Interview by Lola Opatayo; copy edited by Naomi Dobler
Editors BC is pleased to welcome Jennifer Lawler, this month’s seminar facilitator and successful editing tutor, to share lessons learned from her teaching career and business tips for prospective editors.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Let’s begin with your journey into teaching. What inspired you to start teaching other editors?
I fell into it! It wasn’t anything I intended to start doing. I began my career a long time ago teaching English literature at the university level, and I’ve always loved being a teacher, but working as a freelance editor (and writer) fit into my life much better.
I’ve worked as a developmental editor, mostly for publishers, for over twenty years. During that time, I also worked as an editor-in-chief of a romance imprint and as a literary agent, so I’ve worked with a lot of editors over the years, some brilliant and some in need of guidance.
Eight or nine years ago, a colleague of mine mentioned that an editor’s organization was looking for someone to teach a basic developmental editing class for fiction and she thought of me. It sounded interesting and a way to add something new to my workload, so I sent along a proposal and then started teaching.
The class was popular, so I was asked to teach an intermediate class, then an advanced class, and so on.
Three or four years ago, I had a lot of students who wanted more specialized training (“I need to know more about perspective and point-of-view”) that didn’t fit in with the basic class the organization provided. So I started Club Ed (www.ClubEdFreelancers.com) as a way to corral these classes and information.
How were you able to combine training with other tasks? Can you share a bit about the structures you put in place to manage your processes and stay on top of your responsibilities?
I am a big fan of checklists. I have a checklist for everything: editing a manuscript, adding a class to Club Ed, evaluating lessons, and so on. This helps me remember to do the entirety of each task, so I’m not constantly going back and forth to fix something I forgot to do.
I am also wedded to my schedule. I capture things that need to be done on a to-do list, which I consult each week before planning my schedule. I put everything in a specific time slot, so instead of “Monday I need to give feedback on student work and finish that edit,” it’s “Monday 8:00 am–noon, give feedback on Week 1 homework assignments. Noon–12:30, lunch. 12:30–2:00 pm, respond to emails. 2:00–6:00 pm, begin main editorial task on Julie’s project.”
I also keep track of time so that I have a realistic idea of how long things take—like most editors, I’m prone to underestimating how long it takes to do an edit. I try to be careful so that I schedule the right amount of time (and quote a realistic fee).
I like having a lot of variety in my work, so I’m motivated to figure out how to make it all work. But eventually, something had to give—I started taking on a lot less editorial work as the teaching expanded.
Has teaching been challenging in any way? If so, what has been the greatest challenge in training other editors?
For me, the biggest challenge (and also one of the most interesting aspects) of teaching was (and is) figuring out my methodology and how to communicate that in a way students can replicate.
For example, developmental editors do a lot of querying and minimal rewriting, especially in fiction editing. So, one of the things I had to figure out was what goes into a good query? And after a while, I came up with my three-part query, which is that a good query (1) states what the developmental problem is; (2) explains why it’s a problem for this manuscript (specifically noting why, say, the overuse of certain adverbs is a problem as opposed to parroting generic advice like “use fewer adverbs”); and (3) suggests a potential solution (which helps the author understand the problem better).
This type of query is a tool an editor can also use to understand what’s wrong in the story. If they can’t articulate a specific developmental problem, they either haven’t dug deeply enough or they are leaning too heavily on a pet peeve and probably don’t need a query at all.
The other big challenge (and, again, also a very interesting aspect of teaching) is in trying to help others see how developmental problems present themselves on the page. Developmental editing is a subjective discipline, so authors are relying on us to develop our judgment in ways that make our opinions informed (versus merely being a pet peeve). But how do we develop that judgment? We can’t just apply a formula. Every manuscript teaches you how to edit it, but how do you learn to listen? Why do we experience a particular paragraph of information as information-dumping on this page but not on that page?
And then there is the theoretical work: how does storytelling work? Why is it that one flawed story nevertheless captures readers’ imaginations where a more technically perfect story that should engage readers doesn’t? What do we mean by a “good” book?
I find all of this endlessly fascinating and I feel lucky that my students do too. It’s complex and challenging to figure out how to have these conversations, but I love doing it.
Can you share some of your triumphs? What opportunities have come your way because of your teaching?
One fun triumph is that I have students who are now well-established freelance developmental editors. They started out taking my class eight or nine years ago, and now they’re seven years into a career and they’re teaching editors how to edit! I feel like that affirms my work—maybe I had some small part in helping them realize that dream. It is a powerful motivator for me to keep getting better myself.
The opportunity that is a direct result of teaching is actually becoming a small business owner. I’ve been a freelance editor and writer for more than twenty years, and certainly, there are small business aspects to that: you have to keep financial records, you have to pitch to get clients, and so on. But fundamentally, what you are selling is your skill.
To have a business that exists outside me (that could be run by someone else if I decided to try something else) is new for me, and there’s definitely been a learning curve.
A few months ago, someone remarked about Club Ed, “I love this company!” I felt that in my bones. I mean, I did that! I made that thing. Somehow it was very different from hearing, “You did a great job on this edit, Jennifer,” which I also like to hear.
What’s the one thing you tell your students about pursuing an editing career and why?
I would say the most important step is to just go out there and do it. Certainly, it’s important to get training and to have some idea of what you’re doing, but as I always tell my students, the way to get better at developmental editing is to do developmental editing.
There is a limit to what you’ll learn in a classroom. You have to be out there doing beta reads and critiques and eventually figuring out how developmental editing is different from those, learning who you are as an editor, and refining your approach to editing. That will be different from how I edit and who I am as an editor, and that’s terrific!
What business advice would you give anyone considering following in your footsteps?
I would say that ideally, you wouldn’t try to follow in anyone’s footsteps, though you can look to others for guidance and inspiration. There isn’t one right way to have an editing career or to be an editor; there’s your way, which will be different from mine.
So many of the wonderful things that have happened in my career haven’t been things I set out to do. I mean, I didn’t set out to work as a literary agent, run a romance imprint, or own an education company, but I’ve done those things, and they have taught me so much.
I certainly had plans! But what the plans really did was put me out in the world with other like-minded people. As opportunities came around, I explored them. Some worked out better than others, but all were worth doing. Putting yourself out there is hard, but it is how you connect with other people, and it is through other people that you get opportunities. If no one knows who you are, it’s hard for them to find you when they need you.
Lola Opatayo is a creative writer, communications professional, and editor. Her creative work has been featured in Obsidian, The Best Small Fictions 2020, Isele, and elsewhere.
Naomi Dobler began a new career as an editor in 2021, completing the Editing Certificate program through SFU. She is looking forward to building a freelance business editing children’s and YA literature and anything related to food, travel, and health. To make life extra interesting, she just started working as a host ambassador for a homestay agency as well. Naomi has lived in the US and the UK, and a love of world travel began when she backpacked all over Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia in her twenties. When Naomi’s not getting her teenage daughter to various activities or playing with her Australian Shepherd, she is deciding what to read and cook next.
Image provided by Jennifer Lawler.