Getting into editing for fun and profit

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I’ve been doing commercial editing work for a few years now. Mostly it’s been sporadic, just a few clients a year. Recently, however, I got a Big Score: I’ve been added to the approved copyeditors list of a significant name in the SFF field.

And it occurred to me: maybe you’d like to know how I did it? Not that I’m exactly sure myself, but if you’ve ever had the urge to go down this road, here’s my idiot’s guide (because I’m an idiot) to getting a toe into the editorial world:

  1. Get good at writing. Of course you’re all way along this step already. You’re reading this blog for a start, which suggests you’ve an interest in writing. That’s good. Keep it up. Read much, write much, practice, grow.You DO NOT need to know every single grammar term. You don’t need to have read English at university. Knowledge always helps – grammar-language is a shortcut for those in the know – but I struggle with anything beyond nouns. It’s not essential.  Similarly, most editing work these days is done with Track Changes on MS Word. You don’t need to know all the proofreading symbols, though they are fun.
  2. Join a writing group. Not only will this help with Point 1 but it’ll help you get used to taking and giving critiques. Start with critiques of manageable length and with giving feedback pitched at the level (and confidence) of the writer.
  3. Give full manuscript critiques. I did a lot – over a dozen – as part of a group who did reciprocal feedback – I’d read theirs, they’d read mine. Practice. Get used to going through a manuscript and seeing what strikes you as wrong and what works well. And listen to other people’s critiques too.
    If you can’t find people to exchange views with, look online. There’s always people looking for beta-readers.
  4. Be poor. I needed a way to monetise my skills, and, as these are limited, I was looking for a way to turn words into cash.
  5. Find a mentor. This isn’t essential but it does help. My writers’ group contained a retired proofreader who very generously offered to act as my guide. In practice I didn’t ask much of her, but she did put me in touch with my first paying customer, which is always a bonus.
  6. Find advice. Search Twitter for editors. Ask them for help. I was very lucky to stumble upon Dan Coxon of Momus Editorial; he gave me the names of two key reference works and was generally kind and encouraging. People – me included, though I’m mostly a doofus – are kind and will help if they can.
  7. Learn the differences between different kinds of editing. There are a lot of different terms – structural edit, proof-editing, developmental edit and so on – but the two main types are proofreading and copy-editing. See this guide for details, but bear in mind that each website you search will tell you something slightly different. Trust nobody! Especially not me!
  8. Do a course. Having decided that I wanted to go down this road, I decided to pay for membership of SfEP and to do their ‘Proofreading 1’ course. I’m not sure if it was entirely worth it – it was a little basic and I’ve not made much use of SfEP’s other services – but there are courses out there if you’re interested. At the very least it may give you some confidence and allows you to flash this handy logo sfep-badge-[entry-level-member]-normalat prospective clients. And there’s a pricing-guide to tell you how much to charge and fora upon which to ask questions.
  9. Be nice. Assuming you have a social media presence, use it for good, not evil. If you’ve been to one (or both) of my book signings you’ll know of my story: that the aforementioned Dan Coxon ended up proofreading Night Shift. Good relationships with people in the industry – built over months, not minutes – will eventually bring opportunities
  10. Advertise. Create a webpage or add a page to an existing blog. Get business cards (I didn’t do this until the night before Sledge-Lit and missed off half the necessary information) and look for conventions at which to hand them out.
  11. Email publishers. And this, folks, is how I got my business. I simply cold-called publishers until I got a break.What swung it was my knowledge of genre-fiction, and the fact that the publisher in question was kinda desperate. But until these people have heard of you there’s no way they can give you a chance.

There’s more, of course. There always is. You might be asked to do a test or trial, possibly for little or no money. I was lucky enough to get paid for my debut proofreading, upon which I was so anal that I was immediately shunted into the ‘copyeditors’ file.

literally

And this is only my experience. I’m sure there are many other ways of getting into the editorial field that I’m almost totally ignorant of.

But I can only speak for my experiences.

