and an only child — so how is it that she has a niece? Back when you edited book one in the series, you noted that Claude could read ancient Greek, but now in book three he has mysteriously lost that ability. Time to query!.
  • Locations: Again, you’ll track both real and fictional locations. Cathy’s bedroom is on the second floor, and the walls are painted blue. Sticksville is 25 miles from Cityscape. The tree on the west side of the park is a magnificent oak. And so on. So when Cathy walks in the front door of her bungalow and down the hall to her green bedroom, it’s time to query.
  • Timeline and plot: The level of detail here will vary. Some authors use only vague time markers (a few days later; by spring), if any. Others are more specific, mentioning dates, days of the week, and times of day. You need to note all references to time, whether vague or not: Carlos’s birthday is next month. The Friday night knitting club meets tomorrow (in which case today had better be Thursday). The last mention of time today was nine a.m.; has the action moved along sufficiently that it can now be midnight? I use a Word table that looks like a monthly calendar page to track time-related facts, because that’s how my brain works; it also helps me follow timelines that range over weeks or years, to make sure that six weeks isn’t really three or that it’s not snowing in Minnesota in what should be July.
  • Kid gloves: The most important part of your fiction copyeditor’s uniform is your kid gloves. As I alluded to earlier, a work of fiction is the author’s creative work — the author’s baby. Often there is no clear “right” or “wrong.” Query carefully and tactfully. If wording seems awkward enough to pull the reader out of the story, suggest a revision and explain the reason, rather than making the change outright. (Remember that it’s not your book.) I use the word perhaps a lot when querying: “Perhaps substitute [word or phrase] here, [give reason]?” Couch your queries in terms of what’s best for the story or for the reader’s enjoyment.

In future essays, I’ll discuss these and other topics in more depth. I look forward to engaging with you and getting down to the nuts and bolts of editing fiction.

(For another perspective on fiction editing, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction — AAE)

Amy J. Schneider (amy@featherschneider.com), owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Copyediting.com. Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

September 3, 2014

What Should Editors Read?

I recently wrote about the troubles my daughter is having with copyediting of her forthcoming book, The Brooklyn Thrill-Kill Gang and the Great Comic Book Scare of the 1950s by Mariah Adin, in The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit. (By way of a quick update, those troubles continue. I have advised her that in future contracts, she should ask the publisher to agree to allow her to hire the copyeditor and the publisher be responsible for the amount it would pay for an editor it hired.) Her troubles, and continuing troubles, got me thinking about the education of editors.

In thinking about editor education, I realized that the education that an editor receives is not focused. Sure, there are courses that teach some of the fundamentals of how to be an editor, but, as has been argued on An American Editor, I do not believe any of these courses can teach one to be a good editor. (For my view, see Is Editing Teachable?; for a contrary view, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting; also worth reading are the comments to these essays.) Ruth Thaler-Carter wrote a while back about the need for continuing education (see On the Basics: Editors and Education — A Lifelong, Ongoing Process) and has often made a point of emphasizing the value of self-education through reading.

None of these essays address the questions of: What should editors read? and How much should editors read? It is these questions that, I think, are part of the root of the problems of poor and adequate editing. It is the answers to these questions that, I think, distinguish the great (better) editor from competing editors. I also think that the answers to these questions help separate struggling editors from very successful editors.

In discussions with colleagues about reading (What types of books do they read? How many books do they read? How do these books relate, if they relate at all, to the type of editing they do? — Note: Although I use the word book[s] to describe the reading material, it is just a shorthand term for the more general. Reading includes books, journals, magazines, newspapers, to name a few reading material sources; it excludes the material we read to edit.), I have discovered a wide range of reading habits.

Some colleagues read three or four books a year; others tend to read a much larger quantity, 100 or more books a year. Some subscribe to daily newspapers; others occasionally read news online. Some subscribe to general-interest magazines; others only to narrow-interest magazines.

