Gale Winskill is an editor with a varied workload: she edits fiction and non-fiction for publishers and indie authors, as well as providing training and tutoring for authors and editors. In this post she explains why she embraces this variety, and describes a (more or less) typical working week.
Keeping outside the box
I’ve been a freelance editor twice in my career: first, in Hong Kong back in the 1990s, when I wrote and edited school and university textbooks; and second, since 2008 in the UK, when my interests rather diversified.
In between, I worked in-house for ten years, primarily as a children’s editor, but also editing general adult non-fiction. Now, although my specialism is undoubtedly fiction (adult, YA and children’s) – which is what some of you possibly know me for – you might be surprised to know that I still dabble regularly in non-fiction and also do various bits of training.
I understand why some editors might find working exclusively on non-fiction to be more reassuring than the vagaries of fiction. Conversely, others prefer the flexibility of fiction to the rigours of reference systems or weighty topics. But for me, an assortment of fiction and non-fiction titles is infinitely preferable. I function better with a variety of things to work on, to ensure I don’t become complacent or bored.
Moreover, although known as a fiction editor, my refusal to be put in a subject-specific box also means that skills I learned in-house some time ago are still relevant today. I can apply my knowledge of references, bibliographies, permissions, captioning, illustrations, and so on, to non-fiction titles, or to certain types of memoir. And although my main area of work these days is general adult fiction, I still love working on children’s or YA novels, as well as picture books, which rely heavily on my previous experience as a children’s editor.
Then there’s the training. Alongside tutoring on the CIEP’s Introduction to Fiction Editing (IFE) course and writing/presenting the occasional course for other clients, twice a year I teach on the HarperCollins Author Academy. This course is specifically for authors from under-represented backgrounds, with the aim of helping them to negotiate the publishing industry.
Consequently, there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ week for me, as it really depends on my workload, client list or the time of year. That said, some things are set in stone. When the weather allows, I play tennis four mornings a week before work, in order to get some exercise and fresh air and vent any frustrations on a tennis ball rather than someone’s text. Then I’m at my desk and ready to go.
An atypical, typical editing week
So, let me introduce you to a fairly recent, but not-untypical week. It started with the copyedit of a substantial historical novel, written by an author whose previous work had just won a prestigious national writing award. But I didn’t know this when I accepted the work and confess to never having heard of the author before then! It was the first time I had worked for the publisher in question and the brief was short and to the point: copyedit the text; check the historical details and language idiosyncrasies; liaise directly with the author; send it back when it’s clean.
In my experience, it’s unusual to have direct contact with an author, particularly when the publisher has never worked with me before and the author is undeniably successful. So, to be handed the author’s personal email and told to return the text when the novel was clean was decidedly daunting.
At this point in the commission, at the start of the week, the main editing had been done, and the author and I were debating my queries and comments. These included the use (or not) of certain expressions at a specific moment in time, aided helpfully by the Historical Thesaurus, as well as the use of the ampersand (or not) in some historically extant company names – thank you, Mr Google!
The edited text went back and forth from Monday to Wednesday. The author capitulated on some queries; held their ground on others. Emails were exchanged at strange hours of the day and night, full of hilarious, sweary exchanges about everything and nothing, some of it even related to the work at hand. And then the novel was returned to the commissioning editor. Job done.
During the same days, when waiting for responses to outstanding queries and comments on the above, I started work on a non-fiction book for a different publishing house. The original editor was on maternity leave, so my brief spanned both project management and editing. I was to wrest the work into a solid publishing proposition and guide the inexperienced authors along the way.
The text had been written in several disconnected incarnations that had eventually been cobbled together to form a vaguely complete text. But it still lacked an introduction and a conclusion to explain the authors’ aims and deductions. To complicate things further, a few of the original draft chapters had been looked at by another editor, so the text was littered with their comments, which also needed to be taken into account.
Before editing started, various behind-the-scenes discussions had taken place between me and the publisher to clarify what the imprint expected and wanted, the authors’ limited understanding of the publishing process and how it worked, and the specific issues that needed to be addressed in the text itself. These included:
- Language and context considerations incurred by one of the authors being British and the other American.
- Sensitivity issues related to the subject matter.
- Cited text (of which there was a lot) requiring permissions not only from people who had contributed to the authors’ own podcast, but also from various publishers. The authors hadn’t yet addressed this and cited text comprised a considerable chunk of the narrative.
- The lack of a recognisable referencing system for the incomplete, or non-existent, text citations.
