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Fiction Editing with Louise Harnby

Episode 108

In this show I talk to Louise Harnby, an experienced fiction editor and proofreader about how to get the most from an editor for your work of fiction.

Tim Lewis:                          In this episode of the show, I talk to a fiction editor, Louise Harnby, who is a long established editor of fiction books and has worked with quite a few self publishers. And while there’s a certain amount of overlap with the interview with Denise Cowle I had a few weeks ago, I think there’s enough difference, just in also in the way that Louise works and the way that Denise works to make this also a very interesting interview for anybody to listen to. And certainly has more relevance to people who write fiction than Denise’s interview and vice versa. So now over to the interview.

Hi, Louise, welcome to the show.

Louise Harnby:                  Hi Tim. Thanks for having me here.

Types of Fiction Editing

Tim Lewis:                          Okay. What are the differences between the various kinds of book editing?

Louise Harnby:                  So the first thing I’d say is a bit tangled when it comes to book editing. Editors use terms like copy editing and line editing to mean different things and one of the problems is geography, but that’s only part of the story.

To be honest, there’s variance even within countries. And so when an editor and an author are talking about working together, it’s really essential that they’re being clear about what’s expected and what’s being offered. I’ve got my own set of definitions and they’re shared by many but not all of my fiction editing colleagues. So I just wanted to make that clear, while we’re talking.

So the first stop is developmental editing and just to confuse things, it’s sometimes called content editing or substantive editing or structural editing. And I like to think of this as the shaping stage, as big pictures or macro book that looks at the work as a whole. And so when that kind of work is being done, we’re looking at things like whether the chapters and scenes are ordered in a way that helps the reader move through the story.

We’re looking at whether the plot is engaging and makes sense, whether the characters are authentic and if the protagonist and the antagonist are drawn up in such a way that they hold the book together.

The editor is also considering character point of view. Is it consistent so that the reader isn’t unintentionally head hopping? Also is the pace of the story comfortable? Does it provide an engaging reading experience?

And last, but not least, is the narrative flow. Is it coherent? Does it drive the novel forwards? Does it build tension and engagement and [inaudible 00:02:41] so that the reader feels satisfied when they actually come to the end?

And I should also mention that some editors do offer scaled down developmental packages, so things like mini structural edits, manuscript evaluations or critiques, plot accelerators, there’s all sorts of names for stuff. But there’s lots of options out there for authors on the budget and I always recommend that authors take advantage of these if they can, because they’re absolutely brilliant ways for a writer to develop their novel craft.

The next two stages are line editing and copy editing. And here we’re moving away from the macro, big picture stuff I’ve just talked about and into sentence level. So line editing is the smoothing stage. And here we’re looking to ensure that sentences flow well and that they reflect the author’s intention regarding mood and action and tension. And when I do the line edits, I’m looking out for things like authentic phrasing, repetition, too much stage direction, clear dialogue expression, grammar and syntax problems, elegant sentence flow and overall readability. And the really key thing at this stage is respecting not just the author’s voice but the individual characters’ voices throughout.

When you’re line editing, you absolutely have to be flexible, otherwise the editing can just turn into butchery and that’s not a good thing. Copy editing is the correcting stage and here we’re looking out for correct and consistent grammar, spelling, punctuation, and also things like indentation and spacing, the actual short of layout of the text. And again, I’d say that when you are fiction copy editing, there’s a lot of care required.

Pedantry can completely destroy tension and when an editor starts fixated on imposing listing or serial commas because some style guide or other says, “That’s the way it should be,” it’s easy to lose site of the feel of the scene, so I guess overall, I’d say that fiction editing needs a keen eye but a gentle hand. And I tend to line and copy edit at the same time because it’s almost impossible to do one well without the other.

And the final change is quality control. And now we’re into the world of proof reading. And at this stage, most of the hard graph should have been done. Proof readers look to pick up anything missed during the previous stages of editing and ideally, there should be minimal intervention.

It really is a final tidy up. And one thing I should mention is that before eBooks existed, proofreaders didn’t amend the raw text. But either or not, we actually worked on paper, that old fashioned thing.

