An American Editor

May 31, 2012

The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor

I know I’m a bit out of synch with my usual schedule of posts, but this topic has been swirling around my thoughts for several days, and I’m finally getting time to write about the topic.

The hardest job an editor has, I think, is determining what the author wants the final product to be like. The editor’s role is to help the author mold the manuscript so that it ends up meeting the author’s wants, not the editor’s belief as to what the author wants.

The problem is that few authors provide the information necessary to accomplish the task. In the books I currently work on, any guidance comes from the publisher, not the author, which is not how it should be. Years ago, when I edited fiction and worked directly with authors, a lot of time and effort were wasted with back-and-forth communications in an attempt to land the author and me on the same page. It is one of the reasons why I stopped working directly with authors (although in the past year I have had many requests from authors to edit their fiction, and I am contemplating doing so).

In the case of fiction, I think an author should provide an editor with the following information:

  • a one-page summary of the story;
  • a complete list of characters, including the desired name spelling, any relationships between characters (e.g., spouse of, sister of, granddaughter of), and a physical description of each character;
  • a complete list of geographical locations, indicating whether each is real or made up, and with correct spelling;
  • a list of special terms or made-up words;
  • a timeline of major events; and
  • an indication whether this is part of a series (e.g., book one of a trilogy).

Depending on the story and the author’s plans I would also ask the author to provide additional information.

It is true that an editor can gather all of the above information herself from a first read of the manuscript. But leaving the task to the editor means that there is no assurance that something important will not be missed or misinterpreted. More importantly, it wastes valuable (and costly) time that could be better spent actually editing.

With nonfiction, the list changes based on the type of book and the intended audience. As I have mentioned in other posts, most of my work is in medical textbooks written by doctors for doctors. What I would like to know in advance are such things as:

  • which acronyms can be always used as acronyms and not spelled out because they are commonly understood by the intended audience;
  • how certain terms should be approached (e.g., Is ultrasound acceptable/preferred when talking about the procedure, which is more correctly called ultrasonography? Should it be x-ray or radiography?);
  • preferred spelling where there is more than one spelling option (e.g., distension or distention?); and
  • any other author preferences that I should be aware of.

The point is to make the editing and the review of the editing go smoothly and not end up being focused on something that is minor because it is a pet peeve of the author.

This review focus is really at the core of why an author should provide an editor with as much information as possible. Over the course of 28 years of editing, more times than not, when an author has complained about the editing, the complaint has been because no one passed on information about what the author wanted or expected. The author became focused on the tree rather than the forest.

An often heard complaint from disgruntled fiction authors is that the editor screwed up the book. I don’t doubt that the editor made mistakes, but my first thought goes to the information that the author provided. Was the editor just handed the manuscript or was the editor given sufficient information that the editor’s mistakes are really the sign of an incompetent editor and not of a lazy author?

Unfortunately, there are authors who believe that the only role an editor should play is that of spellchecker because whatever the author wrote is perfect as is, with the exception of the occasional misspelling. I remember editing a novel early in my career where I correct the misuse of their, there, where, were, your, and you’re only to receive a nasty note from the author telling me how I had taken a well-written manuscript and made it a poorly written one, and that I had been hired just to check spelling, not to change words or meaning. I scratched my head vigorously because I would have thought that changing where to were was correcting a misspelling and not changing meaning, but I clearly was missing something. As it turns out, the author believed that using the wrong words reinforced the character’s illiteracy. The author may have intended that but missed the connection because the character used polysyllabic words that indicated a good command of language except for these words. More important, however, was that the author’s failure to communicate to me that the character was intended to be illiterate meant that I didn’t catch the characterization error that resulted from other word choices. The book was a disaster from the author’s intended perspective and I didn’t help matters because of the lack of pre-editing information.

Authors and editors should collaborate, not fight each other. The goal of each is to make the book the best it can be. Authors need to take a more proactive role in the collaborative effort by providing basic information — without waiting to be asked for the information — before the editor begins work. Together, the author and editor can make the author’s voice heard.

September 23, 2011

Worth Noting: Collaboration at Its Best

Filed under: An Art Interlude — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , ,

Sometimes we need a break from the travails of daily life. One good way to take a break is through art. Check out the various murals shown at the Mural Mosaic website of Cochrane, Alberta, Canada.

But don’t just look at them — click on various squares to see the underlying painting. Each square represents 1 square foot and was painted by a different artist. I find it fascinating at how well the squares work together and how what you think you are seeing as part of the whole changes when you click on the individual square.

The mosaics certainly represent the best collaborative efforts of talented artists.

August 31, 2011

What Should an Editor Do?

In her comment to my article, Is the Editorial Freelancer’s Future a Solo Future?, Cassie Armstrong asked:

How does what you suggest differ from the idea of a large publishing house? I see the benefit of working with a group, but perhaps you can expand on the idea. Should I then offer my services to other freelancers and suggest collaboration?

