What does a freelance book editor do?

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Most people’s jobs are a mystery to some extent. We may have an idea about what an accountant does, what a teacher does, what a plumber or a car mechanic does, but it’s usually just a rough overview of the basics. We’re mostly unaware of all the skills learnt and used; the day-to-day experience of actually doing the job.

There’s a certain glamour to saying you’re a book editor. People usually imagine you tucked up comfortably just reading a lot of lovely books with little idea of what we actually do. I’m not sure there’s much glamour in the freelance world of book editing, but when I was a full-time commissioning editor many years ago, well-known authors and personalities would come into my orbit and I have to admit to some excitement meeting many of them. As a freelancer such things are rare and mostly nowadays I don’t even meet – actually meet – the various editors and editorial assistants who contact me to offer work. Everything is done virtually via emails – they contact me about work which is sent either as a Word document for a copy-editing job or an Adobe PDF file for a set of proofs to correct.

I used to do a lot more reading work than I do now, though still occasionally manuscripts are sent for me to assess. I have to look at whether I think they’re good enough to be published, looking not only at how well written (or not!) they are but their commercial potential. A report requires not just a critical analysis of content and an assessment of how well it reads, but it’s important to offer constructive comments on how it might be improved, what work might need to be done before it would be seen as publishable.

Most of my work now is either copy-editing or proofreading. Let’s start with copy-editing as that stage comes earlier, though not first. The first stage ‘editing’, or ‘structural editing’, is usually done in-house – i.e. by the editor who has bought or commissioned the book. They will read it to see if more work needs to be done: perhaps it’s too long or too short; maybe some character or event in the book needs more clarity or expansion; maybe the main character needs to be expanded so we know more about them. In a book I worked on a few months’ ago a guy who’d appeared in an earlier book in the series had behaved badly. In the new book he was going to end up marrying a lovely central character and I said I thought the guy needed to be made nicer as the new book progressed or we wouldn’t want him marrying her!

Copy-editing a book involves not only correcting spelling and grammar but checking consistencies. If the book spans a few years, do people’s ages and years of events match up? As an editor you have to make notes and have a timeline to check against as you work. If real people or products, towns and cities, are mentioned, you need to check spelling. I just happened to find myself working on lots of thrillers featuring terrorists a while ago and had to keep checking the spelling of guns and weapons. I joked that if I was being ‘watched’ the terrorist squad would be at my door soon. You also have to check dates for historical events. To a certain extent it’s the author’s responsibility to make sure references to real people, places and events are correct, but as an editor you have to be ready to question anything that doesn’t sound right.

My age helps sometimes and I’m able to pick up things that a younger editor might easily miss, e.g. the current age at which you can claim your pension. I once years ago read a book set in Rome, which I know well, and immediately saw that a description of a major road in the centre of Rome was incorrect. Having walked along it many times, I knew it was very wide – not the narrow street described in the book. It turned out the author had relied on someone else for the description and had never actually been there.

Most of the books I work on have UK spelling but occasionally US, so I have to know or check some spellings which are different, like ‘kerb’ (UK) but ‘curb’ (US) for the pavement kind of kerb; a block of flats with five ‘storeys’ in UK, but ‘stories’ in US. As a copy-editor you make a style sheet and one will be sent to you for a proofread. Of course most spellings are standard but a few are down to choice or house style (i.e. the publisher’s preference). The important thing for the editor or proofreader is checking consistency, that the same spelling is used throughout.

A copy-editor also looks as ‘clunky’ sentences. I’m sure you know the kind of thing I mean, where a sentence is a bit too convoluted, unclear or simply goes on too long. You also look out for repetition – giving details in almost exactly the same way as earlier in the book.

I always read a book I’m copy-editing as a reader – someone who has bought the book – would do. I don’t skip to the end, I need to make sure everything makes sense as I go through, that things tie up and everything that needs to be explained – perhaps later in the story – is explained.

Once a book has been copy-edited and returned to the publisher, it’s usually looked at by the commissioning editor and the author. The author is given the chance to approve or not any changes; they will also look at and answer any queries.

Then the book is ready to go to the printer. The book is typeset and then sets of proofs made to be checked before actual printing.

As a proofreader you expect that most of the actual editing has been done in the earlier stages, but you might still question some repetition, a clunky sentence or note that some of the dates or events don’t match up. In essence you’re really checking for typos – errors that have occurred in the printing, but there will always be some ‘author’s errors’, things that have been missed at the copy-editing stage. Even an experienced copy-editor and proofreader won’t usually catch 100% of the mistakes and major books which are expected to be bestsellers are often sent to more than one proofreader, as well as being checked by the author.