What I have found is that those whose work as editors I consider topnotch read a wide variety of books and a large quantity of books. Similarly, some of those whose work I do not consider to be anything more than okay tend not to read outside of work or read very little and often in narrow genres. The same correlation appears to apply to “success” as an editor (defining “success” in financial terms).

What should an editor read?

The answer is really wrapped in the cloak of describing an editor’s function. If an editor is merely a human version of a spell-check system, then I suspect reading only a dictionary will suffice. But if we view the editor’s role as an author’s helpmate, a much more expansive role, then an editor needs to read a wide variety of things — both fiction and nonfiction. Every book that an editor reads teaches something, if the editor is open to receiving that information.

I have written about the books I buy and read in my On Today’s Bookshelf series of essays, the most recent of which was On Today’s Bookshelf (XVII). In addition to buying and reading those books, I subscribe to numerous periodicals and newspapers and even do some reading online. Does this make a difference in my editing? Yes, it does, because I acquire enough knowledge to ask questions about the material I am editing.

One colleague told me that he edits only fiction and thus doesn’t need to read broadly. I view that as a mistaken belief. Even fiction has to be grounded in reality or the reader will be adrift.

It is equally important to remember that the more broadly one reads, the more likely it is that one will pick up information they will use in their daily editing. For example, a new problem in my daughter’s book was the changing of the quote marks from single to double when it was a quote within a quote. To illustrate, as originally written the sentence might have been: “Yes, when I spoke with John, he said, ‘Do not return ever again!'” It became: “Yes, when I spoke with John, he said, “Do not return ever again!”” Reading books would teach you that the latter is incorrect, simply by its absence from any book.

Reading broadly also gives a sense of timeline. We learn by reading how history unfolds. This may be important in editing when a sequence of events seems to have strayed from the historical timeline we have learned, thus warranting a query. Or we might be able to point out that although two historical figures were contemporaries and knew each other, they subsequently fell apart or that the Napoleon of Andrew Jackson’s presidency was not the Napoleon of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. These may be important to know when editing a Victorian Steampunk novel or a romance novel set in the mid-1800s or a history of the Paris Commune or a biography of Alexander Dumas or Karl Marx.

How much should editors read?

As much as possible. When I speak with clients, I display a broad range of knowledge which gives them confidence in my abilities. When I write to clients, I often recommend books and articles to read because I have learned about their interests or because the information might affect something they have written.

It is important to remember that knowledge can be a marketing tool. By making use of acquired knowledge, an editor instills confidence in the client. It is hard to explain why a change should be made to a manuscript if all you have is a feeling that the change should be made.

Because of our profession, editors need to be widely read and constantly supplementing what they already know with what they have yet to learn. I think one component of the difference between a great (better) editor and the average editor is how broadly and how much the editor reads.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 1, 2014

On the Basics: Thou Shall Behave Ethically — A 4th Commandment for Editors

Thou Shall Behave Ethically —
A 4th Commandment for Editors

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Recent discussions of ethics for editors here and elsewhere have inspired the concept of a fourth commandment:

Thou shall behave ethically.

To have an ethical editing business, it helps to understand two definitions of ethics. As Rich Adin has noted (see The Business of Editing: An Editorial Code of Professional Responsibility), one is “the rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession” and another is “the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy” (vide American Heritage Dictionary).

I see being an ethical editor as somewhat of a combination of the two. I have rules for how I conduct my business — rules that I think can or should apply to any editor who wants to be seen as both professional and ethical — and I have a philosophy grounded in a moral code. That code is based on honesty: being honest about my skills, qualifications, availability, fees, and business model, and being honest with clients about their projects. It’s based on competency — I see competency and ethicality as complementary.

To me, being an ethical editor starts with presenting oneself as an editor, freelance or in-house, only if one has a level of training and experience that can support the claim to being able to do this kind of work. Far too many people nowadays are hanging out shingles or applying for jobs as editors (among other professions) who have no such training or experience. That puts authors and other clients at a serious disadvantage — they are often trusting their work to the hands of untrustworthy editors, and don’t know enough about publishing (or editing) to know the difference.

