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#FreelancerFriday #3 - Maggie Lyons, Editor

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft on July 25, 2014 Leave your thoughts đź’¬

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“You want to make a piece of writing absolutely shine, but you have to be very careful not to squash the writers’ voice. If you destroy the writer’s voice you shouldn’t be editing.”

Maggie Lyons is an editor and author of children’s fiction of Welsh extraction based in Virginia. With a background editing for Harvard University Press and Palgrave Macmillan, she spoke to us about her diplomatic approach to editing, and her experience being on the other side of the editor’s pen.

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REEDSY
What was it like starting as an editor in academic publishing?

MAGGIE LYONS
I got to edit an enormous variety of disciplines: everything from medieval history to an astronomy course. In the academic world a lot of disciplines can be edited by people who don’t have a degree in that subject. There are a few that can’t be - I’d have never agree to edit a course on relativity - but a lot can. Publishers trust that the academic writing the book is the ultimate expert, and that the editor’s job is not to check every fact in the book. I could do developmental editing for British History, Medieval History, there was a course on Churchill where I made some suggestions as well.

When you’re talking about an academic volume that has multiple authors all contributing a chapter, I would not do developmental editing. For example, I’ve worked on books for Harvard University Press. By the time the manuscript gets to me the developmental editing has been done, and it’s been done by an academic in that subject, often someone contributing a chapter to that book. But the copy editor or line editor for an academic publisher like HUP wouldn’t do the developmental or content editing.

REEDSY
Do you have a process for working through a new project?

MAGGIE LYONS
Absolutely. The process is different depending on if I’m editing for an individual private client or a publisher. If I’m editing something for a private client, we start off with a brief discussion of the document to be edited, a contract goes back and forth, administrative things are involved, etc. Before I even accept the manuscript I’ll want to see a couple of sample pages so that I can see the amount of work involved, and obviously my fee is then based on the level or work involved. All that administrative and judgemental stuff comes first.

I rarely ever edit hard-copy, I rarely mark-up paper. I much prefer to work online. I find it leads to better work - I pick up on things much more accurately when I work online. I have done work on paper, but that’s becoming very much a thing of the past. Some companies still do it, marking up everything in red ink, but that’s very unusual these days.

I’ll look over the manuscript and let the writer or publishing house know how long it’ll take me to do. If I spot things that may be problematic, I need an answer from the writer before I even start editing. I go through the manuscript twice - I do a first and second pass, which could mean 80,000 words twice over, but I find it necessary. I’ll then put it through a spell check, and it goes back to the client. Almost always when I’m editing I put in a lot of comments and queries for the writer that need to be addressed. We get all the loose ends tied up and problems solved, and then we’ll finalise the manuscript. There’s a fourth pass through before it goes back to the client for submission.

In terms of writing for a publishing house it’s slightly different - I’ll do the two passes and the spell-check, but someone else presents the author with my queries. When I work with a publisher I don’t have direct contact with the author. It’s unfortunate because that direct content tends to give much better results.

REEDSY
What are some of things that need to be queried? That you can’t fix by yourself.

MAGGIE LYONS
For example, I was editing a manuscript by an author with HUP who was talking about places in central Asia. They had used different spellings for the same location throughout the text. So I had to check which one was correct, which do you prefer to use - he knows which one will be best, whether it’s less accents or more accepts, and so on. They have to be the one to decide that.

REEDSY
What are some common mistakes people make with respect to structure?

MAGGIE LYONS
The first thing that comes to mind is logic - sometimes sentences don’t flow logically, you need to move a sentence to the beginning rather than the end. You’re looking for things that might give the wrong meaning because of the way that they’re structured.

REEDSY
Is that the same for fiction? More difficult?

MAGGIE LYONS
I wouldn’t say more difficult, I would say you’re taking a different approach. By nature, fiction is going to involve things like plot and characterisation and points of view; you have to know how to address those differently to the issues you might have in non-fiction. It’s a different set of rules.

REEDSY
Is it difficult editing fiction while preserving the voice of a writer? Like, correcting problems while retaining stylistic inconsistencies.

MAGGIE LYONS
Dialogue will not be grammatically correct because people do not speak grammatically correctly! You want to make dialogue in fiction as natural as possible, so if there are grammatical mistakes you leave them in - it’s like hallowed ground. If everyone spoke grammatically perfect English you’d have rather boring dialogue; everyone would be the same person. That’s just one of the areas where fiction is very different from non-fiction - you’re going to have that off-the-chart stuff, while in non-fiction you can make everyone sound absolutely perfect. This is the difference between editors who specialise in either fiction or non-fiction.

