Today we interview Barbara McNichol, a talented book editor and book author based in Tucson. She has some wonderful thoughts on the differences between editing and co-writing, the best sort of training for would-be editors, and the challenges (and joys) of working with writers. Enjoy!
How did you get started as an editor? How did you determine that editing was one of your strong communications skills?
You might say I got started as an editor in fourth grade when my teacher had me correct the spelling tests for her in class. Later on at university in journalism school, I gravitated toward the copyediting class. Right from the start, I felt successful in that role. I even applied for a copy desk job at the Toronto Star after graduating. That told me editing was one of my strong suits. (No, I didn’t get the job and my life journeys took me elsewhere … for a while.)
How have you developed your niche as a book editor?
In developing my niche as a book and article editor, I look back to my years in corporate communication when I took charge of a corporate magazine called Round Up. I constantly rewrote jargon-laden articles by consultants to make them understandable. As a freelance editor, revising articles quickly expanded into rewriting and editing nonfiction books. I’ve had a full 15 years experience now editing mostly business, financial, health, and spirituality books.
How is your role as a freelance book editor different than a (bylined) co-writer of a book or an editor at a publishing house?
Freelance editing differs from co-writing because authorship involves much more—researching, interviewing, accounting, marketing, sales, and so on. As an editor, I work on 30 manuscripts a year, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for co-writing. I enjoy working with authors who come to me through a publishing house. The setup they’ve gone through with the publisher adds more planning, accountability, and sense of partnership to the whole project. Kaplan Publishing hired me to edit or ghostwrite about two dozen of their authors’ books over the years.
An editor’s best training is a strong grounding in grammar in several languages, not just English. Studying Greek in my twenties helped me understand English grammar and sentence structure better than ever.
What are the greatest challenges in working with book authors? The greatest joys?
My greatest challenges working with authors (assuming they’re being accountable, generous, and serious about schedules) is when they get too attached their own wording and can’t see simpler ways to get their ideas across. I’m all for making the reading experience simple and enjoyable for readers, which means not forcing them to work too hard to understand the author’s message. The joys come when their books make a splash in the marketplace and they share the credit and praise with me. Their appreciation goes a long way with me.
What do you spend more time on during your editing: developmental or line editing–that is, getting the structure and language right, or copy editing?
I’ve always found it tricky to put labels on the kind of editing I do because the degree of editing varies from author to author. My talent lies not only in smoothing out their ideas without losing their voices, but in looking for what might be missing and what could be improved on.
What would be the best sort of training for working as a book editor? What skills are essential to this kind of work?
An editor’s best training is a strong grounding in grammar in several languages, not just English. Studying Greek in my twenties helped me understand English grammar and sentence structure better than ever. Beyond that, taking copyediting classes in journalism school or its equivalent gives essential training in writing crisp, tight sentences and polishing to the point of making the copy “sing.”
Learn to simplify your ideas by reworking and revising your sentences until their clarity shines like a diamond.
Have you published a book under your own byline? Do you ever hope to?
I co-wrote The Landlord’s Handbook, 3rd edition, when the author struck a deal with me to do the updates for Kaplan. It hasn’t made me rich as an author or a landlord!
What really matters today is my own e-book called Word Trippers. Over my 15 years as a freelance editor, I’ve tripped over hundreds of confusing or misused words working with authors’ pieces. Word combinations like “further vs. farther” and “except vs. accept” are so frequently misused, I had to start shouting out about them! So I compiled an extensive guide called Word Trippers: The Ultimate Source for Choosing the Perfect Word When It Really Matters. It’s available on my website at http://www.BarbaraMcNichol.com; so is a signup for my free e-zine called Word Tripper of the Week. Word Trippers helps anyone get grounded in the accurate use of our language and can save embarrassing mistakes, too.
Any other advice or comments for readers who aspire to improve their editing?
To improve writing (which makes editing easier and better), my best, most succinct nugget is this: Learn to simplify your ideas by reworking and revising your sentences until their clarity shines like a diamond. For 10 more nuggets like these, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and request my “10 Top Techniques” article.
More from Barbara McNichol: