Wednesday Writers: Abigail Nathan

As I have mentioned before, one of my favourite things about going to Conflux was the chance to meet so many amazing people who share my love of the written word, and learn more about how the industry works. Something that that has become increasingly clear to me as I continue on the writing journey is how vital editors are to the process and how a good editor is a writer’s best friend. Here, Abigail Nathan gives us a fascinating insight into some of the work that is involved, and dispels some of the myths about the freelance lifestyle.

David has asked me to write about being a freelance editor. Now usually I would point out that this is Top Secret Business not to be shared with the Uninitiated… but I have agreed in the interests of laying some myths to rest about the Rockstar Freelance Lifestyle (™ In Association with Kylie Mason). Here are just a few things that have come up in the past few weeks:

Freelance editors:

Choose their own hours. This is… only sort of true. Freelancing = running your own business. If you’re not working, you’re not getting paid. And freelancing is a notoriously feast or famine scenario so there’s always The Fear (always capped) that if you say no to any job offer you will Never Work Again (capped at will). Sure, it’s a nice idea that you can take a day off whenever you like, and there are countless articles about time management for freelancers, but the reality is that you’re probably managing multiple deadlines for different clients. It’s far more likely that you grab free time or jobs when you can.

All work in their pyjamas. You can. I am sure we all have done more than once. And when you work from home and you’re on a particularly tight deadline, it can be very easy to lose track of the day. However, everyone has their caught-out-by-the-courier limit. Or the shock of an author showing up on the doorstep “to go through some edits”. (In my case said author was a High Court Judge.)

Work wherever they want. I’ll concede that one. As long as you have the technology, you can work wherever you want. This can be as simple as working from the sofa/bed/ garden at home to working in a cafe or pub if you’re the cosmopolitan type. This couchability may be one of my favourite things about freelancing.

Are lonely. It’s true that freelancing is not for everyone. Editing is primarily a solitary task, so if you are a people person, you may be better off in an office – which is still a freelancing option. (And that way you can enjoy the friendly water cooler chats without having to be dragged into all the staff meetings. Win/win!) But many of us enjoy the solitude of our editing caves. It enables us to get properly absorbed in our wordy worlds without any distractions. And some of us would make excellent hermits. Some of us do make excellent hermits. Plus, there’s always social media for our virtual colleague needs.

Watch TV in the middle of the day instead of working. On a slow day, sometimes TV is a lunch break option, but this isn’t typical. However…editing is not unlike writing, inasmuch as editors need to know about the world/culture around them. It’s amazing how much television can genuinely be described as work product by a freelance editor, depending what they usually work on. No, seriously…

Secretly yearn to be writers. Some people struggle with the idea that anyone could want to work with books or magazines and not write them. They consider editing a lesser vocation, or believe the editor will let loose their true desires by rewriting an author’s work during editing.

While there has to be some crossover of interest and talent between editing and writing, there are a LOT of editors who physically shudder at the thought of becoming writers and who consider themselves wholly and solely editors.


So what does a normal day in the life of this freelance editor look like?

Although I occasionally sub-edit in-house, more often than not I work from Bothersome Words HQ. So, the average day begins with the long commute from the bedroom to the office. That’s about…ooh… 10 steps. (Wait, let me measure… Oh. 13 steps. Is that unlucky?)
There’s a detour to the kitchen for tea because it is a scientific fact that editors cannot function sans tea. Tea is to editors as coffee is to writers. Also: mandatory ablutions and dressing properly because, as mentioned above, all my local couriers have seen my pyjamas and I have concluded that’s not very professional.

First tasks of the day: make sure the internet still exists. Check Twitter. Check email.
Hardly freelance-editor-specific, but remember: my people generally work alone. Some of us don’t leave the house for days (weeks) so online is our window to the world – and the publishing industry.

Twitter is also where a lot of us keep our colleagues since we don’t go into an office and bond with other humans. And that interaction is important because editors are all about communication. We need to talk to people and see how language is being used every day. And, more importantly, we need to know what’s going on in case it comes up in anything we might edit.
Just as writers need to be involved with the world to keep their muse sated, so editors need to be involved so that, well… so we know what all those writers are up to. Anything popular on the internet? Totes relevant to our interests. All your memes are belong us. Even when the wording makes us cry.