Granted, many of us start out in editing without much formal training. We learn on the job at publications, or we become editors because we’re the only people in the company who care about good grammar, correct spelling and punctuation, proper usage, and other aspects of ensuring that written material is clear, coherent, consistent, cogent, and whatever other c-words colleagues can come up with to describe well-written documents.

We find a deep-seated love of language, of words, of making clunky material into something readable and usable, even beautiful. We move on from there, sometimes getting additional formal training; sometimes learning from more-experienced colleagues; sometimes developing self-study mechanisms. If we really care about what has become our trade, we look for ways to continually hone our skills and become ever better at what we do. That, to me, is a hallmark of an ethical editor.

It probably should be noted that a skilled editor is not the same as an ethical one, although I like to think that a truly ethical editor is also a skilled one. Someone can have topnotch editing skills and still be unethical — charging for time not spent on a client’s project is probably the most common violation of an ethical code. An honest or ethical editor is one who doesn’t inflate or outright lie about skills and competency.

One of the most important aspects of an ethical editing business is to only charge for the work the editor actually does. If a project is based on a flat fee and the client doesn’t care how long it takes to do the work, it is ethical to charge the full fee, even if it takes less time to finish than expected. However, if the fee is based on an hourly rate, it is dishonest and unethical to charge for more time than one works. If a project is budgeted for 50 hours at $50/hour but it only takes 40 hours to complete the job, the ethical thing to do is to charge the client for only those 40 hours. Such honesty — or ethicality, if you prefer — is not only the right thing to do, even if it means losing a few dollars, but usually works in the editor’s favor over the long term, because it establishes an honest relationship with the client, who is more likely to trust such an editor and thus use that editor again.

An ethical editor knows and uses the standard tools of our profession. We don’t make up rules to suit ourselves or reinforce our own assumptions. Among other things, we learn and internalize the accepted rules of grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. We identify and use the appropriate style manuals for the sector(s) in which we work — the Chicago Manual of Style for book and much magazine publishing; the Associated Press Stylebook for journalism; the Government Printing Office manual for government-agency projects; the American Psychological Association manual for much of academic publishing; the Merck Index, Dorland’s, or, perhaps, American Medical Association manual for medical publications; etc. We have the leading dictionaries on our bookshelves and/or computers.

Of course, someone starting an editing career is unlikely to know any given style manual inside-out; that’s why it helps to work in-house in a professional environment. The ethical editor lets a prospective employer or client know his or her experience level and if  the editor is new enough to the field to still be learning the essentials of whatever manual the employer or client expects the editor to use. Some may think that such honesty will mean losing out on jobs, but we all have to start somewhere, and employers and clients understand that.

Along the same lines, an ethical editor stocks his or her bookcase with guides to grammar, because none of us can claim to be perfect. We’re all likely to have grammar gremlins or simply need the occasional refresher to make sure any changes we make are justified. If nothing else, we may need a reference at hand to support a proposed change with a client who needs to see a reason for everything done to a document beyond “I can’t explain why, but I know this was wrong and that my version is right.” Editors aren’t parents; we can’t get away with “Because I said so.”

Because an ethical editor believes in continually honing skills and knowing when to consult appropriate resources. We invest in the current versions of the appropriate manuals — often, we have more than one on our bookshelves — and learn as much as we can about them. For when the right choice doesn’t leap to mind, we subscribe to online versions of those manuals so we can check or verify our decisions. Beyond those tools, we learn (sometimes even establish) in-house preferences, since a publication, publisher, organization, or company can use one of the standard manuals as a starting point, but go its own way on some details.

We also wait until we know how to use the technical, as well as the academic, tools of our trade before inflicting ourselves on employers or clients. That is, we learn at least the basics of using Word and, in some environments Framemaker, Excel, Acrobat, InCopy, etc.

An ethical editor also stays current on language trends. Language evolves and changes constantly. An ethical editor knows to find ways to pick up on when new words enter the lexicon and existing ones change (just think of the country names that no longer include “the”), through reading and interacting with colleagues.