And we were checking designed pages prior to publication, whereas these days more proofreaders are annotating PDF page proofs or they’re working on, when they’re working on print books, or they’re actually amending raw text of eBooks. So those are the four stages that I break down my fiction editing work into.

How is important is the editor’s knowledge of Genre?

Tim Lewis:                          Okay. How important is it to work with a fiction editor who understand the genre of your book?

Louise Harnby:                  I think genre is really important because an editor needs to work with context in mind. And although authors aren’t looking to create carbon copies of what already exists within in their genre, I think there are conventions that an editor needs to be aware of and that readers feel comfortable with.

I think a good, simple example would be the way an editor might approach line editing and copy editing with crime fiction. For example, it’s not unusual for a crime fiction narrative to be broken up into quite short, choppy sentences perhaps to arouse terror or anxiety or disgust in a reader.

And if the author is struggling to arouse those emotions, then the editor who is familiar with that genre and enjoys reading it and has studied how those emotions can be controlled by say the sentence or the use of hard punctuation, that editor is going to be a much better fit.

And genre also comes into play with language though. And I once worked with a lovely historical fiction model author, she’d done a lovely job, but the primary flaw was that she’d come a little bit unstuck with modernity, characters in that book had a tendency to flip into this kind of contemporary slang and it robbed them of their quintessential Victorian ness. So that was something that I think in that sense, you really need to be fixating quite clearly on what genre you’re working with.

Another really good example is young adult fiction. Beginning or emerging authors sometimes struggle to find the right voice when they’re putting themselves into the heads of teenagers.

I know because I’ve got a 13 year old daughter. And just a few weeks ago, I was trying to do my best impression of her and her pals. And she said to me, “I mean, mom, honestly, only old people say awesome.”

It’s like, “When did awesome become an old people’s word?” But it just shows that when you’re editing young adult fiction you have to be ready to check everything because it’s not only age but geography that can determine who says what.

And so I guess my advice would be to anyone thinking about moving into fiction editing is have an open mind, actually read the genres you want to specialise in, study how those books are shaped, how the so called rules that you were taught 20 years ago bent and modelled to drive authenticity.

Be prepared not necessarily to break those rules but to apply them differently.

Cost of Fiction Editing

Tim Lewis:                          Okay. How do you determine how much it will cost to actually edit a book?

Louise Harnby:                  So if I’ve never worked with the author before, I absolutely need to see a sample of a few chapters. I read these and then actually edit, say, a couple of thousand words. And that gives me a sense of what the problems are and whether I can solve them and how long it’s going to take to solve them.

And then it’s just a case of doing the math, really. When I said whether I can solve them, I mean whether the type of editing that I’m being hired for is what the book actually needs.

And you asked me earlier what kind of editing I specialised in, and just to reiterate that, I’m a sentence level editor, so I mean the line or copy editing or proofreading.

And if it’s clear from that sample that there are structural problems or that the author’s requested what I consider to be developmental work, then I’ll refer them elsewhere, I won’t even quote. It’s not fair on them and I’m not going to do a good job on it.

Tim Lewis:                          Okay. So that didn’t really answer the question in terms of what would be the average figure in terms of-

Louise Harnby:                  Oh you want some money, you want some cash.

Tim Lewis:                          I want some hard cash numbers here!

Louise Harnby:                  Well, it really varies. I mean different editors charge different things but I’m usually looking to earn around 32 pounds an hour. And to break it down in terms of price per thousand words, depending on what level of intervention is needed, if it’s proofreading, so I’m working on a file that’s been extensively and professional edited beforehand, I’d be looking at around probably 10 pounds per thousand words.

If I’m copy editing and the file is in good shape, so if I’m copy editing and line editing and the author is quite experienced and there isn’t a lot of intervention, we might be looking at 12 to 14 pounds per thousand words. If the line editing is extensive because the author is a great storyteller but their actually sentence level writing skills need a lot of help, then it could be more.

