Bethany Sirl. Writing a new creative direction.
Bethany has now reached the end of an intensive three years on the BA in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Nottingham. She is an example of how the degree gives students the creative freedom and opportunities to discover where they sit within the vast field of the writing industry. In Bethany’s case, the degree helped her to discover a new arena that she might not have previously thought of as both exciting and creative.
Why did you decide to do a degree in creative and professional writing?
Before I started the degree, I thought that I wanted to be a writer. I was going to be the next J.K. Rowling, writing hundreds of children’s books then becoming a world-renowned author. But I quickly realised that I preferred being behind the scenes, editing other people’s work. I was more comfortable with the professional side of the course, which looked at editing and the finer details of grammar. This might not sound very creative, but if you’re copy-editing, you often have to do some creative things to the raw manuscript to pull it into shape.
Do you think there’s an advantage to having a degree which is not only about creative writing but also the professional aspects of publishing?
Definitely. If the degree had been purely creative writing, I don’t think that I would have realised what I actually felt happiest doing, and probably would have ended up feeling unhappy in the long run. Having a professional element in a creative writing degree does help you to realise what you really want to do because it lets you explore all of your options.
Why do you like editing, because too many people that would seem a really boring thing to do?
For some people, myself included, I think it’s in the genes. I believe that I’ve been pre-programmed to like rules, because apart from one great-grandmother who likes to paint, no-one in my family does anything remotely creative. We’ve got nurses, programmers, accountants and builders instead. And while I do enjoy writing, it’s the sense of a piece being truly ‘complete’ after I’ve edited it that gives me the most satisfaction.
I like editing because I like finishing things. I like knowing that a piece of writing is perfect, because it being high-quality is important for both the writers and the readers. You can’t let your writers get distracted by mistakes, or else you’ll lose them. So that’s where I come in!
Tell me about the editing process.
When you think about the editing process, you might imagine carefully checking your spelling and punctuation. The term ‘editing’, however, actually refers to much more than just those areas. You might, for example, read a piece of fiction and realise that one of the characters serves no purpose. You would then have to consider taking them out. Or, you might realise that the ending would be more powerful if the book ended a chapter earlier, because the last chapter is just recounting what has already happened. If there’s a problem with the story’s structure, you might have to rearrange the chapters, and suggest ways for the writer to improve the flow of the piece.
You begin by looking at the piece as a whole. You look for large-scale issues, such as whether its pace is appropriate, whether it’s well-structured, and how useful each character is. Then, gradually, you work your way through smaller and smaller issues such as paragraph length, how realistic the speech is, and whether the right type of hyphen is being used.
One exercise that’s really useful when editing fiction is to make character sheets. Every time something is mentioned about a character, such as their eye colour, or a defining personality trait, you write it down. Then, you can easily spot conflicting information, for example, if you’ve changed their eye colour halfway through the book.
Once you’ve reached the stage where you don’t feel you can make any more changes, it’s time to contact the author. With non-fiction pieces especially, there are often editorial issues which you can’t correct yourself, such as if an author has missed out the information about when they visited a webpage in the references section. These are usually very easy to solve, and allow the author to stay involved with the progression of the piece.
What’s the difference between copyediting and proofreading?
One difference between copy-editing and proofreading is the stage at which each is done in the publishing process. Copy-editors work on raw manuscripts that come straight from the writer. Proofreaders receive the piece much later in the publishing process, just before it’s published.
The job of a proofreader is to check the overall quality of the piece, to make sure that it’s absolutely perfect before it’s sent to print. With printed manuscripts in particular, changing anything at the stage when a proofreader receives the manuscript can be very expensive, and is not often done.
You talked earlier about being creative and it seems from what you’ve just been saying that you look at someone’s writing and may have to do quite a bit of work to make sure it flows properly. Would you like to go through exactly what it is that makes you creative as an editor?
Editing is a process which requires a lot of creativity. This is mostly because you need to be able to visualise where a piece could go in order to make sure that it is as good as it can be. If you know that, for example, the opening paragraph to a story needs to be improved, you need to be able to suggest to the author what they might be able to do with it. Perhaps you’ll test whether it would work better in third person rather than first, or whether it should be written with a different tone. Quite often, many pieces are improved simply by removing the first and last paragraphs, as this is where writers often ramble. Sometimes, though, a drastic re-write is required, and you can’t expect the author to know exactly what you’re asking for without being able to give them ideas.
