Who needs an editor? “Everybody,” says editor Jim Thomsen (Q&A)

As I get closer to an agent hunt with a new book, I’m also once again considering the self-publishing option if the response from agents is one that suggests, as it did with my last project, that it’s reader-ready (“Love it, but hard to market” versus “This is terrible. Please burn it.”).

If I self-publish, I’ll probably want an editor. For my first book I relied on the critiques of several skilled readers and a number of online writer workshop members, one of whom was formerly an editor of a literary journal, but I didn’t technically have an editor. Because hiring one would be a new experience for me, and because I imagine it’s a potentially new experience for many others, I contacted an editor I know to ask him a few questions about himself, the editing process, what authors should expect, and whether (and when) hiring an editor is really necessary.

Jim Thomsen, owner and operator of Desolation Island Editing Services, worked in newspapers for 24 years, 12 as a reporter and 12 as a copy editor and managing editor. He’s been editing fiction since 2010.

Q: How much fiction/creative writing editing experience did you have when you began offering your services?

A: Not a lot. In 2007, a little more than three years before I left newspapering, I was approached by an author friend with a strong track record in traditional publishing. He wanted me to line-edit a spec manuscript he wanted to show to his agent.

I’d never before worked in Chicago Manual style, so I bought a print copy, learned a lot of hard, slow lessons about the ways Chicago differs from Associated Press style, and learned several more hard lessons about the need to preserve an author’s voice and not subordinate it to “news voice.” And I spent a lot of late, late nights working on the manuscript.

That job led to a handful of other jobs (writers, strangely enough, have a lot of writer friends!), which led to my pursuit of book editing as a steady sideline. I heavily marketed myself at writers’ conferences in and around the Seattle area, where I live. By the time I left newspapering, I probably had, on average, two or three editing jobs a month. Enough to keep me in beer and books.

Now I’m never without work, and it comes by way of a steady stream of referrals from happy past clients.

Q: How does editing news copy translate into editing fiction?

A: It gave me a good grounding in simple, declarative sentences, which are the bedrock of good prose craft. No matter how lyrical or stylized or experimental an author’s voice is, the bottom line is that a certain amount of information has to be conveyed with clarity and concision. A lot of what I do involves stripping away the artifice, ornamentation and overwriting that gets in the way.

Q: Do you recommend people hire an editor like you before submitting to literary agents, or only if they intend to self-publish?

A: Most of my clients fit into one of three groups. One, those who have a well-thought-out plan for disciplined self-publishing and aren’t really considering other options. Two, those who are pursuing agents and traditional publishing houses. Three, those who have agents (and publishing contracts) — but either they’re submitting work on spec or they don’t trust the in-house copy-editing they’ve gotten in the past.

Everybody needs an editor, especially when it’s important to you to make a good fresh impression. I’ve never understood the writer who goes to all the trouble of researching the right agents for their work, painstakingly following the protocol of the query letter … and then submits unedited pages. It’s seemingly in the foolish hope that the agent will be so blown away by the story or voice or characters that he or she will happily set aside the nine thousand other things on their plate and undertake the many hours of red-pen line-editing work on the writers’ behalf.

Putting on your most professional face for a literary professional means submitting professionally polished work. People like me can help with that, and we’re not hard to find.

Q: Considering a seeming lack of careful editing done even by some of the big houses in the last several years, and the success achieved by some arguably terribly written books, how essential is careful editing these days?

A: Incredibly essential, and I’m not saying this to promote myself or my field.

I explain this by appealing to my clients’ interest in the bottom line. If a writer doesn’t get careful editing, embarrassing mistakes will show up in the published book. Readers are intolerant of typos, misspellings, factual errors and grammar mistakes that distract them. They often make their dissatisfaction with such distractions clear by giving the book one-star reviews in Goodreads or on Amazon. Enough of those, and a book will never get the ratings average that will lift it on Amazon’s mystic algorithmic tide to the place where it gets promoted with better-selling books in the same genre.

That missed opportunity for increasing visibility all but sinks a book — sinks its sales, sinks its ability to reach an audience of any significant size. And often, it sinks the author’s potential for better sales with future books. I’ve seen it many times over.

Q: You offer developmental editing, copy-editing, and proofreading services. What do you do if you’re reading a proofread-only project and you spot critical problems with plot structure or character building?

A: I commonly deal with authors who think their work is farther along toward publication than it actually is. And I understand and appreciate that — there’s a lot of ego necessarily involved in putting themselves and their words out into the world. It’s my job, though, to be a reality check for them — not just on their words, but sometimes on themselves. Good editors and good writers form a relationship that’s built on trust. And an absolute lack of bullshit is the foundation on which that trust is based.