So I think that even sort of 16 to 20 pounds to thousand words. It really does depend on each individual sample. It’s done on a project by project basis. But those give you some ballpark figures.

Tim Lewis:                          So people can work at how good a writer they are by how much you’re charging them per 1,000 words.

Louise Harnby:                  Essentially and I think that again shows that the importance of taking your book through those different stages, those different levels of editing. If you’re going straight into, if you hire someone to go to proofread for you and that’s the only professional editing parts, it’s going to take that person ages to get through your book, because actually they have to do so much more than what you’ve hired them more. And it is the case that you pay for what you get.

Misconceptions about Editors

Tim Lewis:                          So what in general to you is the biggest misconception that authors have about editors?

Louise Harnby:                  That’s a really great question, Tim. I think it really depends on how experienced the author is. It’s heartening to see, actually, how many self publishers are really on the ball about the different levels of editing and how long these take and what they might expect or cost, but there are still a lot of beginner authors out there who think that you write the book, you read it through a couple of times, and then you hire a proof reader to get it ready for publication. Basically, proof reading means sort it all out.

And it’s a real shock to some of them when you tell them that their book’s not ready for that, that you’re going to be making thousands and thousands of changes and that you won’t be able to do it at the same pace as you leisure read. And it’s going to cost 150 quid and it’s going to take 50 hours. And the thing is good editing does take time. And unless you’re a highly accomplished and experienced writer and a brilliant self-editor, investing in only a proof read will likely be a waste of your money.

It’s a bit like buying cheap shampoo. It doesn’t lather up properly, so then you have to use more and then your hair’s not clean anyway. And frankly, you’d have been better off investing into something of higher quality in the first place because even the money you have spent has just been washed down the plug hole.

The other big issue that I come across is attitudes towards or expectations of perfection and what’s possible in one pass. I hinted at this a few moments ago. Editors are human, whatever stage you are in the process, there’s a chance that however high you aim the bar, you’re not going to go over it every time.

Probably the best way to illustrate this is a little story about something that happened to me a few years ago. I was commissioned by an author for a so called proof read and I’d been told that the book had been edited beforehand. Because I was less experienced than I am not, I didn’t do my due diligence and it came back to bite me really hard.

I made over 16,000 corrections in that book. I drew up over 100 queries. Some of the problems were micro things like spelling, punctuation and grammar issues. But two of the chapters were repeated in their entirety in different places in the book. The protagonist’s wife had one of her children and that’s no mean feat, Tim.

Another child completely dropped out of the story. The protagonist’s brother’s name changed three time, the university he attended and the dates he was there chopped and changed a lot. And four characters in the book had the same first name which was really confusing.

To be honest, the job was a nightmare. But by the time I had completed the editing and hit the send button, I was really pleased with myself. Now here’s the thing. I thought the author would be delighted with the work I’d done and he’d certainly got his money’s worth.

And at first, he was pleased. And then a few months later, he emailed me to tell me that his wife had through my edited file and found 40 things I missed. And he made it really clear how disappointed he was. And I was gutted. I was really upset.

The thing is, Tim, I’d 16,000 problems and fixed them. 16,000. And I’d raised 100 queries so that he could fix them, just on the correction sheet alone, I’d achieved a hit rate of over 99 percent, and you can’t ask more than that form an editor, you really can’t.

But because he had unrealistic expectations and because I hadn’t communicated what’s possible beforehand, we both came out of the whole experience feeling upset. And that was a huge learning experience for me. So the one thing I do now is I always ask my authors to read a page on my website called, “Will It Be Perfect?” And that way, we both come to the table with a mutual understanding of what’s possible.

And it’s important, that I do want to make it clear that I completely respect the fact that a lot of indie authors have a budget and I absolutely support their right to make what are, I know, really difficult decisions about what levels of editing to commission from professionals and what to do themselves.

But I also need them to know that my name’s not Gandalf. Editing’s not magic and it can’t be done well and quickly and cheaply. Something has to give. So that’s something that’s really, really important I think for all editors and all authors when they’re working together to establish right at the outset.

