Words with Wisdom: An Editor Shares her Writing and Publishing Tips
In honor of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), Payhip is providing our current and prospective writers with valuable advice, insight, and resources. This week, we were lucky enough to steal a few minutes with one of our most accomplished members to talk about what writers should focus on most, publishing as an indie author vs. using a publishing house, the value of a designated workspace, and more.
With over 30 years of experience in the publishing industry, editor, writer, speaker and podcaster Louise Harnby knows a good story when she sees one. Her extensive portfolio includes over 600 edited and proofread books from independent authors and publishing companies, including Pulitzer Prize winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Firstly, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. As a writer and editor who’s helped hundreds of authors, what’s the number-one piece of advice you’d give to someone who’s at the beginning of their writer’s journey?
Regardless of whether an author’s doing their own editing or working with someone like me, I always advise them to make sure they understand the different levels of editing and the order of play.
The first draft of a book is unlikely to be ready for proofreading. Instead, focus on structure first – so how the story hangs together as a whole.
Next comes stylistic line work that focuses on the flow and rhythm of prose.
Copyediting comes after that. This is the more technical side of the work that looks at consistency and clarity.
Only then is it time for the quality-control stage: proofreading.
Writers who want to know more can watch a video, listen to a podcast episode or download a booklet on my website.
Many aspiring writers lack the resources and know-how needed to succeed in the publishing world. Which top tools and methods would you recommend to those on a budget?
In a nutshell, the five Cs: community, content, craft books, courses and conscious language.
Take a look at the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and the Society of Authors. They’re two fine examples of organizations who are dedicated to supporting writers at different stages of their journey.
Membership includes access to free and affordable paid-for events and resources. But they offer something else that’s incredibly valuable too – a network of like-minded people. Trying to make your mark in the publishing world can feel overwhelming, so being able to get advice and inspiration from others on the same journey is priceless.
There’s a ton of useful – and free – guidance about the craft of writing online, so it’s worth budget-sensitive writers spending time digging around in the search engines. However, those interested in sentence-level guidance can visit my resource library as a first port of call.
I also recommend The Creative Penn, a superb knowledge bank through which Joanna Penn guides aspiring authors on how to write, how to get their books published and how to make their work visible. I love Joanna’s genuine and approachable teaching style, and how she makes self-publishing accessible to everyone.
Books are the most affordable way I know of accessing high-quality guidance. There are lots – too many to mention here – but I recommend fiction writers start with The Magic of Fiction by Beth Hill because it pays attention to structure and helps writers create a great first draft.
My own Editing Fiction at Sentence Level focuses on line craft that helps writers refine the flow, rhythm, mood, voice and style of their prose.
For non-fiction writers, Andy Maslen’s Write to Sell is an excellent tool for any content creator who wants to craft a compelling message, something that’s critical for authors when they’re promoting their books.
And Joanna Penn’s How to Write Non-Fiction takes authors step by step through the whole book-creation process – from mindset to marketing and everything else in between.
I love learning at my own pace, and online courses are an affordable and convenient way to study in a multimedia environment.
There are lots to choose from. For starters, take a look at Joanna Penn’s business-focused author courses, and for craft-based tuition try Narrative Distance: A Toolbox for Writers and Editors and Preparing Your Book for Submission, two courses from my own training stable.
The National Writing Centre also offers online training that aims to build authors’ confidence. Some of their courses are even free. The NWC also partners with the University of East Anglia to provide more in-depth premium creative-writing courses that come with tutor support.
Anyone who’s aware of the events surrounding Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me will understand the importance of reviewing their work through the lens of representation.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that a work of fiction or non-fiction has to follow a set of prescribed ‘rules’ about what can or can’t be written, but rather that writing means applying the same mindfulness to the words we put on a page as those that come out of our mouths.
When we write, we’re building a relationship with our readers, even though we don’t know who most of them are. And so consciously considering whether our words are helping or harming is just good human practice – one that means our books function as we intend them to, whether that’s to teach or to entertain.
For authors who want a little more guidance on this, I have a free booklet on inclusive and respectful writing. It doesn’t prescribe, just helps writers make informed decisions.
