Today I’m privileged to interview Rachelle Gardner (pictured at the left with her husband, Brian, and her two daughters). Rachelle and I met at my first writing conference, when she was an editor for a major publisher and I was a real “newbie” in writing. Now she’s an independent editor, and I’ve asked her to shed some light on exactly what that means.
RM: You’ve got a lot of experience in Christian publishing. What do you like about being an independent editor?
RG: I like being in charge of my own schedule! Being an in-house editor at a publishing company is extremely demanding in terms of time and energy, and typically includes a good deal of travel. With two kids in elementary school, I like being in control of my workload so I can be here for my kids. Yes, I often work late into the night as well as on weekends; but I’m the one making decisions about when and how much I work. With young children, I’ve found this to be an ideal set-up.
Another thing I enjoy is that as an independent, I’m not involved in acquisitions, which took up the bulk of my time when I was in-house. I was always looking for the next great author to publish, which is a taxing and stressful job! Now I get to focus purely on the books themselves, working with each author to bring out their very best. It’s a luxury, being able to spend so much time deeply immersed in story, plot, characterization, dialogue and all the other aspects of a great book, and not have to worry about finding 20 more books to fill the publisher’s list for the next year! I can really focus on each author, and I treasure the relationships I build.
RM: Are all independent editors offering pretty much the same services?
RG: Yes, the common services include manuscript evaluations, substantive edits, copyedits, and book proposals. We all have our own ways of figuring our fees, and no two editors will do a project in exactly the same way, but we all provide the basics.
RM: Do independent editors mainly work with unpublished writers?
RG: On the contrary, most of us work mostly with writers who already have a book contract. Most of my clients are publishers, rather than individuals, who hire me to edit a book that’s already contracted and has a release date. I occasionally work with unpublished authors, but I need to be choosy about how many of these I accept, due to the limited hours in any given day!
RM: I hear a lot about “developmental edits.” What does that mean?
RG: Sometimes called a substantive edit (although Zondervan calls it a macro-edit), a developmental edit looks at the “big picture” of your book. How’s the story working? Are your characters compelling and believable? I look at plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing, flow, scene-crafting, dramatic structure, general appeal and overall fiction technique. Other considerations may include hook, point-of-view, suspense, and readibility. Author's style and voice are addressed. What's working, what's not, and why? Is it interesting enough that readers will keep turning the page? Does the ending satisfy?
RM: What’s the difference between a developmental edit and a line edit?
RG: Where developmental editing addresses the big picture aspects of story, plot and characterization, line editing is polishing the writer's style and correcting things at the sentence or “line” level. We deal with incorrect or awkward grammar; suggest improved word choices; restructure paragraphs and sentences where necessary; help the author refine voice and tone; and generally make the prose shine. Special attention is paid to character consistency, dialogue, and scene structure. This level of editing is appropriate only once the manuscript has been developmentally edited and is in good shape as far as content and structure are concerned.
RM: If a writer has a good idea but it’s presented poorly, what can an independent editor do to help?
RG: It’s kinda like when you’ve made a new recipe and you know something’s wrong with it but you can’t quite figure out what. You don’t know if you’ve put too much salt, or not enough sugar, or a combination of both. A professional chef could taste it and identify the problem. It’s the same with your book. You may be too close to it to be able to put your finger on exactly what’s keeping it from working; your friends or crit partners may not have the experience or training to be able to figure it out; but a qualified editor should be able to identify the issues and make suggestions for improvement.
Of course, this can be tough―the soup can’t always be saved! Sometimes the writer is new to the craft and may not understand what the editor wants, or may not yet have the expertise to carry out the changes and improve the manuscript. Sometimes the problem is on many levels, in which case the author simply needs to continue working on craft. Just because the editor is able to identify the problem isn’t a guarantee it will be a great book.
Like we always say… an editor can’t make a bad book good. But we can help authors make good books great.
Another thing to remember is that with fiction, the “idea” is a small part of the equation. The execution is what’s important. Honestly, great ideas are a dime a dozen, but it takes a good deal of work along with talent to write a great book.
RM: Does it matter to a publisher that a writer has used an independent editor? Wouldn’t this indicate that the writer doesn’t have enough talent to repeat on his own?
RG: Hmmm… interesting question. The thing is, if you’re serious about being a writer, then the process of working with an editor is a learning experience. Most authors I work with, even those who’ve published multiple books, continue to learn with each editing experience, and their improvement is usually evident in the first draft of each successive book. Wherever you are when you begin the editorial process, you’re almost sure to be better when it’s finished. It’s not all about talent, as you know. It’s about doing the work to learn the craft. Wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration? I think that’s true—and working with an editor is definitely an exercise in perspiration! ☺
Like I said above, an editor can’t make a bad book good. So even if you’ve hired an editor to help with your pre-contracted manuscript, there is only “so much” the editor could have improved it. The rest will have been your own hard work.
I guess I would have to say that your willingness to invest in an editor shows you’re serious, willing to take correction and willing to learn. These are important qualities for anyone who wants to be published more than once!
RM: I’ve heard the term, “book doctor.” What’s the difference between a book doctor and an independent editor?
RG: My understanding is that “book doctor” is just another term for an independent editor, as distinguished from in-house editors. I think it’s just terminology. As far as I can tell, book doctors offer the same range of services—evaluations, complete edits, etc.
RM: Any final words of wisdom for the readers?
RG: Many of you, once you get a book contract, will work with an independent editor since almost all publishers outsource some of their editing. There are a LOT of us independents, and we’ve all been in-house editors at one time or another. (I’m currently editing books for Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, NavPress and Bethany House.) So if you get a book deal, we just might get to work together!
As for writers who are unpublished and wondering if they might need the help of an independent editor to take their work to the next level―I do believe it can be a valuable process for both your book and for you. But it can be expensive, so it needs to be looked at as an investment in yourself as a writer; and I’d recommend, if you spend the money, you make every attempt to learn as much as you can from that editor.
One more thing: All the editors I know simply love their jobs! We love books and live and breathe the written word. Our passion is to come alongside authors, assisting them in producing their best work possible. While the process can be painful for the author (I’ve been likened to an axe-murderer) it’s ultimately worth it for everyone involved—author, editor and publisher. So don’t fear the editor!
Rachelle, thanks for doing this interview. I'm sure my readers will find it both interesting and helpful. I certainly did. I appreciate your time.
If you have any questions for Rachelle, you can probably find the answers (or send the questions on to her) at her web site. She also has her own blog, which is worth visiting on a regular basis.