Jessica Swift has navigated the rapidly changing terrain of the publishing business for over ten years. After earning a degree in English literature from Smith College she worked in-house for a Vermont-based publishing company, steadily mastering all aspects of publishing, from editing to marketing, and eventually acting as managing editor of three imprints.
In 2008, Jessica founded Swift Ink Editorial Services, which has helped guide countless authors through the process of writing and publishing. Many of these authors have gone on to be traditionally published and have won awards and placed on Amazon’s Top 100 Bestseller lists.
In 2009 Jessica launched Swift Ink’s first imprint, Swift Ink Books. Swift Ink Books is a pioneer in self-publishing. From manuscript assessment and editing to artwork and layout, the services of Swift Ink and Swift Ink Books ensure that an author’s work is the best it can be prior to publication.
Swift Ink Books, in collaboration with its authors, has published four titles, including memoirs and a collection of essays. Each of these books is an award-winner, including a 2013 Sponsor’s Choice Award from the National Indie Excellence Book Awards, an Indie Discovery Award, an OrangeBerry Books Reader’s Choice Award, and an Axiom Business Book Award, among others.
Jessica Swift Interview
Jessica Swift Transcript
Tim Knox: Hi everyone, welcome to another edition of Interviewing Authors, or this week perhaps it should be called Interviewing Editors, because Jessica Swift is on the program.
Jessica has been in the publishing industry for over a decade now, working at a publisher and since 2008, in her own company, Swift Ink Editorial Services.
Jessica is now one of the top editors in the business and I think you’ll find our interview informative and educational.
If you’ve heard any of the interviews I’ve done with literary agents you know that they often reject manuscripts because they were not professionally edited. And as an author myself I will be the first to say that editing your own work is like being your own lawyer; you have a fool for a client and your chances of getting an agent or a publisher are greatly diminished.
Jessica shares her thoughts on the editing process, the services you should expect from a good editor, the services you should not expect, how to select an editor that’s best for you, and much more.
If you’re an author, you need a great editor in your corner. Here then is my interview with Jessica Swift of Swift Ink Editorial on this edition of Interviewing Authors.
Jessica, welcome to the program.
Jessica Swift: Thank you so much for having me, Tim.
Tim Knox: Pleasure having you here. I’m very interested in talking about what you do and who you do it for and all that sort of thing. Before we get started though, give the audience a little background on you.
Jessica Swift: Well it really started in a really informal way when I was young and people asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up. The answer was very simple. I always said I wanted to read. So I knew at a young age that I was destined for something to do with books.
Going beyond that though I went to Smith College where I studied English literature and I got a job with a newspaper, where I did a lot of writing and also developed my copyediting skills.
Then I started working for a publishing company with three imprints. I started at the bottom as an editorial assistant, gleaned everything I could, worked with everyone I could, climbed up to the top, was the managing editor of those three imprints when I said, “You know, I really think I want to do this independently and I want to work with authors of my choosing on genres of my choice,” so I started Swift Ink Editorial in 2008 and have been going ever since.
Tim Knox: So you went into the corporate side of things, doing editing there and decided that you wanted to breakout on your own.
Jessica Swift: Yes I did. I had my foot in the traditional publishing world and then I kind of stepped out and I do work with authors who are traditionally published as well but I work with a lot of indie authors who go the self-publishing route and they’re sort of able to benefit from my knowledge in both arenas, which is great.
Tim Knox: Very good. That’s what we want to talk about today – what an editor does, what purpose you serve, what you can do to help an author create a better book and that sort of thing. Let’s just begin from the first question. What does an editor do? What is it exactly that you do for authors?
Jessica Swift: That’s such a broad question because there’s so many different types of editorial services that us editors can provide. That’s actually a common misconception. I wrote a blog post and it was centered around the types of editing services that are out there.
I often get an email or a query from someone who says, “I have the manuscript and I need it proofread.” So we start talking about exactly what the manuscript needs and come to find out the author didn’t mean proofread, which I’ll explain in a little bit; it actually needed a full blow edit. The language wasn’t there so by communicating very closely we’re able to sort out the kind of service that the writer, author needs.
So there’s a number of different types of edits that are available and it really depends on what exactly the author’s looking for, what stage the manuscript is in and a number of other things to consider.
