Ask An Editor Anything

We recently hosted a fabulous interactive workshop at the Gold Coast Writers’ Association in collaboration with a panel of experienced editors, Kerri Yarsley, Beverley Streater, Jacqx Melilli, and Gail Tagarro.

The following are questions from our audience of members and guests, and answered by our editing experts.

How did you become an editor?

Kerri: I began my career as a computer programmer, technical writer, and trainer in government departments. This instilled in me the importance of attention to detail.

Beverley: I began a government career with Human Services. After this I became involved in writing system policies. Since retiring. I have started an editing business, Beverley Streeter editing.

Gail: I also started my career in systems and technical writing. And since 2004, I’ve been working with authors helping them to write their books.

Jacqx: I started my writing career creating copy for our family travel company. I worked in universities and did my master’s degree. I now specialize in helping writers who want to write a memoir.

What is the number one easy mistake most new writers make?

Jacqx: Thinking they can go it alone. It takes a village to write a book. Not everyone has the talent to do their own book covers and PR.

Gail: It’s very difficult to give just one, sorry, but just getting to the nitty gritty, it’s the overuse of adverbial phrases beginning with as. As she ran, as he did, as she went… A client I am working with now has written fifty thousand words so far and after a search ‘as she’ appears fifty times and ‘as he’ appears forty-nine times. There are so many ways to rephrase these sentences.

Beverley: Every author has a different set of idiosyncrasies.  I really encourage writers to not be shy. Have a look around you at who might be able to give you some honest feedback. Not necessarily people who love you. It is scary to let go of your work. Be brave and put it out there.

Kerri: Develop a thick skin, and don’t send your first draft to an editor. Make sure you have had at least three or four drafts done. And please watch the tenses! So many times, a paragraph will start off in present tense or past tense then the next paragraph, especially if there is any dialogue happening. This can get really confusing. It’s important to be consistent. Editors will always pick up your grammar and typos later, but if you haven’t got your tenses right, it can confuse your reader terribly so make sure this is accurate.

Should you change your writing style to suit “political correctness”?

Beverley: Having worked with people with disabilities, for many, many years, is called Cultural Sensitivity. This doesn’t just apply to disability, it applies to gender identity, sexuality. Language keeps moving. If you are calling someone ‘deaf and dumb’ you are probably betraying your age.

Kerri: If it’s part of the character, if you’re writing a fictional story and this person is (politically incorrect) and that is a strong trait of theirs, then you need to be true to your character. But if you are writing something that is a little more sensitive and it doesn’t impinge on your character’s personality, then you should probably be more sensitive as well as an author.

Audience member: But this woman was born deaf and dumb.

Beverley: We now say non-verbal. It keeps changing depending on which country you’re in. In Australia, it is typical to refer to the deaf community, but if you were in another country, it’s important to find out what the acceptable terminology is. Literature can age. In five years’, that may all change again. You can’t say someone is Schizophrenic you have to say they have a mental health disorder. If you want to be a contemporary author, you need to do that research and find out what the contemporary language is.

Gail: It’s a fine line. Between being overly politically correct and being true to your era.

What is the preferred POV?

Beverley: In terms of what is a better (POV to write in) that’s up to you as an author.

Kellie Cox (Host): I have heard that some commercial fiction publishers don’t like manuscripts in first person. Some commercial publishers prefer third person. Would you say there is a preference for publishers?

Gail: Just from my own experience of working with writers and with my own writing, it can be difficult to sustaining first person. When I wrote my novel, I wrote much of it in first person before realizing it didn’t work, so I rewrote it in third person and decided that the main character would include journal entries. First person and third person are definitely the most common and some people manage to work really well with first person.

Jacqx: Stick to one point of view. Be consistent, don’t head hop.

Gail: Make clear and make sure your reader knows whose POV it is.

Audience member: Many authors include multiple POVs and tenses in their books but it’s important to be clear to your reader exactly who is speaking. Eg James Patterson, Gillian Flynn

Should I start my book with a flashback?

Gail: As in a prologue? I always say, whatever works for your story. I’m a horribly pedantic editor but at the same time I always say it something works – If you know the rules, you can break them! I don’t see anything wrong with a flashback or prologue. If it works, go for it.

Jacqx: Start it however you like, have as many flashbacks as you want, as long as it’s moving the story along.

Kerri: It’s a preference. But I personally get annoyed if there are too many flashbacks in a story. It all depends on the type of story of course. If the flashback is important for the story, if they are important things that have happened in the person’s past. If they are flashbacks for the sake of flashbacks, you can easily ‘lose the plot.’

Audience member: I did a novel writing course years ago and the facilitator said, ‘You can take your reader anywhere, just be clear about where you’re going.’

Can you explain the different types of editing?

Beverley: In the English language there are different terms for what we do. There is line, copy, structural, developmental edits, etc. The first thing to do is agree on what each party means. On one end is a manuscript appraisal and structural assessment and the other end of the spectrum is a simple proofread and in between, there’s a whole pile of other stuff.