I’ve published children’s books myself, so I’ve seen that side as a fiction writer. When I published them I had an editor of my own, because no writer can edit themselves well - it’s psychological, you don’t want to see the mistakes you’ve made. You can’t deal with it. It’s always best to have an outsider look at these things for you.

REEDSY
Can you talk more about being an editor undergoing editing yourself?

MAGGIE LYONS
I found the experience difficult for myself. I am a professional editor, I had a few ideas of my own with which my publisher’s editor did not agree - I went through a hard time with all of that. For one thing the process when you’re writing fiction is very exhausting; you seem multiple revisions, coming back to you and back again, which gets to be very tiring. Especially when you’ve already spent a lot of time writing the darn thing, and now you’re going over and over it again. It got to the point where I didn’t want to see this wretched story anymore.

One of the problems is when you’re working closely with a writer you have to remember that this piece of work is their baby. If baby has an orange nose, how is the editor going to deal with that? You can’t just say “Your baby is an abomination” - you have to get the parent to realise they should be feeding the baby a few less carrots. Editors have to be diplomats. 99% of the time they’re right. The trick isn’t what they’re saying, but the way they’re saying it. The author is going to accept your advice much more easily if your communication and diplomacy skills are top-notch. But if you come in with a heavy hand you’re going to develop an adversarial relationship which is really death to working well.

It’s much more of a partnership in the developmental or content edit stage, where the editor wants to help the writer be the best writer they can be. There’s less of that in the line-editing stage - when it comes to grammar, it’s either wrong. It’s less a suggestion, it’s more whether you want to put out a grammatically correct book, or an incorrect book.

REEDSY
And where do copyeditors sit on that spectrum?

MAGGIE LYONS
In a way, the writer is not the copyeditors client; the reader is the copyeditors client. What the editor and writer ares trying to do together is make everything as flowy and comprehensible for the reader’s sake. The goal is to create the best product for the reader.

REEDSY
So when preparing to work with you, what can an author do for you, as an editor?

MAGGIE LYONS
Before going to an editor, the writer of a work of fiction needs to go over a manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, and also to have submitted it to a critique group so that you’ve had the benefit of other people’s opinions on the whole thing. There can be years of work put into manuscripts before they reach an editor.

There are many people who write, and they have wonderful ideas that should be in print - but they don’t have a good grasp of grammar. We expect to edit that - we call that mechanical editing. But their ideas and their style is something that will come from the writer, although a good editor can help with that. The copyeditor is the one that will smooth out those ruffles. There’s a mantra for copy editors: Comprehensibility, clarity, correctness, consistency, and concision.

You want to make a piece of writing absolutely shine, but you have to be very careful not to squash the writers’ voice. If you destroy the writer’s voice you shouldn’t be editing - that’s when you don’t want to obey all the rules in the book. You have to treasure a writer’s voice, especially a strong voice.

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After our conversation, Maggie very kindly followed up with some comments on the degree to which exercising judgement makes all the difference in editing stylistic writing, especially fiction.

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“In terms of what being a good or bad editor means, I’d like to add that being overzealous with the rule book can make pablum of a text or destroy the author’s intentions. For example, in a work of fiction, when writers want to intensify the dramatic action, they may wish to use use less commas and/or periods (full stops) and write more fragmented content. An editor who is determined to correct what seems to be sloppy style and grammar could slow down the momentum the writer has carefully built, or destroy it all together. In an academic or business context, an overzealous editor could replace all the technical jargon with standardized terminology (and at the risk of imposing the wrong meaning). When a book or a document is intended to be read by professionals serving a particular industry, the copy editor would be wise to retain the terminology the readers know and understand, regardless of whether its jargon.

Good editors will respect a writer’s voice and not try to write the content in their own style. They’ll also be flexible with rules and willing to negotiate with the writer on arguable points. Points of editorial style are frequently negotiable. Points of grammar, however, much less so.

I also do ESL editing (English as a second language) for clients whose mother tongue is not English. That may require some creative thinking! But I am in close touch with those clients and have plenty of opportunity to make sure I have interpreted their meaning correctly. Sometimes it can be quite a challenge because the clients have difficulty in explaining exactly what they mean! But I love that kind of challenge.”

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