Tag Archives: copy editors

Behind the (by)lines: An interview with editor Barbara McNichol


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 editor@barbaramcnichol.com and request my “10 Top Techniques” article.

More from Barbara McNichol:



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Who am I this time?: Roles editors play

I never set out to be an editor. When I pledged myself to the writer’s life (at age 13, flushed with enthusiasm after reading the fictional exploits of S.E. Hinton’s character Ponyboy Curtis in the young adult novel “The Outsiders”), I had the opinion that the role of editor pretty much boiled down to being a copy editor, the leader of the hazardous “comma patrol” that must be run through most stories before they are published.

This opinion was further burnished in college when I got a B+ in a copy editing course. I actually did pretty well in everything except headline-writing, at which I failed miserably because it required that I master the now-archaic skill of producing titles that fit with in a specified “count,” but the course put a bad taste in my mouth for editing. I decided I really was a writer, and should focus my energies on marketing my prose-crafting skills to the world.

That would have been lovely, except for the fact that the world I encountered after j-school graduation seemed to need editors a lot more acutely than it needed writers. Or if they needed writers, they needed authors who could re-write the prose of executives, line managers, degreed professionals, or volunteer retirees.

Despite working at several jobs with the title “editor,” it wasn’t until 2005 that I realized how much of an editor I was, or had become. I attended a conference hosted by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s College and University Editor group, and heard Jacqui Banaszynski describe the story coaching method she used with her writers at the Seattle Times.

Story coach. There was an editorial metaphor I could get behind. I suddenly realized that my view of myself as primarily a proofreader and fact-checker for my publication’s writers had been very, very incomplete.

After my editorial epiphany, I started collecting metaphors for the sort of editing I’ve done, primarily as a managing editor for magazines and other print publications. (I’ve also done quite a bit of multimedia production, but that’s another topic for another day.) Beyond having a good command of language and grammar and style, as a good copy editor does, a managing or assignment editor is also a(n)…

Project Manger. For publications that run more than about 16 pages, and have advertisements, having one person who plans the entire issue’s content, and can monitor its journey from idea to completed draft, is essential. Someone has to be there to work out the kinks in workflow (and even to recognize there is such a thing as workflow!).

Traffic Cop. Knowing where the missing story is for next issue is one thing; having the wherewithal to go find out what’s wrong and how to get if fixed is another. Editors have to advocate for what’s best for their publication—from the quality of the articles to how they are presented in the design to their impact on readers.

Architect. Editors have to be conversant in structure, both on the level of an individual story and the structure of an entire issue of a periodical. They have to be able to help writers construct articles that will withstand reader inspection, and they have to be able to design a space where an entire of “community” of articles can live and play together in a manner appealing to outside visitors (= readers).

Mom. As an editor, I am a professional hand-holder and on occasion, a butt-wiper. I make sure stories have everything they need to thrive, and help clean up the messes that are made along the way. I have to care about my stories and my publication more than almost anyone else on staff. I can never foist responsibility for their development on anyone else.

8th grade English teacher. Ahh, middle school English—in my time, 8th grade was the year everyone drilled on sentence diagramming and the parts of speech. Editors have to care about proper language use—not primarily because we’re the guardians of civilized syntax, but because poorly constructed sentences distract from good thinking and consistency in writing helps the story shine through.

Coach. As I said earlier, this was the metaphor that resonated most deeply for me. I’m thinking of a life coach or voice coach for my parallels, not Vince Lombardi. My job is to help the story—and the writer—be all that he, she or it can be. It’s a collaborative relationship which, if done correctly, provides benefits for everyone.

And while we’re on the subject of roles, there are a few roles I’d rather not be cast in as an editor.

A Sadist. I don’t send stories back for revision to shame or humiliate writers. If you want that sort of relationship with an editor, please find a professional dominant and work out your issues.

A Writer’s Enemy. If the story fails, I fail, too. Period. My aim is to support my writers so that they can provide deliverables that do the job assigned in as few drafts as possible.

A Frustrated, Mediocre Writer. I didn’t become an editor because I couldn’t write. Quite the contrary — and the more I learn about editing, the better able I am to apply it to my own writing. In my mind, an editor who “can’t” write is suspect as an editor.

Miss Priss. I have had some contributors, often less-experienced writers, seem to fear my opinion of their writing, as if I existed as an editor to lacerate their initial efforts at writing. I don’t take joy in marking up poorly written copy (see the I-am-not-an-editorial-sadist statement above); what I enjoy is the challenge of making it better. What I find is that more experienced, confident writers feel the least defensive around editors; they tend to be the most realistic about their writing ability, and trust and appreciate the benefits they receive from collaborating with an editor.

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