So you want to be a freelance editor? Tips from the coalface

Daniela BookMachine

It is a truth universally acknowledged that book editors spend their days languidly leafing through the pages of books and occasionally waving a red pen in the vague direction of a stray comma or unruly capital… Or so I’ve been told – on numerous occasions. But never by the lucky ones who get to toil day-in day-out at the coalface of editing, diligently chipping away at a manuscript, carefully polishing it until it shines and looks its best. Funnily enough, they tell a different story. Don’t get me wrong: it’s an honour and a privilege to be involved in the creation of something so precious, but it’s a job that comes with some difficulties and pitfalls. So, take a seat, get comfy and let me tell you some of them…

1) Tread softly because you tread… on a tried-and-tested style

Bring out the champagne! You’ve just landed an awesome project, working for a well-known author and you think you might self-combust with the excitement of it all. They are lovely and just as amazing as you had imagined them to be, but before you start floating away on your happy cloud, hold on tight to your editor hat: you still have a job to do.

Well-established authors have their personal style and, normally, a well-established readership keenly awaiting their next book. As their editor, you need to tread lightly, ensuring that their latest output is the best it can possibly be without stomping all over their carefully crafted sentences. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything they say: you would be doing them a disservice, as they have come to you because you are the expert in this field and they need your input. However, keep an open mind when it comes to certain aspects of grammar, even though they might be your personal bugbear, or certain sentence structures you might dislike profoundly – and before you go rushing into making hasty changes, make sure that you familiarise yourself with their previously published books. If it’s a tried-and-tested style that they have used before successfully, you need to let it go.

2) Working with new authors

On the opposite end of the scale to the seasoned writer you’ll find them: the fresh-faced hopefuls who have just embarked on their first journey through the publishing world. The inexperienced author doesn’t really know what to expect, so your job is to guide them through the process, ensuring they feel comfortable at every stage. Their enthusiasm is brilliant, and can be uplifting, but do remember that at times it might need to be curbed a little. As an editor, make sure you manage their expectations, are always clear about what is going to happen through the various stages and set some boundaries.

3) Dealing with perfection (aka be careful what you wish for)

This mostly applies to freelancers, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong), and it’s probably considered a dream scenario until it happens to you. Most often you’ll hear us despairing of jobs that are so much worse than we anticipated, littered with mistakes that take hours of painstaking work to clear up. And then one day you start working on a new manuscript and you find that it’s pretty much perfect as it is.

After a moment of pure, undiluted joy, the doubts start to creep in… I mean, what am I meant to do with this then? Can I still expect to be paid when the grand total of my contribution has been to take out the double spaces and correct a couple of typos? The worst thing you can do in this situation is to make changes just to show that you’ve done something: you’ll end up, at best, altering the author’s voice for no valid reason whatsoever and, at worst, accidentally introducing mistakes. Instead, be honest and praise the author (or editor if you are proofreading) for a job well done.

Your in-house contact is aware of the state of the material they send out. They’ll have set the appropriate fee for the project accordingly, so your comments won’t come as a surprise.

4) Pick your battles

You thought very few people came even close to your level of grammatical punctiliousness – and you were right! –  but you’ve found the rare one who beats you hands-down and just so happens to be the author of the book you are editing. Every correction you make is meticulously scrutinised and no comma will be left unturned – especially the Oxford ones. So what to do? Simple: pick your battles. Establish which are the red lines that can’t be crossed and make them clear from the outset, explaining (politely, in a non-patronising tone) why that is the case. For everything else, be flexible and don’t dig your heels in unnecessarily over some minor squabble – that way madness lies.

This is just a taste of the type of colourful working life we lead as editors – there truly is nothing like working with the written word – but perhaps you can think of some more?  Essentially, all the advice above can boil down to common sense, which is always a great help in this situations, as is a good dose of patience. Be kind, try to be as accommodating as possible and… take up meditation to stay zen or, if inner peace still eludes you, always keep chocolate to hand.

Daniela Nava (aka The Naked Editor, has been a freelance copy-editor and proofreader for the last 10 years, experiencing most of the dizzying highs and treacherous lows of the profession. Never to be found without a book somewhere on her person, she works on a wide variety of material for publishers and self-published authors.

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