I’m a decently curious person. I’ve gotten sucked into WiK-holes on every subject from Russian history to French-Canadian Profanity. And there’s nothing I love learning about more than publishing, especially with all the fascinating ways it’s evolving at present.
Fortunately, it’s an easy passion to indulge in many different ways. Over the past ten years, I’ve been lucky to take great classes, intern and work at great places, and interview great people. I’ve also worked my butt off at difficult jobs, writing and querying manuscripts, looking up massive amounts of information, beta-ing other people’s work, and judging contests.
The end result? I’ve spent a lot of time on both sides of the desk, both literal and metaphorical. For what I’ve learned, and for the empathy it’s enabled me to have, I’m endlessly grateful, and it seemed like a good thing to share (with props to Rachel for the topic suggestion!):
What I’ve learned as an editor:
I’ve been an editorial assistant and assistant editor for the past six years, and though I’ve gone from Big Six Fiction (Mainly historical and contemporary romance, paperback conversions of thrillers, and cozy mysteries) and Non-Fiction (Politics and Economics) to a Scientific Journal to a Major Academic Publisher (Mathematics), there are a few things that always hold true:
There will always be authors who want your ear, who want to know you’re doing everything possible for them, who want you to make certain concessions to match their vision exactly. They will want last-minute changes. They’ll have read their back cover copy one more time during a bout of insomnia and realized this “of” should be “in” and I know I already OKed it but can you change it?
As an Editor, I’m happy to help when A) I’m asked nicely and not in anger, particular when it’s neither my job nor my fault. B) I’m not being asked to do something unethical, like slip an extra comp copy. C) I can. Sometimes I can’t. Sometimes that cover’s gone through the approval process and posted to the website and gone up on Amazon and it’s just done. Editors aren’t being lazy or jerks when they say they can’t do something. Part of Editorial is interfacing with basically every other department, and eventually, things leave our hands and our control. It’s just how it works.
As an author, I get it. It’s your baby, and it’s got your name on it. As an insecure writer, I really get it – who knows how many of these chances you’ll even get? What if I forgot to submit the only dedication I’ll ever get to do, but front matter’s been finalized and page count’s been set?
As someone who does both, here’s what I’d emphasize: Understand limits, of what both of you can realistically do and give up. Communicate – explain why it’s important/impossible for you. Come up with alternative plans for the things you can’t change. And try your hardest to think through the decisions you make before you make them, within reason of making a deadline. This is a partnership, and you both want the best for the book – it’s your job to, no matter which one you are. So understand no one’s trying to screw you and for the love of god, be polite.
What I’ve Learned as a Copy Editor:
I’ve been a Copy Editor by official title for about two-and-a-half years now, but before that, I did a whole lot of copy editing and proofreading as an Editorial Assistant, and before that I was a Production Intern. Before that, I took the college class that taught me how to copy edit. I mention all this because I often get asked how I got into freelance work. The answer is there was a lot of dumb luck involved, mixed in with the required skill, and a little help from great people. I also took a lot of tests. There are always tests.
What’s non-negotiable is knowing grammar, punctuation, and spelling; reading carefully enough to recognize when details have changed or plot is inconsistent; reading thoughtfully enough to know when a character is being inconsistent; knowing how to make helpful notes that don’t attempt to rewrite the author’s voice; being able to follow a style guide; and being able to make deadlines.
As a Copy Editor: We don’t expect you to be perfect. It’d suck if you were, because I’d be out of a job. But if you’re gonna be an author, it’d be cool if you took the time to make sure you knew the really basic things. Did you know that Word will actually refuse to show new corrections once you hit a certain number? I learned that when an author didn’t bother looking into how to properly punctuate dialogue tags, i.e. preceded by a comma, not a period. I literally couldn’t do my job at that point.
