Being published is the holy grail of writing, whether it is in a print book, e-book, magazine or online, but authors are rarely alone on the long journey to get there. Whether traditional or self-published one of a writer’s most important supporters is the editor. They’re often invisible to a reader, especially if they do their job right, but nonetheless play a crucial role in the development of a story and much more.
Jody Lee is one of Australia’s best. She’s been involved in publishing for more than fifteen years including work as an associate publisher, commissioning editor and project editor for Simon & Schuster, Random House and ABC Books.
She is now a freelance editor working with major trade publishing houses including Allen and Unwin, Harlequin, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, University of Queensland Press and self-published authors who appreciate a dose of good editing.
How did you first get involved in editing and publishing?
I originally thought I wanted to be a journalist and managed to get a cadetship with The Age in Melbourne. Then I realised I didn’t have the chutzpah to interview people. I did a stint as a legal editor and on a whim applied for a job at Random House as an editorial assistant working with the legendary children’s publishers Mark MacLeod and Lindsay Knight. It was one of those moments where a love of reading, of books, hanging around with people who loved books as much as I did and mucking around with words all coalesced.
What exactly does an editor do?
No, they are not people who are able to use the grammar and spell-check in a word processing program. If only it was so easy. An editor essentially works with text to shape it into something that is presentable, readable and accessible and that is just the beginning. There is so much more that comes with the editor label. It is equal parts diplomat, nurturer, psychologist, hand-holder, sounding-board, whipping post, cook and bottle washer (maybe not the last two but you get the idea).
So what does an editor really do? Editing is a science and an art. There is a basic architecture to every book, and if the author has a wobbly narrative leg or an insufficient thesis to stand on, the editor must find the blueprint or create one. Every writer has their own rhythms, from sentence structure to the length of the paragraphs and chapters. The editor must help the author use that form to its most powerful effect. Editing is getting inside the text, and inevitably into a writer’s head to understand the point the writer wants to get across. Editors provide guidance and build trust through careful attention to the pages and encourage a writer, either a first-timer or a seasoned pro, to continue taking risks with their writing and push them beyond what they think they are capable of.
Why do you think many writers, particularly those self-publishing, don’t put great emphasis on editing?
Editing is not a particularly tangible or visible element in book publishing. People know of editors, they have a vague idea of what they do but an editor tends to work in the background. The editing process is invisible and un-reproducible. There is no physical way of measuring the benefits of editing in financial or best-seller terms, and no one will ever recognise good editorial work, which is really the point of editing. So in terms of self-publishing where costs are being taken into account, the cost of editing seems to be one of the things that are rationalised out of the equation. The budget usually swings in favour of cover design, marketing or publicity – the ‘physical’ and more glamorous elements of book publishing.
You’ve worked for some of the biggest Australian publishing houses. What benefits are there to having a manuscript edited professionally before sending it to a publisher for consideration?
Getting your manuscript edited professionally before submitting it to a publisher is an expensive exercise. It is not going to guarantee a publishing contract and if your manuscript is picked up it will be edited according to a publisher’s brief. That said, the manuscript needs to be in the best possible shape before you decide to submit it as you usually get one shot at a pitch to a publisher. If you need professional and objective feedback on your manuscript, get it assessed by a reputable manuscript assessment agency first. Family and friends giving feedback don’t really cut it and everyone might ultimately end up in tears. If, after a manuscript assessment, you really feel that you want someone to edit, find a good editor who will give you honest feedback and talk you through the type of editing you think you might be after.
So someone has decided to hire you as an editor. What are some of the most common issues you find yourself having to work through with the author?
Issues for both contracted and self-published authors can be very similar. For first-timers it is usually things like structure and pace, balancing that light and shade in the unfolding of a story to keep a reader hooked. Characterisation can be tricky as most authors know their characters so well and are familiar with them. Working on layering and developing the characters will feed into the dynamics of dialogue and character interaction. Keeping the author focused on their reader – who they are and what they might like in the story is also important.
How far do you suggest an author goes with their manuscript before sending it to a publisher?
An author needs to feel that their manuscript is as good as it possibly can be. If there are niggling doubts about certain things in the plot, the voice is a little wobbly or there is a character that doesn’t ring true or the ending doesn’t quite sing to you then go back and look at the manuscript. Again, you only get one shot at submission and you want to give yourself the best possible chance. Don’t rush getting your manuscript finished; take a breath and put the manuscript away for a period of time and then go back and look at it again. You will be amazed at how liberating it is to take another look when you shift your head away from it for a bit. Don’t feel that after the first or second draft you are good to go. One commercially successful author I worked with does up to 50 plus drafts of each of his manuscripts to make sure he is completely happy with what he submits. I’m not suggesting that many, but revise, self-edit and revise again. An underdone manuscript is like heading out the door with your skirt tucked into the back of your undies.
We’re seeing a big increase in the number of authors opting for digital and/or self-publishing avenues to get their books out there. How do you see the future of publishing playing out?
Publishing in all its forms is sitting on a pretty exciting precipice. There is either the urge to jump and think about what will happen when you hit the bottom but there is also the possibility that one might fly. Digital publishing works for both traditional publishing houses and self-publishing in that some books and particular genres work well in digital form only. The add-on of digital makes getting hold of a book so much faster and easier. Self-publishing opens up the options for writers to bypass the big conglomerate publishing houses and some well-known authors have stepped away from the conventional publishing model to try self-publishing.
Much has been said about the death of the book, the decline in good writing and the glut of lightweight or fly-by-night books being published. I think that has always been the case, it is just that things are moving far more quickly and change is always a little scary. There are more possibilities than ever for writers to get their work out into the world on different platforms. With that comes some wriggle room for writers to be a bit more experimental, enabling them to think beyond the boundaries and conventions of the traditional publishing model.
What is the most important piece of advice you have for an aspiring author?
Writing is a serendipitous thing. Timing plays a big part in the lucky breaks for a writer but there is also the notion that it is an organic process that is always changing, shifting, developing and learning. If a writer feels they have the writing gig down pat then their writing will never change. Read, read and read! A writer needs to read widely and constantly. Strangely I have come across people who write but don’t read and it always shows in their work.
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Writer’s Edit would like to thank Jody Lee for taking the time to speak with us.