So there’s a substantive edit, which focuses on the large scale structural issues within the manuscript – character and plot development, narrative, voice, plot holes. For nonfiction this may involve looking at the organization of the manuscript. Should there be headings or not? Are pieces in the place they should be, et cetera? So that’s on that large scale looking at the manuscript as a whole, not looking at more the comma, semi-colon usage. This is looking at the manuscript as this big chunk and thinking about what it might look like as a book.
So then coming down from that there’s a line edit, also referred to as a manuscript edit, depending on who you ask. This focuses on the paragraph themselves and the lines within them and how they work together. Sort of how it sounds, the editor looks at what’s directly in front of them and thinks about how each piece is a part of the whole.
Are there successful transitions between paragraphs? Do they flow from one to the next? Are there transitions at all or is there some help that’s needed to get there? Does each sentence within that paragraph support and flow with the previous and the following? This is really starting to pare down.
I tell my clients to think about a funnel and how it’s really big at the top and then it swirls down, down, down and gets smaller, smaller, smaller. You’ve looked at the large scale elements of your manuscript and now we’re looking at the smaller scale, getting into those paragraphs, chapter breaks, things like that.
This is also sometimes performed with a copy edit. Copy edit, kind of like it sounds, focuses on diction and grammar and makes sure that you’re using the best, strongest words and language that you can be but it also serves a different function. That is to make sure your manuscript confirms with the industry standard, often something that folks don’t know about. For example, something like are numerals spelled out or are they used as a numeral themselves and should they be? Things that authors and folks don’t know but a reader will notice if they’re treated differently throughout the manuscript. Just making sure it conforms with the Chicago Manual Style, which is the industry Bible.
This is also a great time to check and see if words are missing, that the styles are consistent. A ship name, for example, should be italicized, things like that.
In addition to this edit, typically the author receives a style sheet which lays out all the various treatment of these words. Again, as we’re looking at the funnel we’re getting more and more down to that more narrow side of the funnel and looking at things on a much more minute level.
Tim Knox: So really there’s like a high level view and then you start to narrow, narrow, narrow things down and get to a more minute view where you’re actually dealing with words and paragraphs.
Jessica Swift: Absolutely.
Tim Knox: How do you approach that? If you’re the editor and I send you my book, are you going to do an overall read of the book first and then you’re going to start with structure and moving things around and work your way down? Exactly what is your process?
Jessica Swift: So when a client gets in touch with me and says they’re interested in working with me, I ask for them to please send me the manuscript. My process is one that’s very much founded on the idea of honestly, collaboration, communication and clarity. I never want to move ahead until my author/writer is very clear on what it is we’re doing.
So I take a look at that manuscript. I can’t read the whole thing cover to cover as it were but I read… I joke that it’s my industry term, a bunch. I read a bunch in the front, a bunch in the middle and I read the end.
Tim Knox: Is that really an industry term?
Jessica Swift: It is a Jessica Swift industry term. So what that enables me to do is get a real flavor for the manuscript as a whole and to sort of see where services might be needed. It’d be hard for me to just look at the beginning and not being able to have a brief analysis of what happens at the end. Maybe the writing changes or gets weaker or the writing is stronger in the end than it is in the beginning, all those kinds of things.
So I spend a lot of time looking just after a client gets in touch with me. Then I go back to that person and talk a little about what I found. Also during that meeting they have an opportunity to say to me, “These are some of the things I’m really concerned about.” It could be something like, “I have no idea where commas go.” It could be something like, “I really think Natasha, my main character, is flat.”
So we talk about the kind of service they need, what I can do for them, what I see as what’s being needed and we go from there and talk about the timeframe and the price and kind of come to a decision together about how to proceed.
Tim Knox: So you really offer them a menu of services.
Jessica Swift: I do, yes.
Tim Knox: Whether it’s proofreading, full blown editing, that sort of thing. They can just pick and choose and you’re going to advise them in your expert opinion what they need.
Jessica Swift: Absolutely, you got it.
Tim Knox: Do you find sometimes it’s really hard to be honest? I mean you have to give them your honest opinion but do all authors accept your opinion?
Jessica Swift: You know, I’m sitting here thinking and I’ve worked with such incredible people and I’m not just saying that. I’ve had just the best luck with the folks who have found me and who I’ve worked with. So many of them are completely receptive to what I’m saying, agree with what I’ve found. I often hear sighs of relief when I say this is what I see needs work. “Oh that’s right. I really needed to ask you about that. I’m so glad you found that.” Well, that’s why you’re talking to me.
