Interview with an Editor

Thinking about the next step towards publishing your book? 

Probably you’ve been advised to have someone cast a fresh eye over your writing to weed out any typos or smooth your grammar before it goes to print, but you might be hesitating because of the cost.

 

Is it worth it? you ask.

What does a proofreader do that the spellcheck can’t?

I’m going to share with you an interview I participated in a while ago: I was asked by a writer for my thoughts and experiences from this side of the laptop – looking at a new manuscript lovingly created by someone like you, now feeling nervous about entrusting it to a stranger with a red pen! (Well, red font I suppose).

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Question 1)

I would imagine proofreaders are easily able to put themselves in the shoes of a writer. To help a writer like me to see the process from your point of view, tell me some of the challenges you face as a proofreader.

Often, I’ve worked with authors who are non-native English speaker or were not born here in the UK, so there is a whole different feel to a manuscript. To put myself in the shoes of the writer, I find it useful to Google unfamiliar place names, especially countries, and look at images which help me see the story in my imagination. Trip Advisor can be good too!

Are you talking about copy-editing as well? This is an added dimension. Pure proofreading is basically just checking spelling, punctuation and grammar, which are mostly either right or wrong, black or white. Personally, I am unable to just proofread without copy-editing as well – otherwise I don’t feel I have done a quality job. So, this can entail condensing wordy sentences or fleshing out some areas, or suggesting synonyms, without intruding on the author’s own story. It’s helpful to have at least a couple of conversations with the author and keep in touch with them to put any queries as you go along. Fees for proofreading alone will be lower than copy-editing.

When I first started out, I tried to read the complete manuscript before attempting to edit, thinking I needed to have the overall story, but this adds to the number of hours you need to work and makes it not cost-effective, so reluctantly, I accepted having to jump straight in. This can mean that 2/3 of the way through, you discover something which makes a nonsense of something earlier in the MS, and you have to change things. Not a disaster, but time-consuming. Also, it can mean that it takes a while to get used to the author’s voice, which may be non-native English, or very informal; you need to learn when to “back off” and let the author use their own voice and style and colloquialisms, and not put everything into “Queen’s English”.

 

Question 2)

To put my mind at ease, do more established writers make just as many mistakes as new writers?

To be honest, no. If an established writer has used an editor in the past, they will have learned a few things about punctuation along the way (hopefully!) and stop making those common errors. Joining a local writers’ group can be really useful.

 New writers can be challenging! Some use far too much dialogue and forget to add necessary descriptions for time and place. They may need support in building the story arc, tension, avoiding plot holes etc, but this shouldn’t be the job of a proofreader, it is more the job of a developmental editor who works with the author while they are still writing, or a book coach or mentor. It’s worth the investment!

 Sometimes a new writer thinks they have a prizewinning novel, when in reality, it still needs a lot of work. Ideally, I check out the story before accepting it for proofreading, and if necessary, refer them to a mentor.

 

Question 3)

What are the most common types of mistake that writers make and how can we avoid these mistakes, and improve our own writing?

 Frequent repetition of the same word within a sentence or paragraph.
  Answer – Use the synonym finder in MS Word.
Little knowledge of comma usage, quotation marks and the difference between a colon and a semi-colon.
  Answer – Google it!
Inconsistency in upper/lower case. Inconsistency of hyphen use and numbers in digits or words.

  Use find/replace for frequent errors.

  Keep a “Style guide” for each new author or project, and note the choices or preferences so you can refer back if in doubt.

  Select a well-known online style guide, such as The Guardian/Observer Style Guide.

  See these DIY tips for proofreading your own work.

 

Question 4)

How widely does the volume of mistakes or poor writing vary? Do you encounter some that are almost perfect and others that are terrible?

 Yes, there’s a huge variation! It can vary even within the writer – one of my clients was an African lady whose voice seemed to change from chapter to chapter, depending on the subject or even her mood when she was writing – she told me that she sometimes lapsed into her dialect (in her mind).

My current client is very highly educated, his vocabulary is wonderful and he spins a very absorbing story. However, there are still errors, missing words, wrong apostrophes, but it is much easier than many I’ve worked on.

 

Question 5)

What is a good, realistic timescale to expect – long enough to guarantee quality? For example, if someone says they can proofread an 80k word novel within 72 hours, what level of service am I really getting? Is paying more to have it done quickly really beneficial?

 To proof an 80k word document in just 72 hours, it must be via machine I would guess. Most proofreaders will confirm that no machine will ever match the human touch. If it’s an MS with just light editing required, it might take about half the time that a full edit would take, but again, it can vary widely.

Timescale will vary from project to project – it depends on how many errors there are and also the speed of the proofreader. I have got faster since being advised by a very experienced editor: “Done is good enough” – you will never actually finish it if you keep looking – you will ALWAYS come across alternative renderings, even after you’ve fixed all the grammar.

 

Question 6)

The big one – PRICING. How much is too much? What price range is average and how does your own pricing compare with the average and why?

 How long is a piece of string? A tricky question! It all depends, but here are some of my own findings:
The educated author I mentioned above was happy to pay me £1300 up front for a MS of 110k words.

Another writer with a MS of the same length didn’t want to pay that kind of figure, but he kept in touch with me and eventually we agreed £800 – but to be truthful, I have undercharged; I discovered that he is one of those who doesn’t use commas and quotation marks properly and also is a non-native English speaker, so it’s harder than the other book. (That’s down to me, not standing my ground!)

I also work freelance for a small publishing house, who pay me £8.00 per 1000 words, although that’s the lowest I will accept. Manuscripts have been around 20k-30k words and they want the work turned around in 2 weeks and the fee is non-negotiable. It’s do-able, but I don’t like the limited turn-around time.

 

Question 7)

Lastly, a week in the life of a proof-reader. How much proofreading do you do a week? How many hours a week? How many words a day? Does proofreading work as a means of paying the bills?

 A week in the life… There is a lot of other stuff to do: marketing, social media, client meetings, networking, invoicing, accounts, learning, emails etc., which I find very tedious but essential. Try and get organised from the very start, and as soon as you can afford it, outsource the parts you don’t like doing!

Actual editing is my favourite part of the day, but I don’t manage to do it every day. I tend to do a block of about 3 hours without a break, and am managing about 3500 words an hour, roughly 3 days a week. If you agree a deadline, be generous with yourself – under-promise but over-deliver. For example, I said I would get a job done over two months and by the end of January, but I actually finished at the start of the month. If you don’t give a realistic time frame, you will put yourself under pressure and not do as good a job as you might.

Not all proofreaders work this way, some don’t need to do any marketing or networking as they may have a good reliable source of regular work so they can devote the majority of their time to the actual proofing.

Does it pay the bills? Getting there! But work is coming in more steadily now that I’ve been freelancing for nearly 3 years, have built my reputation and people are referring work to me. My goal is to have a small team that I can pass work to, receiving a referral fee so I can take some time off.

Many people don’t see the difference between copy-editing and copywriting, so recently I am turning my focus to copywriting as well as there is a lot of demand for this, and it is better paid.

 

Janice Gilbert
(BA French, Hons with QTS)

 

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