I rarely work on a book that’s really awful as I work for major publishers and often the authors are well known or have had a number of books published already. Of course, they are not always books I’d actually buy to read for pleasure. This means I’m often working on books which are okay, and I’m happy enough working on them, but I wouldn’t have chosen to read. It also means though that I often find myself reading something I might not have chosen but really like, so it’s a nice surprise. The drawback, of course, to the books I don’t particularly like is that I have to read every word. But I’ve also found myself enjoying a read so much that I want to go on reading past my usual ‘stop work’ time but know I wouldn’t be able to sustain the concentration needed to do a good job for longer. The concentration required is for all described above but also includes things like noticing when a comma should be a full stop, or that a quote mark or apostrophe is the wrong way round – really minute detail. Both copy-editing and proofreading are jobs you can’t do non-stop for hours on end; you have to take regular breaks not just for your eyes but for your concentration. It’s not like working in an office where the day is usually a mix of things, with meetings and phone calls, chats with colleagues. Freelancing is truly head-down, high concentration stuff and over the many years I’ve been doing it, I’ve learnt of ways to break the day up and get a bit of light relief before I get back to the computer with full-on concentration again.

I’ve always loved reading, right from when I was a small child and reading my first books, so how lucky was I to find my way into work that enabled me to do something I’m passionate about.

Language & Spelling – Ever Changing and Evolving

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I have to confess to being rather OTT about spelling. But then it is my job. It’s my job as an editor to check that all spellings throughout a book are both consistent and correct. Although ‘correct’ is not always clear because sometimes there are variations with how words are spelled. Well, there’s our first example: ‘spelled’ or ‘spelt’? Actually both are correct but as an editor it’s important to make sure the choice of either -ed or -t endings are consistent throughout a book rather than use a mix.

Publishing houses have their own ‘House Style’ and this is always sent to me, and while mostly the same, there are variations. For instance, one publisher I often work for likes to use -ize endings for words like realize, organize, etc., while most UK publishers prefer -ise endings, so realise and organise. But some words can’t interchange – always, for example, advise, advertise, exercise, etc.

Then there is the need to understand the difference between using a word as a verb or noun and this affects the spelling:

  • You give advice to someone; but you advise them to do something
  • A doctor practises medicine; but you visit their medical practice.

You can see that while we’ve only just started, things are already getting a little tricky. But throw into that the growing influence of US spellings and terms in UK as more and more we read books by US authors and watch US films. And thus spellings like ‘alright’ (always 2 words, ‘all right’, in UK) and words like ‘gotten’ (instead of UK ‘got’) start creeping into UK books. I often proofread American books and usually the US spellings are left unchanged; though – perhaps slightly weirdly – UK publishers usually like to change the punctuation to UK. Yes, that’s different too.

Of course, it may well be that only editors mind about these things. But it brings up the question of how much we allow our language to change. At the extreme end, I like to say to people who think none of it matters, that if we abandon all care of spellings then we’ll end up in a state where we can’t communicate properly. Of course change is inevitable – or we would still be writing and talking like Shakespeare or the Saxons. We also need new words as time goes by. It’s only in fairly recent years we’ve needed words like modem, wireless router, tablet – as in an iPad not a stone tablet from an ancient site or a painkiller – and even smartphone; some of the words added to the 2018 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary include co-parenting, e-address, e-publisher and hangry (being angry and hungry at the same time!). And words change use: when I was a child being ‘gay’ meant being happy  and carefree while now we usually think of it as a term for being homosexual (which, of course, can also mean being happy and carefree!).

Mostly the changes come slowly and we’re barely aware of them. So I’m often surprised if I have to work on a old book that is being reissued, written say in the 1950s or 1960s, to find the spelling and punctuation seem very old-fashioned. I find ‘hallo’ or ‘hullo’ instead of ‘hello’; there are usually a lot more commas breaking up sentences than we would use today. I realise that slowly, through many years working as a book editor, I’ve subtly altered the way I edit. I’m fortunate to work for top publishers and that keeps me on my toes and up to date!

On top of our evolving and ever-changing language we must add things like ‘textspeak’. When we first had texts the number of characters used in one text was limited so people invented ‘textspeak’ to keep a text to one instead of paying for two. This is now outdated but people still use ‘tonite’ and abbreviations like ‘ILY’ (I love you). I have to confess that some of these grate on me … tonite … grrrr! And if someone sent a text saying ILY it really wouldn’t have the same nice impact as the words! But I’m willing to admit that with my editorial background, and the fact that words and their correct use and spelling is my job, I’m probably more intolerant than most people.

However, when it comes to working I do have to take account of all these things and apart from using The Concise Oxford Dictionary to check spellings, my absolute ‘bible’, and used by all publishers, is the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors. When I edit a book, I have to provide a Spellings & Style list of my references and spellings used; whether I’ve used -ed or -t endings etc. So I think my family and friends are going to have to continue to live with me being rather OTT about spelling!