What Does A Book Editor Do?

Alex Roddie is a British freelance writer and editor, who mainly works in the outdoor genre. He has 15 years of experience as a climber, backpacker and mountaineer, and is an Online Editor for The Great Outdoors. I talked to him about what an editor actually does and why every adventure author needs the help of a professional editor. 

Who is Alex Roddie?

Who are you and what has your career path been to your current position?

Alex Roddie, freelance writer and editor.

Alex Roddie, freelance writer and editor.

My name’s Alex Roddie, and I’m a freelance writer and editor who mainly works in the outdoor genre. My career path began with a stint as a barman at the Clachaig in Glen Coe, during which time I wrote most of the first draft of a mountaineering novel. Since then I’ve done a lot more writing and self-published several books. In 2014 I quit the day job and established Pinnacle Editorial.

At first I was mainly editing fiction, but in 2015 I started to get more work as an outdoor feature writer, and this began to attract clients who wrote about mountains, adventure, and the outdoors. Since 2017 I have focused almost exclusively on outdoor books and magazines.

What training is involved in becoming a professional book editor? What skills do you need?

I sought training and accreditation from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), and as of early 2018 I hold Intermediate membership. Initial training largely consisted of formalising knowledge I’d already picked up through experience: how to read with intense concentration, how to hear the sound and rhythm of prose in your head, improving readability and consistency, creating a style guide. Of course, the rules of grammar are important too!

Although language skills and attention to detail are vital, I believe a broad experience as a writer – including collaboration, critical reading and critique – is more important, especially if you hope to work on books.

What else do you do in the outdoor space that brings in money?

I write magazine and online features about backpacking, mountaineering and hillwalking, mainly for The Great Outdoors and UKHillwalking.com. I also work as Online Editor for The Great Outdoors.

I was able to take the risk of setting up a new business because my outgoings were low and I didn’t own a house or car.

How do you go about setting yourself up as a professional editor? How do you find your clients?

It was daunting at first! My first clients were all fellow self-published fiction writers, mostly members of the Kindle Users Forum. The vast majority of clients since have come to me via personal recommendations. I’ve made a few contacts through Twitter @Alex_Roddie, but not enough to justify the time I spend on there!

Back in 2014, I was able to take the risk of setting up a new business because my outgoings were low and I didn’t own a house or car. It took a long time before my income was anywhere near where I wanted it to be.

What does a book editor actually do?

What do you want to know before you decide to take on a book editing project?

If it’s someone I’ve already worked with, I often need less information than you might think: a word count, a deadline, and a conversation about what the client would like to achieve. For new prospective clients, I also ask about their writing and publishing background, the revision and editorial history of this particular manuscript, and I request a copy sample (which will tell me a great deal about both the writer and the project). It’s also useful to know about the target audience and how the writer intends to seek publication.

Most manuscripts can be improved immeasurably just by cutting 5-10 per cent of their length.

What are the most common mistakes you see in the manuscripts you get to read?

Small things include poor dialogue, prose that just doesn’t read well, and overly complex language.

Big things include lack of planning, a structure that doesn’t work, characters that are inconsistent or poorly written, and an incoherent overall vision. These issues are present in non-fiction adventure travel as often as they are in novels.

Most manuscripts can be improved immeasurably just by cutting 5-10 per cent of their length. The tricky part is knowing what to cut.

What does this ‘editing’ actually consist of? Are you just hunting down typos? Are you rewriting the entire text?

It depends on the needs of the client and the needs of the manuscript. I offer a range of services, from proofreading – which is strictly concerned with error correction, and aims to change as little as possible – through to a line edit, which gives me greater leeway to rewrite on a sentence-by-sentence level, enhancing the readability of the prose. A line edit can be quite involved and take a lot of work, but the aim is still to avoid changing more than is necessary. Getting the balance right between preserving the author’s vision and improving the message is a subtle art.

I rarely complete a book-length project in less than two weeks.

My remit as editor rarely extends to writing new material by proxy; if a manuscript needs more work from the author, it might need a structural critique before further editing. I analyse the book in great detail when I’m wearing my critiquing hat, and for some projects have been known to generate a report up to 20 per cent as long as the manuscript being analysed (although this is an extreme case)!

Most books require one or two phases of editing, and a final proofread is always a good idea, preferably from a second experienced reader – even editors miss things occasionally.

How long does it take to edit a manuscript?

For a 50,000-word book, I can often produce a structural critique in less than 10 hours; a line edit might take 25-30 hours. In real terms, combined with my other work, I rarely complete a book-length project in less than two weeks.

Why do authors need editors?

There’s a critical difference between knowing what you want to communicate and actually communicating it effectively.

Surely the adventurer author is the one who knows what really happened out there? How can you as an outsider add to their story?

There’s often a critical difference between knowing what you want to communicate and actually communicating it effectively.

The writer always has the final say, and they should feel free to veto any of my editorial decisions (within reason). That said, I see a manuscript as a rough gem still partially encased in the bedrock surrounding it. My job is to chip, hone and polish until the true message shines through.

