Thursday, December 21, 2017

Working with a Freelance Editor (Part One)

Editor Mollie Traver
Editor Mollie Traver
By Jana Oliver, @crazyauthorgirl

Part of the Indie Authors Series 

 I’m doing something different over the next two months: My guest is Mollie Traver, an intrepid Vermont native who now lives in California. Mollie is my freelance editor, however she and I first met when I was writing Young Adult fiction for St. Martin's Griffin (SMP) in New York.

For this month's post, we're doing a Q&A on what it's like to make that transition from a job at one of the Big Five to an editorial entrepreneur, along with some nuts and bolts about the editorial process. The January 2018 blog post will discuss indie author/freelance editor collaboration.

Welcome Mollie!

So let’s start with an obvious question. What made you decide to seek a job in publishing? How many years did you work at St. Martin's?

Looking back, it seems inevitable that I ended up in book publishing, but at the time, it felt a little more accidental. As I hunted around for ideas after graduating with a creative writing degree, I started getting images of sitting quietly amidst piles of books, hunched over a manuscript with pencil in hand, sipping from a magically refilling cup of steaming coffee (how I imagined a book editor’s life). So I began applying to all jobs that had something do with publishing.

I still laugh when I remember what my soon-to-be boss at St. Martin’s Press said in my interview: “Just so you know, this is not a job where you get to sit quietly and read all day—that part happens in the evening and over the weekends. During the day, you’ll be representing me in meetings, liaising with my authors, delivering and processing manuscripts. There’s a lot of running around, and you have to be bold. Does that sound like something you’d want to do?” I love her for saying that, because it was 100% true, and it prepared me for the incredibly hard work of the next four years.

Did your initial duties involve editing or was that something you eased into down the line?

I had the great fortune of coming in under one of St. Martin’s Press’s most eclectic, busy editors, who, out of sheer necessity, requires a lot of her assistants—which also means that we learn a lot right out of the gate. I started handling my own edits with her on day one, taking over or collaborating on some of her ongoing series, providing notes on everything from women’s fiction and diet books to literary fiction and commercial YA. The pace of our desk meant that there was little time to second-guess myself or dwell in uncertainty, which was both hugely scary and the best experience anyone could ask for.

I can only imagine at the pace you had to keep. What was your most favorite part of editing at a large publisher? The least favorite part?

I am a type-A details person, so I found the process of carefully shepherding a book from submission all the way to holding the beautiful finished copy in my hands enormously satisfying. Needless to say, I loved working with the content of a book until it was bookshelf-ready (the actual editing part), but I also liked some of those nitty-gritty production parts that a lot of people don’t: making copies of a manuscript for the production manager, proofreading jackets, writing cover copy . . .

I would have to say that my least favorite part was the salesmanship inherent to being a Big Five editor; from getting permission to acquire a book all the way to finding it a place in the market, the selling never stops. You are constantly cheerleading for your books, making sure they’re bobbing to the top in an ever more crowded, competitive environment, and there are always disappointments—a submission you’ve fallen in love with that doesn’t make it past editorial board, a book that had all the right buzz but fell short in sales. Those moments can be heartbreaking.

How does editing for one of the Big Five differ from freelance editing (other than how you're paid)? Did you have to change how you edited when you became freelance?

Editors in publishing houses are usually reading the book multiple steps later than a freelance editor is. By the time they’re preparing a manuscript for publication, it’s already gone through a hefty vetting process, having caught the attention of an agent, who probably did some work on the manuscript first, the editor herself (who’s acquiring only very selectively), and then passed through editorial board—comprised of the publisher, the editor in chief, maybe a marketing/publicity director, and a team of other editors who acquire in the same category. It’s also important to mention the end goal; in a publishing company, you are doing whatever it takes to make a book polished for market. There’s no buffer between your editorial net and that discerning reader’s hands.

All of this means that I was trained as an editor to look at every single element of the book—a kind of deep-tissue perfectionism that I’ve actually had to work on tweaking now as a freelancer. In a freelance edit, there could be multiple different end goals; you might be trying to get it ready for agent consideration, which means it needs to be very strong, but not perfect. Or you might be trying to prepare it for indie/self-publishing, which means it should be the best book it can be—but the author is the ultimate gatekeeper in this scenario, not the publisher. I’ve been learning to tailor my services much more closely to each specific author, what they’re looking for, what their book currently is and could be, and what they’re hoping to do with it.

Would you please give us your definition of the different types of editing (developmental, line editing, copyediting and proofreading). Approximately how many times do you go through a manuscript at each stage?

There are many different approaches to the freelance editorial process, I’ve found, and no one way is right—whatever it takes to make the book its best. I personally model my services after the order we did things at St. Martin’s Press.

Developmental/content: This is all about getting the big moving parts of the book’s content in place, to make sure it’s an engaging, undeniable read; the story lines, pacing, characters, relationship development, balance of scene and exposition, etc. This tends to be the deepest, most time-consuming type of edit. I read the whole book carefully once, making notes as I go, and then I review it more quickly a second time to make sure I have a strong sense of the book’s shape and what it needs to reach the next level.

Line edit: This is all about language—efficacy, flow, and clarity—and should only be done after the book’s content is pretty nailed down. Even the best storytellers need help with writing smooth, connected sentences, making sure nothing is getting lost in translation or repeated too many times.

