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Editor Abigail Nathan Interview – Part Two

Welcome back to part two of our interview with professional editor Abigail Nathan of Bothersome Words Writing and Editing Services. In this section we talk more about working with writers and publishers. If you missed Part One, you can read it here.

You obviously deal with a lot of fiction in your line of work. What genres do you often find yourself editing and do you have a particular favourite?

Fiction is easily my favourite thing to edit and it’s what I do most these days. I mostly work on genre fiction, especially speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, horror, paranormal, etc.), YA, romance and erotica and sometimes crime. Anything in these genres will hook me – it’s what I read for fun, and I still enjoy working on it.

Have you ever had a fangirl moment with a writer whose book you’ve worked on?

ALL THE TIME. I still pinch myself when I get the chance to work with someone whose books already have pride of place on my shelves. I think some small part of me still believes authors (and artists of all kinds) are these mythical beings who exist in another realm.

That said, it’s something I find quite easy to separate from the actual editing process. Probably because a manuscript looks so different to the shiny book that results at the end. When you’re editing, the focus is on the words on the page and the story being built in your head. But oh yes, I have been the nervous fangirl joining the signing queue with a copy of a book I worked on, nervously confessing to The Author that yes, I was the one scrawling all over their work 3 months ago…

You work both with authors directly and also through major book publishers—such as HarperCollins, Random House, Hachette, and Penguin. How do the two working relationships differ?

Working directly with authors is a lot more personal. Often you become a kind of mentor and there is a lot more handholding. You might also be their only industry contact, so you end up teaching them about publishing and usually about writing as well.

With publishers, usually the in-house editor or publisher is a buffer. You may not ever speak to or hear from the author. You get just as obsessed involved with their work, but the only communication about the work might be the initial brief from the publisher and the acknowledgement from the same publisher that they received the completed edit. That said, sometimes an author will get in touch and/or you might have a back and forth and then it is not so dissimilar to working via a publisher, except you both answer to someone else and, while you may still give them a bit of writing advice, you don’t need to walk them through the publishing process.

How do you find working with writers directly?

I love it! But I always dread the moments after I have sent an edit back. No matter how you phrase yourself, the fact is that unless you’re sending back a note telling the author their book was perfect and you haven’t changed a thing, you KNOW you are going to upset them in some way. A lot of writers are fine with being edited. Especially if they are experienced and have been through it a million times. They are often desperate for a detailed critique. But yes, it’s the guilt usually. And the fear that you missed something!

That said, I am always grateful for the opportunity to work on someone’s writing. They’re basically giving you free rein on their thoughts and fantasies. You’re running around in their imagination and it’s fascinating, but it also means you need to be careful and respectful.

There are many quotes about writing and editing. One of my favourites is that a writer is only as good as his or her editor. Yet with the popularity of self-publishing, more writers are getting their work out into the world than ever before and a substantial number wouldn’t even consider hiring a professional editor. If you had a chance to speak to these people directly, what might you say to encourage them to think differently?

I think until you have been edited, it’s impossible to know what you’re missing. The problem is that editing is (usually) invisible. Those who wouldn’t consider it would need a before and after example and even then they’d probably figure it doesn’t matter as long as the audience understands what they’re saying.

I mean sure, I think everyone needs editing. I could do with someone editing these interview responses for me! But some people are writing to make money and that’s it. They’re worried about return on investment and, while I think most would sell better if their work was more polished, from their perspective I can see that spending a few hundred or thousand dollars/pounds on editing and other services would seem like a poor investment they probably wouldn’t make back.

Those who are writing for the love of it, who want to learn and develop AND have a career, are much easier to convince!

Do you think writers are capable of editing their own work to a publishable standard?

I work with several writers who turn in such clean, thoroughly worked manuscripts that it can be difficult to find anything to edit. (That is one of the editor’s worst nightmares – because we are paid to find holes and problems. If we don’t find one, we’re worried that we’ll never be hired again after charging for apparently doing no work at all!).

With that in mind…I have never sent a manuscript back to an author or publisher without mark-up. Not because I am picky, but because it is humanly impossible to catch everything yourself. If you are the writer, you know what you mean to say, you know how the story is supposed to go, and you know how that sentence is meant to read. It is enormously difficult to see past all that with clear and unbiased eyes. You need someone from outside to let you know that maybe that sentence is confusing, or that they didn’t understand that plot point, or that the character’s reasons for doing a particular thing at that point don’t ring true.

Beta reader and critique partners are an excellent start for this. They are your first readers and they can point out any blind spots. An editor is TRAINED to look for issues, and they can help you really polish and tighten. They will catch your repeated phrases and words, your misplaced commas and so on. They are also good at analysing and deconstruction. Editors not only know the writing “rules”, they know why they exist, so they can help make sure that regardless of whether or not you are following those “rules”, you’re not going to trip a reader up.