An ethical editor is connected with trustworthy colleagues and resources to ensure that she or he understands the nature of the work and sees information about new trends or changes in language, editing techniques and tools, useful resources, and other aspects of being effective and professional. (Interacting with unethical or dishonest editors could make an ethical editor turn into an unethical one, but I find that unlikely.)

Similarly to members of the medical profession, the ethical editor “first does no harm.” It is the role of the editor to enhance, clarify, and convey the author’s or client’s voice, not to rewrite the work in the editor’s voice or from the editor’s point of view. This also relates to being trained and experienced in grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, etc. — doing no harm means not trying to fix clients’ material based on inadequate skills and knowledge, because that would mean both introducing errors and missing problems a skilled editor would be expected to recognize and fix.

Another important element to being an ethical editor is to incorporate clear communication with clients into our business practices and processes. That means letting clients know how we will work on their projects, what the fee will be, that we will meet their deadlines, and if there are problems that affect how and whether the editor can do the work and still meet those deadlines. It means asking questions rather than making assumptions, and keeping the client informed along the way.

The ethical editor does not do certain kinds of projects — writing a thesis or dissertation for someone, for instance, no matter how tempting the fee. An ethical editor may develop a kind of radar for material that doesn’t “fit” and should learn how to use antiplagiarism tools on behalf of clients such as book publishers and journals. An ethical editor also doesn’t do the client’s writing.

An ethical editor learns the differences between various levels of editing and between editing and proofreading, how to educate clients on what those differences are, and how to provide the services a project needs. For many reasons, both a lot of prospective clients and some colleagues have no idea that there’s a difference between copyediting and substantive or developmental editing, or between any type of editing and proofreading. Some clients are trying to get higher-level skills at lower-level fees or wages; others are truly ignorant of the difference. Either way, the ethical editor speaks up.

Being an ethical editor boils down to being honest about all aspects of one’s work process, skills, and presence in the field. To hold up your head and be a success in our profession,

Thou shall behave ethically.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

August 27, 2014

The Ethics of Editing: The Sour Job

Teresa Barensfeld asked this question:

If a job is going sour, do you (a) cut corners, (b) tell the client and try to renegotiate time and/or money, (c) just grind through it even though you’re making no money and the rent/mortgage/bills are due, (d) something else?

I suspect that all of us have faced this problem in our editing career. I also suspect that each of us has a different approach to the problem. But let us start at the start of the problem: with ourselves.

When we took on this souring job, did we ask to see the manuscript or a sample before agreeing to do the editing? If we did, then why didn’t we see the problems that are now causing the job to sour? If we didn’t, why didn’t we?

In discussions, many editors state that they always ask to see a sample and that they instruct the client as to what they want to see. Other editors, like myself, never ask to see a sample unless it is a one-off project for a one-off client, which would be the usual case when dealing directly with the author. In the one-off instance, I ask to see the whole manuscript and I skim it. But when I am doing work for a packager or a publisher, I never ask to see a sample (sometimes they send me sample chapters).

Now that I have stated my blanket rule, let me state the “exception.” If the schedule is short in comparison to the client’s estimate of the manuscript size, and if the client also states that a medium or heavy edit is required, I do ask to see the entire manuscript. I want to do my own page count so I can determine whether the schedule is doable.

Aside from doing my own page count to evaluate the schedule, I pretty much rely on my rule of three, which we discussed in The Business of Editing: The Rule of Three. But I’m drifting from the posed questions, so let’s drift back.

Once I agree to undertake a project, I feel bound to perform the agreed upon job for the agreed upon fee and in the agreed upon time (assuming that is at all possible). So, given the choices Teresa outlined, I would adhere to choice c.

If I am not making money on a project, that is my fault, not the client’s fault. If I didn’t ask to see sample chapters, that is my fault. If I didn’t do my own page count, that is my fault. If I failed to determine how difficult the editing would be, that is my fault. Basically, the client has no fault in this transaction, so why should the client suffer any penalty?

If the client told me that the manuscript ran 500 pages and the client didn’t have all of the manuscript available for me to do a page count at the time I had to make a decision, and I have hit page 425 and know that I still have 10 chapters to go, and when I finally receive the remaining chapters I discover that instead of there being 75 pages to go, there are 500 pages to go, then the fault lies with the client (assuming I asked for the complete manuscript; if I didn’t ask, then none of this matters — it remains my fault) and I would advise the client that the schedule is not doable and needs to be renegotiated.

(Not asked and not addressed is the situation in which I have calendared for the 500-page manuscript based on the client’s representation and schedule, but subsequently discover the manuscript is much longer and needs more time, but I am already committed to another project for that time.)

What I would not do — ever — is cut corners or try to renegotiate the fee, unless the fee was a project fee based on the original representation of size. If the fee is per-page fee or an hourly fee, I would simply apply that same rate to the additional pages and time. If the fee arrangement was a project fee based on the manuscript being a certain size, and if the final size significantly differs, and if the client will not renegotiate the fee, then I think it is correct to return the balance of the project to the client, once I have edited the amount I agreed to edit.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to how much preparation we editors do when determining whether or not to take on a project. The more preparation we do, the less likely a project will go sour. Having said that, I realize that in evaluating a project I may not have looked at the most problematic chapters, the chapters that cause a project to sour. But if those chapters were available to me for the asking, then it is my fault and I live with my poor decision making; if the chapters were not available, then it is the client who is at fault and who needs to bear the consequences.

As the experienced editor, I should know whether I can do a medium edit of a manuscript written by nonnative English speakers and that is 500 pages within 10 editing days. If I say I can, then I need to do it; if I don’t believe I can, then I need to negotiate with the client before accepting the project. If I accept the project knowing that it will be very difficult for me to meet the schedule, then it is my fault and I need to figure out how to accomplish the task.

Which raises another side, but important, issue: editing days. When a client sends a project with a two-week schedule, the client counts every day in that two-week period as an editing day. In addition, the client thinks in terms of full days. I, on the other hand, do not count weekends and holidays as editing days and I recognize that quality begins to decline rapidly after about 5 hours of editing. That is, I calculate the maximum editing day length as 5 hours of editing.

The 500-manuscript page project is viewed by the client as requiring editing of 36 pages a day (2 weeks = 14 editing days) at a rate of 4.5 pages an hour. I view that same project as requiring 56 pages per day (2 weeks = 9 editing days) at a rate of a little more than 11 pages an hour. Consequently, the issue becomes do I think I can do a quality medium edit at the rate of 11+ pages per hour? If yes, the project can be accepted; if no, then schedule needs to be negotiated. If the client insists on the two-week schedule, then the fee has to rise because I will need to work weekends to meet it.

But once I have accepted the job, as long as any fault in the decision-making process was mine, I do not return to the client because the job is turning sour. I “just grind through it even though [I’m] making no money and the rent/mortgage/bills are due.” If any fault lies with the client, then I try to renegotiate the schedule, but not the fee (unless it was a project fee and the size of the manuscript has changed significantly). Unfortunately, that leaves me in the same position of grinding through.

I remain a firm believer that a deal is a deal and maintaining that deal is the ethical way to do business. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 25, 2014

The Practical Editor: What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction

What You Need to Know to Edit Fiction

by Erin Brenner

A copyediting student asked me recently how she could learn to edit fiction. The copyediting and copyediting certificate program I teach in covers basic and intermediate skills of copyediting. While it’s a good program, it doesn’t cover everything (no program could). Hence, my student’s question on what to do next.

To specialize in editing any subject, you should have a good grasp of that subject. I participated in a Twitter discussion lately on how much you have to know to copyedit a subject intelligently. We didn’t conclude anything, but we generally agreed that you have to know something about the subject to edit it.

What I know about fiction, I learned in obtaining my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature. At this point, a lot of it comes naturally to me, so I had to do some research on what resources were out there and what other editors did with fiction manuscripts.

