Women Biz: A Way With Words

If it’s true that behind every great man is a great woman then it’s doubly true that behind every successful writer is a great editor.

Once you’ve invested your blood, sweat, and tears into your writing project and you have performed a thorough self-edit, you’ll want to pry it from your fingers (I know, separation anxiety and all that) and hand it off to a trusted and skilled editor. This is where professionals, like Renee Gray-Wilburn come into the picture.

Renee launched A Way With Words in 1997, a professional writing and editing service. I asked Renee for her expertise on what to look for in an editor, what type of editing she offers, and how to get started in an editing service. 

GW:  All editing is not created equal. And neither are editors. What should a writer look for when shopping around for the right editor?

Renee:  You can tell whether or not a writer can write simply by reading what he has written. But, unless you have a before-and-after sample from an editor, you really don’t know how good that editor is and if she can do what you need. I recommend asking for references from previous clients and asking the editor about the type of editing she does, as well as what some of her editing projects have been. It’s helpful to try to get a sense of the editor’s personality as well to make sure the two of you won’t always be butting heads!

GW:  There are several types of editing. Can you tell us a little about those and the purpose of each?

Renee:  There are many classifications of editing. When I work with clients, I boil these down into three main categories:

1) Substantive or content editing: This is what I call “big-picture” editing, where the editor is looking for overall flow and organization; in fiction, it means focusing on pacing, character development, dialogue (making sure dialect is consistent with characters throughout the manuscript), plot arc, and so forth. In nonfiction, it can encompass paragraph development–does each paragraph have a topic sentence or theme and stick to it? Is the manuscript organized logically, or does it seem scattered? Does it have a strong opening and conclusion?

2) Copy editing or line editing: Here, you’re looking at sentence structure, such as parallelism, balance (short vs. long sentences), checking to see if the sentences and paragraphs reflect what’s trying to be accomplished at that point in the manuscript (if you want to quicken your pace, for instance, you need short, choppier sentences), basic grammar issues, and making sure that sentences are as strong as they can possibly be (active vs. passive voice, strong verb choices, etc.).

If the manuscript has Scripture references or end notes, it is also the line editor’s job to check these to make sure that all the notes and references are correct, including web site references and quotes, and are documented properly.

3) Proofreading: This is the final stage of editing. By now, the manuscript should be very “clean,” and all that should be left to do is to check for spelling errors or typos (“its” vs. “it’s”); missing words; incorrect punctuation; capitalization; formatting issues (if the manuscript is already formatted for publication), which includes proper headings and subheads, vertical and horizontal alignment, headers and footers, pagination, and so forth; and double-checking notes, quotations, and Scriptures after the copy editor does the first pass-through on these.

GW:  In what areas of editing do you specialize?

Renee:  I have experience with all three types, but I would say that I am probably more of an expert in line editing and proofing. Although lately, most of my requests have been for help with content editing. I’m a very detail-oriented person by nature, so proofing comes quite naturally for me. I’ve had to purposely train myself to look at the big picture of a manuscript when doing content editing as to not get bogged down with the details.

GW:  What prompted you to start A Way With Words and how did you get started?

Renee:  It all began for me after I left a career as a technical recruiter and human resources professional when my first son was born in 1996. In 1997 I welcomed the birth of my company, A Way With Words, in order to be home with my child. A Way With Words began as a resume design company, servicing the needs of the high-tech community in and around Silicon Valley where I lived. The engineers I worked with were brilliant, but had no idea how to convey their expertise onto a resume…and therefore get a job! At the same time, I used my corporate knowledge to help businesses by providing copywriting, newsletter writing, and editing services, as I understood their need for professional writing with quick turnarounds. After training through The Christian Writer’s Guild and The Institute of Children’s Literature, I began writing for publication. In 2005, shortly after moving to Colorado Springs, I published my first children’s article. I have now accumulated nearly 200 published pieces in the children’s, adult, and inspirational markets by writing for magazines, books, curriculum, and online publications.

GW:  What type of projects do you usually take on?

Renee:  I’m pretty open minded and don’t usually consider too many things off limits. But, because of the direction my career has gone, most of the jobs that come my way are either children’s stories, inspirational fiction, or various nonfiction projects.

GW:  Besides your editing, you are also a published writer and have shared your talents in various anthologies, children’s and adult curriculum, and a variety of other publications. Do you have a preferred genre when you write? What has been the most challenging? The most rewarding?

