This time on Ask the Editor, we’re joined by UK-based journalist, copywriter and developmental editor Greg Fidgeon!
Having mastered his editorial skills throughout years behind the pages of local and national newspapers, Greg currently acts as sub-editor for popular UK tabloid The Sun, and operates his own writing and fiction/non-fiction editorial service in the form of Rock Solid Copy.
AutoCrit: To begin, give us a brief walkthrough of your path as an editor. How did you find your way into the position, and have you witnessed the landscape evolve in any sense throughout your career?
Greg Fidgeon: I’ve come into this the long way round, really. I didn’t go to university after my A levels and then found myself in an office job. I soon realized that it wasn’t something I wanted to do, and instead I wanted to combine my love of sport and writing. I managed to get shifts on a Saturday doing football reports for a local newspaper in Essex, and a little while later they offered me a staff job as a reporter.
Within a year I was the sports editor and later moved to the same role at a bigger newspaper group, the Yellow Advertiser. I joined them in 1999 and stayed for 14 years, progressing to become news editor and then editor. For the last 18 months I was editor-in-chief of the Yellow Advertiser group and the North London and Herts group – around 15 titles in total.
I left in January 2013 to join the news subbing team at The Sun, and switch between down-table and middle-bench duties.
I launched my own business in 2016, Rock Solid Copy, using my skills to help business owners and entrepreneurs with their publishing needs. As part of that I have been working with Colette Mason, who runs Let’s Tell Your Story Publishing, helping with developmental editing, proofreading and other tasks related to her clients getting their books to print.
I don’t think the landscape has changed that much over the years other than things like the technology used and the odd new phrases that have entered the lexicon. It’s about knowing the author and the audience, and editing the words in the appropriate voice.
AutoCrit: Can you walk us through an average day from an editor’s perspective? What’s your personal approach, technique or system for efficient editing?
Greg Fidgeon: It sounds so cliché, but each day can be very different depending on the task at hand.
I tend to spend my daytime working on people’s books. If I’m editing a completed book, I prefer to print it out and go through it with a red pen to highlight or note any changes I want to make. On one instructional book I worked on recently, I wanted to do a complete restructure and create a whole new section. That was very much like a puzzle, where I broke it all up and then reassembled all the component parts in the way I felt gave the book a more logical order that made it flow better.
On another book that was very much in its early stages, I was able to give the author critical feedback on what was missing in terms of detail from the story and offer my thoughts on the structure. That meant they went back to the drawing board with it, rather than me.
When I’m line-editing or proofreading, I just stick to the laptop and plough through with a few cups of tea and some music to keep me focused.
My shifts at The Sun tend to run from about 4pm until 12.30am. If I am down-table then I am given a story to sub and a space to put it in. You can often be subbing a 600-word story into 120-150 words. With that sort of editing, it’s about deciding on the most vital elements of a story to include. Sometimes elements need to be in there for legal reasons, which restricts you a bit further.
When subbing a longer story across a double-page spread, there is generally less to edit out because you have more space. In this case, it is more about ensuring the story flows. And, of course, with both jobs the sub-editor has to ensure everything in the story stacks up and double-check details.
In the middle-bench role, I revise the stories already subbed by others. So that is a case of reading the original, reading the subbed version and making sure all the correct elements are included and in house style.
AutoCrit: What are the most common issues you see in submitted pieces?
Greg Fidgeon: Repetition can be annoying in news copy. For instance, it will say something along the lines of: “Police last night said they were holding a 32-year-old man for questioning. A spokesman from the Met said: ‘We are holding a 32-year-old male for questioning.’.”
I also get frustrated when the writer hasn’t run a spellcheck because it’s so easy to do. But, that said, if the writer got it right first time I would be out of work!
Many of the authors I work with are writing their first book, so I think they can be excused for not knowing all the “rules”.
AutoCrit: Do you have any particular “Editor’s Bible” type books or guides you would recommend for writers, or are you mainly subject to the whims of individual style guides?
Greg Fidgeon: The Sun has its own style guide and a Head of Copy and Style on duty each night to keep us on the straight and narrow.
I am currently going through New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide for my book work.
