Monday, May 1, 2017

Before Becoming a Freelance Editor…

As the most indecisive person in the world, officially declared on June 7th, 2008 (the day of my graduation from high school), I know how easy it is to be overwhelmed with decisions. For the author it’s a constant battle, even outside of the constant fabrication of fiction.

Today, many authors are bombarded with options, and worse when you choose the self-publishing route. No guidance, no standards in place, you get to do whatever you want! And that can make it hard to know what you want is.

But the truth is, the decisions aren’t always as overwhelming as they seem to be. Sometimes it’s just about pinpointing what you’re actually trying to do.

On the internet, you’ll find some worrisome people claiming to be professional editors; just like anyone can be a writer, anyone can be a freelance editor, but unlike someone exaggerating their practice as a creator, inexperienced editors can be extremely detrimental.

Two years ago I came across a man who claimed that because he had a professional editor, he could charge 25 dollars an ebook. At first he sung her praises, stating she only found a handful of errors in an entire manuscript. He revealed that she was a retired school teacher, and was defensive anytime someone suggested she might not know what she was doing. You could see his Tweets changing their tune over the months:

While January, he claimed…

“My first edited book had 13 errors in 400 pages – and those 13 mistakes were found. I did a good job editing, but I had it professionally edited.”


“My editor Trina said the book is better than most published.”

But in March it turned to…

“Anyone know an effective editor for my second and third books? I had Trina do Book One and it was OK, but she did not do things all that well.”

Ending in May with…

“Doing another edit of my book. My editor did a slipshod job.”

Due to his lack of self-censorship and awareness, I learned a lot about the ego, including my own, and self-publishing. Nowhere had I seen authors willing to admit the things he explained repeatedly, and I could see some of myself in him. He was fascinating in a morbid sense, and I kept some of his quotes as a reminder about how our views change over time, and how we can make decisions based on certain presumptions that may or may not prove incorrect.

I also found myself in a discussion with a man on a writing blog which advised not using exclamation points or anything but ‘said’ to improve dialogue. I mentioned how often writers get distracted with these meta-mechanics and found that focusing on subtext first will naturally smooth out an organic use of punctuation and dialogue tags, while harping on those things tend to mislead the writer into a distracting style.

A writer non-related to the blog posted a sort of disagreement, claiming that “The important thing is to remember that people don’t talk as they write.” I disagreed, saying that was something to be considered later on, once the writer isn’t struggling with his disdain for the passage, him promoting a stylistic consideration that distracts from the bigger picture. He kept trying to agree with me even though he didn’t, or get me to agree with him, but he revealed something that made me extremely nervous: he said he was a professional editor, and suggested that with many of his authors, the dialogue just needed a few ums and ers and it was golden. I looked to his books to see the results of his philosophy, as one gossip-monger is compelled to do.

             “Haven’t a clue, Steve… Dunno why he couldn’t have asked you either… just wanted the senior officer, I s’pose… some people are like that… eh?... Did you notice the strange way he was talking though? … Very strange choice of words, a bit, kind of, old fashioned sounding, if you know what I mean.” Anderson nodded.
            “Yeah… kind of… err… ‘correct’. I know exactly what you mean… as if it’s not his first language, right?”

Prior to even examining his writing style, I suggested that his attempts at writing “naturally” would be more unique and noticeable than someone writing correctly with good subtext, and that ums and ers would not fit in with most writers’ voice, actually becoming jarring.

I didn’t say it, but he sounded like the sort of ‘editor’ who tried to rewrite books in his style, a style that he believes to be default but is actually far more noticeable than purple prose or formal vernacular. He proved my point, in a way. His overuse of the ellipses (…) distracted from the point while the subtext is absent. Chris the writer’s opinion is far more prevalent than Nick the gruff cop’s. The character’s pacing in speech isn’t any different regardless of if he’s getting a promotion or discussing an off putting phone call. We don’t learn much about Nick as he talks, the character’s voice exactly the same as everyone else’s. We don’t learn much about his mood because the word choice doesn’t alter. His personality is hidden with these decorative “y’reckons,” illustrating him as more insecure than the described “gruff.”

This conversation stuck with me—I’ve talked about it in other posts—mostly because how much he asserted how easy it was to improve dialogue through these ‘decorative’ additions, and how he did so while working as an editor for a small press. I’ve heard the other side of the story multiple times where writers get picked up by these small presses to have their work butchered by some freelance editor the publisher threw a manuscript at. If I had hired this man and he had jammed in some ums into my dialogue—and only jammed in some ums—I would have fired him. Good editors are good critical thinkers, not co-writers, and they don’t use easy tricks to jazz up the writing, not on the majority anyway. If they’re content editing, they’re pushing you deeper. If they’re line editing, they’re sticking with clarity and accuracy. If they’re proofreading, they’re leaving your style alone.

This all arose again when I read a young writer claiming to be a professional editor and discussing some troubles with the process, and the way he described it, it sounded more like he was trying to be a ghostwriter, not an editor, and people weren’t happy with him. What’s more, it became apparent he’d never had anyone give him feedback on his work. He didn’t believe in a beta-reader, and his ‘professional edits’ were done by himself.

One of the reasons I would want to spend several grand on self-publishing if I went that route would be for the editor. I actually believe that there can be fantastic ones who charge for less, and of course terrible ones who charge for more, but having hired artists in the past, I know that severe vetting is an important part of getting freelancers. Actual professional experience, someone who has worked for a reputable publisher, is one of the few things you can look for that will successfully indicate capability. I wouldn’t necessarily rule out cheaper editors, but the sad truth is that anyone these days can slap up a website and call themselves an editor, and you never know what you’re going to end up with. Even 500 dollars to someone who has no experience can be a painful blow to the wallet.

