Be your own intern

I’m regularly asked for advice about how to break into developmental editing. My own example isn’t exactly helpful: I fell into it in 2010 because I knew someone who gave me the chance to do it, and then I did what I could not to screw up the opportunity. One job led to the next until I’d built a track record and authors began asking for me the next time around.

While it’s true that the stars aligned for me—my benefactor was in a pinch (all of the dev editors he worked with were busy at the time) and, I think, he pitied me (I’d just been laid off)—I did have some qualifications: I have an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington, taught fiction writing at UW Extension for 10+ years, and have been banging my head against the fiction-writing rock for 40 years. Still, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to prove myself if I hadn’t known someone who’d reached out to ask if I wanted to give it a try.

All of that said, from listening to other editors I’ve come to know at the Northwest Editors Guild and from doing some thinking on my own, I actually do have an idea for prospective dev editors to consider:

Create your own internship program

It’s unlikely you’ll find a publisher willing to let you intern as a dev editor to gain experience, improve your craft, and establish a track record. But you can launch what amounts to your own internship to achieve those goals, and fit it within whatever cracks your present day job might allow.

Here’s how I’d suggest you go about it: Find writers (friends and friends-of-friends who write, members of online writing communities and area writing groups, writers conference attendees, random authors scanning Facebook in coffee shops, that woman at the holiday party about to self-publish her memoir) who’ll let you give them feedback on their work in exchange for

1 their own candid critique of your critique so you can build up your skills, and

2 the right to list them as a reference, display a flattering blurb from them on your eventual website or marketing materials, and, upon publication of their book, provide a cover-image link on your website (what author would turn that down?)

Yes, you’d be doing this for free for at least the first few books. But you’d be willing to intern for free at a publishing house in exchange for the benefits outlined above, wouldn’t you? And this internship fits inside your current schedule, and is all about dev editing—you won’t be asked to answer the phones or go get coffee for staffers.

Once you’ve built up a list of clients who can speak for you, you can begin charging  for your efforts. If you’ve tracked the time you’ve spent on your first few projects, you’ll be able to figure out what you’d need to charge to earn, say, $20/hour for your time as you continue to build your portfolio and client list. After three or six months, bump up your rate, and then continue bumping it up every six months or so. When clients come back with new projects expecting the old low/non-existent rate, you can just say, “Three months ago I began charging new clients XX dollars/hour,” and that’s your new rate. Chances are they’ll pony up—you’re a known quantity, and you’ve proven your value.

Will this translate into a viable career for you? That’ll depend upon what you make of the breaks that fall your way; on your skills as an editor, self-promoter and businessperson; and on the vagaries of the publishing marketplace. There are certainly a lot of writers out there right now, and whether they’re intent on self-publishing or attracting the attention of agents and editors, more and more are waking up to the value of working with a good editor to separate them from the herd.

This “self-internship” gambit is by no means a sure thing, but I think it’s a viable way to see if you have a knack for the work (and really enjoy it!), and to at least start building a career.