Without outside help, an experienced writer with good language and editing skills could probably get their work “good enough”. Ideally, with outside help, a writer can get it to “the best it can be”.

Writers can be a little touchy when it comes to receiving criticism, however constructive it might be. How do you deal with this aspect of your job?

I try to remember – always – that this is someone’s baby (though I know some writers hate that notion). It’s not just the work they’ve put in, often writers have put a bit of themselves in there. You’re being given the chance to see inside the workings of someone’s mind. You’re not just “criticising” words on the page; you’re analysing how they think and feel.

I know lots of writers out there scoff at the notion of a book being someone’s heart, but so often it IS. Especially when I am working with new writers or people who have just handed me the first thing they’ve ever written. In many ways, especially with fiction, you’re critiquing their fantasies and their inner life. It takes a while to get to the point as a writer – or any kind of artist, I suspect – where you are okay with being told something needs changing.
I try to make it clear with writers I work with that I am *not* criticising them or their work, and that the only thing I care about is the book and the story. Editing is not just about telling someone where their work is “failing”; it’s about telling them what works as well. I try to ask questions rather than stepping in and reworking an author’s work, and if there are repeated things that come up I will try to explain why things are being changed and how to keep an eye out in future. Editing is as much about learning your own writing as it is about someone else making changes.

You’re in the middle of a very interesting project that talks about ‘the writer’s editor’. Tell us more about what this is and why you’re doing it.

It’s all part of a research project into writers and their processes. I learn best, and work best as an editor, if I can understand how a writer thinks. Learning what inspires and helps different writers in their own approach to writing and creating not only helps me to provide edits and feedback in terms they are familiar with, but it also helps me to advise and mentor writers who still want to develop certain skills.

I am talking to a lot of novelists and publishers and industry professionals about their experiences, but I am also really keen to learn more about the writing habits and techniques of writers outside books. I’m hoping to talk to fanfic writers, scriptwriters, and comics and game writers about how they each approach and develop their projects. They have slightly different considerations and the final products have slightly different aims and requirements to a novel manuscript, but a lot of tips and tricks will crossover. I am hoping to develop a kind of arsenal of different exercises, techniques and suggestions I can use to help both editors and writers develop their skills and processes.

We’re very lucky to have you join us for the UK’s series of conferences and literature events this summer! Where can writers find you and what do you hope to gain from this trip with regard to the project?

Aside from presenting a workshop on editing for writers at NineWorlds Geekfest, I will also be on a panel about editing at LonCon3 and will be attending the Edinburgh International Book Festival and FantasyCon in York. In between, I’ll be doing a bit of a bookish tour around the south of England, visiting various writers’ spots and homes so I can get a feel for the sort of places that inspire/d them.

As above, what I am really hoping to get out of this is a chance to meet different writers, publishers, editors, readers, etc. I’m hoping to learn about different processes – these will be different groups of writers, and they’ve likely had slightly different influences, especially working in different countries to the authors I already know. I am also very keen to meet people who write different sorts of things – screenwriters, comic writers, fanfic writers all have their own processes and concepts they keep in mind when writing. Their audiences are different, the requirements are different, but in the end you are still trying to convey a story.

I am hoping to learn more about these perspectives, because I think a lot of these ideas can feed into how authors approach and explore their own work. Editing is as much about helping to construct and develop stories and characters as it is about getting the punctuation in the right place. Learning different writing and creative techniques can go a long way in helping an editor to communicate with and help writers during the editing process.

How can people get in touch with you if they want to participate in your research?

Online! I’m on email (editor at, Twitter (@BothersomeWords) Tumblr (BothersomeWords) and Facebook (bothersomewords). I’m really interested in talking to anyone about their writing processes and this is an ongoing thing – so even though my focus is going to be on this through August/September, I am always keen to learn more.

You’ve edited a lot of fantasy. Do you have a favourite – perhaps one where you got so involved in it that you forgot to do any editing?

There are a few authors I have been lucky enough to work with more than once, and I know in advance that they are likely to completely take over my brain when I receive their manuscript, so I usually factor in a free reading round where I let myself just be a reader, before I go back and do a proper editing read. I should note – there are always several rounds to editing, but usually you can make notes even on the first read-through. There are some books, though, where I allow myself to put down the pen/close the notes document and just read.

It still ends up going into the edit though – it’s amazing how much editing your hindbrain does, so once you’ve read it once through, untouched, the back of your mind is playing over the concepts and ideas even as you go back through and make notes and mark up suggestions.

And finally, why fantasy?

Why not? Truthfully, it was the first genre I fell in love with as a reader (thanks, Diana Wynne Jones!).

Many thanks to Abigail for taking the time to provide some fantastic insight into the editorial process. And if you happen to be at a conference with her in the next few weeks, be sure to say hi and get involved in the project!

Title image by kparks.



  1. Avatar Alec Brownie says:

    If you when you said “you can read it here”, you were trying to post us a link, you should know that there’s no link in your article.

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