So I tell them flat-out: “Your manuscript needs line-editing more than proofing,” or “It’s my honest opinion that your manuscript needs to deal with some storytelling problems before we get into line-editing, because I think you may have significant revising to do.”

It’s a good acid test for whether we’re a good fit for one another. If they take my assessment with grace and a willingness to do the work, then great. If they’re unhappy about having more work ahead of them, and show a real reluctance to do it, it’s more likely I’ll have an unhappy relationship with them. And them with me.

Fortunately, from this scenario, I’ve had a number of happy endings with clients.

Q: How do you stop yourself, when working on a developmental editing project, from correcting a misspelling/typo here and there? (I mean, you’re there anyway…)

A: I usually point them out during the dev-edit stage only if they’re recurring problems. For instance, in one recent erotica-novel dev edit, the author spelled “fellatio” as “fellacio” at least twenty times, and made several references to a woman’s “Cagle” muscle exercises. I couldn’t stand mute about that.

Q: How many projects have you edited, and how do they break down, genre-wise?

A: I’ve worked on about three hundred books since 2007. I haven’t tracked them by genre, but an educated guess is that they’re 35 percent erotica/romance, 20 percent mystery/suspense/thriller, 15 percent literary fiction, 15 percent nonfiction, 15 percent fantasy/sci-fi.

Q: Is there a genre that is more challenging to you than another?

A: Literary fiction, because often my notes about clarity are answered with “That’s my voice and my style.” And while all my instincts are telling me it’s wrong to let that be the final answer, that it might be hurting the story, I really have no response that wins the disagreement. I’ve had clients who have responded to my notes about ambiguity with “That’s the point!” And I just have to accept that. It’s their book, not mine.

Q: In the projects you’ve edited, have you noticed a common problem, some area a number of authors need guidance in the most?

A: Yes, several, but I’ll name just a few. One is a tendency to let lyricism or over-description of characters, settings or objects get in the way of clarity. Another is underwriting and leaving major plot holes. Yet another is forcing characters to act unrealistically, out of the plot’s need and not their own.

And one of the most common, in my experience, is a writer’s tendency to distrust their own dialogue. In other words, they let the characters speak — and explain, either before or after, what the characters were saying and how they were saying it and what they intended. Good dialogue conveys all this without such buttressing devices.

For instance: “I couldn’t take it any more. ‘Dammit, can’t you see she’s been lying to you!’ I shouted, frustrated with his inability to see the obvious. When was he going to wake up and see the truth?”

Q: How does your process work? Is there a give and take of ideas when you’re doing developmental editing, when you might make a recommendation the author doesn’t agree with which then becomes a conversation with both of you defending your point of view, or is it ‘Here is my recommendation; do with it what you will’?

A: Very much the latter. I ask for the manuscript, work on it, turn in the edit, and answer questions. Give-and-take during the process inevitably leads to delays, multiple versions of manuscript files flying around, and a process bogged down by dozens if not hundreds of e-mails and chat messages. Suddenly the end seems impossible to reach.

Allowing the give-and-take was one of many mistakes I made in my first few years in business. In one case, my client asked for chapter-by-chapter dev edits, and after about Chapter 28, she declared that she had fallen behind, had gotten bogged down, and took several months to get back to me — only to tell me that she’d decided to start over and didn’t know when or if we’d be working together again.

At the time, my naive policy was to collect my fee in full upon delivery of the full edit, and I wound up getting paid almost nothing for the forty-plus hours of work I’d done. I was hoisted upon my own policy petard! That policy has since changed.

Q: What is the key difference, do you think, between working with a publishing house editor and working with an independent editor? Are there pros and cons for each?

A: I can speak to this in only a limited way, having never worked inside a publishing house. But sometimes I wonder how big a difference there is. In many publishing houses, the person who is called the “editor” of a book is actually the person who project-manages it — arranging the cover art, writing jacket and marketing copy, running interference with marketing people, devising a marketing/publicity campaign, etc. Someone who does very little actual editing. Increasingly, I’m told, the actual editing is contracted out to someone like me.

Other than that, I think it’s important to make clear that having an in-house editor is no guarantee of an error-free book, or even one that doesn’t embarrass everyone involved. It all depends on the editor to whom you’re assigned, and the stringency of the process under which they work. Sad to say, some of the biggest-name publishing houses have better editors and processes than others. That’s what I’m hearing from my clients, and what I’m seeing with my own eyes.

