How to work outside your comfort zone

Starting 2022 as I mean to go on, my first editing job this year was outside my comfort zone.

What do I mean by that? Well, I tend to focus on copyediting and proofreading, and I usually work on non-fiction (books, websites, press releases, educational resources, etc). I will tackle most subjects for a general audience, but I have particular interests and editorial experience in art and design, architecture, fashion and culture, videogames and cookery.

So when an author of a middle-grade novel approached me for a manuscript assessment, my initial instinct was to say no. However, his email was persuasive, and it turned out he’d written to me in particular because of my local knowledge of Glastonbury and Wells, where his book was set.

We exchanged emails about the project and his expectations and what I could – and couldn’t – provide, and the cost and timescale, and decided to go ahead. I’m so glad I did, because providing a fiction manuscript assessment turned out to be a hugely enjoyable challenge, from which I also learned a lot. And most importantly, the author was happy with the feedback I provided; we both felt that he was better equipped for the next step in the writing and editing process as a result of my comments.

Why work in new areas?

Why did I choose to push myself professionally in this way? And why should you?

I would argue that it’s a good idea to expand into new areas for two reasons. The first is a hard commercial reason: diversifying is quite simply one of the best ways to protect your freelance business. The past two years have shown that we can’t ever predict what’s coming, and how it might impact our businesses. In fact I feel fortunate in a general sense to have already been working from home when the pandemic hit. But like many of my colleagues, I lost work streams as a result of the lockdowns, and the only thing that kept my business viable in the long run was that they weren’t the only ones. I already had other work to partly fill the gaps in my schedule, and I was already prepared to seek out new clients because it’s something I’ve been doing all along. Rather than evolve my business in a reactive way in response to crises, I’ve learned to change it myself through positive choices I make before those crises hit, as they inevitably do. Such a change can be the result of choosing to say yes to work that might challenge me or require me to use new skills.

The second reason has to do with maintaining interest. Working for yourself requires an almost limitless supply of motivation, and a simple way to stay motivated is to stay interested. For me, the subject matter of much of what I work on is enough to keep me interested. I love reading about technically brilliant buildings, inspiring artists or fantastical game worlds. However, after the nth copyedit in a row, I also find learning how to do new things – like manuscript assessments – stimulating. And then when I return to copyediting, I can bring some of the chops I’ve learned from focusing on the bigger picture to enhance my sentence-level work.

Staying professional

Of course there are ethical considerations when moving outside your comfort zone. It’s really important not to take on work you’re not equipped or qualified to do. In my case, when providing a fiction manuscript assessment, I make sure the client knows that this is not my usual line of work. I also make clear that I can’t provide advice on how commercially successful a book might be. I know as much as the next person working in publishing who also enjoys reading fiction, but I have never worked as a commissioning editor of fiction. I’ve written three novels myself, and they all remain firmly in drawers. So I’m no expert in that sense. What I do have, though, is a solid understanding of how to structure a piece of text of whatever length to make it work for the reader. Stories are told in non-fiction as well as fiction, so that’s not alien to me. I also have a deep understanding of the conventions of publishing that are applicable across a range of genres.

So when agreeing to take on such work, I ensure the client knows what I can’t do, as well as what I can. And if they are happy to go ahead on that understanding, that’s OK. I also believe there are benefits for the client in commissioning an editor who is working in an area beyond their usual expertise. As I completed the manuscript assessment I was super-vigilant and careful to make sure I provided the best and most respectful service. I felt absolutely lucid as I wrote up my notes, conscious of the desire to emulate my more experienced colleagues.

Learning from colleagues

Speaking of colleagues, there is always so much to learn from them, and this can be especially helpful when you want to try something you’ve never tried before, or not done for a long time. Editors are so good at sharing information on their working methods, from techniques to fee structures. You can find this information in blogs, threads on Twitter, Facebook, in the CIEP forums … wherever editors congregate online, in short. And hopefully one day soon, in person. Use this freely shared knowledge! You can repay it later.

I wasn’t quite sure what to charge for my services, but a little internet research gave me the answer, and enabled me to fix a price that both the author and I were happy with.

Looking forward

My experience of providing a manuscript assessment was so positive that it’s certainly a service I plan to offer more regularly, for non-fiction as well as fiction. It tested my ability to communicate criticism as well as praise to an author, in a supportive and constructive way. This is something that’s always necessary, even when writing copyediting queries. It also tested my skills working at the macro level on a longform document, which I’ve tended to move away from gradually since leaving permanent employment in publishing (where I used to do much more project management and developmental editing). In summary: it’s an area of work I might well expand. Watch this space!

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