5 insights from a freelance fiction editor

Kylie Mason is a Sydney-based freelance editor with a long history of working with Australian publishers, both on staff and on a freelance basis.

Despite having a master's degree in creative writing, it’s the editing that gets her up in the morning. “I love getting involved with stories, I love getting involved with writers, and I love the way writers think,” she says.

We had a chat with Kylie about being a paid pair of eyes in episode 7 of our top-rated podcast So you want to be a writer. And here's what we discovered.

1: Editors are a writer's friend

Kylie doesn't think you should be scared of editors, even if they are complete strangers reading something close to your heart. It’s simply their job to be critical and judge people for a living.

“I don't ever say, ‘You must fix this, and fix it this way,' because it's not my book and that's the golden rule,” she says. “I'm an editor, I didn't write it, I didn't put my blood, sweat and tears into this book. I don't read a book and take it over.” She says her job is simply to nudge and encourage solutions for the troublesome bits.

“Don't assume that we're going to rip your book apart, because we won't,” Kylie says. “We might have questions about some of the choices that you've made, and we might have suggestions about how to address those choices, but we're always going to take time to understand what you're trying to do with the story, and we'll use that understanding to help you improve the book.”

Kylie believes authors need to bring an open mind to an edit and trust that the editor is on their side. “It's not our name that's going to be on the cover of your book, we just want you to shine, and we want your book to be the best it can be.”

2: Copy edit vs structural edit

In Australian publishing, there are typically two main procedures: structural editing and copy editing. In her role as a freelance editor, Kylie mainly does copy editing – looking really closely at manuscripts, line by line; things like spelling and grammar and punctuation.

However, as she explains, there's a more intangible aspect as well. “I also keep a close eye on anything that might pull a reader out of the story,” she says. “So if there's inconsistencies, anomalies, or continuity problems, like an eye colour changes, or where you kind of go, ‘I'm not involved in this story anymore and I'm distracted by that', then that's where I want to draw to the author's attention and ask them to consider fixing.”

Kylie reckons that her love of researching random things helps with her copy edits. “I'm such a huge know-it-all that I like to research stuff,” she admits. “So if there’s a particular detail mentioned, then I go off and Google it and make sure that it's OK!”

Completing a structural edit means looking at the bigger picture. “I make sure that the book makes sense,” Kylie explains. “That there's proper narrative, that the voice works, the characters have good motivation and are well-rounded and not two-dimensional. And if there are problems, then I think about ways the writer might address those problems, and suggest them.”

3: How long and how much

Kylie suggests that a copy edit or a structural edit for a ‘normal book' would each take roughly around 15-20 hours, depending on word length. While one is a line-by-line approach, the other needs you to stay focused and alert to things that don't make sense – meaning both take about as long as each other to get right.

As for the cost of completing an edit (particularly relevant to self publishers), depending on the amount of work required to ‘overhaul' copy or structure, it may be anywhere between $1500 and $3000. This of course varies between editors.

“Less experienced editors are probably just as good as a more experienced editor but might not charge as much,” says Kylie. “But if they don't have a lot of experience then you're risking maybe they'll miss some things that a more experienced editor wouldn't miss.”

4: On seeing the same problems over and over

One of Kylie's pet hates – and something she sees an awful lot (with emphasis on the ‘awful') are point of view switches. “Head-hopping is what we call it. It depends on the kind of book. But a lot of people go from third person narratives and don't stick with one point of view for a long enough time for readers to get used to it.” Interestingly, she sees it happen a lot in romance novels, often making for dizzying and disorientating love scenes!

“The other thing I see is overwriting; that writers don't trust readers to see where they're going and what they're saying,” says Kylie. “Lots and lots of adjectives and strings of descriptive prose, and it kind of slows down the narrative and it doesn’t give readers a chance to build up the image in their heads.”

5: Finding a good editor

By Kylie's own admission, it can be hard to judge whether someone is any good at editing just from a website or even a CV. She recommends ‘word of mouth' as a proven method. And if you don't know anyone who has used an editor, then you need to surround yourself with people who have. And you can do that by joining a writers' group.

Kylie also recommends the Society of Editors in your state. “I think every state and territory, except the Northern Territory, has a Society of Editors, and you just have to Google it and up they'll pop,” she says. “They all have a directory of freelance editors, and usually they will also have a listing of their specialties, so if you've written a specific genre you can find someone who has worked on that genre and approach them.”

And as many published authors will tell you, once you find a great editor that you work well with – you hang on to them for dear life! Because that extra pair of eyes can be one of the most important things in your book writing process.

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Kylie Mason


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