We interviewed Wendy Toole, an editor and an Advanced Professional Member and past Chair of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Wendy works mainly on academic and professional books and journal papers, specialising in history, English literature, art and architecture. We talked to her about what qualities she feels are important in an editor and her favourite thing about freelancing.
1. What attracted you to the profession of book editing? How did you get involved with the Society for Editors and Proofreaders?
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left school so I took a few gap years before going on to university and during that time worked in both magazine and book publishing. After just a few hours in the editorial department at Granada Publishing my mind was made up! Its atmosphere of creativity combined with attention to detail made it a perfect environment for me – and of course there were books everywhere too. I stayed at Granada for a couple of years learning my way around the industry, and then went back to work in the same company as an assistant editor after I graduated. I got involved with the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) in 2002 when I returned to work following a break of eight years while my daughters were young. I still had a few contacts in publishing but not enough to base a full-time freelance career on and I wasn’t keen on cold calling new clients. I found the SfEP while Googling for inspiration, and I joined straight away. With my publishing background and existing professional editorial skills, I was able to upgrade very quickly and take out an entry in the SfEP online directory, and within two years of joining the Society I not only had a completely full work schedule but was finding I could tailor my job to precisely match my interests – a luxury I’d never had as in in-house editor!
2. Editors have been described as an underrated bunch. In a specialism that seems to demand a certain degree of selflessness, what are the things that motivate you?
The things that have motivated me the whole time I have worked in publishing, both in house and freelance, are that everyone involved is striving to produce the best possible end product. There are various frustrations and constraints – often too little time and very tight budgets! – but nevertheless in my experience there is teamwork of a high order.
3. When an editor rises up through the ranks at a publishing house, their role often sees a shift towards commissioning and project management. Do you feel that this is a logical progression, or is there potential for these changes to present problems?
At one point in my in-house career, I moved companies and took a job that was in these terms a ‘step up’, in that I was managing projects and commissioning freelances, but I only stuck it for a few months as I just didn’t enjoy the role. In fact after I left I wriggled my way back into the company I had been working for previously thanks to my boss who found me a spare desk where I could work as an in-house freelance. Luckily one of the other desk editors left shortly afterwards and I was able to get back on staff! Therefore it may be a logical progression to move from copy-editor to commissioning editor, but if the reason you work in publishing is that you enjoy hands-on editorial work you may get stuck with little scope for promotion even if you move companies. On the other hand, it makes sense for someone who has experience as a desk editor to be responsible for assessing and hiring freelances as they will know the qualities to look out for.
4. Which less-than-obvious qualities do you feel make a good editor?
Apart from an obsession with correct spelling, appropriate punctuation, elegant and unambiguous grammar, well-formed sentences, logical paragraphs and general consistency, I think the ability to be diplomatic and calm both in written correspondence and in person is essential. You don’t have to be disingenuous, smarmy or cringingly humble; just don’t get riled. Think things through, save your email as a draft overnight or hold off the phone call till tomorrow. There is no harm in expressing your anger or frustration – you can’t work efficiently if you are bottling things up and unhappy — but don’t lose your temper. Be eloquent, fluent and magnificent in your professionalism. You also need to be able to negotiate realistically but firmly, as pay rates for editorial work have never been high and quite often these days fees offered are frankly unreasonable considering the skills and expertise that editors bring to a project. This can be a huge dilemma for new freelances wishing to establish themselves as it may seem at times that any job is better than no job at all, but professional work deserves professional pay, and clients offering dismal rates may find that they are less and less able to tempt the best editors to work with them.
5. What do you enjoy most about the freelance way of working?
What I enjoy most about the freelance way of working is its flexibility. I’ve been able to pretty much design my own job and I only work on subjects that interest me. I also enjoy the freedom to work the hours I choose, whether than means taking a weekday off and working at the weekend, or cutting my hours over a longer period, as I am doing now, to carry out research and writing projects of my own.
Learn more about Wendy’s services at http://www.wendytooleeditorial.com