So they’re often very, very receptive. Again, it’s also about communication and clarification just in terms of the business side. I don’t want to move ahead with a service provider if I don’t understand exactly what I’m getting, right? I don’t just say to my hairdresser do what you want. We have a conversation about it and I make sure I’m real clear and she’s really clear when I say take 16 inches or take 6 inches. So I think that’s part of what helps the receptivity is that my folks walk away feeling educated and they know exactly what to expect from me.
I’m also available and accessible to them. I also don’t just hit send and walk away. I have long-term relationships with many of my clients and they’ll send me emails and updates, which I love, saying, “Oh so and so read my book,” or, “Oh I just got the best review.” So it’s really a lot of fun too. It’s really collaborative relationships and a lot of fun.
Tim Knox: And is it your opinion that every author needs a second set of eyes to look at a manuscript?
Jessica Swift: Absolutely.
Tim Knox: I’m an author and I’m a lousy self-editor.
Jessica Swift: And that’s a really valuable thing to know about yourself. I mean there’s something to be said about obviously revising your manuscript, going over and over and over it. But then letting it go and not only just having a second set of eyes but having a second set of professional eyes. It’s great to have your mom read it, your English teacher read it, your sister read it. That’s actually really beneficial but I would encourage folks to not do that in place of having a professional edit.
I’m not just saying that because I’m an editor. I’m working on a novel now and I’m vetting editors because I will absolutely not publish a book that has not been edited. So I certainly practice what I preach.
Tim Knox: I think one of the things you just said there, and I’ve actually heard authors tell me this. Well, I let all my friends read it so it must be good. I’m like are your friends going to buy a copy? It’s the old thing – if you ask your mother she’ll tell you you’re always right.
Even if I’m an author and I think that I’ve done a pretty good job of self-editing, it is going to behoove me to get a professional set of eyes to look at my work.
Jessica Swift: Absolutely, and again, by that point you’re so close to the material you may think that Natasha or whoever I referred to earlier is great and well-rounded and beautiful and it comes to me and you forgot a description of her.
I actually worked on a manuscript once where the author had not described one single character’s facial characteristics or what they looked like and it wasn’t intentional. She’d gotten so involved in the plot and the storyline and she knew what they all looked like of course.
Tim Knox: She didn’t bother describing them.
Jessica Swift: It just didn’t come out on paper. That may seem silly but it’s really not because that’s where the role of an editor comes in. Where your mom might go, “Oh I just love Natasha so much,” the editor’s going to say, “We have no idea what Natasha looks like.
Tim Knox: Do you find the kind of authors that you work with are more open to what you do because… I have talked to some authors who think they can do everything. I can write it, edit it, and narrate my own audiobook. The authors that come to you, do you find that they are more open to professional help?
Jessica Swift: Absolutely. I have a number who say, “I knew I needed help. I knew I couldn’t do this by myself. I’m doing so much by myself but I knew I needed support from someone who knew what they were doing.” That always just warms my heart.
Again, probably just because I could probably figure out how to change the oil in my car doesn’t mean I should. Just because I can drive doesn’t mean I should probably try to work on the engine. Again, just because you can write doesn’t necessarily make you an editor. In some ways that doesn’t even make you a good editor.
So having the benefit of working with a professional is really, really valuable and it’s a financial investment but it’s one that can pay you back. Typos cost money and I can’t reiterate that enough. Typos cost money. One bad review saying, “I liked the book but I couldn’t get past the egregious errors.” Are you going to buy a book with that review on it? No. I’m not going to.
Tim Knox: I was in the newspaper business for a long time and we had this one lady who would take every copy of the paper every week and just look for typos and use a red pen and circle them and mail that back to me.
Jessica Swift: Me too. I worked for a small Daily newspaper and that was when I got promoted to being a copyeditor and being the final copyeditor. So it was me. I was the last set of eyes before that paper went to bed. I had gotten embarrassed and I said, you know what? I’m tired of this person – they used a highlight and mailed it back – and I would say, okay, we need to do something. I got promoted to being the final set of eyes because I was mortified. I didn’t want to be associated with errors that I hadn’t created.