Other than that, I would just advise any writers to read widely in the area they are writing in to see what and how more experienced, published authors write.
I have never stuck rigidly to the absolute rules of written English. It’s more about ensuring it flows properly and is in tune with its intended audience.
AutoCrit: Do you believe the rapid rise in popularity of self-publishing as a business model has negatively affected the quality standards of published books? Does this in any way play into your motivation as a developmental editor for self-published authors?
Greg Fidgeon: It’s a yes and no answer really. Because it is so easy to get a book available online now, there will inevitably be a drop in the average quality. Some authors are just unwilling to spend the money to have it checked over by a professional at any stage of the process. They are happy to write what they want to write, maybe have a friend read through it and then publish. And I do think it can be a turn-off for some readers if there are spelling errors or a character’s name suddenly changes, which happened in one self-published book I read recently.
That said – much like websites such as Soundcloud, Bandcamp and, in the old days, MySpace did for music and bands – the ease of self-publishing has allowed so many authors who would have been snubbed by the major publishers to get their books and stories out there. I believe Fifty Shades author E.L. James started out self-publishing before her massive success.
I do respect the effort that any author – self-published or otherwise – puts in to creating their book, and if they invest in me to work on it then I ensure it is given the time and focus it deserves.
AutoCrit: Do you recognize and/or appreciate when a writer has obviously put in the effort to self-edit before passing their work to you? Do you consider a familiarity with self-editing to be an essential part of the writer’s toolkit?
Greg Fidgeon: I think most writers self-edit to an extent, it’s just – without trying to sound snobby – some are better at it than others. I don’t think anyone sets out to write a book badly or filled with errors.
I’m fortunate that a lot of the books I’ve worked on have come through Colette’s system, so she has carefully mapped out the book with the writer and given them a structure to follow. With that, there is a set of tracks in place and you just have to guide the writer back on if they veer off.
AutoCrit: With your answer to the previous question in mind, what top tips/things to look out for would you offer to writers if they want to keep their editor happy (and complete the editing process as painlessly as possible)?
Greg Fidgeon: I see a lot of writers who want to put a book out, but get exhausted by the process. They are sometimes sick of the sight of the book by the time they finish writing. I would recommend they take a little time away from it at that stage and then re-read the whole thing before passing it on, so they can see it through fresh eyes and correct any errors in their copy – including a spellcheck.
I also think they need to ensure the voice or tone of the book is consistent throughout. I had one piece of work where the first 80 per cent was a clear and concise instructional guide, and the last 20 was littered with swearing and laddish phrases.
And I would also tell them to make sure they heed instructions from their editor. Sometimes you tell them to do X, Y and Z and they actually do Z, Q and C.
AutoCrit: Recall, if you will, your single biggest editing nightmare. What happened? Why? How did it impact yourself and the writer, and what did you learn from it?
Greg Fidgeon: It was a newspaper story, but this could easily translate to any sort of editing. It was on a picture caption and whoever was subbing the page was waiting for the details of who was in the image. Instead of leaving it blank or putting in “XXXX” they decided to write a funny holding caption that included the c-word. The individual got side-tracked and forgot about it, and the caption somehow got through the revision stage without being spotted.
Fortunately, it was seen before it went to print by an eagle-eyed worker in the production department who was working on an advert on the same page.
The sub in question got bawled out over it and the lesson learned was to never add jokey holding copy to any live pages!
AutoCrit: Any final comments or words of wisdom for our audience?
Greg Fidgeon: If you’re a writer, then just write. Write every day and find your own voice that makes you stand out from everyone else.
Remember that your first draft is just that. Don’t expect to have the finished product at the first time of asking. Go back and critique it by yourself and with your editor. Ask people within your target audience to read it and take their feedback on board before going for a second draft. Don’t be over-protective of your baby, but also don’t change things you really don’t want to. Know your own mind. Repeat that process until you are confident your work has been as refined as it can be.
And that’s it for this episode! Many thanks to Greg for taking the time out to chat with us. Find out more about Greg’s work at https://rocksolidcopy.wordpress.com/, and catch him on Twitter via @FidgeEd.
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