Something that I’ve had to do more than once is to ask the authors to look at particular characters objectively. Being an editor, you have to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of all of the story components. This includes the usefulness of all of the characters. When an author has put in a character for a particular reason, but neglects to make the character rounded, as an editor you’ll have to work with them to make the character as effective as possible by suggesting ways to make them feel more realistic.
Although you said you weren’t as comfortable with the creative part of the degree as you were with the professional side, from what you’ve just been saying, a good editor would appear to need a good appreciation of the creative process of fiction writing.
Creativity is a very important trait for an editor to have, because it allows the editor to look at how they can help the writer to develop a piece, instead of just fixing the technical issues. If you did a course which was purely professional, your editorial skills would not be able to progress, and you would be weaker as an editor of creative pieces. You need imagination to be able to understand where you might be able to take a piece, and this is not possible without some creative development of your own.
Obviously you produce creative writing during the process of the degree. You talked about workshops where editing of your work and work of others is addressed. Does this provide a useful experience for editing both fiction and non-fiction?
Personally, I find workshops to be an excellent way of developing editorial skills. In a class of 12, you’ll have 12 different personalities, 12 different writing styles, and maybe even 12 different genres, meaning that you’ll always get something different. Although you’ll always look at each piece with the same technical points in mind, such as whether the writer is using apostrophes correctly, you’ll also be looking at each piece specifically with its genre and tone in mind. This will allow you to suggest editorial changes that are more specific to the style of the piece, which is a skill that you will gradually learn to apply to every piece you are given, be it fiction or non-fiction.
When you have your own work edited in a workshop, you realise how easy it is for authors to miss small mistakes in their own pieces. It’s very hard to step away from work which you feel very strongly about, because you are connected to it. This is, however, not good for the piece, as you are essentially blind to your own mistakes. This is why it is so important to always have an editor check your work before you consider it complete. If you rely on your own judgement, you will never truly see it objectively, and the editing job won’t be anywhere near as good.
Workshops sound as if they’re useful for getting your eye in on a piece for editing. Would you say it’s important for people who edit books to read widely?
Reading is by far one of the best things that an editor can do for themselves. In a way, it can be a curse, because now I can’t help but spot mistakes or want to play around with the construction of sentences when I read. If something isn’t written well it begins to become quite offensive to my eye, particularly if I’m looking at a very high profile publication.
However, I would say that it’s important to read, regardless of the subject, because even if you’re reading the newspaper, you’ll increase your reading speed, which is always useful as an editor. As an editor, you should be able to produce extremely high-quality work within a very short timescale, so you can get the work done and move onto the next project.
Reading widely also enables you to identify certain conventions in different ways of writing. There’s a huge difference between the way a newspaper article and a literary novel is written. You’ll recognise that different formats require a different set of skills from the writer. So always reading, and reading across as many formats as you can is really useful if you want to be an editor.
You’ve done quite a bit of fiction editing, but you’ve also done some non-fiction work. How does that differ from fiction editing?
Non-fiction editing, for starters, requires much more research before publication. You need to get your facts straight before you can expect other people to believe them. When you’re editing fiction, you can fall into the writer’s universe, and you can accept that a hat might suddenly burst into flames. However, when it comes to non-fiction, it’s not acceptable to let statements go to print unless they are easily verifiable.
During one of my degree modules, I had to write a short, non-fiction piece about Norway. I found that what took up most of my time wasn’t the reading, it was the research. I had to spend a great deal more time making sure that I got my facts correct than I would with a piece of fiction. I also had to be careful to make sure that I wasn’t letting my personal opinions interfere too much with the text, which is something else that non-fiction writers do have to be careful of.
Fiction, on the other hand, is a completely different kind of editing. Authors can create universes which operate using totally different laws to ours, and it is the job of the editor to recognise when something is part of that universe, and when the author has contradicted themselves.
Another difference between fiction and non-fiction writing is the kind of language used. Non-fiction language is often, but not always, concise and to-the-point. Language in fiction can be much more descriptive, or ‘flowery’, because people aren’t reading works of fiction to gather facts. They’re reading for enjoyment.
There can be quite big structural difference between fiction and non-fiction?
Absolutely. Non-fiction books often have large reference sections, and can be particularly tough to sort out, when the author doesn’t have much experience with referencing. References are very important in non-fiction pieces because they give the person that the author has referenced the proper recognition for their work, and they also allow the reader to read more on the subject of the piece.
Editors need to have a good grasp of all of the different referencing methods, from footnotes to Harvard, because a poor reference section looks unprofessional, and makes reading more difficult for the reader.