So there are folks out there who are looking for those errors and Indies still have a sort of stigma attached so people are looking and they’re going to find something. Editors, we’re still human. There are going to be mistakes and errors. I don’t say that as an excuse. I say that as a reality but there are going to be far less when you work with an editor. We all read books from Random House and Penguin that have errors in them.
Tim Knox: You mentioned it before that one of the services is proofreading. Tell us how does proofreading differ from actually editing?
Jessica Swift: Okay, so proofreading is a service that’s really, really valuable. Part of what a proofread does is it analyzes a manuscript typically after it’s been typeset, meaning it’s about to become a hardcopy book. So the pages at that point look like the pages of a book.
The thing that a proofread is going to help out with is it’s going to make sure that words break where they’re supposed to. So we’re looking at sort of the typographical elements of the book. Are there page numbers where there should be? Are the pages evenly spaced across from top and bottom? Are all the headers spelled correctly? Do all the numbers in the table of contents actually match the page number that the chapter is on?
Again, this is industry standard information so you might not notice that there’s a glaring number one on a chapter opening page but that shouldn’t be there. To a discerning reader they’re going to notice that. Again, words breaking where they should. An ugly page is going to drive the reader away even if they can’t necessarily put their finger on why it’s ugly. Something that’s hard to read gets put down.
Tim Knox: So proofreading is actually something that’s done after the edits.
Jessica Swift: It’s still an edit. I mean you’re still reading every single word and making sure that things make sense and that nothing has been missed but, yes, that proofread is typically performed when the book has been typeset. You can still ask for a proofread prior. Depending again on the stage your manuscript is in, maybe you’ve gone through and I’m saying I’m perfectly happy with my language. I need to make sure nothing is misspelled. I need to make sure there’s no extra spaces before or after my period. Can you make sure I have all opening and closing quotes? So that’s really sort of a small, small way somebody might say they might like that service.
A typical proofread is after the pages have been typeset and just about ready to be printed. But you do want that next set of eyes making sure everything is as it should be because that’s going to be printed.
Tim Knox: One of the things you said kind of struck me. I get so many books and typically they’re Kindle books and self-published. I’ll open them up and I mean on the first page there’s typos or the word ‘the’ is missing or whatever and it just drives me completely crazy. You’re right, I’ll quit reading a book if I keep running over typos.
Kind of a sad story of my own. My book, I had it edited and it was really great. I uploaded the wrong file to Kindle.
Jessica Swift: Oh no.
Tim Knox: It was complete crap. I uploaded it and downloaded it to my Kindle then I’m like oh no, this isn’t even the right file. It’s so easy to mess things up and you really only get one shot at readers, don’t you?
Jessica Swift: It’s true. It’s very true. You can pull your book down and get it fixed but you have to kind of work double-time to get it back up and out there and get over maybe some of the negative reviews you’ve received.
Tim Knox: Yeah and another thing you said… it’s almost the ‘I’m too close to the forest to see the trees’. I know my manuscript, I read that damn thing until I was blue in the face and then my editor found just a ton of stuff. I’m like okay I’ve read it too much. I just need to step away. I couldn’t even see the errors that were right in front of my face
Jessica Swift: Absolutely and that’s where the fresh set of eyes and a professional set of eyes comes in and is really helpful. There are beta readers out there who can say, “You lost me here,” or, “He was just wearing a red shirt and he hasn’t changed and now his shirt is blue.” That’s great but it still is not a substitute I think for having a professional editor.
Like I said, I’m writing and I’m looking for who’s going to edit my book. I do practice what I preach. I do believe every book needs an editor and I certainly would never publish something that hadn’t been through an editor that wasn’t me.
Tim Knox: Right. One thing that’s funny, I read a book once and I don’t even remember the title but the hero was a chain smoker and he would always have him stubbing out the cigarette.
Jessica Swift: But he never lit it
Tim Knox: He never lit another one. So every other paragraph Bob stubbed out the cigarette and then the next sentence, “Bob blew smoke in the air.” My God, that ended up being just a funny thing to read.
Let’s talk about the kind of authors that you work with. Do you work in particular genres?