The questions are important and boil down to “What should an editor do?”; the answers difficult.

I don’t see grouping together in the manner of a large publishing house as the answer. The idea is not to offer a full panoply of services — the cradle-to-grave approach — but rather to offer more competitively specialized and focused services.

Currently, large publishing houses (and smaller ones, too) contract with book packagers to provide nearly all of the needed production services. The result is that freelance editors no longer work directly for the publisher; rather, they deal with a third-party intermediary, the book packager. How does the packager get the business? It offers a package price for all the services and allocates a portion of the bid price to various services. Consequently, the editorial services take a beating because they are the least fixed-expense category, largely because this is out-housed work even for the packager.

So where does this leave the solo freelance editor? In a very uncompetitive position. Because we freelancers are always scampering to find the next job to fill a schedule gap, we tend to react to and subsequently forget about solicitations from third-party packagers such as this one I received (errors are as appear in the original):

We’re a leading company in pre-press industry and have huge amount of work for copyediting and cold-reading on regular basis. I’ve got your brief details from web and would like to see if you’re interested to associate with us. The major subject would be Science, Technology and Medicine for Books and Journals. We’re dealing with International clients only so they need very high standard of Quality and on time delivery so there will not be any compromise on these front.

The proposed rates are as under…

Copyediting – $0.80 per page

Cold-reading – $0.50 per page

There will be a Non-competent agreement between us before starting the live project.

These proposals are take-it-or-leave-it proposals because if you don’t want the work, someone else will jump at the chance, even though the rate of pay is absurdly low. What other option, other than turning down the offer, does the solo freelancer have? The publisher has contracted with the packager to provide these services and the packager has a gazillion “professional” freelance editors to solicit, many of whom would jump at this offer.

Solo freelancers may reject the above solicitation, but what about a solicitation that calls for “someone who is a subject matter expert in physiology with a strong science background to copy edit this book, as some sections may need to be rewritten.” In addition, “[m]any of contributors are not English speaker so will need copy edited pretty closely for language, especially for the chapters written by a non English speaker.” (The quotes are exact quotes, errors and all.) The job is for approximately 550 manuscript pages and has to be completed in less than 4 weeks. The proffered pay rate is $3.50 per page.

This second solicitation, although labeled as one for copyediting, is really a developmental editing job, a different type of edit altogether (see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor for a discussion of developmental editing vs. copyediting). Again, because of the sheer numbers of competing solo freelancers, even if you would turn down this job, others would jump at it because they need the work.

The solo freelancer can’t bargain with the packager over the price for several reasons. Here are two: First, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of solo freelancers who would accept the job just to have a job, so you have no bargaining leverage. Second, the packager has already allocated money for the out-house editing and claims no wiggle room. (I once had a packager tell me that it not only had allocated the editorial budget but had also predetermined how much of that budget the packager had to retain because the packager’s editorial division had to show a profit!) Again, you are a solo freelancer in a sea of solo freelancers, and thus without bargaining power.

The idea of solo freelancers grouping together is to offer publishers an alternative, at least for editorial needs. As a group, the freelancers offer the same “advantages” that the packager does but put the group’s editorial skill level on the line. Sit back and think about what differentiates you as a solo freelancer from the packager who offers editorial services in the eyes of the publisher. It is in overcoming of those differences that grouping can offer.

Yet the solo freelancer needs to think carefully about the group concept. The idea is that the group needs to be fairly stable; you need to think and act long-term. You cannot assemble a group for one project then disband and form a different group for the next. There needs to be some permanence.

Perhaps more importantly, when forming a group, you cannot be stuck on the idea that every member of the group must do so many pages of editing every week. You need to approach the group from a more business-like perspective. Remember that the success or failure of the group is a combination of factors, not least of which is finding work for the group. Just like with law firms, the group’s “rainmaker” is as important as the person who actually does the editing work.

Cassie’s question was whether she should contact other solo freelancers and offer to collaborate. Although collaboration has been embraced by many (see, e.g., Ruth Thaler-Carter’s guest article,  Working Alone — Or Not?), collaboration is such a loose alliance that it won’t work over the long-term if the idea is to compete for work as a group.

Collaboration is designed for the individual project: A solo freelancer is offered a project that is too big for him/her to complete within the allotted time and so he/she needs project-specific help. The group, on the other hand, is designed to be ongoing and to solicit work based on there being a group of editors who can tackle a project on an as-needed basis and who are practiced at coordinating style amongst themselves.

The answer to Cassie’s question is not that collaboration is bad or should not be sought, but that it should not be the ultimate goal because it is not a method for obtaining work (which is the purpose of a group); collaboration is a method of completing work.

What should the editor do? What the editor thinks is best for the editor’s future.

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