May 24, 2012

Editors Roundtable: Balancing life and developmental editing

Every freelance editor must find a way to balance editing work and other activities—a day job, copyediting and proofreading projects, writing and teaching, family joys and responsibilities, and more. Developmental editing in particular demands focused, creative attention, as Jennifer Hager explains in the discussion below. Here are a few developmental editors musing over their own journey toward balance.

Q: What are the primary life activities or responsibilities you balance against your developmental editing work?

Professionally, I take on several types of editorial work in addition to developmental editing projects. These include publishing/editorial consulting jobs as well as some copyediting work. My “number-one best job,” as I tell my two elementary-age daughters, is being their mom. I balance my work and family responsibilities with volunteering, awesome-dog ownership, and what I call self-care (nurturing friendships, exercising/training for endurance events, and making the most of my “me time”—there’s not a lot of it but you’ve got to make it a priority!).

I write for and edit publications. I also teach screenwriting at the University of Washington, and do my own creative writing. I’ve gotten into blogging and social media and do some corporate blogging as well as blogging for nonprofits. (I sound busy, but this is all fun!)

My idea of balanced work is a combination of projects that demand different skills and are done on different timelines. Because I edit a lot of science related projects, I also aim to have creative projects; it's also nice to have a few projects that involve working with other people, instead of always solo. Most of my projects involve developmental editing, copyediting, or both, though I occasionally take on short writing projects.
An unpaid activity I fit in whenever I can is reading, which fosters both learning and imagination. Lately, a minor but enjoyable outlet for my admittedly limited creativity is writing short graphic stories (comics). Putting together a script demands comparatively little time from other obligations, and offers a chance to interact with artists.

One regret is that I'm far from most of my family. Since it's difficult for them to travel, I try to visit them, and depending on where they live, I may go for a long weekend or several weeks. Despite being able to do a lot of work away from my home office, it can be difficult deciding what projects to turn down, what to reschedule, and what to accommodate when I'm trying to maximize time with family.

I like to hike, bike, travel, and be outside in general. I spend so much time at my computer, and more time sitting and reading for enjoyment, that I find it essential (and difficult!) to make time for physical activity. A landscaper friend once told me he budgeted for massage as a business expense, because he couldn’t keep doing his work without it. That’s the same way I think about editing at my desk—I can’t keep doing it physically or mentally if I don’t, well, stop doing it long enough to get up and move around, preferably in a mountain range or foreign country (Canada counts!).

I work primarily at home, part time, working around the needs of my husband and two great teenage girls. I help host monthly poetry readings in Poulsbo and acoustic music open-mics on Bainbridge, and I play music semi-professionally on many fronts. Calling myself a developmental editor brings all kinds of unusual or “in progress” projects my way—and I enjoy the challenge of providing helpful feedback to these authors.

Q: What are some of the ways you’ve made accommodations between your work and the rest of your life.

The best thing about being an independent editor is the flexibility of my work hours. I work most of every school day (10 to 3ish) from my home office, and I generally put in a few hours after bedtime or on the weekends. This gets me to about 25–30 hours a week, which is just about perfect given the other commitments in my life.

When scheduling projects with clients, I try to be as realistic as possible about the time I have (or don’t have) available over the next two to four weeks. If things looks tight on my end, I always let the client know, and many times he or she is happy to make an adjustment in the editorial schedule so I can take on the project. I have found that it’s almost impossible at this point in my life to take on rush work—it’s just too stressful to squeeze in a rush project after I’m already scheduled out (usually at least a month or two in advance).

So, for now, most of my projects are book-length manuscripts, which allow for roomy editing schedules (at least two or three weeks, sometimes more). I am usually working on multiple projects at once, in various stages. Sometimes, despite my best scheduling efforts, I encounter a crunch—a publisher wants to push up a manuscript or an author’s progress has been delayed. You can’t control everything, but a few early mornings and late nights here and there are fine with me. I wouldn’t trade the flexibility for anything!

I’m still on a learning curve about my requirements to do this work and getting better at gauging my time, but each project is full of unknowns. If I’m charged with finding a new structure or narrative shape for a book-length project, I might come up with a plan and make an outline only to drop it and keep searching. But once I’m into a project, it takes as long as it takes.

