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An interview with freelance editor Olivia Wood

Many changes have swept the publishing industry over the past few years, including the rise of the ebook and the self-publisher. One thing that has remained consistent, however, is the vital role of the editor in the preparation of a manuscript.

Olivia Wood is one such editor, who has worked for publishers such as Gollancz and HarperCollins. I was introduced to her by Ian Hocking, author of Déjà Vu. Following the completion of the Battle for the Solar System trilogy, which she line-edited, I invited her to answer some questions about her work and services.

Q. Please could you introduce yourself for the readers.

I'm Olivia. Freelance editor, trainee ninja. Total geek. I'm London based, and suspicious of anywhere outside zone 2. I like innuendo and cake, sometimes at the same time.

Q. What made you decide to become an editor?

With hindsight, it was the obvious career choice. Denied a television while growing up, I was buried in books - I could not read enough. At university, I became very involved in drama. After university, I trained as a barrister, but while I found law intellectually stimulating ... something was missing. I managed to connect the dots and work out what it was that I'd really loved about my various interests - stories, and exploring the worlds created by others. Whether in books or on the stage my fascination was with human relationships and the stories which surround them. Add a tendency to be a pedant ... and my fate was sealed. I need to work with people helping them convey their ideas and to bring their creations to life.

Q. How long have you been an editor? Have you worked with any well-known authors in the past?

While I have freelanced for only a couple of years, I worked in-house before that. I find the freelance life terrifying, but also a great deal more satisfying - choosing my own projects, getting to work with a much wider range of authors, and having direct contact rather than working through an intermediary.

Within SFF (since I suspect your readers will be genre fans) I've proofread Brandon Sanderson (the Mistborn ebooks), I've line-edited Brian Aldiss. I quite frequently line-edit work by Adam Roberts. Other names you may or may not recognise, where I've line-edited or proofread: Ben Aaronovitch, Joe Abercrombie, Graham Joyce ... it's quite a long list.

But it's not all about the 'big names'. I often gain more pleasure working with up-and-coming or self-published authors, because there is more scope for me to interact, to ask questions that might make them think twice about a section. The end result is feeling that I've made a difference - not just to that particular book, but to future books too.

Q. What kinds of services do you offer?

The majority of the services I offer are listed on my website, It's best to go there for details, or to contact me with specific enquires. However, in brief, I'll line-edit or proofread anything I think at the appropriate stage for that service. I mainly work with books - fiction and non-fiction, but will look at theses and dissertations, web-copy, magazine articles and so on. At the moment, I do not ghost-write, but if approached with a very interesting project would be willing to consider it.

Q. What sort of turnaround time do you offer?

This depends entirely on the project. For the typical book, I'll estimate three-four weeks from when I start it, a date I discuss with the author. I do accept urgent projects, but these cost more - and I recommend this choice only for non-fiction with fixed deadlines (e.g. dissertation hand in dates). Editing fiction takes several read throughs, and needs time between each one. Without this, a read isn't fresh, and remembering previous read throughs can increase the risk of missing continuity errors.

Q. Will you edit any manuscript offered or only particular genres?

Yes and no. I will consider any manuscript, and if I feel I do not have the knowledge or experience to deal with it, will say so. I am comfortable with pretty much any kind of fiction - work which I might turn down is any requiring a great deal of technical knowledge in an area I don't know much about, or a vast amount of fact checking.

I have a significant amount of experience in SFF, but this is something that is in addition to my standard editorial skills, and it does not limit my work on other genres.

Q. Self publishing has been on the rise in the last few years. Do you think it's possible for someone to edit their own manuscript? Surely it's just a case of checking spelling and grammar?

Arrrgh! I could tell you were going for that response, and I STILL rose to the bait. No one can check their own work. The author is simply too close, has looked at it too many times. It may be that an error or issue is glaring - but having written it, the author will see what was intended, not what is actually there.

This doesn't mean the author shouldn't try. There's no point passing a first draft to an editor, unless structural advice is needed - it needs to be as close to finished as you can get it before you look for a line-edit. This is because you're already missing out the stage of a structural edit. (Here candid first draft readers can help.)

Even people who recognise the need for a proofread can underestimate the role of a line-editor. Many authors using me for the first time ask for a proofread without having had a line-edit first. It only takes me a few pages to show that they need more, and every person I've convinced to go for a line-edit has been very pleased with the result.

A line-edit looks at style, flow and consistency. It considers how characters speak and act, whether there are any continuity errors, whether the pace of the narrative is effective throughout. It also fixes spelling and grammar - but these are almost side issues - the line-edit raises a book to the best it could be, while a proofread just catches typos.

As for a spellchecker catching typos - it can't understand whether something is deliberate to reflect a character's speech patterns. It can't always tell whether the correct version of a word is used (born/borne, there/their/they're). And sometimes in its attempts to be helpful, it can introduce errors. That's not to say it's not useful - I find spellcheckers very useful for checking made-up place and person names. But again - that's only a tiny element of line-editing and proofreading.

Q. Do you ever reject an editing offer because you feel the author still needs to work on their manuscript?

So far I've been lucky enough not to have to reject a manuscript outright. I have, many times, had to discuss why what an author needs is a line-edit, not a proofread. If, however, I am sent a manuscript that really is not ready for either service, I would discuss it with the author before rejecting. It might be that I could fix it myself - but it would take a great deal of time and require approval for an element of ghost-writing.

Q. Can you list any common mistakes that you come across while editing?

Resolving problems by writing more. Often, when an author has struggled with a section - whether it's a plot point, a description, or just a phrase that doesn't seem clear - the tendency is to write more and more, spelling it out so that the reader can't fail to understand. This is pretty much the worst solution - and ends up with something lengthy and slow that often doesn't address the issue. It may be harsh, but often (though not always) the best solution is to cut the problem - rework it entirely, or use the idea somewhere else (sometimes even in another book).

Q. What advice would you give to authors to improve their writing?

See my answer to the previous question! Don't be afraid to cut your text. Trust your reader's imagination. I have never once told someone their story was too short.

Also - ignore purely positive, and purely negative, feedback. Useful feedback is about the 'what' and the 'why', and is not just a description of the reader's emotional response.

Q. What do you do when you're not editing?

Traditional and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (though the latter doesn't get nearly as much time as it needs). Rock climbing. Stage combat. Spectacularly average at all of them, hence only 'trainee' ninja. Read. Sometimes, though fairly rarely, I even get time to sleep.

Q. What is your favourite book of all time?

The Little Prince. The Katherine Woods, errors an' all edition. Other books rise up and down my 'favourites' list, depending on mood, how recently I've read them, and so on. This is the one book always at the top, the only one I don't have to think about before listing. It is beautiful and deeply profound, with no pretension.

The older I get, the more powerful I find it. It's a vital reminder of what really matters, and a perfect study of relationships, and how humans screw them up.

I once read a 'sequel' to The Little Prince, written by a distant relative of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It made me sick with rage. I could not finish it.

Q. How can people get in touch with you?

Via my website:

~ ~ ~

Olivia, thank you.

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