Disappointingly, there aren’t many training tools (an opportunity for someone, surely!) and of those out there, few seem to distinguish genre fiction (science fiction, romance, mystery, etc.) from literary fiction (everything else). Naturally, if you want to edit genre fiction, you want to be familiar with the specifics of the genre, as well.

Here’s what I gathered.

Developmental Fiction Editing Tasks and Resources

Generally speaking, a developmental editor works with the manuscript’s structure, either before the author has written the book (common in nonfiction) or after (common in fiction). It’s the big-picture view.

As a developmental editor, you’re looking for structural and organizational problems. You’re judging whether the author’s concept or theme works throughout the manuscript. Is the structure logical and appropriate? You’re looking at the author’s voice closely: Is it consistent? Appropriate for the story and audience? You’re also looking for sections that don’t work, whether they ramble on or are starved for detail.

Beyond that, you need to look at the various elements of the fiction work:

  • Plot. Does the plot make sense? Does it hold together? Are there any holes?
  • Timeline and events. Is the timeline logical and believable? Do events advance the plot? Build character? Are there any events that don’t add to the story in some way?
  • Setting. Is the setting appropriate for the story? Does it enrich the story or seem at odds with it?
  • Pacing. Different stories have different speeds. Does the pacing here seem to drag? Move too quickly?
  • Characters. Are the characters well-formed and believable? Do they grow, as real people do? How well do characters interact with each other?
  • Dialogue. Does the dialogue match the character? Does it seem believable? Move the plot along? Is there any dialogue that seems mismatched in some way?

Though it doesn’t deal with fiction in particular, Developmental Editing by Scott Norton is the go-to resource for editors wanting to do this type of editing. The Author-Editor Clinic offers online courses in developmental editing for fiction and creative nonfiction.

For fiction in particular, try resources for about literature itself: themes, models, symbols, archetypes, and so on. One promising book (which I haven’t read) is How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. It appears to have a good overview that would give editors a working understanding of general fiction. (If you read it, let me know what you think of it.)

If you’re up for a challenge and really want to dig into literature, check out the works of Joseph Campbell and The Nature of Narrative by Robert Scholes, James Phelan, and Robert Kellogg.

Midlevel Fiction Editing Tasks and Resources

Any time you define editing stages, someone else will have different definitions. One editor’s developmental editing is another’s structural editing. A third editor might see structural and line editing as the same stage, with developmental being its own stage.

Whatever you call this stage that comes between developmental and copyediting, you’ll be doing a line-by-line edit of many of the tasks in the developmental edit. You’ll also look at flow, usage, and sometimes language mechanics.

I couldn’t find any resources for this specific stage of fiction editing. (If you know of any, please share them in the comments.) A trained editor could pick up the skills necessary from a developmental fiction editing resource, I’d wager.

Copyediting Fiction Editing Tasks and Resources

Copyeditors look at the word and sentence level of a manuscript. Grammar, usage, spelling, and style are all concerns here. So are logic, consistencies, and basic facts.

To copyedit fiction, you should be familiar with some of the basics of story structure, story elements, and character building so that you can edit without harming the story. You need to be alert for continuity issues (e.g., changes in character descriptions) and plausibility. If the story is set in present day, the details should be right. If it’s set in the future or on another planet, the world should follow the rules the author set up. Keep an eye out for possible trademark and copyright issues, too.

Editcetera has a correspondence course on copyediting fiction, and at Copyediting we’ve covered fiction editing in a couple of ways:

  • A fiction-editing audio conference with Amy Schneider. For those who don’t know, Amy works as a freelance copyeditor for the big publisher, and authors regularly request her (translation: she really knows her stuff).
  • The April-May 2013 issue of the Copyediting newsletter. This issue contains several articles on fiction editing, including one by Amy on the style sheet she developed for editing fiction. I’ve used the style sheet; it’s fantastic.

As I said at the beginning, a lot of what I know about fiction I internalized a long time ago. What other tasks do you think are particular to fiction editing? What resources do you use to obtain the skills necessary? Share your thoughts below!

(Starting in September, you can read more about fiction editing in Amy Schneider’s monthly column.—AAE.)

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

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