So, step one of the day is to re-engage with The World.

The inbox may have supplied a query or two from potential clients – often new writers.  For me this is one of the most rewarding parts of freelancing; working with people who are eager to learn and develop their writing. Of course, sometimes this process includes explaining the harsh realities of publishing: why one shouldn’t quit a well-paying job on the basis of the first draft of the first manuscript one has ever written; how editing is more than glorified reading, and so on.

Step two then is responding to queries (and sometimes crushing dreams).

Step three is to dive into whatever edit I am working on. This is most often a structural or copy edit and the day’s tasks depend on where I’m up to on the edit. (Where I’m up to on an edit will also dictate whether I will remember to eat and when I’ll go to bed. It’s fair to say I get a bit…involved/distracted…)

If I am just starting work on a manuscript I’ll hopefully have a paper copy I can read on the couch. And if it’s part of a series, hopefully I’ll have copies of the previous books for reference/pre-reading.  For this stage I’ll take a pencil, some post-it notes and a notepad with me – but depending on the manuscript it’s entirely possible I’ll get caught up in the story and forget to mark anything up. If I find that’s happening, I’ll let it slide and approach this pass purely as a reader – and then I am out for the count until I’ve finished. At which point I’ll make pages and pages of notes. Which my cat will sit on. Then I move onto another task altogether and leave my hindbrain to mull over the story. This means when I do the next pass I can concentrate purely on the copy editing: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, continuity, style etc.

If that read-through is done, I usually style the manuscript, just to settle myself into editing mode and to clean up the basics. Then the real work begins. I’ll mark up errors and flag anything I want to check or research. I’ll have started developing the style sheet at this point, and as well as my trusty post-its (or comment function, if I’m working on-screen) by now I will also be armed with a couple of dictionaries, the Style Manual, the publisher’s house style guide (if it’s for a publisher) and The Internet.

Once this is over I’ll do another pass: reread all the comments and queries and check they make sense and are reasonable. I’ll add in any queries from the hard copy and do the fact-checking I marked up. I’ll check and finalise the style sheet, and write up my notes into a more comprehensive editorial report to accompany the edit.

Once all this is completed, it all goes back to the client and I emerge butterfly-like from my cocoon. (Actually, usually more like something from Alien.) This is also the point at which I notice the ambient temperature, the fact that I’ve missed the last two meals, and that the other member of the household has been and gone. Possibly twice.

And yet for all this intensity, the actual level of involvement is a little odd for a freelancer. If you’re working with a publisher, mostly there is no feedback on the copy edit. The communication with the publisher is generally brief and it’s often unusual to hear back directly from the author. It can be…rather a strange sensation. Because for the period of the copy edit, that author’s world becomes yours. Editors are nothing if not obsessive, and I know I am not the only one who has dreams about the books she is editing, or who finds herself writing and speaking in the style of the characters or narrator from the last edit. And yet often we really have no connection to anyone else during the process. (Of course, this also means that if the poor author is feeling completely undone by an edit we’ve completed, we don’t have to face the consequences…)

Lest there’s any confusion, let me say now: I wouldn’t swap my job for the world. I get to spend my days playing with words and wrangling worlds. Getting paid to get lost in books? Well, that’s always been my dream job.

Bio: Abigail Nathan has a background in copywriting, sub-editing and legal editing, but has been a freelance editor for eight years. She works with various publishing houses, including HarperCollins, Random House and Hachette, and also works with emerging and self-publishing writers. Abigail is the managing director of Bothersome Words Editing and Writing Services and the website manager for the Society of Editors (NSW).

10 thoughts on “Wednesday Writers: Abigail Nathan

  1. Bothersome Words

    Thanks, Zena! You are talking about the Editorial Assistant, I presume? It’s true, I’d get no work done without him. Every editor needs an 8kg fluffy paperweight. And *someone* has to help remove all the post-it notes. Mid-edit.