As someone who’s edited hundreds of manuscripts, what should writers keep in mind as they write in order to avoid getting back a ‘bleeding first draft’ from the editor?
So I’d say that the first draft isn’t usually something that should be sent to an editor. More often, the first draft is where the author lays down the story just as it comes.
Once that’s done, put the book away – just let it sit for a while – then revisit it and decide what’s working and what isn’t, what needs refining, amplifying or deleting.
Perhaps follow Sophie Hannah and Jeffery Deaver’s lead and create detailed outlines that help keep you on track even at first-draft stage. You can read more about Hannah’s method in ‘Why and how I plan my novels’.
If you do decide to work with an editor, invest time in finding someone who’s a great fit for you, someone who gets you and is engaged with what you’re doing with your writing. And tell them if you’re nervous about being edited; it’s perfectly normal to feel that way. Just bear in mind that they’re on your side and are working for you, for your book and for your reader!
Staying on that theme, what’s your biggest writing pet peeve as an editor?
There’s no room for pet peeves in professional editing – or at least there shouldn’t be. Do I have preferences? I do – everyone does – but that’s all they are and they have no business in the work I do for my clients. My job is to focus on a client’s goals, the world of their story, and the readers who’ll come along for the journey.
There are stylistic and grammatical conventions in writing, and I understand those and am mindful of them, but editing requires a malleable mindset that respects voice and rhythm as much as anything else. It’s about sense and sensibility, not prescriptivism and pedantry.
What are the pros and cons of publishing as an indie author vs. using a publishing house?
The main advantage of being an indie author is that you get to control everything.
The main disadvantage is … you get to control everything!
You’re the publisher as well as the writer, which means you decide which books to write and publish, what the cover will look like, which levels of editorial help to commission, which channels to distribute your book through, what the price will be, what formats the book will be available in, and how your promotion strategy will play out.
That’s a lot of work – work that costs you time and money. Publishers will do some of it for you. Still, that will come at a cost because you’ll be taking a royalty that’s likely lower than the return from selling direct.
Being your own publisher isn’t everyone’s wheelhouse, but for those – like me – who want to be in control, there’s never been a better time to wear that hat because of all the technical solutions available to authors.
Any writer can use Amazon. It’s the biggest bookstore on the planet, and it’s essential for me that my books are available there. But I want to sell direct via my website, too, because that’s my very own shop window.
Payhip’s made that possible, and it’s made it easy … not just for me but for my customers too.
And for authors who are not only writing but also teaching about writing, there are multiple platforms that support that too – LearnDash, LearnWorlds and Teachable for example.
Love your Editor’s Shed! How has a dedicated workspace helped your productivity, and what tips would you give to writers who work in cramped or communal spaces?
Having a dedicated workspace means I’m not shifting two large monitors and a hard drive off the dinner table every evening. I work from home so having a place where my business ‘lives’ helps me separate editing and writing from family life.
The pandemic forced me and millions of others who had the luxury of dedicated workspaces to adjust. My partner joined my home-office space when Covid hit, and sharing took some getting used to. However, we learned to manage it successfully. I realize that everyone’s situation is different, but I hope at least one of the following tips might speak to anyone trying to carve out a dedicated workspace.
- Agree boundaries in shared spaces: Decide which part is yours and which is theirs, and respect that.
- Create boundaries in multifunctional spaces: Some writers have to work in a bedroom, kitchen or living room. If there’s enough space, fence off a corner with a panelled room divider. These can be pricey so an alternative is to install a rail and fashion a curtain from an old duvet cover or sheet.
- Use mobile desks in cramped spaces: Mobile desks are readily available online and are priced competitively so that even writers on a smaller budget can house a monitor, keyboard, mouse and hard drive. Complement with a storage trolley for your books and stationery. Then just wheel the whole lot into another room when required!
Thanks so much for catching up with us, Louise. On behalf of Payhip, we wish you continued success and creativity in 2022!
Louise Harnby is a fiction editor, writer and trainer with 30 years’ publishing experience, and specializes in working with independent crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), and cohosts The Editing Podcast with Denise Cowle. Find out more about her courses, books and services at harnby.co/fiction-editing.