If you’re thinking of getting into proofreading or copyediting, it’s only fair that I give you a few harsh truths before we part. Because it’s not the land of milk and honey that you may be thinking:

    1. You will not get rich. Publishers, especially the smaller ones who are more likely to take you on, count every penny. You may well be paid by the job rather than by the hour. My first job for a publisher (as opposed to dealing with the author directly) saw me work for around £5.30 per hour – way below minimum wage and certainly not enough to live on.
    2. You will have to work to deadlines.
    3. You will be a freelancer. You will not have a pension, holiday or sick-pay. You will have periods where you have too much work and – more likely – you’ll have periods where you have nothing on at all.
    4. This means that you will, at least at first, need another source on income. You also have to be ready to put your real life on hold. You may have to work evenings and weekends to get things done.
    5. You will need to have a few basic business competencies: time management, producing invoices, keeping accounts and so on.
    6. You’ll also need to register as self-employed with the government and be prepared to pay tax on your earnings.

 

This is a lot of info and I’m sure I’ve left reams out. And, I stress again, this is a story of how I did it; it’s not the only way, and I very much doubt it’s the best way. Hopefully it will give you at least a rough idea of how to go about it. If you have any questions I’ll do my very best to answer them.

I’ve been lucky. I look around and see where I am and I blink in astonishment.

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The proofreader addresses his audience

After spending the last few weeks lamenting copy-edits I now find the boot on the other side of my face. Yes, fresh from weeping hot tears of shame at my own inadequacies, I’m now in eviscerating-other-people’s-work mode. And it’s… not nice. It’s not fun, tearing apart something someone has laboured over, has spent hours, days, months reaching into their very souls and pouring it onto the page.

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So I’ve written a letter. It’s a letter I can never send, but I want to share it with you, my friends, to try and explain how I feel when I’m in editor-mode. Hope you find it interesting.

Dear Writer

Let’s not beat around the bush: there’s a lot of red ink on your manuscript. I’m sorry about that. It’s my job to find fault and to let things slide would help no-one. The disappointment would still come, it’d just be delayed. Kudos to you for wanting to meet things face-on. You’ve dodged the easy option and I respect that.

I feel that I should say that I’m not perfect. I’ve got no secret wisdom or knowledge – the changes I’ve made are based on my understanding of good writing, good grammar and good story. I might be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I’ve heard enough stories of editors completely missing the point with their critique to know that editing is subjective. This subjectivity might affect the placement of a single comma or it might concern the plot as a whole.

It’s down to you, ultimately, to decide whether to take my advice or not. I won’t judge you either way.

I want to help you. I want you to improve as a writer. Perhaps my biggest single fear is not that you’ll think me an idiot, or that you’ve wasted your money, but that I might scare you off writing. My criticisms aren’t meant to depress or to discourage but to make your work better and, if possible, to help you become a better writer.

Editors will always tell you that they’re judging your work, not your worth as a person. That’s true to some extent but let’s be honest here: sometimes it’s hard to separate the words from the wordsmith.

This isn’t about whether or not your work is at a publishable standard. I actually quite enjoy getting a piece with basic errors of grammar or point-of-view or chronology: I can help with those and I find I like acting as a teacher.

I do, however, come to some conclusions based on the content. If you repeatedly extol the virtues of a particular diet or philosophy I may conclude that this comes from the author, not the character. If all your heroes are blond and blue-eyed I won’t assume you’re a Nazi but I will wonder if you’ve lived a particularly sheltered life. And yes, sometimes this makes me angry – but only in my quiet, inside-of-my-own-head way.

I also know just how easy it is to suggest something that you really didn’t mean. Quite apart from my own failures in writing I’ve picked people up, for example, for intimating that people were only poor because they were lazy. The author didn’t mean it, but that’s how it came across. It’s my job to find this sort of error; everyone slips up sometimes.

It’s true that sometimes I get frustrated when I see the same errors over again and yes, sometimes I’m bewildered to the point of getting ‘creative’ in my marginal notes. But that’s my weakness (as a person and as an editor), not yours.

So please take this manuscript back with my thanks. I’m honoured that you’ve trusted me with something you know is imperfect and want to make better. You’ve shown me great trust and I take it seriously. See all my corrections (which I reiterate are suggestions, not instructions) as a sign of sincerity, not a desire to hurt.

You have done something unique and worthy and, whilst I think it could be better, you should feel proud of yourself. You have achieved. You’ve not just sat there dreaming; you’ve made the effort. More than that, you’ve had the courage to show your work – to me, and to others. That’s worth something.
Look at it this way: the more corrections I’ve found the more worthwhile your expenditure has been.

I wish you happy redrafting

The Freelancer