Guest contributor: Matt Turner

From time to time, when my pager goes off, I swap my editor’s ‘hat’ for a Coastguard cap and jump on a boat. And it strikes me that, if all went well in the world of boating – if engines never broke down, if batteries lasted forever – I would never spend time on the rescue vessels, much as I love it.

It’s a broadly similar story with editing: if manuscripts were perfect, I’d be out of work. But who’s to say when an MS is ‘perfect’? And what am I, as an editor, expected to do anyway? That varies widely – infinitely, even. But when working with self-publishing authors in particular, I see my role extending beyond that of a mere copy/structural editor to fulfil a brief that, in the traditional publishing mode, would be met by a commissioning editor. Let me explain.

In my former life as a non-fiction publishing manager in Auckland, we would receive unsolicited manuscripts (the ‘slush pile’) and make decisions on them, but mostly we would recruit books to our list by making our own blue-sky decisions about what to publish, and then commissioning an author. Thus, we were very much in the driving seat, hopefully with a clear vision of the road ahead. And when the author submitted her/his MS, we could expect to do a little steering to ensure it was on track.

When you’re a self-publishing author, there’s no commissioning editor to act as your back-seat driver. Yes, you could ask friends or family to read your MS (and if you’re dishing any dirt on them, you probably should . . .). But you also need neutral, professional input, for obvious reasons. And that’s where an experienced editor can do more than check your spelling. I particularly enjoy being an author’s extra pair of eyes: perhaps because it’s a rare opportunity to collaborate in a creative process, and it enables writers to ‘road-test’ their work before going to press.

Having said all that, occasionally I have had manuscripts that required almost no editorial input. Chapters by historian Dame Anne Salmond, or archaeologist Janet Davidson; an Antarctic title from Neville Peat; an exquisitely written angling memoir from Dave Witherow. Dave did play hardball, though. At one point in his narrative, Gareth Morgan style, he shoots a cat caught prowling birds in his garden. ‘But Dave,’ I wrote, ‘you’re going to alienate a lot of readers with this. Cut it?’ His answer was laconi and to the point: ‘The cat dies.’ That was probably my cue to swap hats and jump on a boat.

Matt Turner

Finding an editor

Finding an editor

As stated earlier, we have a list of trusted regulars we work with, and will be happy to put your manuscript out to an appropriate editor; but you may of course choose to find your own. If possible go for a recommendation. With the rise of self-publishing there has also been a rise in online editing courses, which means there are a number of people out there who claim to be a qualified editor, but may lack experience. If you’re picking an editor based on their stated credentials, do ask what projects they have worked on before, and if possible look for editors who have freelanced for trade publishers. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample edit (of, perhaps, the first chapter). You need to feel happy with their work, comfortable that it’ll be a good working relationship, and confident that you’ll have a good line of communication to finish the project. Again, note that some editors may excel at structural editing, others at copyediting, and some can do both equally well.

Costs vary hugely – from a three-figure to a four-figure sum – depending on the service you require and on the length and nature of your MS, so it is essential to ask for a quote first. To do this the editor will need to see at least a sample of text. Email is the best way to send this, and by return email they should be able to give you an idea of the services that will be required, and a ball-park cost. (Talk to your editor, too, about WP software; the industry standard is Microsoft Word, and while we at Smartwork do accept Word, we also work with Google Docs.)

Do you have an editor you like to work with? Why?

A quiet word on the law

We’re bringing this up here because it affects your working relationship with editors. Self-publishing isn’t a ticket to write any old thing. Your freedom of speech is governed by laws on copyright, libel, obscenity, etc., and it’s wise to think seriously about what you want to publish before going to the great expense of having your manuscript checked by a lawyer (or the even greater expense of a lawsuit).

What does this have to do with editors? Contrary to some people’s expectations, it is your duty, not theirs, to ensure your text complies with the law. But because they will have some prior experience of these issues, an editor may be able to help you by pointing out passages that are likely to infringe the law. Make sure you have an early chat with your editor to set out your expectations of their role.


Copyright is all about protecting intellectual property. It applies automatically to original creative works of art, music and writing. In other words, if you write a book, or a song, you don’t have to apply to have it copyrighted; protection is automatically bestowed as soon as you commit your creation to paper (or e-book, etc.). In New Zealand it lasts for the duration of the creator’s life plus 50 years following the end of the year of their death. (So for an author who died in February 1945, copyright expired at the end of December 1995.) In many other parts of the world the term is 70 years, not 50.

