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.

Manuscript to Book: A Short Guide to the Book Publishing Process

A lot of my freelance book publishing work is copy-editing and proofreading. People often ask me what the difference is and so I thought it might be useful to guide you through the basic steps of a book journeying from manuscript to a published book. Of course, nowadays, your ‘manuscript’ will most likely be a ‘typescript’ – not many authors write by hand still! And mostly it’s typed on a computer and so you may automatically think of sending it as an email attachment to a potential publisher or agent. But it’s always wise to check out the requirements of different publishers and some will want an actual paper submission sent through the post. I’m going to write more about ‘submissions’ another time but for now, I’ll outline the basic steps.

Manuscript (or Typescript)

You’ve finished your work and it’s all ready for you to now find a publisher. It’s often easier to find an agent to act for you, but more of how to submit your work another time. So let’s move on to the point when your book is accepted by a publisher. This basic copy forms of the foundation of what will become a book. First of all, it will be read by the editor who commissioned or bought it. ‘Commission’ means they approached you to write it; ‘bought’ means it was sent to them by you direct or an agent.

Structural Editing

It’s most often – though not always – the commissioning editor who will read the manuscript first to decide whether any major changes or improvements are needed. ‘Structural’ is just what it says: does the structure of your book, the storyline, or maybe in a non-fiction book the way the information is put together, work well. The editor will identify things like a particular character needing more or less work – an important character who perhaps needs more depth and to be more strongly described; but perhaps you’ve given too much time to a minor character who then detracts from the main storyline and characters. An editor will perhaps get you to expand certain parts of the story but maybe suggests cuts for parts that are too long and affect the flow of the story, losing the reader’s attention. Once all the book is in good shape and you and the editor are happy, it will be passed to a copy-editor.

Copy-Editing

The copy-editor is concerned with correct and consistent spellings and good grammar. They will also look at the flow of the book, whether it reads well and may make basic rewriting suggestions – perhaps switching the order of words, adding or taking away odd words or sentences, expanding or rewriting something that isn’t clear or makes easy sense. They will check for consistency, and this includes things like keeping a track of time: e.g. if a character is, say, 20 at the beginning of the book and the story moves on 10 years, their age should be given as 30. Likewise relationships between characters: that an ‘uncle’ is always an uncle and not sometimes a ‘great uncle’. The copy-editor will check for repetition – whether you’ve already said something or described or explained something. They make sure any ‘facts’ are correct – historical dates, spellings of real people or places.

Once books were copy-edited by hand: paper copy with the changes marked in pencil. But now I always copy-edit on-screen – the book is sent by email and I edit it with track changes and comments for my queries, and it’s returned by email. At the end of the copy-editing process, the book should be in good order to go to the printer. The author (and commissioning editor) will get the chance to check through any changes though and answer any queries the copy-editor has had before the book goes for printing.

Design

The copy-edited book will now go to the Production Department for design. This can be a fairly simple process for perhaps a novel – what font and font size to be used; the general layout of the page, whether a new chapter always begins on the right-hand page, and ultimately the cover design. For a more complex or non-fiction title, the design will require a lot more creative thought.

Typesetting and Printing

The next step is to typeset the book – arrange the words on the pages; decide on the layout of special things like quotes of verse, letters or other text that is often indented or in italics. The book needs to be ‘set’ in just the way it will appear in the finished book. This is sometimes done at the printers or by a separate typesetter. Once the book is typeset then the printer will print off ‘page proofs’ or email them to the publisher.

Proofreading

I still receive proofs as paper copy, i.e. printed out on paper. Occasionally a quick job or short job, particularly on an e-book (one to only be published that way) may come via email and I proofread on-screen, but by far the majority of my proofreading work comes via the post as a large parcel of paper! I then proofread it with a red pen, blue pen and pencil to hand. Red pen is to mark printer’s errors – things that haven’t been printed exactly as they are on the copy-edited typescript (I will always have a copy of that to check against); blue pen marks errors missed by the copy-editor (there are invariably a few, though rarely many); pencil is for any queries I might have – sense, an unusual word ¬†or spelling. Once I’ve finished, I will parcel it up and return to the publisher. Usually the author will receive a set of proofs too so they can check as well; an important or ‘big’ commercial title by a bestselling author may be proofread by more than one professional.

The Finished Book

The next thing of course is for the printer to print the book – print the pages and bind the book, either as a hardback or paperback. But publication isn’t just about the arrival of finished books at the publishers, it’s about marketing and PR, it’s about distribution to bookshops, etc. And often now an author will be expected (and want) to be involved in the PR with book signings, talks, etc.

This is a basic guide but hopefully helpful to you. Do let me know if you have any questions!