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© 2003 by Patricia Fry

Q: Mary, please tell us a little about your writing business. 

A: I perform literary services of various kinds. I edit manuscripts for books and doctoral dissertations; help book authors search for appropriate agents and publishers; and assist self-publishers in every step of the process from completing the publishing forms and formatting their book to sending it to the printer.

Q: What prompted you to become a writer/editor? 

A: I have always enjoyed writing and have written poetry, song lyrics, articles for my high school newspaper, and newsletters for organizations. I’ve also kept a journal for many years. I have written professionally in various genres including television scripts, educational videos, documentary films, magazine articles, and nonfiction books. I became an editor quite by accident when I heard of a medical doctor who was looking for someone to edit the manuscript for a book he was writing. I contacted him and he gave me my first editing job. The book I edited for him was subsequently published by Simon & Schuster. As a result of that success, I began getting referrals for other editing jobs. My editing career really blossomed after I formed SPAWN and met other authors who were seeking an editor.  

Q: Would you describe a day in the life of Mary the writer/editor? 

A: I work a regular business workweek, from 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and a half day on Saturday if necessary. I rarely work on Sunday. Because of the nature of my work, I do not have any regular schedule. Unless I have a deadline for my own book or magazine article, my clients’ work comes before my own. I work in two and three-hour segments, taking breaks in between. That way I maintain my edge. I often do some editing in my mind as I am walking or doing chores around the house (but I don’t charge for the time spent since I’m doing other things). Then when I get back to the manuscript I have a fresh outlook and feel that I can do a better job. My billable time is rarely more than five hours a day. The rest of the time is spent doing paperwork, learning new computer programs, getting office supplies, going to the post office, and all the other details of running a business that is service-oriented.

Q: You work with many writers throughout the year. What is the most important thing one should remember when working with clients? 

A: There are several things one should remember but I believe the most important is to be completely honest with the writer. It must be honesty without discouraging or hurting the feelings of the person, however, and that means I must choose my words carefully. When I find much that needs to be reworked or rewritten, I start out by telling clients all the things I like about their writing*and there are always good things to say. Then I explain what needs to be done to make the manuscript better. Sometimes it is a matter of organization; sometimes it is an overuse of clichés, jargon, and pet words and phrases; sometimes it’s a lack of focus or clarity. I usually edit a few pages, such as the first chapter, and return the marked pages to the client, charging the client for the time I spent. By doing that, I can get an idea of how much time it will take to edit the whole manuscript so that I can estimate the charges. The client can also see how I edit and whether it works for him/her. Occasionally a manuscript needs a great deal of work and I have sent clients "back to the drawing board" with suggestions for changes they can make themselves. I ask them to bring it back to me when they have done everything they can to improve it. This way, my charges will be lower because I will have had to spend less time on the editing and the writers always remain in control of their creative material.  

One major mistake that I have seen other editors make is rewriting and changing their client’s work instead of merely editing it. Occasionally, I will restructure an awkward sentence or break down an overly long sentence into two or three sentences. But if I cannot do this without changing the author’s voice, I don’t touch it. I ask the writer to do it himself. Rewriting a client’s work changes the author’s voice. It shows a distinct lack of respect for the author. It is demeaning, insulting, and incredibly presumptuous.  

Q: What has been your proudest moment as a writer to date? 

A: I wouldn’t call it a proud moment exactly because it has been a series of moments with my most recent book, The Author’s Toolkit. Because I believed it would be hard to find a publisher for a book on writing—there are so many of them on the market, I decided to self-publish it. My first proud moment was when it received an excellent review in Library Journal and orders for it started pouring in. My second was two years later when I sold the publishing rights for the revised edition to Allworth Press of New York who published it this spring (2003). And the third was when it was chosen as a Writer’s Digest Book Club selection. Each of those events was totally unexpected.

Q: What direction do you see your business and/or your personal writing life going the future? 

A: Although I enjoy editing, I would like to do more public speaking and teach more workshops because I can reach more writers that way. I would like to write more books, too. There are so many books and short stories inside me, both nonfiction and fiction, and they are screaming to get out. So I visualize spending less time editing and more time writing and speaking in the future. 

Q: You founded SPAWN. Would you share what inspired you to start this organization? 

A: The inspiration of SPAWN came from my clients, mainly, because they needed information that I simply did not have about the book publishing industry. I searched for an organization that would meet those needs but didn’t find one. Although there were writers’ clubs, they didn’t deal with the details of putting a book together and getting it published. I wasn’t being entirely altruistic, though, because I believed such an organization would help me learn more, too. It would also put me in touch with authors who needed my services.  

Q: What kind of money can a busy editor make? 

A: It is hard for me to say because I don’t know any other freelance editors and I don’t know what publishers pay their editors. I only know that I make a living consistently from my editing business. I have expanded it to include consultations and other services relating to book publishing. I would make more if I didn’t take time off now and then to work on my own books. When I started out 12 years ago I was charging only $15 an hour for my editing services but I was an unproven entity at that time. I gradually increased my rates as I became more knowledgeable and proficient and I charge a lot more now.

Q: We often get inquiries through SPAWN about the editing business. What advice would you offer to someone who wants to become an editor? 

A: Here’s a list of things that I think are important to consider.

  • Before you decide to edit someone else’s writing, have a clear understanding of composition and an excellent background in English.
  • Get the Chicago Manual of Style, study it, and refer to it frequently. It is the bible of the book publishing industry.
  • Attend seminars, writer’s workshops, book and author festivals, and, if possible, the annual BookExpo.
  • Learn as many facets of the book publishing industry as possible.
  • Feel an affinity with writers and respect their writing. Don’t work with anyone you can’t respect.
  • Join organizations where authors, publishers, agents, graphic designers, and others interested in writing and publishing congregate (such as SPAWN).
  • Be honest, kind, dependable, and caring.
  • Devote as much time as possible to your freelance business.
  • Get all the necessary materials and equipment: computer, laser printer, scanner, fax, reference books, office supplies, office furniture such as desks, tables, a comfortable chair, and filing cabinets.
  • Edit as often and as much as you can, especially at first, and even if you aren’t getting paid a lot for it. The more you edit the better you will become.

–To contact Mary Embree Literary Services, e-mail:, phone: 805-643-6279, fax: 805-643-2403



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