Jessica Swift: I have actually been coined ‘the niche-less editor’ and part of that happened when I was first starting out and I got a number of folks come to me saying, “Can you edit this? Can you edit this?” Due to my experience in sort of a variety in different publishing settings – newspaper, literary agency and the publishing house – I felt like I was able to tackle those projects.
I found that a thorough and honest edit can be given and delivered regardless of the genre. That’s not to say if I don’t feel comfortable editing your manuscript, I will tell you that. I will say that this is not for me. If you wrote a book on engineering and you want me to check your formulas – not the job for me but I can help you find somebody who can. If you want me to look at your engineering book and see if it makes sense to the lay person I can help you out with that.
So part of what that’s done for me is it’s just opened a breadth of opportunity for me to work with so many different books and not be limited to one specific genre, which I think might contribute to me getting a little stale actually. That’s not the case for all editors I know. There are many who limit themselves to work within just one genre.
I’ve done everything from nonfiction, memoir, anthology, sci-fi, romance, erotica, young adult, children’s book, crime thrillers. It’s been so much fun, so much fun to get to work on all those and to be able to apply this sort of general knowledge throughout every genre there. Of course you also need to be educated in what to look for, what’s needed, what’s specific to that genre. But I don’t limit myself to one particular genre. That’s for sure.
Tim Knox: Well it’s not like you’re doing the same thing every day. If all you did was romance, unless you’re a real romance nut, to me that would get really old really old quickly.
Jessica Swift: And that’s how I feel to an extent. I don’t want to be limited that way and I do appreciate the challenge and I continue to learn and grow as an editor and continue on that path for myself. Again, if I don’t feel comfortable editing your manuscript I’m not going to but by not limiting myself I’ve been able to continue to offer a number of different services to a number of different authors in a number of different genres. It’s just been so much fun.
Tim Knox: I want to talk a little about some of the other editors out there. I know you’re not going to blast anybody. I get a lot of feedback and sometimes it’s very negative about people that are working in that industry that are doing editing, that sort of thing and they’re not really qualified to do it and they don’t do a great job.
Talk about how an author can check out the editor, references. What should I do as an author to make sure that the editor that I’m going to use is not just someone who couldn’t get a book published and now is an editor?
Jessica Swift: Absolutely. I’ve heard numerous horror stories and it breaks my heart both for the author/writer and also for my industry. It gives freelance editors a bad name when you hear stories of someone being taken, just nightmares of sending your manuscript in and getting practically zero feedback and you paid thousands of dollars.
Again I wrote a blog post about vetting your editor, which I believe strongly you should do. I’m never upset when a prospective client contacts me and says, “You’re one of three folks I’m talking to. Can I setup a time to chat with you?” Absolutely, absolutely. I’m so happy to hear that because you’re doing due diligence.
The first thing you need to do, first of all you need to find somebody right? Finding an editor can be really difficult but you’ve got social media at your disposal and you’ve got other writers. Ask people. Who have you worked with? Who should I not work with? Word of mouth is critical and it’s actually how I get my business. So finding somebody who other folks have positive things to say about is huge. That’s going to give you the first step of where you need to go to start finding an editor and that’s the first step in vetting one.
So when you maybe find an editor and you have a meeting with them, really ask yourself if you like the process they’re outlining for you. I mean if you send a manuscript, you send a query email and the editor doesn’t get back to you – take that into consideration.
Tim Knox: It’s a good indicator that this is not someone who’s going to be responsive.
Jessica Swift: Absolutely. So you have to take all of these seemingly little things into account when you’re getting ready to part with your money.
Another thing, when you’re speaking with that editor I would encourage folks to actually setup a phone conversation, which I know is just so antiquated now. I’ll suggest that and a lot of times it’s, “You’ll talk on the phone with me?” Absolutely. I’m not going to start working with you if we’re not 100% clear on what it is we’re doing.
So that’s something right there that I love doing and it’s also something I expect from a service provider when I’m vetting them. You need to talk to me. If I’m not comfortable with what you’re doing or saying I’m not going to work with you.
So ask yourself during that conversation, do I like how this person is laying things out for me? Does he or she explain what it is that I’m needing and do they respond to my questions or do they gloss over them? That right there again is going to be another indicator of how you’re going to work together.
The other thing – always get references. If they can’t offer references that’s not a good sign. If their references are hard to get a hold of, also not a good sign. I’ve had a couple folks say in a shy way, “Do you mind if I get a couple references?” Absolutely now. I’m happy to. I love my clients. My clients are very happy. I’m happy to give that information out.