You don’t know lay/lie/laid? Whatever – no one does. But there’s a big difference between not making grammar your life and thinking you don’t have to care about it because there are people there to clean it up. You don’t rely on content editors to rewrite your book entirely and you shouldn’t rely on copy editors to make you sound fluent in English unless you’re paying them a lot for exactly that.
As an author: I am so freaking grateful I will have a copy editor. I know grammar and punctuation, but I’m only human, and I read my mss all the freaking time. I miss things. I don’t want to be my books’ only pair of eyes. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are, or even how good you really are – you cannot be the only one to read your material.
As both: this relationship is a great and necessary thing for literary quality. Here’s the key thing to keep in mind – a copy editor is there to ensure grammatical correctness, consistency, proper punctuation, et cetera. A copy editor’s job is NOT to make any changes that affect voice or style. A copy editor isn’t a content editor. Don’t hire a copy editor expecting him or her to handle your developmental issues, and don’t take on a project if you can’t stop yourself from rewriting it. If you enter into an author-copy editor relationship, make sure it’s clear from the start what you expect from each other.
What I’ve Learned from Participating in Contests
Writing contests are pretty freaking incredible opportunities. They’re also really, really difficult and time-consuming to run. I tip my hat to ladies like Cupid and Brenda Drake something fierce because I honestly don’t think anyone realizes how hard they work. And there’s so much to be gleaned from them… once again, from both sides of the desk!
As an entrant: I’ve only ever entered one contest (The Writer’s Voice, in 2012), but it was enough. I got an agent, met a ton of people, and realized how much I enjoy seeing what’s out there. I’ve read so many entries from that contest, and went on to read so many more from others. The great thing is, you don’t even really need to be in the contest to get stuff from it; just hang out on the hashtag, or comment on entries, and you’ll meet a million people in no time.
Of course, there are tricky parts to entering too, which I’ve covered at length in this post.
As a judge: Judge is sort of a tricky word, but I’m using it to cover any circumstance in which I’ve had to read entries and pick my favorites. To me, it felt a whole lot like I imagine being a literary agent to feel. Suddenly, all those rejections that sounded so vague, like, “I just didn’t connect with the material,” made so much sense. Because sometimes, you really just don’t. It’s not bad, but it’s just not making you need to read more. For me, that couldn’t been anything from a voice that didn’t stand out to something that just felt way too familiar.
Some other things I noticed:
1) It does feel lousy to turn down people you know and like from Twitter. When people review books with things like, “I really wanted to love this….” Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt. But it’s a good reminder that it’s ultimately a business and you both need to be professional about it.
2) It’s really, really frustrating when people can’t follow basic guidelines. We do so much work on the other side, and it’s really not that much to ask that you format your entries right, or pay attention to what categories are welcome by who.
3) A lot of people clearly don’t do their research. Basic little things like “round your word count” and “narrow down your genre” are not hard to figure out if you look into how to query for 30 seconds. Ditto with not checking titles to make sure they’re not already being used by bestsellers.
Another thing I see way too often, because if I see it ever, it’s too often – your manuscript can’t be “MG/YA.” Those categories have fundamentally different voices, thresholds for certain things, and character ages. If your manuscript genuinely straddles the line, there may actually be an issue with the manuscript.
As both: No matter which side you’re on, A) these can be as big a time investment as you want them to be, but the more time you invest, the more likely you are to get out of it, and B) everyone benefits when contests succeed and writers get entries. It makes people want to read them, agents want to participate, and new writers want to get involved in the kidlit community.
That said, they are relatively rare opportunities, and they’re also public opportunities, two things to be very, very aware of. The work that makes it through is a reflection of both writers and judges. Don’t waste chances on lack of research, or spots on entries that have already made the contest circuit. I say that to both writers and judges, because I do think it’s also on the latter to have an idea of what’s already been out there. But anyway, now I’m just being a broken record!
As time goes on, I look forward to learning more, particularly about being on the author side of the publication process. What about you? What have you learned, and what would you like to learn from the other side?