And my one final thing that I’d say is authors are often surprised that I’m not available right now. A lot of professional editors get booked up months in advance. So I always recommend that authors start their search well ahead of time. I tend to be booked up six months in advance but my friend Lisa, a book coach, she’s currently booked up for the next 15 months. So it does show how important it is not to wait until the last minute. So those are my top topics for sort of clearing up misunderstanding because authors and editors and that process.

Picking an Editor

Tim Lewis:                          Okay. So you talked from the editor’s view of  how authors are getting it wrong. What is the easiest way to tell if a fiction editor or proofreader is actually any good, really?

Louise Harnby:                  Well I think when it comes to fiction editing, it’s less about good and more about good fit. The thing is, if you put 10 line or copy editors in a room and give them the same piece of text, you’ll end up with 10 different samples. The likelihood is, we’ll all handle the literal errors in the same way. But the way we might smooth the sentences will be different. It’s really down to interpretation to a degree.

And it’s subjective. Something that makes fiction editing stand out, I guess the same would apply to narrative nonfiction, too, and that is that the editor has to be emotionally responsive. You need to feel the story, get under the author’s skin so you can mimic them.

And my mantra is always, “It’s your book, your story, your characters, and my job is to smooth and polish so that all of that remains intact.” I want an author to feel almost like I wasn’t there, the reader shouldn’t be able to see the line between where I intervened and where I didn’t.

So it’s about being responsive but also being invisible. And the author’s response to those sample edits is also going to be subjective. So he or she might think, “Oh, that editor really gets me, really understands what I’m trying to do here.” And when that happens, you’ve got a good fit. And I think that’s where the really great author, editor relationship starts.

When both of you feel it’s good, you start to build trust, because one of the things that clients most often tell me is how nervous they are about hiring an editor. I understand that. Fiction authors often use their own experiences to tell their stories, so every scene of grief or sexual arousal or fear or anxiety might well be based on something that they’ve actually experienced.

Or it’s something they’ve certainly thought about or fantasised about. And now they’re going to hand that intimacy over to a stranger and pay for the privilege of having it critiqued and amended? It’s a massive deal.

And the good fit factor is about making sure that that’s journey an enjoyable one. The author should feel excited about working with their editor like the editor’s got their back, they’re a safe harbour.

So my advice to every author is ask for a sample not just from one editor, but from several, and then think about, “How do those sample edits make you feel, is your voice intact, which editor gets you, which one makes you feel excited about being edited?” If the editing makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s fine, it doesn’t mean the editor is no good, it just means they’re not the right fit for you at this time and on this book.

Editing a Series of Books

Tim Lewis:                          Okay. Comes to a, I’m going to ask you a question that it wasn’t one that I gave you before the interview, but you’ll have to think on your feet here. If somebody’s hired an editor for the first book in say a series of eight books, right? So a long series. Is it a good idea to just stick with the same editor to try and maintain, as you say, that same voice, or is there really any issue in switching editors midstream in sort of a series of books?

Louise Harnby:                  I think that if you’ve been happy and comfortable with the work that the editor did in the initial books, I think you should stick with them. Going back to that subjectivity issue and that feel issue, you’re going to get a lack of cohesion potentially.

This wouldn’t be the case at proof reading stage, certainly, because that’s just the final tidy up. But that line and copy editing stage where the editor might be making punctuation changes or suggesting recasts of sentences, going back to the beginning, means that you’ve lost everything that the editor learns from the early books, so it’s just been lost.

I work with quite a few series authors and it’s a journey for me, too. I’ve come to know those characters. I’ve come to understand how they think and the kind of things they’d say and the kind of things they wouldn’t say and that enables me to improve my editing in that series as the series goes on. So it’s not just the author moving forward with his or her writing, I’m moving forward with them on that journey as the editor.

And so if you start chopping and changing editors in the middle of a series, there is a risk that you will lose that cohesion. Having said that, if you’re not happy with the work the editor has done, then you absolutely must change.

Picking the Right Fiction Editor

Tim Lewis:                          Okay. What can an author do to ensure that their editor can do a good job with their book?

