Ask the Editor: A Q&A with Evelyn Duffy

evelyn duffy, of open boat editing
“[E]very piece of writing can be improved: what is good can be made great, what is great can be made wonderful, and what is wonderful can be read by its author 15 times and still have a typo in the first line.”
No story is complete without a good edit. I often reference my editor when I talk about my work. Her name is Evelyn Duffy (pictured, right). She edited both The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales and Please Give; and is currently working on the short stories I plan to include Wither and Other Tales. Evelyn was kind enough to take part in a Q&A with me. Read on for editing advice, writing advice, and why you should consider proofing your tattoo.


Sonora: You’ve edited a wide variety of authors and genres. Do you find yourself switching hats when switching from short story to novel, fiction to nonfiction, stories to plays? Can you describe such a switch? What’s it like editing each? What’s universal about editing each?

Evelyn: There are a lot of universals. Good writing is nearly always character-driven, with fully-imagined individuals living full lives, whether or not we see much of them on the page. (If you think nonfiction has to be an exception to this, I encourage you to reevaluate.) Structure is crucial, no matter what you’re writing. I think structure is harder to get right at first in a short story or a play. From an editing perspective, it’s easier to tell when and where these go wrong. A novel’s structure may not be fully clear until quite a way into it.

Dialogue matters, always, but in different ways. In novels, short stories, and nonfiction, there should almost always be more and better-written dialogue; in plays, there can nearly always be less, replaced with trust in one’s actors to communicate through physical movement on the stage. Nonfiction is a big umbrella; if you’re writing the annual finance report for the Association of American Lichen Enthusiasts, you won’t have many opportunities to integrate scenes, narrative structure, dialogue, or themes — but if you’re crafting a longform article with the hope of publishing somewhere like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, these are crucial starting points.

One timeless universal is that every piece of writing can be improved: what is good can be made great, what is great can be made wonderful, and what is wonderful can be read by its author 15 times and still have a typo in the first line.

Sonora: How do authors typically find you? Do you accept unsolicited queries? How do you decide which clients to take on?

Evelyn: I am typically reached through my website at www.OpenBoatEditing.com. I work with many repeat clients and find that new ones often reach me via their recommendation, which I deeply appreciate. Another way new clients reach me is through my profile at the Editorial Freelancers Association, a wonderful organization I’m proud to be a member of.

Sonora: Your website shows that you have edited four New York Times best-selling nonfiction books, numerous fiction and nonfiction books, a journal article, academic papers, and a play. You’ve also worked on many other projects not listed online. Are you open to editing other pieces of writing, such as screenplays or comic books? Is there anything you would not edit under any circumstances?

Evelyn: I’m open to editing pretty much anything, I think. (In fact, I’ve worked on several screenplays and really enjoy them.) Due to time constraints, I haven’t been able to do much academic work or many book proposals in recent years.

I don’t feel particularly qualified to edit poetry, unless someone is looking for a straight proofread — but even then, poetry has such freedom to invent that I’d be more comfortable with the author asking an editor who is a fellow poet to look at it.

Sonora: How have the editing services you’ve offered changed over the years? What do you offer now?

Evelyn: My editing practice has evolved into one that focuses on keeping an author’s book-length manuscript for four to six weeks and providing a thorough critique and set of line edits.

I also offer proofreading for businesses and corporations (publications, websites, etc.) and have a wedding-related sideline called The Proofread Bride.

I’m happy to review shorter items like news articles, resumes, business plans, personal websites, application essays, and syllabi at an hourly rate. No project is too small. Gift certificates for hourly editing blocks are available here. I also offer transcribing services.

Sonora: In addition to copy edits and comments, you provide a memo to your clients that outlines in-depth changes and feedback. What inspired you to incorporate this into your work? Is this common practice amongst editors? What do you most want your clients to gain from this memo?

Evelyn: When I first began freelancing, I started out purely as a proofreader/line editor. As time went by, I found I increasingly had thoughts that weren’t accommodated by Track Changes or a list of line edits, so the memo began as a way of merely organizing the extra thoughts that emerged. As time went by and my skills and experience expanded, I began to enjoy this part more and began to make thematic elements and structure my focus.

These days the memo has evolved into anything between two and ten pages and tends to emerge as a love letter of sorts to the book I’ve spent the past four to six weeks with — what works well, what can be tweaked, and what needs large structural revision. I always encourage clients to read the memo before the line edits, and my hope is that the larger thoughts in it will sit with them and marinate as they revise.

Sonora: I like to write to you as I incorporate your edits, and keep you in-the-loop on my progress. Do you usually hear from authors after they receive your edits?

Evelyn: Yes, authors often go back-and-forth with me throughout the publication process, especially those pursuing self-publication, asking follow-up questions and sharing thoughts as they go. I always love to at least find out if they go ahead with it!

Sonora: If a client seems worried or discouraged, how do you go about encouraging them?

Evelyn: In every memo I write, I encourage the author to follow up with me with anything they have questions about or want to discuss further. I’m happy to delve into anything that concerns them — a question about one of my suggestions, doubts about moving forward with the book, or how to approach publishing.

Sonora: You make it a point to tell me that your edits are suggestions, and up to me on whether or not I should include them. Do you find that your clients usually accept most, if not all, of your edits? Has there ever been a time when your client refused most or all of them? Did they discuss this with you, or were you left wondering?