Renee:  My preferred genre is both writing for kids and writing human interest pieces, which I do on a regular basis for one of my periodical clients. By far, it is most challenging to write for children. Two new books of mine–Volcanoes! and Earthquakes!–by Capstone Press, were just released last month. In each of these I had to explain the science behind each natural force, discuss where these disasters may occur, and tell the reader how to best prepare–in 300 words or fewer! When writing for kids, every single word counts–and those words must be fun, meaningful, and understandable based on the age of the child–not an easy task!

I don’t know that any one type of writing is more rewarding for me than another. Whenever I hear that my words have touched someone, I think that’s rewarding.

GW:  There are several formatting styles when it comes to editing. From the Chicago Manual of Style to Oxford. There is even a Yahoo manual for digital publishing. As an editor, how do you determine which editing style to use on a project and how do you keep up with all of them?

Renee:  If I’m working with a publisher, the style I use has already been determined for me. It will be a combination of their house style and whichever standard they have chosen as their default. If I’m working with an independent author, I usually resort to Chicago Manual of Style. CMS and AP (Associated Press) are probably the most-widely used in the publishing industry. AP is used a lot for magazine writing, while CMS is used more with book publishing. If an author has a preference, then I will work with that. What I’ve found, however, is that most authors don’t care, as long as I’m being consistent throughout the manuscript. And, bottom line, that is the most important consideration.

GW:  Any suggestions to authors and writers submitting their work for editing?

Renee:  I would suggest being very clear upfront with the editor as to your expectations. If you’re looking for a line edit, you can’t then criticize the editor if you later discover holes in your plot, because it wasn’t his job to find them. As an editor, if someone comes to me strictly for proofing, but I see that the manuscript needs more work than that, I will let the writer know, and then it’s up to her if she wants me to do a heavier edit. But I won’t just assume she does and start tearing her manuscript up. A good editor will only do what you’ve requested of him without prior consent.

Also, be sure to have your manuscript as polished as possible and in a professional, easy-to-read format: a simple font, like Times New Roman, size 12 is best, and always double-space. It’s also helpful to have a list of words or terms that you want treated a particular way, especially if they are exceptions to normal spelling or grammar rules. This would include proper nouns or maybe terms like “do’s and don’ts” where there can be different spellings.

GW:  Any suggestions to authors and writers submitting their work for publication?

Renee:  When submitting for publication, the best advice I can give is to research each publication independently and send them your manuscript in the exact form they want to see it. They all have different rules for submission, and you’ll often be disqualified if you don’t follow their directions. Also, make sure that a particular publication is actually a good fit for your work. Just because they publish in your genre doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a good match. Publishers have their own “voice” and style just like writers do, and it’s important to find one that matches yours.

GW:  If I wanted to work for an editing service or start my own, what type of experience, courses, or education would you recommend?

Renee:  I do not have a formal education in writing or English (I was a finance and marketing major!), but if you are considering getting a degree and know you want to be an editor one day, I would recommend taking all the English, journalism, writing, and communications courses you can. Most colleges now offer editing classes as well.

Otherwise, I would say let experience be your best teacher. Practice all you can and get feedback whenever possible. To get started, many publishers offer proofreading tests to potential freelance proofreaders, which, if you pass, will enable you to be added to their “pool” of contractors. From here, you can gain experience and eventually try your hand at copy editing or even content editing.

Another route is to work on staff with a publisher or agent. You’ll probably have to come in on the bottom rung if you have no experience, but you can gain a lot of different types of editing experience this way.

GW:  As an independent editor, how would I determine a fee scale?

Renee:  The best way to do this is to research other independent editors and determine what they are charging based on their experience and the type of editing they do. There really are no hard and fast rules for fees, and it may even vary project to project based on the nature of the job.

GW:  Any tips for the would-be editor?

Renee:  Edit everything as if it were your very own–thoroughly, thoughtfully, and objectively. By doing so, you will do your best possible work, and word will soon spread that you are an editor of quality!


Renee Gray-Wilburn has been writing for publication since 2005. Her work includes children’s books, inspirational short stories, and numerous nonfictional pieces. Her company, A Way With Words Writing and Editorial Services, has provided editorial services for publishers, independent authors, and businesses for nearly fourteen years. These services include basic proofreading to content editing for any industry or genre of writing.

After having lived on both coasts and in the Midwest, Renee now makes her home in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, in beautiful Colorado Springs, Colorado, with her husband and three children. For more information on A Way With Words, please visit Renee’s webstie and blog at http://AWayWithWordsWriting.wordpress.com


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