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.

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