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Tell us a little about your career in publishing.
I like this question, because in some ways I don’t think of myself as having had a ‘career’ in publishing (I’ve never worked in-house for a publisher, for example), although I’ve been editing for about six years now.
My background is this: I did an MA in creative writing in 2008; at the time I thought I was doing it because I wanted to be a writer, but actually I think it has served me even better as an editor – it helped me to understand important things about the construction of a piece of writing, allowed me to practise thinking critically about work that’s still in progress, and, crucially, taught me a lot about how to actually phrase feedback.
It wasn’t until a few years later, though, that I began doing some ad hoc editorial work for the crowdfunded publisher Unbound (they’d published a book I co-wrote in 2013). I was writing up my PhD thesis at the time and needed some additional income. But I loved the work, and after I finished the PhD, I transitioned into editing full time.
I know this isn’t necessarily a traditional route into publishing (my PhD is in geography!), but I think there are some benefits to having outside experience. I do also feel fortunate to have had guidance and mentoring from a number of established professionals along the way – I’ve benefitted from a generosity of spirit that I hope I can carry on myself.
Take us behind the scenes in editorial: what is one thing most people don’t know about the editorial process?
I think not everyone is necessarily aware of all the different elements of the editorial process – e.g. you have proofreaders, copyeditors and structural/developmental editors, and they all do different things. A related, if more mundane point: detail matters. Editing isn’t only about the big-picture stuff that developmental editors do. I would urge authors to think about things like basic document formatting, internal stylistic inconsistencies, spelling, references and bibliographies, etc. At copyedit or proofread stage someone is going to have to go through and take out all those errant spaces, or try to work out if that font change is deliberate – the more time they can spend actually looking at the text, the better for the book as a whole.
Tell us about your upcoming memoir Adrift: Fieldnotes from Almost-Motherhood.
I’m really excited about seeing this book out in the world; it’s something I’ve been working on for a long time now. It was acquired by Jenny Lord at Weidenfeld & Nicolson last year and is due to come out in spring 2021. At its core the book is a memoir about fertility and pregnancy loss, and about coming to terms with how much control we both have and don’t have over our own bodies – particularly, in my case, as a woman in my thirties. But more broadly it’s about the spaces of not-knowing, of irresolution or uncertainty, that we all sometimes find ourselves in – I’m trying to chart a sort of topography of these spaces and what they feel like when we don’t know what the ‘conclusion’ or ‘solution’ is going to be.
As both an editor and an author, can you tell us a little about the relationship between the two roles?
From a practical perspective, my primary income comes from editing, not writing. But for me the two roles are inextricable – writing has made me a better editor, and editing has made me a better writer. I hope that seeing the process from both sides has also made me more empathetic. When I edit, for example, I try to remember what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all the cuts and queries and comments.
Imagine you’re talking to an aspiring author: why is it so important to work with an editor?
At some point, you need a fresh pair of eyes on your text. An editor will see things that you just can’t – whether it’s that you have a tendency to repeat certain words or phrases or that you need to cut your entire first chapter – because you’re too close to the work. It’s also important to have your own vision, of course; the relationship between editor and writer shouldn’t be dictatorial but collaborative. Remember that a good editor, like a good author, is working in service of the book.
How has the publishing industry changed since you began working as an editor?
I’m not sure I’ve been in the industry long enough to feel qualified to comment on this in a big-picture way. I will say this: I know that it’s a hard industry to make a living in – especially as a writer – and that in some ways it seems to be getting harder and harder. That’s a challenge that’s going to have to be faced.
What is your experience of writing creatively as an editor? Do you think it’s possible to look at your own work objectively?
I don’t think it’s ever possible to look at your own work completely objectively, but I do think that it’s possible – and necessary – to think about it critically before you send it to anyone else. Some of this is simply about treating it as work. I often write about quite personal, emotionally charged subjects, and I know I need to be able to take a step back at a certain point and try to separate my personal investment in the work from my understanding of how it will be read. The trick is balance – if you have too much emotional distance from your work it can end up feeling hollow and cold, not enough and it can be messy and ineffectual. (Easier said than done, of course!)
As a freelancer working with publishers remotely, what are your expectations for the future of publishing?
This is a really interesting question, especially in the context of a global pandemic. One thing that the Coronavirus crisis is starting to show, I think, is how essential books and stories are, how much we need these things as humans. What that means in practical terms who can yet say, but what I hope is that the future of publishing is bright. From my perspective, as someone who has always worked almost entirely remotely, the industry seems in many ways uniquely adaptable, and I think that’s going to be important.
Finally, has there been a book you have particularly loved working on, and why?
Not sure I can single one out in particular! One thing I love is the sheer variety of material I get to work on; over the years I’ve worked on non-fiction books about everything from sex to sheep to swimming pools, and a range of fiction, from historical novels to space operas to police procedurals. I learn something new – about the world, about writing, about my role and abilities as an editor – with every project, which is a pretty special thing to be able to say about a job.