Lessons from An Editing Conference

Sophie Playle

Every year, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders invites its members to gather for a long weekend of chatting, drinking, eating, workshops and seminars. Here’s what I learned this time around.

I attended my first SfEP conference two years ago, knowing only a single person. This year, knowing more people, being another two years into my editorial career and having been invited to lead a session really gave the conference a different feel. Instead of turning up not really knowing what to expect, as I had done last time, this year felt more about deepening friendships and getting (even more) serious with the development of my business.

I was really pleased to see a lot of sessions geared more towards people already established in their careers and looking for ways to move forward. I’ve felt as though my business has been treading water lately. I’ve been doing the work that needs doing, but I haven’t dedicated the time and effort needed to propel it in the direction I want, so I chose sessions that I thought would help me do just that.

Editing is a hidden art

Dr Susan Greenberg gave the opening lecture and spoke about the hidden art of editing. (Editors are the ‘invisible’ contributors to a text.) I loved what she said about editors needing the skill to see the text as if it is not yet finished. In this way, we aren’t judging the text or its author because we understand the nature of development.

Greenberg also called the editor the most embodied reader; it’s our job to try to link the author’s intention with the understanding of all readers.

I say ‘try’ because this is obviously an impossible task, though we try our best by being both a human filter and applying the skills and knowledge we’ve accumulated in order to look at and assess a piece of writing in the most objective way possible.

There are various ways to develop your editorial business

After that, I went to my first seminar, ‘Where Do You Go Next?’ led by Chris McNab. Points that hit home included the idea that we can sometimes set income limits on ourselves without realising because we feel there’s a certain amount that we ‘deserve’ and it’s hard to get past that. Something I will definitely keep in mind.

His two-option approach to building your editorial business:

  • build your career inside the publishing industry
  • build it beyond the publishing industry (where there are usually higher-paying clients)

I know there’s more money in corporate editorial work … but I also know that’s not the avenue I want to go down.

To build your career inside the publishing industry, you can: find new clients, attract repeat work from current clients, and collaborate with other editors or industry professionals. The trouble with the first two options (which is essentially ‘get more work’) is that there are only so many billable hours in the day, and only so much you can realistically charge for these hours.

Chris also talked about the value of offering training, though he talked about leading training days in person and didn’t touch on offering digital training. Digital training (i.e. offering online courses) is something I’ve been getting stuck into recently, and I’ve really been enjoying it. I’m definitely going to be doing more of it.

Different editors edit differently

After lunch, I attended a more intimate session led by Gale Winskill in which a handful of editors from a range of backgrounds discussed some of the editorial decisions we might have to make on some sample fiction extracts. We talked about story issues, editing for the intended readership, fact checking (points to me for spotting the incorrect use of ‘hijab’!), and editing for colloquial style.

As I thought it would, the session really highlighted to me what different editors will bring to a text. It also made me think again about how different kinds of editing (proofreading, copy-editing, line editing, development editing, critiquing) have no concrete definitions – what one editor calls a proofread, another might call a copy-edit. In the end, being clear about what you’re offering is key.

Freelance editors should think of themselves as entrepreneurs

Next up at the SfEP conference was ‘Freelance to Publishing Entrepreneur’, led by Sue Richardson. Sue spoke about the importance of thinking of yourself as a one-person business (rather than a freelancer), and then broke down all the traditional business roles we have to fill on our own.

One of the best ways to expand your business is to hire people to fill some of those roles – e.g. hiring an accountant, or hiring a virtual assistant to help with admin.

They don’t have to be full-time employees. They can be other freelancers who you hire for a couple of hours a week.

The most useful piece of information, though, (perhaps the most useful thing I learned from the whole conference!) is that if I want to work with other editors and create an editorial team, I don’t have to subcontract. Instead, I can work with people on an associate basis – a relationship based on trust.

It sounds risky, but as one of the council members, John Firth, reiterated in the session, an email is evidence of a verbal contract, so as long as I have the particulars of a professional relationship agreed in writing somewhere, that will be enough to cover my back. (This, along with having clients agree to my terms and conditions, is also the way I manage my professional relationship with my clients.)

Managing other editors is harder than it sounds

I chose to attend the session ‘Managing and Developing the Skills of Editors’ by Jackie Mace because I’d been considering adding more editors to Liminal Pages. More knowledge about the subject would undoubtedly help me decide whether it was right for my business.

We started by considering what makes an editing job feel good for us – a list we then used later in the session to see what kind of project elements we should try to be feature for the editors we give work to. This included:

  • giving the editor the authority to make decisions
  • providing a clear and detailed brief
  • making sure they’re paid well and on time
  • giving editors projects they’ll enjoy and that match their interests and expertise

… and so on. A useful exercise.

We talked about how to assess the editor’s work to make sure it’s hitting the right standards (things like looking at how much they’ve changed, what kind of comments they’ve left in the manuscript and the tone of these comments, and then doing some spot-checking for errors). Giving the deadline enough breathing space means you have time to send work back to the editor if they haven’t quite met the brief. And if they still don’t provide work that’s up to scratch, then it’s time to discontinue the relationship.

I left feeling more confident that I could manage a small team of editors … But, ironically, since then I’ve decided that it’s not the route for me!

I learned a lot from the conference, but the biggest lesson of all for me came from having the opportunity to lead my own session … Here’s how it went.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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