- And more worryingly, there was no visible, coherent narrative structure to present the book’s concerns to readers in a clear and accessible manner.
I have worked for this publisher for many years and generally, the texts they send me are in reasonable shape. But not this time!
The editing was very slow, as the authors’ meaning was often obfuscated and needed to be teased out. Over the next few days, a series of emails to my in-house contact, based on unexpected findings within the text, then led to a major rethink and completely different approach to the edit. My self-imposed deadline to return the text to the authors looked increasingly unachievable.
On Tuesday evening I escaped briefly to the monthly meeting of the Edinburgh Writers’ Forum (EWF), where I met up with another CIEP editor to enjoy an entertaining talk by Canongate’s Francis Bickmore about his publishing experiences. The EWF are a friendly lot, who kindly tolerate interloping editors, and abandoning work for a few hours of social interaction allowed my brain to power down and recharge.
Work continued throughout the rest of the week on the non-fiction text, interrupted only to field a few enquiries from private individuals, rather than publishing houses. On receiving sample texts, I duly drafted four quotes, two of which were accepted. One of my IFE tutees got in touch to ask for an extension, which I granted after consulting with the CIEP office.
And then it was Thursday and my final tutoring obligation for the fourth cohort of the HarperCollins Author Academy. The course is all online and covers fiction, non-fiction and children’s writing. I teach the fiction stream.
Weeks 1–4 encompass webinars on writing craft, which I present from an editorial perspective, based on the common issues I am always addressing in clients’ novels. There is also a session on the publishing industry in general. I love the class interaction with my students, but my favourite part is definitely the author panels in Weeks 5 and 6. Here, I get to meet and chat informally to some of the UK’s most successful fiction authors, as well as some newer, up-and-coming authors, who encapsulate a wide range of fiction genres. I facilitate a question-and-answer session in which no topic is off-limits, and let the students choose the direction of the conversation. Today – Week 6 – included one panel with two thriller writers and another with two fantasy authors, so there were lots of different considerations up for discussion.
I am always reassured that, despite some of these authors having sold 20–30 million copies of their books in multiple languages, they still have the same writing concerns and insecurities as the students. Without exception, they are all very generous with their time and advice to those starting out. It also helps that, without prompting on my part, they often reiterate the things I have spent the previous four weeks telling the students, which definitely bolsters my credibility!
As some of the Academy’s previous students have since gone on to win various literary prizes or to obtain publishing deals, my affiliation with the course is one of the most rewarding things I do professionally.
The end is nigh
And so to Friday. The non-fiction book is progressing, but the chances of getting it done before I take a week off look slim, especially as my weekend is full of family commitments. The publisher knows this and we will see where we are next Tuesday before I head to the airport on Wednesday.
The above might seem like a fairly frantic week. Admittedly, depending on my deadlines, I don’t always work on more than one text at a time, and my teaching commitments are spaced out across the year. But at the same time, it still isn’t that unusual to find me swapping between fiction and non-fiction projects, finishing one while starting another, and teaching in between.
Some might find my seeming ‘lack of focus’ perplexing and the above week exhausting, but the variety keeps my mind sharp as I switch between the requirements of different genres. It’s not for everyone, but the mixture of work also enables me to retain skills learned long ago, which might otherwise fall by the wayside if I focused purely on fiction.
Finally, such a broad-spectrum workload means that I don’t get fed up or bored with what I do, so overall, work is a pleasure, not a chore. And, for the most part, I can hit that early morning tennis ball without imagining it’s one of my authors or their text.
Incredibly, after a major epiphany, a resultant increase in editing speed and a couple of very late nights, the non-fiction book was delivered on time before I went on holiday. It is currently with the authors, but will return to me sometime in the next few weeks. The next round of non-fiction editing will then continue into the start of the New Year … when I will also work on a fiction critique, teach again, attend a publishing event in London and copyedit another novel for a major publisher.
Gale Winskill has been an editor since 1993, and has a wide range of experience across fiction and non-fiction. She is a judge for the Page Turner Award, and counts various prize-winning authors among her clients. She also provides training to both authors and editors on various elements of fiction writing and editing, and tutors for the CIEP and the HarperCollins Author Academy. Her clients hail from all over the world and encompass traditional publishing houses, private individuals and publishing training organisations. Whatever its genre, Gale enjoys spotting a manuscript’s potential and considers helping an author to develop and find their voice one of the best parts of her job. She is an Advanced Professional member of the CIEP.
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.
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Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP