Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Editing the Editors

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The novelist Russell Smith, normally insightful in his Globe and Mail columns, lurched into illogic in February when he decried the use of freelance editors. I’m sure that Smith would concede that trade publishers employ fewer editors than they used to. In fact, literary agents have largely replaced acquisitions editors among large publishers as the gatekeepers who decide what deserves to be published. So what are the poor writers who want or need editing to do? Hope an agent will do it? Rely on the opinions of friends, or of people sitting around in a writers’ group? Or edit themselves?

Smith’s column mightily annoyed members of the Editors Association of Canada, an organization to which I belong, which mainly consists of freelance editors. They objected to Smith’s contention that copyediting (emending spelling, punctuation, or grammar) was relatively unimportant in the submission of a manuscript: if the MS. was accepted, he claimed, an in-house editor could do it. Except that — judging by the many typos and stylistic flubs to be found in books issued by even prestigious publishers — they don’t. EAC members further resented Smith’s lamely facetious statement that one becomes a freelance editor “by losing a job at a magazine and then posting an ad on the Internet.”

I’ve done neither. My editorial clients generally have come through personal contacts or by word of mouth. Many have arrived in Canada from countries in which English is not the principal language. They may have been published extensively in another language, or they may just be starting out. Besides copyediting, I try to give them whatever else they may require, whether structural editing (the ordering of sentences, paragraphs, or chapters) or substantive editing (dealing with content.) Errors in writing are sins of omission, commission, or conception. Editing new Canadians is essentially no different from editing anyone else.

My experience with such clients has been almost uniformly good. For the most part, I can’t advise them about marketing — if only because I’m not particularly adept at it myself. But I don’t mind when editing segues into a form of teaching, coaching, or mentorship. After all, the editor’s supposed to be on the writer’s side. But my clients are also mature: they have no use for sappy compliments; they just want to make their work better. They’re gratifyingly, sometimes unnecessarily, modest. They’re willing to learn: if they don’t know something, they admit it. Serious about what they’re doing, they lack the ignorant, innocent, or arrogant notions some Canadian-born would-be authors harbour. Best of all from my point of view, they pay me on time.

In the course of our work, these clients often teach me about foreign cultures and sensibilities. Sometimes I almost — but not quite — think that I should be paying them.


Karen, I hate to admit it, but you're right. Chicago Manual of Style: "A period precedes the closing parenthesis if the entire sentence is in parentheses; otherwise it follows."

I can't resist doing a little freelance copyediting of your blog.

I believe that the period at the end of the following sentence should be placed outside, instead of inside, the right parenthesis:

"Besides copyediting, I try to give them whatever else they may require, whether structural editing (the ordering of sentences, paragraphs, or chapters) or substantive editing (dealing with content.)"

Well, Basil, possibly the young woman was a freelance editor and the discipline was designed to make her mend her ways.

Well, our young friend would've likely had a better chance at achieving notable sales if he'd spent more of his budget on a good editor rather than paying a comely and scantily clad young woman to accompany him to a "literary event" on the end of a leash. I was given to understand this promotional exercise failed to elicit the expected shock and the young woman in question was sent home early - sans leash.

Thanks, Basil. Of course this raises the question whether his books would sell if they were well edited.

Don't take it personally. Russell Smith is just bitter because his badly edited books don't sell.

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Fraser Sutherland

At last count, Fraser Sutherland has published fifteen books: one of them short fiction, four nonfiction and ten poetry, His most recent poetry collection is The Philosophy of As If. A freelance editor, he may be the only Canadian poet who is also a lexicographer. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, he lives in Toronto.

Go to Fraser Sutherland’s Author Page