Evelyn: Generally on the big things — character questions and plot issues and thematic points — I find it’s less of a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, and more that an author is so close to their own work that they couldn’t see something was unclear, or hadn’t noticed they’d developed a theme and then dropped it 25 pages before the book ends, etc. In the case of the latter (which happens often), it’s an open-ended option of eliminating the things that produced that theme or drawing it to its natural conclusion — I may not necessarily recommend either, but I do bring their attention to the theme and fact that it’s unresolved and walk them through their options.

On smaller things, line edits and such, I don’t usually find out until the book is published, and by then I probably don’t remember what I recommended! But in some cases I’m sure the authors choose not to implement my changes. I suspect a few get line-edit fatigue — I can be quite thorough — and others may simply disagree. All this does is reinforce the point you reference: all of my edits are merely suggestions, and it is up to the author which ones to accept or reject. I remind every author I work with of this every time I work with them, even the ones I’ve collaborated closely with for over a decade. It is my Prime Directive, so to speak, and it bears repetition.

Sonora: Writers need readers, especially before a book is published. What are your thoughts on beta readers? What sets you, an editor, apart from a beta reader or even just a reader? Do you think all authors should seek out beta readers?

Evelyn: The best beta readers are talented and dedicated people — but they’re hard to come by, because being a beta reader is rarely a great experience. Being a book’s first reader can be a challenge. When an author hires me to edit and critique their book, one of the things they’re buying is professional distance. I have not only the freedom but the duty to give an author my complete, most candid opinion, where a beta reader might feel constrained by any number of factors — time, friendship, awkwardness, etc. Even when I edit for friends and others I know well, entering into the professional relationship of author and editor allows for a freer exchange of ideas. There are certainly beta readers who provide this, but again, they’re rare — and, in my view, wearing dual hats of beta reader and editor.

As an editor my goal for every manuscript is different, but generally speaking it can be summed up this way: an editor should aim to help get the manuscript to a point where they’d gladly read it for free. A beta reader (or, ideally, two or three) should read it after the editor and give the author a sense of broader audience reaction. It’s all about getting as many pairs of eyes on the finished product as the author can stand.

Sonora: What do you think of self-publishing versus traditional publishing? Do you recommend one path over the other to aspiring authors?

Evelyn: They both have their merits, and their low points. I tailor my advice to individual authors, but generally I’d say follow all the publishing opportunities you find, do lots of research and consult with other authors, and be realistic about your prospects and expectations.

Sonora: How do you think your own writing experience influences your editing? How does it influence your interactions with authors? With other editors?

Evelyn: It makes me deeply sympathetic toward writers who stumble into the traps every writer stumbles into, especially in early drafts. To be slightly facetious with a serious story, I refer you to the tale of the man who fell in a hole:


Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books? Does the writing you read for fun influence your editing at all? If so, how?

Evelyn: My favorite book of all time is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’m also a huge fan of John Irving (it’s not a big leap from Dickens to Irving) and Margaret Atwood (particularly her short stories).

Wolf Hall is a book I return to again and again. Like the rest of the internet I’m waiting for The Winds of Winter. I also really enjoy YA books, especially Philip Pullman. When it comes to nonfiction, Mary Roach is a favorite. The two nonfiction books I’ve read most recently that have really stayed with me are Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz and Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.

Favorite playwrights are Neil Simon, David Mamet and Eugene O’Neill. Since it’s 2018 and we’re living in a golden age of television, I’ll add Aaron Sorkin and David Simon in the same breath.

I think the most straightforward way what I read recreationally influences how I edit comes up whenever I’m asked to edit something that is already phenomenal by the time it comes to me, or when the author is someone I admire. It’s good to remember that all the writers I named above have had editors, and surely appreciated their catches and contributions.

Sonora: What advice would you give to aspiring editors?

Evelyn: My advice for aspiring editors is — at first — the same as it would be for aspiring writers: read constantly, and read widely. Where it differs is this: try to actively read things that don’t interest you. If you’re indifferent to football, read the sports pages. If you hate ballet, read reviews. If statistics put you to sleep, read scientific journal articles. If you’re a Twitter junkie, take up War and Peace or Moby Dick. It’s crucial to be able to form objective opinions and put yourself in the shoes of other readers when editing, rather than basing your advice on your personal reaction to what you like and dislike.

Also, find a community. Editing, especially freelancing, can be a lonely business, but it doesn’t have to be. I recommend checking out the EFA and ACES for camaraderie, referrals, conferences, classes, and other resources.

Sonora: Are there things people tend not to have edited that they definitely should? What would you like to see people ask for an edit of more often?

Evelyn: Tattoos! In fact, I will give anyone who sees this an on-the-house, thanks-for-being-smart-about-life review of their English-language text for a planned tattoo. (If it’s already tattooed on you, sorry — it’s too late for me.) Contact me through email, and include “Tattoo Edit – Sonora Writes” in the subject line. (Note from Sonora: as someone with twelve tattoos and counting, I second this advice.)

Other than that, I started a whole separate side business because of the rampant typos in wedding stationery. There’s a lot of paper involved in weddings — save the dates, invitations, menus, signage, programs, thank you notes — and a lot of opportunities for expensive typos.


Check out Ask the Author, where Evelyn interviews me! Thanks for reading, everyone.

2 thoughts on “Ask the Editor: A Q&A with Evelyn Duffy

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