Jacqx: I’m not sure about my colleagues but in my world, the client gets a copy edit and a structural edit combined. However, the term structural edit can also be used to mean ‘manuscript appraisal’ which in my world is everything else that doesn’t comprise a copy edit. A copy edit is just really spelling, punctuation, and general flow that things make sense.

Gail: For a lot of editors, a structural edit and manuscript appraisal are interchangeable terms. A manuscript appraisal is great for when you don’t know if your manuscript is ready for an editing. The editor will read through the manuscript and come up with a report and we do very little in the manuscript itself, in the report we will note everything that needs to be done

How do you decide how to charge for a full edit on a manuscript?

Gail: When I first started, I had a fixed price based on an hourly rate. Many accredited editors all charge on a per-word basis. A few years ago, I started charging on a per-word basis, but within a sliding scale. If a heavy edit is needed, I will do a sample edit and provide a quote, based on the whole manuscript. I never give generic quotes. I always look at the whole manuscript. Once you have a sample edit, you will understand why I have quoted the way I have.

Jacqx: You can’t ask a builder for a generic quote. They need to see the job. I also ask for a synopsis so I can see if you are clear about where your story is going. Some manuscripts are just not ready, and this is where the book mentoring and coaching comes in. A synopsis is a good one, and your elevator pitch. If you know where your story is going you know there is going to be a lot of work involved. I like to chat with the author to gauge. I use an hourly rate, but I am also aware of their budget.

Beverley: It’s a delicate issue and I have worked with authors who haven’t been crave enough to ask at the outset. The Institute of Professional Editors has suggested rates. It comes back to the relationship between the author and the editor. I have done free work if the person given people’s personal circumstances. I do index. You get a feel – it comes with experience – after reading selection of people’s work. It is essential to communicate with authors, especially regarding pricing and their ability to handle feedback. Some people don’t take feedback well and I really don’t like working with people who are not able to take feedback.

Kerri: I have done work at 2.5c a word which for a fifty-thousand-word book that comes out to about $1250. This is for a non-fiction book that had already had a couple of passes, structurally.

Beverley: If you are too cheap, you’re devaluing your time and your expertise. If you overcharge, you’ll miss out on work. It’s a matter of being respectful to yourself and your client.

Styling/formatting. How do you approach this for your client?

Gail: I style the manuscript in the first pass, as I read through. It’s usually not that difficult. A lot of people aren’t that familiar with Microsoft Word, so I do it for them. It’s usually double spaced, Times New Roman, 12-point font. Some people hate that and want Comic Sans? When you submit to a publisher, you’ll have to do what they want but I’ll do what you want. Using Word, I will build the fonts into the Styles for the Chapter Headings etc. and spacing. You don’t want to be hitting enter twenty-times because when you get to the next step, so the (book) designer won’t have headaches.

Audience member: You said it needs to be double line spacing?

Gail: Yes, so we have room to make corrections in the manuscript.

Beverley: There is a difference between working in a Word Document and the final design. When you are writing, don’t worry about how it looks. Editors can do this for you so it’s easier to work in. Formatting of the book is different to the book design.

How do you deal with editing a book that’s really not to your taste? How do you keep true to the style and voice of the writer while editing?

Beverley: I have been criticized by a client for changing the voice in the introduction. He was writing for an Asian market, and he was using profanities. I said, ‘That is probably not going to go down well, in the first chapter.’ But usually, if I was editing something that was set in the sixties, and I wasn’t familiar with the language I can do some research to see if their language is appropriate. Then I have the choice to trust the author and go with it, or to say I am probably not the right editor for this manuscript.

Gail: Is this book going to be acceptable to a wide audience, will a wide audience assimilate the story? Of it is going to be understood, the slang, the idiosyncrasies of the time; If your story is too obscure, that no one will understand, you will be narrowing your audience down. One of the things that none of us likes doing is changing the author’s voice because that’s what is unique about your writing. If it is that extensive, then it will definitely require a discussion between the writer and the editor. The author should consider the editor as a ‘first reader.’ If your editor doesn’t understand the book, the readership probably won’t either.

Do you have a favourite genre to edit? Do you still enjoy reading?

Beverley: That is the best thing about editing; You learn so much. I do and I have learned so much from the nonfiction books I am editing. I have learned a whole lot about veganism or Pilates. A whole lot of esoteric knowledge that I would probably never have read otherwise.

Kerri: I have just read the story of the women who invented the Astra-Zeneca vaccine. If I was editing something like that, I would be in seventh heaven.

Gail: My favourite genre to read and edit is historical fiction, but right now I’m editing currently sci-fi by this author, and I am absolutely loving it. It all depends on the story. I can love reading anything. If it’s a well written, written story.

Jacqx: When you love the project, you’ll read anything, but it does help if you love the story.

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