Also check out their social media. Are they active? If they are, what do they say? Do you like what they say on their Twitter stream? Do you like what they post on their Facebook? That’s not meant to be petty. That’s to give you a flavor of who this person is and whether or not you want to work with them. What the author and client needs to remember is that the editor works for them so there needs to be a collaborative working relationship.
Tim Knox: So really it’s like vetting any other service provider. Do your homework.
Jessica Swift: Absolutely. Do your homework. Protect yourself. Make sure that everything makes sense and if things don’t make sense, ask. Ask again. If the editor doesn’t want to answer or isn’t available, there you go. Word of mouth is so helpful and valuable, especially with the internet.
Another thing that folks can do to find editors is look in the acknowledgements of books you like, which is sort of an overlooked way to go about it but often authors and writers will thank their editors. If someone’s being thanked you can maybe assume they’ve done an okay job.
Tim Knox: Right and the internet has made it really easy to give someone a negative review. Before you do business with an editor, PR person, anyone in the industry, you need to vet them out, do your homework. That’s the one nice thing about the internet. It’s really easy to find negative comments. Of course sometimes you have to take negative comments with a grain of salt.
You and I both know it’s such a tightknit community. I had met you initially because I had heard your name from probably a half dozen other people who kept saying, “You need to talk to Jessica.” I’ve tried. She’s very busy.
Jessica Swift: But at last we finally connected.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk about when to contact you. An author has written a book. Should they do a first, second, third draft? At what point should they contact an editor?
Jessica Swift: Just quickly before we go into that I just want to go back to the vetting for a second because this is becoming a real problem in the industry and it’s something I almost take personally. Someone who says they can do what I can do and their bio says they like to read and that qualifies them as an editor, that’s infuriating to me.
It’s very upsetting to me and I really encourage folks to be careful, to ask questions and to really look out for yourself because what’s happening more and more is people who fancy themselves as reviewers or consider themselves professional beta readers are, “Oh I can be an editor.”
So remember to ask those questions. You as the writer and the author have the opportunity to interview this person. This is the business side of things in the indie community for sure and I think authors and writers get a little confused about or daunted by. Ask the questions. How long have you been in the industry? How many books have you edited or what types of books have you edited? Can you show me titles of the published books on Amazon, in addition to references if books aren’t published yet?
It’s true we all have to start somewhere and that’s fine but for me, I have the background. I can say here’s where I worked. I worked in traditional publishing. Here’s the newspaper where I worked where I wrote. This is my experience before I became freelance. It’s not to say be skeptical of folks who are new but really pay attention to who they are and what they’ve done.
Tim Knox: Right and don’t be afraid to ask.
Jessica Swift: Don’t be afraid to ask. It’s really important to me when I come across folks who say, “I sent my book to an editor and it took weeks and weeks and weeks to get it back and she was unavailable and the information she gave me wasn’t helpful,” that is not okay. That is not okay with me. If they give the name, which I never ask, I go to the website and they have no pre-qualifications.
So don’t be afraid to ask those seemingly hard questions. A good editor, an ethical editor, am quality editor will be able and happy to answer them. There’s my rant. I’m sorry.
Tim Knox: No, no, no that is great information. Don’t be afraid to ask. “What are your credentials?” “Well I’ve reviewed 4,000 books on Goodreads.” Good for you but that doesn’t make you an editor.
One thing that I have gotten some negative feedback on are the editing services that are offered by some of the self-publishing services, if you will. I don’t want to mention any names. I had one person contact me and they had spent a considerable amount of money and still had not gotten back much for that. I think that’s another thing. Just because you go to an all in one service – I’m not going to mention names, Amazon – but you should be very weary sometimes.
Jessica Swift: Yes you should and that’s the other part of… I find working with an independent freelance editor, my affiliation is with the client but it’s also being able to say these are folks I worked with before.
Also, get that information in writing. One of the things I do is once we’ve had the conversation I write everything up and I say, “Okay, I’m attaching this. Here it is. You’ve seen it. This is what you’re going to get and this is what I’m going to get. This is when I’m going to get it. This is when you’re going to get this.” We both agree to that document and say this is exactly what we’re both agreeing to so we’re super, super clear.
