Editing other people’s books wasn’t something I set out to do. In fact, after my first paid editing job I said, “Oh, no! I didn’t want to like this!” But I couldn’t help it. Taking someone else’s raw work and making it shine brought satisfaction.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve discovered a talent for polishing other people’s words. Maybe you’re considering hanging out an editor “shingle” to help support your writing habit. Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.
1. Before accepting or bidding a job, ask for a couple of chapters. It’s a good idea to get the first chapter as well as something from the middle or end. Many authors have a polished first chapter, but as the story or non-fiction book progresses it falls apart. Browse the chapter and ask yourself questions. Does he have a basic grasp of good writing craft? Does she make a lot of grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors? Do the paragraphs flow in logical sequence? How many awkward sentences do you see? Use questions like these to ascertain a realistic estimate of how much time the project will take you. If the writing needs a lot of work consider billing by the hour instead of the project.
2. Know yourself. What type of editing are you good at? I tell my clients that I’m great at content editing and line edits, but will not be responsible for proofreading, data checks, or detail oriented feedback.
3. Have honest discussions with the author. What is the end goal? Some writers want to self-publish; others are honing their craft for traditional publication. Some want a general content edit while most want a line-edit as well. If you intend to also be their proofreader, make that clear. Many clients won’t know there are different stages of editing and proof-reading, so you’ll need to educate them on the process as well as how much each piece will cost them.
4. If your client is honing craft for traditional publication, he needs to expect professional, deep editing. Talk with her about your plan to edit strong. Ask how much experience he has with critique. Use that to gage your approach. If the writer is not used to feedback, consider a more gentle approach. If she has more experience it’s likely she will better handle your feedback. For either approach use track changes and comment boxes to explain what you are doing and why. It might help to edit one chapter and then dialogue about what you’ve done. Observe your client. How are they handling your suggestions? Resist the urge to rewrite your clients work. Point out what needs to be fixed and leave it to them to fix it. Explain craft issues once or twice. After that highlight them and refer to the comment that explains what the problem is.
5. If your client plans to self-publish, you need to know their end goals. Some who self-publish want it to read with industry standards. Others just want to tell their story for family or friends. Pay attention to the clients understanding of the industry and ask enough questions to sense their expectations. Dialogue enough to be sure their expectations are realistic.
I had one client who simply had to tell her story. As we talked I learned that she had no further dreams of being a writer. I knew from looking at her manuscript that she had not studied craft, and I had a lot of work to do to make her story flow in a logical manner that would impact her readers. I also sensed that if she saw all the corrections I made she would become overwhelmed and discouraged. We agreed that I wouldn’t edit with track changes. She gave me freedom to rewrite as long as I kept her intent. I also had permission to reorganize her book by sentence, paragraph, or chapter if necessary (I knew it would be). As I worked I made a concentrated effort not to lose her voice as I made my corrections. I contacted her only with sweeping changes. I rewrote her awkward sentences and moved some paragraphs to completely different chapters. The chapters didn’t stay in the same order, either. I put a lot of work into her book because she had a powerful story that would impact lives. In some ways I was more like a co-author whose name wasn’t on the front. I worked harder than the amount of payment we agreed upon, but that was my choice. It was one of those projects where my reward came in her joy in the finished product and the knowledge that the work I did was sure to have eternal impact.
Another editing project I did for a man who was self-publishing had a completely different feel. He was a good writer, but it was his first book. It was quickly apparent he wanted to learn craft and planned to continue writing. The teacher in me was thrilled. I used track changes and line edits and treated him as if he were seeking traditional publication. He wanted his book to be professional and follow industry standards. I took the time to explain to him what I suggested and WHY so he could grow as a writer. As we worked together he began to catch his own craft errors. He needed to see and approve every change. It was HIS baby, and I emphasized to him that I was only the editor. He had the right to reject any of my suggestions.
At first I estimated much less time that I actually needed for the project because his writing seemed clear and concise. However as I got deeper into the project it became clear it needed major restructuring. With his permission I slowed down the line edits to do big-picture thinking. We deleted several chapters and rearranged others. While he gave me a lot of leeway and trust, he also expected to be kept in the loop and had full veto power. In the end we were both thrilled by the final project, and I billed based on a set hourly wage.
6. No matter who your client is, make a point to point out good writing. A comment noting why something works well or is particularly well down encourages your client. Even a smiley face is enough to help them handle the myriad of suggested improvements.