Tables and figures also occur more frequently in non-fiction pieces than they do in fiction. When you’re editing non-fiction, you’ll usually have to re-make all of the tables and figures, because they are very likely to collapse when you try to typeset them. That means you’ll have re-do them properly so that they’ll look right in the final product.
What is a house style?
Publishers use house styles to make sure that all of their publications have a consistent presentation across all their publications. House styles vary from one publisher to another. They are used by editors to make sure that the work they produce fits with the rest of the pieces by the publisher.
For example, one publishing house might prefer for speech to be in double quotation marks rather than single, which is something that they would specify in the house style sheet, so that the editor can be sure of which to use. Another example would be how the publisher prefers dates to be written, as they could want something like ‘1/8/14’, or, perhaps, ‘1st August 2014’, or ‘01.08.2014’, and so on.
Do you use a system for editing work, or do you approach each piece in a different way?
I’m very systematic. The first thing I do, if the work has been sent to me electronically, is make a copy of the original file before I’ve even opened it. That way, I’ll always have a version to refer to where the piece is exactly as the author first presented it. Then I’ll look through it to see if there are any headings, and if the writer has prioritised them in any way. This is important for future reference, when I’m re-formatting it to fit with the company’s house style.
Next, I strip the file, so all of the writer’s choices about how the text should look will be removed. This is a really important step, because it provides a clean copy from which I am able copy-edit the document. After this is complete, I go back to the headings which I made a note of earlier, and tag them, so that the typesetter can later see which heading needs to be formatted in which way.
Then, I turn on proofing marks, which show all of the paragraph marks, spaces and tab marks. It’s really interesting to look at documents before and after you turn on proofing marks, because you don’t realise how many mistakes you might be faced with before they’re on. One mistake that a lot of authors make is to put multiple spaces at the end of a paragraph. This will be clearly highlighted for the editor to delete after proofing marks have been turned on.
Generally, I like to follow the advice that I’ve been given by just about every lecturer I’ve had, which is to read every piece you’re given out loud. The best way to understand what kind of piece I’ll be working with is to hear every word and every sentence, because I’ll get a really good feel for the author’s voice that way. I’ll also be able to tell immediately if the author has a tendency to ramble, or if they use describing words excessively, for example, in a sentence like ‘She gleefully bounced across the glistening river which glittered with the light of the moon and the twinkling stars’.
As I mentioned before, it’s all about the process of working from large to small mistakes. Look at the piece as a whole. Does it make sense? Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Does it flow? Once I’ve answered all of my questions, I work my way through until I’m picking out commas, and eventually I’ll have got them all.
It’s really important throughout the process to be continuously saving new copies as I update the piece. That way I can track my progress, and I’ll be able to go back to an earlier version if I, or the author, change our minds about anything.
Are there any other useful tips you’ve picked up for your work as an editor?
So many! I try to avoid using the mouse whenever possible, to reduce the likelihood of issues such as repetitive strain injury from clicking so much. After a few hours of clicking and dragging I would soon end up with a problem. So I use the cursors keys on the keyboard most of the time and also create ‘macros’, which are useful keyboard shortcuts that help to speed up the editing process. One benefit of macros is that I don’t have to spend time scrolling through the list of symbols for several minutes trying to find the symbol that I need.
You’ve also had experience creating e-books. How do you go about creating these?
Personally, I use Sigil and Calibre to create e-books. They’re very clever pieces of software that, if used properly, can create some very professional documents.
If you’ve ever attempted to make an e-book yourself, you’ll know how important it is to know exactly what you’re doing, which is why so many people make the smart decision to have a specialist do it. Even if a document has been properly edited, it needs to be looked at again after being made into an e-book, because the e-book format can really affect the text. Tables and figures can be broken up, and an editor will need to put them back together again. If your e-book looks unprofessional, people may not be so keen to read it, even if your writing is exceptional.
What do you see are the advantages of e-books?
E-books are particularly exciting because they allow the reader to perform tasks that would normally take minutes in a couple of seconds. One example of this is external linking. If you want to direct the reader towards any further reading, you can insert a direct link to a webpage for them to click on.
Another example is with in-text references. You can make the reference, e.g. ‘(Sirl, 2013)’, clickable, and if the reader chooses to click it, you can make it so that they are taken directly to the full reference in the references section. Then, they can click the ‘go back’ command and be taken straight back to the in-text reference.
E-books are also great for reading on multiple devices, as they can synchronise across all the devices you might be reading them on. You can read 10 pages of a book on your phone, and when you access the same book on your computer later on, it’ll be in the right place for you.