How to become a better editor with Julie Tibbott
A New York City-based freelance editor and writer Julie Tibbott tells us how she stays on top of her editing game. After spending 13 years as a Senior Editor at a top publishing house, she is now a full-time freelancer who works with self-published authors.
1. Hello Julie. Tell us a little about who you are and what you do.
I’m Julie Tibbott, an editor, and writer with over 15 years of experience in the publishing business. Most recently I’ve worked as a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.
I am now delighting in life as a freelance editor of fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with a special affinity for speculative fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and pop culture-focused nonfiction.
2. How did you start your editing career?
I was an English major in college, and I’d always known my goal was to work with books, reading, and writing in some capacity. The summer after my junior year, I looked for internships at book publishers in New York City and found one at a small independent publisher called Barefoot Books.
It was a wonderful place to begin my career, and not just because they published beautifully crafted books! Being in a small office, with only about ten employees at the time, I was basically everyone’s assistant — this exposed me to many sides of the business, from editorial to sales to marketing and publicity. And like all interns, I spent a lot of quality time digging through the slush pile, which was a great intro to editing!
I worked at Barefoot throughout my senior year of college, and after they moved their office to Boston, I ended up accepting a job in Scholastic’s Book Clubs division, selecting titles for their teen book club. A few years later, I moved on to Harcourt (which later became Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and remained there for thirteen years.
3. What motivated you to become a freelancer?
To be honest, a layoff! Mergers and restructuring are common in the publishing business, and I managed to weather a few of them over the years, with my job intact. But last spring I was let go from HMH, along with many other staff members.
Although I enjoyed my job there as a senior editor, I was ready for a new opportunity and new challenges, so I welcomed the change. I had already been doing some freelance editing on the side, so I just transitioned into doing it full time.
4. How do you keep your skills up? Do you have any go-to resources for editors?
For me, I read and I work. I’ve always got my “editor’s hat” on, whether I’m taking in an exhibit at a museum or reading advertising signage. I consider presentation, efficiency, and economy of language in all scenarios. I attempt to expose myself to a range of opinions and ideas, and I always try to see the story in my surroundings.
As for resources, I know some editors who have taken copyediting classes, but personally, I just learned by reviewing professionally copyedited materials. There's a list of proofreaders' marks in the Chicago Manual of Style that I used to refer to a lot in the early days, but eventually, I caught on! Occasionally I'll still look at the Chicago Manual, and other than that, maybe Strunk & White's The Elements of Style.
Creative writing classes and critique groups can also be helpful resources — you get to see how people respond to a variety of work, get a sense of the most effective ways to offer criticism, and learn how to polish prose. Honestly, I loved taking expository writing too, even though many more creative writers hated that class! The bottom line is that structure, clarity, and logic are always important, no matter what kind of writing you're doing.
5. In your opinion, what skills are the most important for book editors?
In my view, the most important skills for an editor are taste (though that’s subjective, of course), attention to detail, curiosity, empathy, a sense of play, and the ability to make connections between a story you love and broader social/cultural movements. You need to stay informed about what social and cultural movements are happening in the world, and then be able to see how a story on your desk could appeal to culturally savvy readers.
A good example of this would be the YA novel (and soon-to-be movie) The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. At the time that manuscript was being shopped around, the US news was inundated with stories about police officers shooting unarmed black men and boys, and activists were taking a stand against these injustices. So there was great demand for a story that touched on those timely and important themes.
Of course, not every book that relates to current events or popular culture is going to be a bestseller. But being able to make those connections, as both an author and editor, can give the story a bit more traction and help it find its audience.
6. What has changed the most about your editing process since you first started? What have you learned to focus on?
The thing that’s changed most in my process is a greater sense of clarity in prose, which comes from a lot of experience making and reviewing line and copy edits. This process really varies from one piece of writing to the next, but here are some of the elements I often see muddling prose:
- Prepositional phrases. Not that you can get away from using them completely, of course, but I often find sentences that are much clearer without prepositional phrases at the beginning or end.