Louise Harnby:                  So I talked about samples just now and evaluating those. So it’s also important to have that conversation I mentioned earlier about what you want. I’d say because of the tangled terminology issue, try not to focus too much on that. Instead, explain what your problems are and what kind of help you think you need.

If you’re not sure, that’s no problem, just ask the editor. A good fiction editor should be able to explain the different levels of editing to the author which one they offer, which ones they recommend, and a decent fiction editor should also be prepared to decline working with you if they don’t think they’ve got the skills to help you.

Another thing that they can do is perhaps take a look at what the editors’ worked on before. Have they edited books in similar genre, for example, which trainings have they done is another thing to consider.

And I do think that training is really important because editors need to understand publishing industry conventions if they’re going to help indie authors prepare their books for market. But with fiction editing, that element of emotional responsiveness that I mentioned earlier is something I’m not sure that can be taught, Tim.

I think that some people just have a natural bent toward editing fiction responsively where other people are more probably suited to non-fiction which I do think is an art form all of its own.

So training is important. It’s something for the author to consider, but it’s not the be all and end all. Look at their testimonials, too, not just from self-publishers, but from the mainstream publishing industry. I’m not saying portfolios and testimonials are a guarantee, but I think they give an author a glimpse at the editor’s history and you should be able to get a sense of whether what’s written on the tin is the same as actually what’s in the tin if that makes sense.

Tim Lewis:                          Okay. Kind of asked this in a previous interview with Denise, but I had some people email me saying, “Oh, well that’s for nonfiction, I don’t write nonfiction, so I’m not listening to that episode.”

But what is the, if somebody is like a new fiction indie author but they don’t really know where to look to find an editor, where can they find a group of editors to actually send their 1,000 words to so they can actually start this process, where’s the best place for them to look to find fiction editors for their genre?

Finding Editors

Louise Harnby:                  So I think the best place to start is probably their national editorial society because at least some editorial societies, including the Society for Editors and Proofreaders, which I’m a member of, in order to advertise in that society’s directory, you have to have met certain conditions.

You have to have done a certain amount of training. You have to have professional references. And so there’s a level of quality control there. And if you go to a professional editorial society, you’re immediately dealing with a group of editors who have identified in the market as professionals.

You can certainly use Google, there’s nothing wrong with that. I get a lot of referrals on Google, but the thing about using Google as a search engine is that ultimately, that’s often, who you find there, is often determined by how good a marketer they are, not necessarily by how good an editor they are.

So Google will you thousands and thousands of results but it won’t necessarily tell you what you need to know in terms of making evaluations about the quality of their editing. So use it but use it in conjunction with other search formats like professional society directories.

Tim Lewis:                          So in the UK, that’s the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. What about the US?

Louise Harnby:                  In the US, you’ve got the Editorial Freelancers Association. In Canada, you’ve got Editors Canada. In Australia, there’s the Institute of Professional Editors. Let me think. Ireland, you’ve got the Association of Professional Editors and Indexes. Northern Ireland, you’ve got EPANI, which is the Editors and Proofreaders of Northern Ireland.

I could go on, so there’s a list actually on my website which I will tell you about later or you can put a link into that has link to every single national editorial society in the world:–proofreading-societies.html

Tim Lewis:                          So I feel that just about wraps up everything at least from a low level with fiction book editing. How can people find out about Louise Harnby and your editing services?

Louise Harnby:                  So they can go to I’ve got a dedicated self- publishers page and that has lots of free goodies on it all about making the indie author’s life easier. So I’d recommend at least stop by there first. I’m always happy to answer questions, too, so if they just want an initial chat about editing or self-publishing, I’ll do my very best to help.

Tim Lewis:                          Okay. Well thanks for being on the show today, Louise.

Louise Harnby:                  Thanks for having me, Tim, I really, really enjoyed it.

If you liked this show then you might also like Non-Fiction Editing with Denise Cowle,  How to Write Short Stories with James Scott-Bell and Selling Publishing Rights with Orna Ross

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