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#FreelancerFriday #4 - Belinda Jones, Editor

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft on August 4, 2014 Leave your thoughts 💬

YA fiction

“You have to keep thinking, keep interrogating the text: ‘Is this keeping the flow well? Is it convincing me?” If something sounds a bit hollow or a bit flat, you’ve got to flag it up.“

With a 15-year career – so far – behind her, Belinda Jones has worked on everything from commercial and literary fiction, to historical non-fiction and celebrity memoir. We talked about her start as an editor, the recent YA resurgence, and the need to be sensitive when dealing with author comments.

REEDSY

How did you find yourself starting out as an editor?

BELINDA JONES

Looking for work after university, I did a correspondence course with Chapterhouse to get going with the proofing symbols and that sort of thing. I got to London and, to gain what experience I could, I took on part-time work with Virgin Publishing – in the rights department, strangely enough. The agreement was that if they were going to have me for £50 a week, the editorial department would use me for editing work. That worked out quite well – I was able to build up a good foundation of freelance editing work at the time just by being there and obviously working as well (mornings only, but that was the deal).

As ever, it’s about building up a CV for experience.

REEDSY

What sort of books were you working on when you started out?

BELINDA JONES

I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that… I first worked on gentle ‘erotica’ – you can imagine my parents’ delight. It was well paid, I have to say, and got some very good dialogue practice going on. It’s interesting when people ask how you train as an editor. I think you have to have a natural leaning towards it; I’m not sure its something you can actually learn to do. In the same way that some people are natural mathematicians, natural tennis players, I’d say editors have to have a natural aptitude. And if you’re getting experience, it probably doesn’t matter what you’re editing so long as you’re honing those skills and getting feedback.

I was incredibly lucky in my career to freelance with Reader’s Digest. The woman who took me on has become a sort of guru to me. Everything I’ve learned I would put down to her. She said at the beginning: "You have this natural aptitude. That’s great, we can work with that,” and that was why I was taken on by them. There’s no doubt that if you’re working with someone who’s very good at their job with high, exacting standards, you will raise your game accordingly. I think good editors are people who have those exacting standards, and possibly a bit of OCD as well – when you want to track down that last potentially blurred fact that might have slipped away, or the niggling somethings that are not quite right… Natural aptitude plus a little bit of OCD probably makes someone the ideal editor.

REEDSY

What’s the importance of working with an editor who’s not just technically trained, but experienced?

BELINDA JONES

Experience leads to confidence. When you start out you think you’re expected to know it all when, of course, you can’t possibly. I think that’s a mistake all young people make starting out, thinking that you have to hit the ground running. Sit back, take your time, learn from your boss. I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I’m pretty aware that I do a good job because I have the experience that’s needed to do that. As a result that’s very much become a confidence thing. Often, in-house, you don’t receive too much feedback because people are simply too busy to do it. You might get a quick “That’s great, thanks so much, we’ll work with you again in a month’s time.” You can ask for feedback, of course, but it’s something I’m reluctant to do – busy people don’t have time to spoon-feed you. If I do ask for feedback, it will be from someone for whom I’ve not worked before, and will be about how I could do better next time. And that builds up over the years, of course – improving your work.

REEDSY

As a freelancer, do you work directly with the author or via the publisher?

BELINDA JONES

I mainly work via the in-house editor, who will usually ask me to work in Track Changes, but more and more my comments are going directly to the author for me and them to discuss, rather than via in-house to be checked first. You have to be very diplomatic with the comments that you use – you’ve got to have an appreciation that this is the author’s baby that they’ve been working on for however long. Your comments have to be well structured, and you always need to back up a bit of text you’ve changed with the reason why. Put yourself in their position – how would you feel if you’d been working on something for anything from 6 months to x number of years, and then someone you don’t know from Adam tells you to change this, this and this.

You learn to be sensitive about this with experience. It isn’t pointed out or ‘taught’. You learn it yourself the more you do the work. The comfier, more confident in the work you do you are, the more you can think about what the author would be wanting, or needing rather, to hear back from you.

REEDSY

One editor we spoke to recently described the work of an editor by saying that the client isn’t the author, but the reader  – that the editor is mediating the concerns of both. Is that similar to how you work?

BELINDA JONES

I agree with that. When I’m working I put on my reader’s hat. I’m a reader, so I’m at home on the sofa or sitting on the train, I’ve bought this book and I want to enjoy it. In other words, you’re editing to make it the most effortless read possible. You’re smoothing flow, polishing any clunky or bumpy bits; you’re saying, “Hold on a minute, what you’ve said about that character on page 114 is not what was said about that character on page 23.” I hate it when I come across something like that in books I’m reading for pleasure – it blows the whole thing. But of course, at the same time you’re working for the author. I find 'keeping the author sympathetic’ is another good phrase. As the editor, I would say your job is to make sure the author comes across as a reasonable person, certainly an authoritative writer whom the reader can trust. You have to balance both these things.

REEDSY

What are some projects you’ve enjoyed recently?

BELINDA JONES

Literary fiction will always be my first love to work on. Young adult fiction too, I think, has immense potential, which is being tapped both convincingly and unconvincingly at the moment. Fiction all the way, generally, for me! I’ve done plenty of non-fiction which can be very good too, especially when it’s historical, but there’s a huge difference between working on fiction and non-fiction. When you’re an editor for non-fiction, you absolutely have to fact-check everything, especially when it comes to a celebrity autobiography.

REEDSY

What do you love about YA?

BELINDA JONES

I think it’s such a wonderful crossover between the youngish readers and the fairly precocious readers, right up into adulthood. The Hunger Games, for example – hasn’t that done well? Both for the books and the box office, with teens and adults alike. I actually belong to a book club of adults who read YA fiction and then critique it fiercely in the pub afterwards! We’ve read some stinkers, of course, and that just makes me want to die – it’s such an important time for readers to be encouraged to keep reading. If you’re coming across horrendously clichéd work you just want to say, “Come on everyone! Just because it’s YA doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be good.” Quite the reverse! There’s a huge market for good YA – I wish there was more of it. We can’t blame publishers, they have to make money in what’s a very tough market but let’s not just go straight for that Hollywood jugular the entire time. But that’s the same with fiction and books the world over, isn’t it? In any genre there’s going to be good and bad. But, right now, I really think YA is a superb genre to be in.

REEDSY

Is developmental editing quite different from copyediting?

BELINDA JONES

Yes. Analysis is another thing you have to have an aptitude for, particularly for developmental editing. Again, you have to keep thinking, keep interrogating the text: ‘Is this keeping the flow well? Is it convincing me?“ If something sounds a bit hollow or a bit flat, you’ve got to flag it up and either suggest or make the change yourself. Usually a manuscript, by the time I get it, has been very much edited in-house. That’s a bit of a tightrope you need to be aware of as a freelance editor – it’s not about your ego, which is something I’m embarrassed to say I had to reign in at the beginning. When for the first time you’re given free reign on a manuscript you think, "Let’s get cracking!” but, like I said, there are many concerns to weigh. Ones that are usually outlined in a brief from the in-house editor.

REEDSY

Finally, what do you like to read yourself?

BELINDA JONES

Oh, general fiction, literary fiction, YA. A bit of everything, to be honest. I’m currently savouring Les Miserables (a Christmas present from my French in-laws) but I am interspersing it with more digestible reads too. Not something I’d normally allow myself to do – !

REEDSY

Thank you for your time Belinda.

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