Interview by David McDonald.
Abigail Nathan is a professional editor with a background in copywriting, magazine sub-editing and legal editing. She set up Bothersome Words in 2004 and now focuses on copy editing, proofreading, structural and developmental editing. Originally from the UK, she lives in Sydney and has edited for various Australian publishing houses, including HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, Hachette and Harlequin, as well as UK publishers including Little, Brown Book Group and Orion, and small presses in the USA.
Abigail enjoys writing herself, and is fascinated by the different ways we learn about and understand stories and their construction. She is always looking for new ways to communicate with authors and help them develop their work. In 2014 she began work on the Writers’ Editor Project, talking to writers from different fields and genres about their writing processes. Find out more about Abigail here.
Many writers set themselves little goalposts, ways of measuring their progress or tracking improvement. As an editor, do you do the same thing? What are the kind of achievements that you value as a measure of where you are at?
Absolutely. There are certain publishers or authors and even genres or types of material that I have on my wish list to work with, and while I may not specifically set those as goals, I do make a concerted effort to develop my skills and knowledge accordingly.
I usually have a couple of vague professional and “creative” goals every year, though they might be a bit nebulous and can include anything from taking a class, writing something, attending a particular event or even developing a workshop of my own. They’re not really measurable but they are ways I try to make sure I am constantly developing and improving.
Actually tracking progress is a bit harder. As an editor your work is (hopefully!) invisible. As a freelance editor you don’t get feedback very often – there are no colleagues to compare your edits against and no managers looking over your shoulder offering critique. So the best measure for me is in terms of the kinds of projects I am trusted with and whether the publisher/author is happy with what I do (see above re: feedback – sometimes the only way to tell is whether or not you get offered further work!).
This is a really awkward question to answer because the goal-setting is all about me but my role as an editor is, by nature, all about someone else’s work. When an author feels like you have genuinely helped, that is the best sense of achievement, really.
You work with clients from points all along the spectrum, new writers and well established authors, people with traditional publishing houses to indie publishing (insert your preferred label)> Are there things that all writers have in common, regardless of methodology?
Everyone needs a fresh pair of eyes. Even the most experienced, bestselling author has a blind spot.
(So do editors. No doubt there are errors in these answers.)
- Writing is hard work. Figure out if you want to “be a writer” or if you just want to have written a book.
- Don’t give up after your first draft – and don’t give an editor your first draft. Let your story rest for a while, then read back over it before working on it again. You’ll be amazed at your insights after some time away. Do this more than once.
- Don’t confuse “being a pantser” with not needing any kind of plot or structure.
- Be brave. While there are some things you can gloss over, if you’re going to write about something, write about it. Don’t write all the way up to the action and then tip-toe around the edges because it was too embarrassing, or scary, or difficult to dive in. Chances are that is the most important part of your story. (And it’s why people always talk about writers “bleeding onto the page”.)
- Your editor won’t be right about everything. But it’s unlikely that they will wrong about everything.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I am ashamed to say that I am really behind on my local reading, although my groaning bookcases will reassure you that I have plenty on the to-be-read shelves! I’ve just started The Chimes (does that count? I just realised it’s an NZ work… I don’t want another pavlova war…) and Kisses by Clockwork. I don’t read as many short stories as I’d like, so I’ve picked up a few anthologies lately and I’m looking forward to reading In Your Face when deadlines calm down a bit.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Ideally a complete stranger and we wouldn’t speak at all… but that’s probably not in the spirit of this question. Truthfully I would be star struck and unable to converse like a sane human with any author I didn’t already know, but let’s say Diana Wynne Jones because without her books I possibly wouldn’t be doing what I am now.
I’ve always loved reading, but I think she was my introduction to fantasy and hers were the first ones I remember really falling in love with enough to want to own and reread a billion times and they are still my go-to comfort reads. I probably would have ended up working with books and stories and words no matter what, but it was reading DWJ that made me decide that at quite a young age – probably before I even had a clear idea about the concept of career choices.