- Directional words/phrases. While it’s sometimes important to know whether a character is looking or going east/west, left/right, up/down, etc., it can be dizzying and repetitive when indicated too often.
- “Looking/seeing” words. Again, you don’t want to eliminate these entirely, but I often see them overused, particularly in first person narratives. When the reader is already looking through the eyes of the narrator, it's not necessary to describe the play-by-play movement of what they see — it's enough to simply describe the scene before them. So a sentence like "In the distance, she could see the sun setting," could simply be "In the distance, the sun was setting."
- Run-on sentences. If you've got to reread that six-line sentence multiple times to grasp its meaning, then it's probably too long and rambling.
- Adverb overload. Not every sentence or dialogue tag needs one adverb, let alone multiple instances of them. I find they are best used sparingly.
Of course, style and voice also come into play when I'm deciding what to cut, so none of these are hard-and-fast "rules". But generally, any device that's used excessively is going to stand out and is worth considering cutting or changing.
7. What does your editing process look like?
My process begins with reading a hard copy of the manuscript, editing the text, and making any notes that occur to me as I go along. When that’s finished, I sit down to key in the edits on an electronic copy of the manuscript — which basically means reading the manuscript again. At this time, having a better sense of the full scope of the story, I reconsider some of my edits and notes and only include the ones that are most applicable.
At the same time as I key in these edits, I create a document to record notes and passages from the manuscript, which will be transformed into an editorial memo for the author. Keying in the edits usually takes at least a couple of days, and the memo (usually 5-7 pages) takes me a full day to craft. I’ll often then have a follow-up phone call or messages with clients later on, after they are finished reviewing my edits and notes. This is when we analyze problem spots in more detail and discuss next steps.
8. When deciding whether to take on a project, what do you look at?
I try to only work on stories/writing I actually enjoy reading, because I think you need to have some affection or affinity for the work in order to provide valuable feedback. Generally, I will not edit work by children — but not because I don’t think kids can be great writers! Having reviewed work by many young writers, I believe their time and resources are better spent simply writing, reading, and learning during those formative years. Chances are, if they stick with it, they’ll gain a lot more from a professional edit sometime in the future.
9. Do you have any strategies or tricks you use to improve your editing process?
I find reading poetry is a good way to reset after working with prose, and to get a sense of rhythm and impressionistic description, which can really benefit the editing process. Listening to music and writing songs can also provide this sort of insight. Honestly, what teaches and informs my editing process the most is simply absorbing a wide range of art, and really thinking over and discussing how and why it’s done the way it is.
10. What are some techniques you find useful when editing?
Sometimes I’ll read dialogue or certain other passages out loud to see if it sounds natural. One of my heroes is Twilight Zone writer/creator Rod Serling, who said, “Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull.” And I do believe that keeping the audience in mind is critical, so this resonates with me.
Also, when I notice a lot of repetition of certain words or phrases in a manuscript, I’ll highlight them and change or eliminate them in the edit, to ensure that there’s enough variation in the language.
11. Do you stick to a reading diet?
I have no strict “reading diet,” though I will admit to reading too little recent fiction simply because I spend so much time reading for work. I tend to read a lot of long-form nonfiction stories (from the New Yorker, Harper’s, etc.) because of those time constraints.
12. How do you deal with clients who see your feedback as harsh criticism and have a hard time accepting it?
The way I see it, authors are seeking me out expressly for my criticism and expertise. They aren’t paying to be coddled. I try not to be harsh or unkind, but I always try to be honest, and to tell them what I appreciate about their writing as well as what is not working, in my opinion.
Something I stress to authors is that a big part of my job is just asking questions — the same questions that will likely occur to other readers of their work. And in the end, edits are always suggestions: it’s up to the author whether or not they agree to my suggested edits, or handle it some other way. It is their work, after all.
I prefer to work with authors who have a professional attitude about the process. It can be tough not to take criticism of one’s writing too personally, but I think many authors realize that a different perspective on their story can bring growth and improvement. And if they’re hoping to become a better writer, that’s exactly what they want!
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