  2. Sally Collings

    Thanks for making me feel better about my social media dependency, Abigail! I knew there was a reason I was getting sucked into the Twitter/FB vortex so often, apart from it being an excellent avoidance strategy … as a freelance editor/writer, I get to have virtual colleagues unbesmirched by office politics. I like it.

  3. Bothersome Words

    @Sally I can reframe anything! 😀 But seriously, I have spoken to a few people who said they tried freelancing before Twitter was as huge as it is now and they found it very hard to cope with not just no one to talk to, but specifically, no one to talk to about work. I really like my quiet office, but I am nowhere near as isloated now as I was when I was getting started freelancing. However, another benefit of freelancing is I can pick and choose my colleagues and whether or not I want to interact with them!

    Actually, I think the whole industry has changed. With the online shift, it’s not just freelancers who benefit from the availability of industry people and information – it’s a lot easier for people who want to get into publishing/editing to learn about the industry too.

  4. Sally Collings

    Good point. Working for/with/by myself, I do enjoy the way that Twitter enables me to connect people from other sectors – marketing, social media, screen writing etc – as well as from the book world. Back in the days when I was working in-house as a book editor/publisher, opportunities to crossover in that way were far fewer. Excellent fertiliser for the brain …

  5. Nat

    Great post! Also, all your memes are belong to us – love it.
    Do you ever need to force yourself to disconnect from social media in order to focus? I know that on the rare occasions I freelance I need to push my procrastinating side to the back – whereas in the office, I’m much more in work mode due to the presence of my colleagues. Are you not a procrastinator or are you heavily disciplined? And on a similar note – do you schedule yourself in for downtime so you don’t end up working 24/7 when the work is available?

  6. Bothersome Words

    @Nat What are these words “disconnect” and “downtime” that you bandy about with such merry carelessness?

    I *do* pull away from social media if I’m on a really tight deadline, but usually I’ve got 2 screens set up – one for editing and research and one for email and social media etc – and once I am deeply stuck in an edit I kind of forget what’s going on on my “communication” screen.

    I also *try* to schedule myself in for downtime. I am really bad at this. Another side effect of working from home is that it becomes really easy to lose track of days of the week, so most freelancers I know are barely aware of the difference between weekends and weekdays. Every day is a potential work day – and often needs to be to meet deadlines. This doesn’t matter if you balance it out mid-week, but the consequence of this is that it’s *also* very easy to start thinking that any spare time you have is wasted unless you’re working. It can be hard to switch off. Once every room is viewed as a potential work space and every hour a potential work time, you can start feeling guilty whenever you knock off. I am conscious that sometimes I have to book in outings or events for myself to make sure I do take a break. And to see the person I live with!

    That probably answers the question as to whether or not I am heavily disciplined. ie: No!

    But in case this all sounds really depressing, one of the reasons I find it hard to pull away is that I am genuinely doing a job I love. And (touch wood) a lot of the time I am lucky enough to be working on books that I would otherwise have selected to read for fun. So often my work life really overlaps what I’d be doing in my spare time.

    I am keenly aware that I’m no one’s time management role model in this respect, and I am sure there are other freelance editors doing it better!

  7. David Post author

    Thanks for such a wonderful post, Abigail, and for everyone who has dropped by to comment. I am really enjoying reading what everyone has to say, almost as much as the original post!

    *sits back to listen and learn*

  8. Gwen Hernandez

    Fascinating post, Abigail! As a writer, it’s fun to get a glimpse of the other side. I’m totally with you on the social media. I sometimes miss my old work environment, and the discipline/defined hours that went with it, but Twitter makes a pretty good water cooler. And I love your point about picking your coworkers. 😉

  9. Bothersome Words

    Hi Gwen, thanks for reading – and commenting! I have no idea whether the above post is actually useful to writers (or, um, anyone, actually!), but as an editor (and, okay, sometime writer) I spend an inordinate amount of time reading writer posts about daily work habits and myths and so on. It helps me understand the people I am working with AND it also means that I can give better advice to new writers who are starting out.

    Absolutely agree with you, there are definitely days when I think it would be nice to stop at 5pm and leave it in the office. But on the other hand, not having to answer to a manager makes up for a lot. 😀

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