Tim Knox: When should an author contact an editor?
Jessica Swift: It really varies from client to client and writer to writer. I actually spend a lot of free time with authors asking me that very question.
So I have one writer in particular who shall remain nameless who we both know and love who just is able to rattle things off and send them to me. She calls it her word vomit.
Tim Knox: Did you say word vomit?
Jessica Swift: It is. That’s what she calls it and that’s her process. Her and I have worked together since 2010. It’s Rachel Thompson and we’ve worked together since 2010 and it’s just a process we’ve developed. So she’s able to send me these pieces or parts or ask me questions. I send her assignments and she says, “Okay, I can’t look at this anymore. You go. Do your thing.” So that’s one way I work.
I have in fact received a manuscript from someone a couple of times and they say, “Okay I need an editor.” I kind of look through it and I’m looking at the manuscript and as I’ve said I’m very, very honest. I’ve gone back to the writer and said, “You’re not ready for an editor. You need to read it again. You need to revise it again. You need to take a look at it again and see if there are places you find that you can fix.” When I said that the author/writer has said, “Oh my gosh, you’re absolutely right.”
And I’ll point out specifics and this is free. “These are areas I know you can fix by yourself. I can take your money and I can help you out but this is so sort of all over the place that you’d be best served trying to tackle it again yourself.” That is something I’m proud of and often the client comes back and says, “Thank you so much. Now I’m ready for you.” And they’re right. They are ready for me.
I have a client who revises, revises, revises, tells me she’s nervous and she’s got a glass of wine and she’s about to hit send but she might reread it again. That’s another example of saying, okay, you’ve got to let go. She and I work together and have a deadline. She’s not allowed to do anything after that deadline and that works really, really well for her.
Sometimes it’s about the client and how they’re feeling, like I can’t look at this one more time; I’m done. As long as that’s clear then that works. Another client will say I’ve gotten this to the best point I can and now I know I need help.
Tim Knox: Typically do you do one iteration of editing or do you do more than that?
Jessica Swift: Typically what I do with the substantive or larger edit is I go through and I do everything in track changes. I perform the edit with comments and queries and changes directly in the manuscript. You’ll also get a report depending on sort of the universal elements that need to be addressed, specific larger elements that need to be addressed but it’s sort of too much to say within the manuscript.
I send that all back to the author. If necessary he or she can ask me some questions and they revise it. Typically what they do is they send it back to me because now there’s new unedited content. Sometimes they’ll leave me a comment saying, “I did the best I could here but I’m still stuck or I’m not sure if I got it.”
That’s really helpful I think for authors to know that that new material has been edited and reviewed and that flow that we might have worked on is still there. Now that I’m familiar with the story and familiar with the edit, I’m able to go back in and say, yeah, you nailed it.
Tim Knox: Do you ever find yourself… I know you deal mostly with the fundamentals and the mechanics of it but do you find yourself making suggestions for ways to make a story better?
Jessica Swift: Oh that’s what I do, in keeping with the story though. If what exists is kind of weak or totally predictable, consider XYZ. I suggest XYZ. Then we can talk about that. My clients are so grateful for that kind of information. That’s the feedback they’re paying for. If you’re asking for a serious edit on your manuscript and I come back and fixed three commas, that’s kind of not what we agreed on.
Absolutely and that sometimes comes with that report. This situation that you’ve created is completely outside of anything that you set us up for. There are suggestions where I say we’ve got to cut this or this should really be moved over here or you need to develop this more.
Everybody’s so afraid I’m going to ‘slice and dice’. That’s what many folks will say and that’s not the goal. That’s not the point. It’s to polish, improve and make better. So that’s what the author and I do together.
Tim Knox: Do you ever have a client resist what you’re suggesting?
Jessica Swift: Sometimes but really not that often. Sometimes they’ll say, “I’m confused,” or, “What do you think about this? You suggested something and it got me thinking about this.” I mean it’s the author and writer’s prerogative. They can say, “Thanks but I’m not going to go that way.” That’s not the same as resisting.
I had one client in particular who was like, “Do I have to?” She sent me this long, whiny email. It was very, very funny. She’s funny and I’ve adored working with her. She says, “Do I have to? You wrote revise in big letters.” I said, “No you don’t have to but if you want it to be better you should.” She goes, “I know.”