There’s also value in an editor with specialist knowledge. For example, I have 15 years of experience as a climber, backpacker and mountaineer. While all editors have an eye for detail, only one with mountaineering background might spot the error in this sentence:

I was on the first pitch of The Runnel, a Grade 2 gully line in Coire an t-Sneachda, when I began to feel my fingers freeze.

Accepting that a first draft is no more than a beginning can be hard, especially for new writers.

Why do you say that authors can’t successfully self-edit?

Writers are always too close to their own work. There are tricks that can help you claw back some objectivity – such as ignoring the manuscript for a month – but every writer needs external opinions to help them see it from a new perspective.

You’ve invested a huge amount of time and effort into writing a book. It’s a difficult thing to get into the frame of mind where nothing is sacred, where anything you’ve written could be deleted or changed if it improves the story. Just accepting that a first draft is no more than a beginning can be hard, especially for new writers.

There’s also the fact that you’re familiar with the words, which makes it incredibly easy to miss mistakes when proofreading.

Isn’t it enough to get critique from friends and family? That’s available for free.

While you should seek feedback from as many sources as possible, friends and family make poor beta readers. In most cases, they’ll tell you the book is fantastic instead of telling you what you need to hear. If they’re perceptive enough to offer any critique at all, they might focus on the small things such as spelling mistakes, oblivious to the bigger picture such as a structure that needs revising, character traits that change halfway through, or ineffective dialogue. Issues like this require a trained and experienced eye.

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What does it cost?

How is pricing worked out for an editing job?

For most book-length projects, I charge per thousand words. My quote depends on the amount of work that needs doing – and also whether or not I have an existing relationship with the client. In most cases I try to ensure everything works out at about £22 per hour.

That said, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders recently announced higher recommended minimum rates in line with inflation and other factors. Maybe it’s time I increased my rates!

Quality editing stacks the odds in your favour, but it isn’t the only factor at play.

Would you do an edit in return for a cut of the royalties? If not, why not?

While writers might be tempted to ask for this, no editor I know would accept these terms. When you’re editing a book, you’re focused strictly on quality – trying to produce a finished product that is as good as it can be. But how a finished book sells depends on far more than just quality, much as we might wish it otherwise. The best book in the world could fail to sell for a thousand reasons that have nothing at all to do with the writing or your edit. Quality editing stacks the odds in your favour, but it isn’t the only factor at play.

Self-publishing vs traditional publishing

What do you think of the growing trend towards self-publishing by adventurers?

I think it’s almost entirely positive. Self-publishing is a remarkable thing that gives a voice to writers who might otherwise not have been given a chance in traditional publishing. There is an audience out there for your story, and it’s up to you to find it – that’s incredibly empowering.

There are downsides to self-publishing, of course. It’s tempting to publish the instant you have the words down on the page, but you’re wasting your chance if you don’t invest the time and money into doing it properly.

Do you think it has become more difficult for adventurers to get traditionally published?

In some respects, yes. It’s very difficult for new writers to get traditionally published, and even more difficult to achieve success that way, but it is possible. If you don’t have a ready-made audience and personal brand then publishers will find you far less interesting. It’s a chicken-or-egg dilemma.

On the other hand, adventure writing is experiencing something of a renaissance at the hands of small, specialist outfits such as Vertebrate Publishing, who have been consistently putting out adventure books of the very best quality for several years now. We live in a time of challenges and opportunities.

Can you give some examples of clients of yours who have gone on to publish their outdoor books? What did you bring to their manuscript? Why do you think their final book is good?

High and Low, by Keith Foskett

Keith Foskett is an author who writes about long-distance backpacking. His books are wonderful – packed with vivid characters, thrilling adventures and witty humour – and I’ve worked on all of his titles so far, including his latest, High and Low. This is an important book about the complex relationship between the outdoors and mental health, and tells the story of his 2015 Cape Wrath Trail and West Highland Way hike.

I was in a unique position to edit this book – not only because I knew the author’s writing and where it could be improved, but also because I happened to have hiked the CWT that year, so was able to correct a number of subtle errors that other editors would have missed. The final result is a complex and thoughtful book that I think will help the lives of many people – and it’s a damned good tale in its own right.

The Last Hillwalker, by John D Burns

John Burns is another outdoor author with whom I have a rewarding relationship. John writes about the culture of backpacking and mountaineering in the Scottish Highlands, and his first book, The Last Hillwalker, examined how the modern world is changing that culture. I was involved with The Last Hillwalker at every stage from planning through to publication. I helped John create a structure for the story and then provided guidance as he wrote it.

After the bigger picture was settled, subsequent edits zeroed in on the true heart of the story while improving the readability of the prose. John told me that he particularly valued my perspective on the direction and overall themes of the book. He knew what he wanted to say, but I was glad to be able to help him say it.

Find Alex Roddie on the web