February 14, 2012

Editors Roundtable: Getting started in freelance developmental editing

Our monthly Editors Roundtable aims to encourage conversation among freelance developmental editors of fiction and creative nonfiction. Please join us—we'd love to hear from you in the comments section! And if you have questions you’d like to see editors answer in future roundtables, please email info@authoreditorclinic.com.

Q: How did you begin freelance developmental editing?

Almost twenty years ago, I was broke and bored, working admin at a local university. A friend, now colleague, mentored me as a proofreader—a classic one-on-one craft apprenticeship. I was so lucky. And then I made the leap to copyediting, a first client became a reference to get a second client, and so on. After ten years of copyediting, I needed some variety. And I took Amy Einsohn's dictum to heart: copyediting for publishers isn’t a dead end, it’s a cul-de-sac. Getting education in developmental work gave me the confidence to move out of that cul-de-sac and to work directly with authors, which I now do—mostly with academics—along with the copyediting (which I confess is relaxing—all rules, and logic, and category matching).

I was a freelance feature-story journalist for several years, and was burning out. When I moved to Seattle, I decided I wanted to learn how to edit books and also meet peers living locally, so I took the University of Washington Editing Certificate program. There I took Barbara Sjoholm’s developmental editing class, and then took a few of her first Author-Editor Clinic classes. I loved it, and the rest is history.

I started as a writer. In my writer’s group, which started up in 1988 and still meets, we would work on each other’s stories, trying to develop character and plot. In the late ’90s I started teaching screenwriting, and a few students asked if I would work on their stories. It evolved from there.

I worked in journalism for many years, as both a writer and an editor for newspapers and magazines, but I have always loved reading books—both fiction and nonfiction. About seven years ago I was thinking about how I’d like to get into book editing, and I saw some publicity for the Author-Editor Clinic. I applied to be part of it and was accepted. In the clinic we read book manuscripts and commented on them, both in writing and during a meeting with the author. The editors also discussed things among themselves and learned from each other. I found the editing to be hard work, but I absolutely loved it. I attended three sessions of the clinic before striking out on my own.

As a kid, I used to point out the typos in the newspaper to my dad, who was a journalist for the paper. So copyediting was something I gravitated to. My developmental editing skills started in high school and college, primarily in literature courses that demanded critical discussions and essays, complemented by participation one year in a forensics club as a debater. As a graduate student in the sciences, I built complementary skills in critical thinking. Peer review is an integral part of the science professions, and I also participated in Toastmasters, which encourages rapid feedback on speeches. I wouldn't be as strong a developmental editor as I am now if I hadn't also had to write and rewrite my own scientific manuscripts until they were deemed of publishable quality by peer-reviewed journals.

I got into editing after looking for a more portable career than highly specialized researcher. Beginning as a technical editor, which required both developmental editing and copyediting, I eventually decided I'd like to work on a broader range of projects, including fiction, so I started my own business. I didn't want to start editing fiction by copyediting at a publishing house and working my way up again, so I looked for mentors who could help me acquire the nuances of developmental editing of fiction. The Author-Editor Clinic's classes and clinics were central to that. I also took classes on various aspects of writing fiction, which by then were starting to become more readily available online.

In the early ’80s I worked as a transcriptionist (paid to produce accurate, word-for-word copy) in a New York legal office that specialized in religious liberty issues. Press releases, magazine articles, and educational pieces all came through my headphones—their messages too often obscured by “legalese” (which may qualify as a dead language). How I wanted to simplify the language and comb out extra words and phrases! In transcribing a case argument I’d realize that the information release was all wrong. Transcribing an article, I’d ache to restructure it in order to let emotional persuasion have the last word. After months of frustration, I asked for permission (on pieces for public consumption) to suggest changes for the readers’ sake. That was the beginning for me.

Q: How has your work as a freelance developmental editor changed over the past five years?