Q: Do you offer a bulk deal – developmental, copyediting, and proofreading for X amount – or would it be three different projects priced individually?

A: For me, each edit is a separate job. Otherwise, I can get bogged down in a job that never ends. The success of my business model depends on high volume and fast turnover.

I have done dev edits and line edits for the same client. But I advise my line-edit clients that they should always hire someone else for proofreading — a fresh set of eyes on a manuscript is vital to getting the best proofing experience possible. The same person going over the same book, time after time, develops what I call “copy fatigue” — and that’s a serious impediment to rooting out every typo and stray piece of punctuation. I’m good, but after my fifth or sixth read of something, my brain is a bit French-fried.

But I do offer all those services — one level of service per job. I will tell clients that I’m not the best line editor for someone for whom I’ve done a dev edit, unless there’s been a significant lapse in time between jobs that allows me to regain fresh eyes for a given manuscript.

Also, those jobs require different levels of skill and time investment, and as such, I charge each differently. Dev edits are priced higher than line edits, and line edits are priced higher than proofreads. (E-mail me for specifics.)

Q: Who is your ideal client?

A: Someone who knows exactly what they want to accomplish. Somebody who’s done their market research and their writing-craft homework. Someone who can not only take constructive criticism but craves it because they crave getting better. Someone who understands that you almost always get exactly what you pay for. Oh, and someone who pays on time and doesn’t dicker. My price is my price.

Q: How would you describe a “difficult” client?

A: Someone who’s seemingly concerned with cost above all else. Someone who reacts poorly to constructive criticism. Someone who seems surprised and upset at how much work — how much redrafting and revising — goes into getting a book into publishable shape. Someone who tries to get as emotionally involved with me as they are with their work. (Often, I’m asked to be a therapist of sorts, to help clients work through their anxieties about this piece of themselves that they’ve placed in my hands. While I want to be sensitive to that, the reality is that the line between client and friend can be a tough one to draw, and I’ve been burned on it before. I’m more cautious now.)

Q: How would you describe a “good” editor?

A: Someone who delivers exactly what they say they can deliver. Someone who shows you exactly what you’ll get for your money before your money is on the line (ask me more about my sample edit and estimate process). Someone who doesn’t hit you with any big surprises. Someone who communicates well and is open to receiving communication. And of course, someone who makes your book better.

Q: Releasing a self-published book that has a chance for success can in some cases be called a “rich person’s game,” because editors cost a lot of money, good cover designers cost a lot of money, hiring a formatter costs a decent amount of money… People who can afford all of that will probably have a significant head-start when self-publishing. What advice do you have for those who want to self-publish but who can’t pay for a reputable/established editor?

A: Develop a circle of skilled writer friends who are willing to trade services with you. A lot of writers have “beta readers” and “critique partners” to help with developmental issues, but many of these writers also have strong line-editing instincts or even polished line-editing skills. It’s usually not as good as having a professional editor, but these people can save you a lot of embarrassment.

Q: You mention in your quote sheet that one of your goals is to make something commercially viable. What if the book is pretty nontraditional and not necessarily what publishers are looking for, but good on its own (which doesn’t mean not in need of editing) as a work? How do you handle that? Is the focus on making the book more commercial, making it the best it can be for what it is, or is that a conversation you have with the author?

A: I’m all about identifying an author’s goals and tailoring my editing to those goals. I have learned to ask an author about that well before the point of sale. Occasionally I do have an author who simply wants to get a book out there and isn’t particularly concerned about its commercial potential. I’ll roll with that, but that usually means having my concerns about what simply doesn’t make sense, no matter what the goal is, answered with “Well, that may be, but that’s the way I want it.”

At that point I let it go. In the end, it’s their book and they have the right to send it into the world the way they want it. It’s not about my ego or my need to be right.

But those clients are few and far between. Most of the authors I want to work with have conventional goals — to connect with a wide audience, to obtain critical and peer respect, to sell lots of books and make lots of money. I promise nothing more, or less, than to position them to meet those goals to the best of my ability.

Jim Thomsen is the owner and operator of Desolation Island Editing Services, which since 2010 has provided development and line editing, along with proofreading, critiques and consulting, to nearly two hundred clients. Jim, a former newspaper reporter and editor, lives and works in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. He can be reached at thomsen1965@gmail.com. Contact him for an information sheet that details what he does, how he does it, and how he arrives at an estimate and final fee.

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kristen j. tsetsi