Any writer knows that the creative mind is a tenuous friend, given to disappearing just when you need it most. You think you’ll never speak again, that the relationship has desiccated into a hot crumbly mess you could use as chili flakes. But then, like a cool fifty bucks you find in the pocket lining of your favourite jacket, your friend, your motivation, creativity, angel, muse — whatever you like to call it — comes sneaking up from the land of who-knows-where and suddenly you remember why you’re a writer. Editing is seen as different — the sobre part of the process. But it’s just as easy to lose yourself.
Freelance Editing is solitary. You forget the time and day. You forget what you did yesterday, what you did this morning. The only thing you never forget is there’s chocolate and coffee in the kitchen (red wine anyone?). And since I’m an adult, how I take my breakfast caffeine is my business.
Being trusted with someone else’s work is also strange. Editing isn’t the black and white, right or wrong, clickity-clack straight railway line job people often perceive it to be.
‘Really? You’re an editor? What do you do? Fix spelling and grammar and stuff?’
‘Sure. But there’s also syntax, and voice — the personality of the author or narrator that shines through the text. There’s meaning — what are they trying to say? There’s arcs — story and character. For non-fiction, there’s flow and fact. How does it all hang together? And there’s the author themselves to consider: how you communicate with them without breaking their spirit.’
*pause to check the person is still awake*
‘There’s a subtlety involved. It’s subjective and rule bendy. It’s a tightrope walk: you’re dealing with someone else’s energy, their hopes, their passion. Sometimes a manuscript is akin to a first child.’
‘Hello? You still there?’
Chops are tough. Not the meat kind, the Kill Your Darlings kind. Cut, cuts, cuts. Even though you know words have to go because they’re repetitive, or misused, or misplaced, or they drag the pace into a pit of no return, the process can be uncomfortable. Yes, cuts make the text and story tighter, and therefore give the manuscript a better chance of getting published (and that’s what we’re paid to do), but there’s also a chance the cuts are going to whack a sensitive author’s ego over the head with a wet fish. A large, smelly, heavy tuna fish. The upside is, if you handle that fish gently (perhaps fillet it before serving) the author will get over it and on with it, and show their appreciation.
Handling authors gently is a talent in itself. In my first year of study, I thought it would be fun to insert some humour into my feedback comments on an author’s manuscript. I didn’t personally know the author I was assigned to, and as it turned out she took great offence. It made me stop and reflect how I would’ve felt receiving that kind of feedback in my early days of writing. I subsequently apologised, several times. Luckily she’s a gracious person and we’re still friends. Lesson learnt. Gently does it.
Clear Communication: I’m probably an over-communicator. I need to know the author understands exactly what I’m doing for them. Even if it’s not what they’ve initially asked for — because I’ve had to extrapolate what they actually need done. My worst nightmare is a client getting their manuscript back and going WTH????? To avoid this, I respond to each client in writing, laying out exactly what we’ve verbally agreed on: the type of editing required, the word count, rates, expected completion dates and response times. It’s a fail-safe for down the track, especially if the direction of the project changes along the way.
Don’t Hide. When I was starting out, my first project was a piece of cake: fiction with a clear story that only needed a light line edit, plus a tad of structural editing. My second project was enormous and I accepted it not realising the time frame I quoted was way out of whack with the amount of work required. Apart from giving a fixed price and doing myself out of quite a few hundred dollars, I was feeling stressed because of the time it was taking me — it was a clever and complex story but with an unusual and inconsistent voice that required nearly every line to be edited. To counteract my fears of ruining my reputation (by missing the deadline and disappointing my client), I kept in constant contact with him, being honest about the work I was doing and the time it was taking: I wanted to be thorough and not rush through. Being honest paid off and his appreciation for being kept in the loop meant there was no annoyance. This took an enormous pressure off me.
Boundaries. I have a setting on my phone that cuts off communication between certain hours. It’s easy for an author who’s in a panic to forget what time it is, or what day it is (sound familiar). I tell them my hours of availability, my response time, and I stick to them. Sometimes it takes a bit of training, on both sides … I’ll just check my emails after dinner … wham! I’m thinking about my client’s curly question all night. Occasionally, I need to send a gentle reminder when a client is persistent. If I’m clever I can give them a distraction to keep their ferreting brains, or need for approval, at peace — a research project, or clarification of something unclear in their text.
Content is a personal decision. Sometimes a project might go against the grain of your beliefs, knowledge or advice. I once turned down an edit on a manuscript because I felt the content appeared to be misogynistic. It surprised me how strongly I felt about it. I pondered whether to be honest with the prospective client, or make up an excuse as to why I couldn’t do it. I chose honesty. Luckily, the author was an intelligent person and went away to reconsider his angle. He came back to me with a completely different manuscript and we developed an open, on-going working relationship (insert happy sigh here).
So it’s a strange life I’ve chosen. And if you’ve chosen it too, whether you’re a writer or an editor, like most creatives, you probably doubt yourself daily, or wonder where your next job will come from. When things are rolling along nicely and you have a mountain of work, you allow yourself to smile, to love what you do. When things are uncertain and you feel like a fraud, tell yourself:
Strange is good.