I think I’m much more efficient than I was five years ago, because I feel more confident, and I’ve developed much better working methods too. I’ve also been surprised about the kind of manuscripts I’ve worked on. As a former journalist, I thought I’d want to focus on nonfiction manuscripts, but I’ve worked on many more science/speculative fiction and fantasy novels than I expected—and I like them quite a bit!

My first business clients asked for technical editing services; in the past few years, I've increasingly taken on individual authors, mostly writers of fiction, as clients.

I used to work almost solely with screenplays, but that’s evolved and now I edit as many novels and scripts.

With the Internet, communication and editing online have gotten to the point that I now work with clients I might not ever meet. (Although I’d much rather meet them face to face!)

But as far as editing process—that’s pretty much stayed the same. Just working through the manuscript, helping writers create those page-turning stories.

Last spring I participated in my first “Manuscript Clinic” with Barbara Sjoholm, in which she mentored me through a developmental edit of an unpublished memoir that resulted in a 25-page editorial letter. At every step, it was valuable in widening my perspectives, examining my process, and delivering more effective results. Going over a couple points of my feedback to the author, Barbara said, “These sound a bit prescriptive to me…” That word prescriptive nailed an ego-driven posture that I haven’t liked but couldn’t identify. That single comment became a pivot point for me, and I believe that the editorial letter I produced under Barbara’s tutelage was my best piece of work yet.

When I first began editing, I thought I would like working with beginning writers, helping them to master a new skill and create a manuscript they could be proud of. But over time I’ve realized that I am much more effective working with people who know how to write but are having specific difficulties with their manuscript. I can help them to pinpoint what’s wrong and give them some ideas about how to fix it. This doesn’t mean I don’t work with unpublished writers. I do, more often than not, but I am at my best working with someone who already knows the basics of writing. Very often my clients are professionals in disciplines that require writing—such as social work or teaching—but who are working on something new for them, such as fiction or book-length nonfiction.

Q: What is one thing that you wish you’d known when you began working as a developmental editor?

It would have been helpful for me to brush up on some of the elements of a fiction manuscript—point of view, tone, voice, story arc, etc. These are things that, as a magazine writer, were elements in my own writing, but I hadn’t thought much about them in depth for years (certainly not in the longer book format). I had to reacquaint myself with many of these so I could better analyze them.

I started with a handicap: a fear of clear, explicit communication with others. It was hard for me to ask direct questions, make specific requests, and receive honest feedback. Lacking these skills (critical for building good ongoing relationships with our clients), I trusted my untested intuitions and assumptions rather than creating real alignment with my clients. Repeat business was rare. But these days I’m proactive about these things.

I wish I’d realized earlier that writers need as much encouragement as they need critique. It’s easy to point out the problem spots, and that’s essentially what a writer is paying you to do. But whether you’re a new or an accomplished writer, it’s sometimes hard to tell where things are really working, and you don’t want to edit out what’s working.

I feel so strongly about pointing out the areas of strength that I started a writing class that focuses solely on positive reinforcement. I’m amazed how much more quickly work improves when writers feel free to write without the fear of being beaten up, and are allowed to see where they have skills.

That it was so hard! Actually, I knew that was true, at least for me. I’m good at it, but it’s taxing for me, and so I’ve learned to balance the creativity that developmental work demands—and that’s so enjoyable—with the mental ease I find in other kinds of editing. Knowing my strengths and weaknesses is a good thing, and the balance is constantly evolving.

Ironically, the thing that has come hardest to me is not the editing itself, but the interaction with potential clients who come to me seeking information. When I first started, I think I assumed too much knowledge on the part of these people, and didn’t spend enough time discussing with them what they were really looking for. So, starting out, I wish I had known the right questions to ask a potential client and how best to present myself and what I have to offer. I’ve learned that taking time up front to get everything clear pays off in the end.


  1. Thank you for this post. It is so, so helpful! More please. :)

  2. Excellent! I love the community you are building for us all. It is great to see what others struggle with and that some aspects of the job get easier. I also appreciated Julie's reminder about balance.