I’ve had some wonderful feedback from people who read my work for free. I’ve had some pretty bad ones too. One woman I lament because she was so sweet, so dedicated, but stuck predominately to proofreading when she wasn’t well versed in grammar. I tried to parse out some useful criticisms, but when what someone is saying is mostly incorrect, anything that’s questionable just automatically gets thrown out. The hard part of getting a freelance editor isn’t so much the affordability, but finding the right person… someone you trust.

Point is, if you’re considering becoming a freelance editor, whether that be for a small press or on your own, remember that editing is a skill you learn through experience, and you can do some major damage when it’s the blind leading the blind.

Before you put up your webpage, make sure that you—

-Have experience receiving and delivering feedback.

Knowing how to talk to people is part of your job. It doesn’t matter you’re a literary genius if everyone shuts down and/or fires you when you make a suggestion. You also need to know how to communicate. Most great ideas are muddled through poor delivery.

If you’ve never worked with an editor yourself, you’re less likely to understand the pratfalls, irritations, and successful tactics. Worse is if you’ve never had a conversation about anyone’s writing period. You have to learn how to put your ego aside, especially as an editor, and focus on the author’s voice and goal, understand the best and clearest way to speak to them, and not act like a frustrated writer.

-Be clear about what editors do.

Many new editors start to get into ghostwriting territory, which is typically undesirable to both parties. In most circumstances, however, editors don’t revise for the author. Depending on what they’re being hired for, they might make small changes; if you’re copyediting and/or line editing, maybe you will go through and fix the random tense issues or make specific suggestions on how to fix a POV shift, or even alter a word for clarity if that’s what was agreed on. If you’re developmental/content editing though, you may just tell the author that these errors exist overall. Your prices and contract should reflect exactly what your focus will be, and the good thing is that you can state and negotiate how you want to go about things, and you don’t necessarily have to do things the way others do it.

But it’s also important to remember you’ll be working with people who are new to the process, especially earlier on in your career. It becomes your responsibility to let them know what they should expect from an editor, that they don’t agree to something just because they think they have to. If you do anything out of the ordinary, you should be upfront about what that is and that they don’t have to put up with it.

You should also be clear (in your contract) about exactly what everyone’s responsibilities are. Breaking deadlines on either part are a breach of contract and will be the first thing to save you in a dispute. It will also prevent the writer from trying to get several free extra edits, or complaining that you didn’t do your job because there was a miscommunication about what they wanted.

-Know your strengths and weaknesses.

Sometimes people don’t know grammar as well as they think they do. I’m positive that I use commas wrong more often than I believe, even though I look up the rules pretty frequently. You don’t always know what you don’t know, but you should have spent a good amount of time learning about proper grammar before getting paid to fix it.

The young professional editor didn’t realize how dialogue was punctuated. The ellipsis guy didn’t realize that ums and ers are pretty rare in most dialogue. A retired English teacher isn’t going to recognize the industry standards.

It actually doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t offer up your services, but if you don’t know the rules for proofreading very well, you might strictly limit yourself to developmental/content editing.

In fact, even if you are an excellent writer, you might find you’re not cut out for editing other people’s work at all. It requires patience, tact, and helping someone find their voice, their philosophy, and meet their goals. If you’re good at writing in your style, you might not be able to help people who work outside of it.

-You are the wise man, and sometimes it’s your job to remind your writer you can be wrong.

When dealing with inexperienced writers (and editors), you might find a lot of the hostility comes from the need to be right. Often times it’s best to encourage healthy disagreement in order to diffuse the tension towards your opinions, which will make them more open to considering the flexibility and application of the advice. The opposite is also true. Some writers have trouble questioning suggestions and asking themselves if it’s really right for them. A good editor will help the author think critically, even if it means disagreeing with her own opinion.

Truth is, most of editing really is subjective. Ideally, it’s from someone who has more experience solving these problems, but in some ways it’s just about having a second eye. The biggest issue with these new freelance editors is when both parties behave as if there is a correct and incorrect answer, like it’s black and white, fully ignoring one member’s perspective in favor of the other.

You’ll also want to be honest if the fit isn’t right. If they’re writing something you don’t like, you should direct them to getting an editor who is interested in the subject matter.

Ask yourself, why become an editor?

People who are just looking for a little more money on the side, or are seeking empowerment from giving advice (what has two thumbs), are less likely to be useful and actually end up being counterproductive or even detrimental. Frustrated writers, one-trick ponies (“I search for every time someone uses ‘was’ and know how badly it’s written.”) or those who don’t respect fellow authors can cause lasting problems for someone who doesn’t have experience in vetting others’ opinions. Even when you have learned how to deal with jackasses and misinformation, it’s easy to have an intrusive seed planted in your mind. There are some creative choices that I can’t make to this day without thinking back to a disagreement with a literal-minded critique partner.

This isn’t just about saving yourself some heartache. There are good authors who just don’t have the temperament to teach or advise, who will get into a fight with some egomaniac debut novelist who hasn’t yet learned how to process feedback.

This is about the overwhelming confusion that writers can experience when dealing with receiving edits and the responsibility editors have to take care of their clients. It’s about the massive misinformation that’s put out there, and the terrifying realization that someone is exchanging money for incorrect or problematic edits.

Whether it be the guy who added some ums to a newly signed author, or the retired school teacher who claimed “I’d” is not a contraction of “I had,” or a young professional who rewrote an entire section of a manuscript and was surprised at the anger of the writer, there is a lot of ways for editing to go down a bad path. This is by no means a reason not to offer up your services, just a reminder that you have a responsibility to these people to be certain on what you’re doing.

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