Copyright cuts both ways. It is there to safeguard your intellectual property, so if someone steals your work, and you can prove that you had the idea first, then you can claim redress. At the same time, you need to respect the intellectual property of others. You are not permitted to quote text or lyrics, or use photos or artwork, without prior permission of the author/artist. There’s a ‘fair use’ clause in copyright that does allow you to quote short passages for editorial use (for instance, to advance an argument), but the best advice is to contact the copyright-holder, or their publisher/agent/estate, beforehand. Many will give permission if you ask, either at no cost or for a small fee.

Some fees are larger. If you quote, for example, the lyrics from a modern song without seeking permission, you could be in for a surprise when the owner of the song (which is often the music publisher) requests that you either pay them a hefty fee or destroy all the books you printed since you didn’t have permission. (Even if you do seek permission, song lyrics are usually expensive.) Similarly, if you want to publish a big, glossy modern art picturebook, make sure you budget plenty for permission fees!

For further information on copyright, contact Copyright Licensing New Zealand (

It would be great to hear about your copyright experiences.

What kind of editor do I need?

What kind of editor do I need?

Not all editing is the same; so your first task is to decide what sort of editing help you need.

Here are the main options.

Manuscript assessor: An assessor will not (usually) offer editing services, but merely reads the MS to give you early feedback on any major issues, such as: Is it likely to find a readership? Is it too similar to existing books on this topic? Do you need to look honestly at your writing style? There are a number of professional MS assessors out there; get a few quotes because you’ll find their fees vary considerably. As ever, ask for credentials and/or go by recommendations. The New Zealand Society of Authors website ( lists several assessors, many of whom have fulfilled the strict entry criteria for membership of the NZ Association of Manuscript Assessors (NZAMA).

Structural editor: A structural editor reads your book both as an editor and as a reader, and again asks the big questions, such as: Does the narrative flow evenly? Is this chapter too long and detailed – or is more detail needed in places? They may suggest major cuts, additions and rearrangements, tasking you to do more work or to rethink your book in a major way, so you’ll need to approach this stage with an open mind. (Though you can, of course, seek a second opinion.) There will be a stage, after they’ve edited, when you go through their changes and accept or reject them, or make revisions; they’ll then do a final tidy-up.

Copyeditor: If the structural editor wields a large blade, the copyeditor uses a scalpel: they will go carefully through your text, line by line, to ensure that there are no spelling, grammar or syntax errors. By the time your MS has been copyedited, it should be sparkling clean and ready to go into layout. Again, there will be a process for you to review their changes. 

Proofreader: Once the text has been typeset and laid out, a set of proofs should ideally be read by a professional proofreader, whose job it is to look for anything the copyeditor and/or typesetter may have missed. Ideally they will be a different person from your regular editor, to ensure your text is seen by fresh eyes. The proofreader will mark up the proofs and return them with comments. Assuming you’ve contracted a designer to lay the book out, it will be then the designer’s job to input the proofreader’s changes. If you work with us, we will organise the proofread for you and ensure you get to review any changes.

Blurb writer: Blurbs matter! After all, when a prospective customer picks up your book in a store, they will take just a few seconds to decide whether to buy it. There’s a definite knack to writing blurbs. Some editors are particularly good at it, so this is another question to consider when assembling your publishing team.

What type of editor have you used?

What’s an editor?

What’s an editor?

Editors are an interface between the text and its intended readership.

They scrutinize the text to ensure it is as good as it can be, while keeping it as faithful to the original as possible.

The process usually goes something like this. Once you’ve engaged an editor, and given them your manuscript, they will look at its structure, syntax, grammar, spelling, consistency, accuracy, tone, pace, readability and credibility, among other characteristics. They will edit it accordingly; they may move material, or cut it, or ask you to make additions, among other things. They’ll then hand the file back to you to review the edit. You don’t have to accept all their changes, and you have every right to ask them for explanations. (The editing process should seem more like a conversation than a one-way critique.) Sometimes the text passes back and forth a couple more times for fine-tuning. Once you’ve agreed the edit with them, the text should be ready to go into layout.