January 3, 2011

Ask an Editor January 2011


This past month’s questions have been about doing the work of freelance developmental editing. Here are a few points of view on some perennial questions. Comments are open!

1. I recently started work on the development edit of a mystery. The author is a wonderful writer but the pacing of the story seems problematic. I noticed that she didn’t have chapters, just days of the week as markers. Some of these sections were over fifty pages and a couple were under five. I told her she should probably break the novel in chapters of more equal length but I couldn’t find a completely good rationale for this, except that most mysteries do it. It’s going to be a lot of work for her. Should I push her?

There are a couple of issues here. First, your advice to her to break the novel into chapters is important, and not just because that’s the way most mysteries are generally structured. One reason you might give her is that mysteries tend to focus heavily on plot and to employ suspense as a means of keeping the reader turning pages. Many mystery writers work within the format of chapters in order to create suspenseful action or present new plot points at the ends of chapters—cliffhangers that make the reader stay up all night, unable to put the bookmark anywhere between chapters. When chapters go on too long or seem to have no shape, readers can feel lost.

The second issue you raise in your letter—about “pushing” the author to do what you think is right—that’s tricky, isn’t it? Ideally you’ve given her a good explanation for why you think her manuscript would be improved if she worked on the pacing and chaptering. You may have also illustrated your rationale with examples showing how tension leaks away from a scene if it’s not placed well in a section or chapter. But ultimately it will be the author who makes the decision on how much work she wants to put into revising. I tend to be wary of pushing too much, however tempting it may seem. Some authors like to feel nudged and some really resist it. Why not make a few suggestions and see how she responds? If she seems upset or defensive, let it go and resist badgering her. Sometimes editing critiques take a while to sink in. You might also find that the author appreciates firm, clear suggestions, particularly in areas that she knows have problems.

Barbara Sjoholm


2. What’s the difference between what a writing coach does and what a developmental editor does for a writer?

This question is a bit like asking what’s the difference between developmental and structural editing, or between content editing and line editing. Probably every editor will define it slightly differently.

The best definition I’ve heard was from a panel discussion at the Northwest Independent Editors Guild last year with Wendy Call, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Tamara Sellman. All three are writers and editors who often work specifically as writing coaches. The distinction I heard was that a coach focuses first on the writer and the writing process, while an editor focuses first on the manuscript.

Of course, I do pay attention to the writer of every manuscript I do a developmental edit for, and I view an editorial letter as a resource and teaching tool as well as a manuscript critique. And it’s clear from the panel’s discussion that “writing coaching” involves (but is not limited to) extensive “editing” of the writer’s current manuscript.

When I first talk with a potential client, I do a lot of feeling out of whether we’re a good match, in terms of genre but also of personality and applicability of my skill set to the stage the writer is in with the manuscript. I wish it were more of a science, but I think I’m trying to present my voice so that the writer can suss out whether what I offer is what will support her getting her writing to where she wants it.

Kyra Freestar


3. What should I do if I make an estimate for reading and responding to an author based on her “guestimate” of words, and then it turns out the book is not just a little longer but a lot longer?

Another perennial question. It is surprising how often authors are in fact unaware of the length (in word count, or in double-spaced page count) of their manuscript. In this case, whether your estimate was written or verbal, you can contact the client and explain exactly what the estimate was based on (X number of words), and that the manuscript you received is instead Y number of words. Then you can provide a new estimate of time and cost based on the actual word count.

Yes, this reopens the negotiation, takes more (unbillable) time, and might even lead to the client postponing or cancelling the project due to financial constraints. (Although remember, the client has also invested time and energy interviewing you and deciding she is willing to trust her manuscript to you. An incremental change in the financial picture in many cases isn’t going to outweigh the trust established. But it may make you a lot happier to be working on her manuscript.)

In my experience, however, the difference between the described and the actual manuscript can be a bit less clear-cut. Perhaps the manuscript was described as “finished” but some chapters are more like outlines. Or the final 30 pages with climax and resolution hasn’t been written. Or, as in the mystery described above, the author has not established chapter breaks, making the manuscript more difficult to navigate while reading and more difficult to write about in the editorial letter. And perhaps you don’t realize what elements are going to take extra time until you’re a significant ways through the work.

We all sometimes do more work than we estimated or feel comfortable charging. The more experience I get (and I have a long ways to go yet), the better I get at estimating time, and the better I get at describing what I will do (to the client), and what I am doing (to myself). And the more clearly I can describe the work I am doing, the better able I am to reopen those financial negotiations.

In general, it’s a good idea to write an estimate and work agreement with as detailed a description as you can of both the manuscript you think you’ll be getting and the work you think you’ll be doing. That way you have something solid to discuss if things turn out different than you expected.

Shameless plug: The Author-Editor Clinic offers an online class on The Business of Freelance Developmental Editing, in which you can create or refine your own template for work agreements and contracts, and also learn from the templates shared by the instructor and the other editors participating. I took the class in early 2010 and highly recommend it.

Kyra Freestar

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