Tim Knox: That’s funny. Let’s talk a little about costs and I don’t expect you to quote exact prices but generally how are services like these priced out? What should an author expect? Is it an hourly? Is it a project? How is it priced?
Jessica Swift: Brace yourself for the world’s biggest non-answer. I’m involved in a forum with a number of editors. It’s a private group, which is just wonderful and helpful and we have support for those of us who are a little isolated. I actually asked that question – how do you bill? I got every answer you just said and then some, and these are all reputable, vetted editors with years and years in the industry.
Some do it by the page. Some do it by the word. Some do a flat fee. Some do by the hour. I bill hourly but that’s based on the time it’s going to take me, the number of words, the number of pages, the difficulty involved. That’s of course based on so many different factors. So when we talk about a number really feel free to ask why. What am I getting for that?
So it really varies. Again, the services do as well. Typically the larger scale edit is more expensive than a proofread or a copyedit. So that’s something to kind of be on the lookout for as well.
Tim Knox: So really those rates can be all over the board and a lot of the times you get what you pay for.
Jessica Swift: Very, very true. I couldn’t agree more. I have to say when I first started out of course my rates were much lower than what they are now because I was starting out. That was six years ago and I’ve continued to educate myself and folks should so that as well. Go to conferences and mingle with one another and have continuing education.
The rates really vary and someone who’s been in the business for a year and is charging astronomical fees, you might want to think about that. Someone who’s been in the industry for a while, has award winning books under their belt, have what you’re looking for – expect to pay for that.
Tim Knox: Right and I think one thing that’s important to know is don’t let geography sway you. Just because an editor is in New York doesn’t mean they’re a better editor than someone who’s in Vermont or Connecticut or in the woods in Alabama.
Jessica Swift: Absolutely not. Many of us have traveled. Many of us have gone to school in various places. Where you choose to live is not necessarily indicative of your quality. Certainly don’t let that sway your decision for sure.
Also, another question too that folks can ask – and I will not speak for all editors. Obviously I believe I should be paid for the work that I do but I don’t like for costs to stand in the way of a client really getting great, ethical services. So sometimes I talk about payment plans and I’m happy to set them up with folks and we have kind of guidelines that we agree to and contractual agreements but go ahead and ask. Are you willing to take a payment plan? What would a payment plan look like? You don’t get it if you don’t ask, and not everybody will but I think authors and writers should feel free to kind of ask for that.
Tim Knox: Jessica, you’ve given us a ton of great advice already but just in closing – anything else, any general advice to an author? I’ve written a book. I’ve got a manuscript. I’ve gone through it until I’m blue in the face and want to find an editor. Just any final advice?
Jessica Swift: I think just also trust your gut. As you’ve worked on your baby and you want it to be the best that it can be, trust it with someone you feel good about. Don’t just drop your child off at the nearest daycare center and you don’t just drop them off at the cheapest place. While that’s maybe a large analogy, for many it’s very, very similar. It’s such an intimate part of the writer’s self that you shouldn’t just trust it to anybody.
I believe that and I also believe though that you must work with an editor in order to really have a chance in the market. So with that being said I hope that folks keep writing. Don’t stop writing and ask the questions. Ask the questions you might be afraid to ask and be real clear. If you’re not clear, be honest about it. And never stop writing. That’s the biggest thing I should say too.
Tim Knox: The one thing that I think is very important, and I had to learn this as an author is the money you invest with a great editor really is returned to you on the other side of the coin. If you’ve got a book that’s greatly edited, you’re probably going to sell more books.
Jessica Swift: That’s what I was alluding to earlier when I said typos cost money. Errors cost money. Plot holes cost money. You sell 10 books and you get 5 bad reviews, how many more books do you think you’re going to sell?
I’ve read reviews that said, “I really liked the plot. I really liked the characters. I couldn’t get past the errors.” That is going to cost you money and selling a good product that you’re proud of and you’re being respectful of your audience by putting the best quality product that you can, that’s going to earn you money.
Tim Knox: Very good. Jessica, tell the folks where they can learn more about you and what you do.
Tim Knox: Jessica, this has been great information. Now I feel like I need to send you a book to edit.
Jessica Swift: Please do. I love it.
Tim Knox: Thanks for being here.
Jessica Swift: Thanks so much, Tim. I appreciate it.