Copy edit: A copy edit is what cleans up and prepares a finished manuscript for production. This is where we go in and make all those detailed corrections, both big and small, essential and cosmetic—everything from missing words, the wrong kind of quote mark, and incorrect grammar, to detangling confusing sentences (that haven’t been caught in a line edit), spellchecking proper nouns, and checking for consistency within the whole manuscript, i.e. that a person who was wearing a black robe isn’t suddenly wearing a red one (*sending a wink to you here, Jana J*). Similar to a content edit, I’ll go through the whole manuscript once carefully, then check my work before sending it back to the author; after the author reviews my edits and makes changes, I’ll check over her work to make sure no errors were introduced.


Proofread: People often mix this up with a copy edit, or use the two terms interchangeably, but they’re technically quite different. In publishing, when we first design a manuscript and typeset it (so it looks like a real book), we call those the proofs or proof pages. By this point, all the content and major mistakes should be fixed, but sometimes a copy editor misses something, or errors are introduced when the manuscript is designed. This is where a proofreader comes in—their job is to go over those pages with a fine-toothed comb and find any and all typographical, punctuation, and layout errors.

Putting you on the spot here—which part of the process do you like the most?

Oh boy. I’m a content editor, first and foremost, so I love to think deeply about a book’s working parts, brainstorm ways to make a storyline really lift off the page or a character more lovable. But my type-A side also loves the satisfaction of a copy edit; while a content edit is about story, a copy edit is about words, something the inner nerd in me loves almost as much as character development. I genuinely get a thrill from spotting missing letters or backwards apostrophes—this might be the first time I’ve admitted that out loud!

Did you have a freelance career in mind when you made the transition to California?

I decided not to go into freelance work immediately, mainly because I was taking some time to work on my own writing, but I had seen other editors go freelance in the past, so I always knew it was a strong option for me when I felt ready. That time came about six months after moving to LA, when I realized I was craving the experience of digging deep into someone else’s story—I missed that author relationship that was such cornerstone of my time at SMP. One of the very best things about going freelance was having a few preexisting relationships with authors now looking for freelance guidance—like you, and some of my other favorite SMP authors. Those projects are what gave me the real confidence to build my own business.

And because I have to ask, what Famous Authors did you meet during your time at St. Martin's?

Editors on my floor worked with some of the biggest talent in the industry, incredible storytellers like Augusten Burroughs, Emily Giffin, and Louise Penney, and YA biggies, like PC Cast, Jana Oliver, J, and CC Hunter, and it was always fun to overhear discussions about their latest books or meet them at company events. But I think my hugest fan-girl moment came when I got to meet Francine Pascal at a book launch party at her editor’s house. I told her how I had lived on the Sweet Valley High books when I was growing up, and in spite of what I’m sure was a crazy glint in my eye, she was as gracious and sweet as you could imagine.

And perhaps it goes without saying that some of our best Famous Author sightings in publishing are simply Famous People who are Writing Books—I talked to Bill Nye the Science Guy on the phone for about 20 seconds, told the actress Ali Larter where to find the bathroom, welcomed Ricki Lake with a cup of a coffee before a pitch meeting (I had to tell her, sadly, that we did not have almond milk in our tiny old kitchenette)…These moments are not the stuff of being an editor, but they do make it just a little bit more fun.

Bill Nye! Oh man, I’d go totally fangirl on that poor guy. 

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, next month Mollie and I will be talking about what it's like for her to work as a freelance editor, the basics of establishing a good working relationship with your editor and why our arrangement works so well.

An international bestseller and the recipient of over a dozen major awards, Jana Oliver often laments that there are far too many stories inside her head at any given moment.

Best known for her young adult Demon Trappers series, she writes what intrigues her, and spends a good deal of time fretting about whether demons actually exist.

When not wandering around the internet researching exorcisms, or posting on social media (eerily similar, those two), Jana can be found in Atlanta with her very patient husband, and a rapidly dwindling collection of single malt Scotch.

Jana Oliver | Chandler Steele | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |

About Cat's Paw

After five years in a Louisiana prison, Alex Parkin desperately wants to start over. Even more, he craves revenge against Vladimir Buryshkin, the New Orleans drug lord who framed him for cocaine possession. The second he walks out of prison, Alex is a wanted man, both by the Russian mob, and by Veritas, a private security firm that claims to be "on his side." When his sister is brutally beaten, he has to choose: Join forces with Veritas, or let Buryshkin destroy his family.

Because of the Russian mobster, Morgan Blake lost both her husband, and her career at the FBI. Now working with Veritas, she's eager to take Buryshkin down. So eager, she's willing to do anything to make that happen, even sacrificing a certain ex-con, if needed.

As a load of tainted cocaine hits New Orleans' streets, the body count quickly rises. To prevent more deaths, and a potential drug war, Morgan and Alex must learn that revenge comes at too high a price, and that love always has its own agenda.


  1. Thanks, that was interesting. I'm looking forward to your future articles. happy holidays

  2. Good explanation of different types of editing. Thanks

  3. Amre Cortadino1/29/2018 1:29 PM

    Hi. Dumb question, a newbie author whose work has been through two critique groups (ACFW), I'm not sure which of the four types of editing services I need to get a book ready to send to an agent. Ideas and suggestions are welcome. Thank you! :)