Developmental editing involves creative processes and taps untamed energies. The ability to immerse myself in a story and work inside it is a great asset—and also my biggest liability. My ideal clients are serious writers who understand the potential value of partnering with an editor and are willing to pay for it. Publishers, referring promising projects that need help, would be second. I’m strategizing about how to best find and mingle with these clients.

My aim is to combine work on projects that can be done within a few days with others that require several weeks. When I'm especially busy with the short-term projects, I still have time to think about aspects of the longer ones, and I'm more productive when I turn back to them. When the short-term projects are more infrequent, I can tackle the more labor-intensive aspects of the longer ones. When things are really slow, I can head to the bookshelf or turn to personal projects.

I like to do a lot, so I work at being as efficient and organized as I can, so I can fit as much in as possible. When I’m talking to a new client, we discuss not only what will be provided, but also arrange a schedule for when I’ll be providing feedback and future meetings. That said, I don’t want it too structured (and I also like to be a coach when necessary), and I will make myself available via email throughout the process.

I love smart phones. I can answer emails quickly, or schedule meetings when I’m on the run.

As a full-time freelancer I do different kinds of work with different types of clients—book project management and copyediting for publishers, developmental work directly with authors, etc. I try to schedule easier jobs alongside more difficult ones, so that I’m not doing, say, two giant developmental jobs at once. And when I get myself into a time crunch, which, hang it all, still happens after fifteen years of freelancing, I cop to it and try to adjust the deadline—no use killing myself to give a client a shoddy product. I always, always alert a client if the work is progressing more slowly than we'd anticipated. I consider missing deadlines unprofessional—I don’t like to do it and I don’t like it in people I hire. So in an ideal world I don’t overbook myself or agree to crazy timelines. That said, sometimes the project at hand has caused the time crunch because it’s grown beyond the agreed-upon scope of work. Then I go outside, get some perspective, and force myself to stay within the bounds of the initial scope of work, which can mean skipping some editing tasks and sometimes renegotiating the agreement. The agreements I make with clients are as much for myself as for the client, and I try to honor both of us.

Q: What strategies have you learned work well for your developmental editing practice? What strategies have changed over time or might change in the foreseeable future?

I can dip in and out of copyediting projects with no trouble. But developmental editing, for me, requires a wholehearted focus that suffers when interrupted and takes great effort to pick up again.

Setting aside any other work, I do my quick first read in as few consecutive sittings as possible. I take walks that allow thoughts and questions to surface. I don’t work on any other projects during a slow second read, because it’s critical for me to absorb both the specifics and the entirety of the manuscript so that I can hold it all at once. Careful notes taken in the second read serve as a “shorthand copy” of the book that I use in the rest of the creative thinking work. And then there’s the thinking work—that occurs around the clock. So in my schedule and work environment, I try to make a protected container in which things simmer and reveal themselves.

My immersion in story can make me oblivious to what’s happening for my family members. I need to be deliberate about checking in with them from time to time; they need my apologies and thanks.

I am beginning to charge by the project instead of by the hour. The most value-added work is the thinking/envisioning that goes on, and that happens all hours of the day.

The possibility of working with a referral network of other professionals appeals, whether to handle overflow or projects that require a different fit. [Editor’s note: I’ve spoken to a number of editors interested in developing a referral network—but it seems to be easier said than done. If you’re an independent editor who’s developed a working method for establishing connections with editors you trust and to whom you can refer overflow projects, tell us about it! Comments are open.]

I am open to phone calls, but I generally try to give all substantive feedback in written form. I find it’s a much more efficient way for me to communicate, plus I can compose and deliver that feedback at all hours of the night. Since I don’t keep traditional office hours, I find scheduling phone calls with clients works best. Also, being on the West Coast, I must constantly remind folks about the time difference. Although most of my clients are not local, it is nice to have an occasional face-to-face meeting with someone!

Our monthly Editors Roundtable aims to encourage conversation among freelance developmental editors of fiction and creative nonfiction. Please join usWhat are some strategies you’ve used to balance your developmental editing work with your family, or your writing, or other areas of your life? What advice can you share with others doing similar work? What questions would you ask? 

1 comment:

  1. I recently wrote a blog post for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) freelancers' section that might be helpful: