Editor Interview Number Five – Marcy Sheiner

Hi, welcome to the Library of Erana and thank you for talking to us today.

Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your editing experience. How did you get into this line of work? (I ‘m answering these two questions together). My name is Marcy Sheiner. I’ve always felt very comfortable editing my friends’ writing, since as far back as high school. In writing groups when we traded work I didn’t just read people’s work and give them feedback; I couldn’t help fixing the grammar and spelling, sometimes even rewriting sentences or phrases.

My first actual editing job was at the Woodstock Times, a weekly newspaper in upstate New York. I started out contributing articles occasionally, and then became one of their typesetters. One day one of their staff writers told the publisher I was being wasted in the typesetting room—and he promoted me to the position of Associate Editor! The truth was, I was in no way ready for the job. I soon learned there was a lot more to editing than running my pen through misspelled or misused words; I had to communicate with a whole stable of writers, staff and freelance, and deal with their egos. They were frequently incensed when I messed with their prose, and demanded reasons for every change. I’m not saying they were wrong; I just didn’t know how to handle them. Besides that, I had to cover the stories that nobody else wanted, like the progress of the town’s never-ending sewer project, or presentation of the town’s brand new ambulance. And let’s not even talk about the power struggles that go on in a newspaper office.

In addition to all that, Woodstock was a small town with a population of 7000, where everyone knew everyone else. The community felt a sense of ownership of the paper; this meant I couldn’t go to the supermarket or laundromat without being stopped to hear their complaints about something that had been in the paper that week, or demands that I cover some vitally important story. People called me at home at all hours on newspaper business. I had that job for two years, and I confess I was freaked out the whole time. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything: almost everything I know about editing I learned in that office.

A few years later I moved to SF and soon got a job as assistant to Susie Bright, Editor of On Our Backs. OOB’s tagline was, if I remember correctly, “a lesbian magazine of health and sexuality.” My duties as her assistant were mundane. Eventually I became Fiction Editor, and when Susie left I inherited the Editorial position. At first glance OOB might seem the polar opposite of the Woodstock Times, but in fact the work and the issues around it were much the same. As at the newspaper, there was more to editing the magazine than juggling words. I supervised a four-woman staff, wrote photo captions, titles, and pull-quotes. Just as Woodstockers felt the newspaper was theirs, so did the lesbian community feel a sense of ownership of OOB: when I walked down Castro Street I’d inevitably run into someone with a complaint or urgent request.

Are there genres you refuse, if so why is that? It hasn’t happened yet, but I’d refuse to edit a book on evangelism or any other religious subject. Nor would I work on a book expressing politics with which I strongly disagree, such as an anti-abortion or creationism book. To edit 200 or 300 pages of words persuading readers that abortion is a sin would go against what I believe, and I’d end up arguing with the writer, who would after all be paying me. Luckily I’ve never run into this situation.

I also wouldn’t edit a book with specialized lingo, such as complex medical terms or technological data, simply because I don’t know enough to do a good job on it.

Are you also a writer?  If so do you self-edit or do you use the services of another editor? Yes, I’m a writer; I’ve published five books and used to write a lot of journalism. I’ve had to edit myself much of the time (not of course with journalism) since I can’t afford to hire someone—but I sometimes swap editing and feedback with a writer friend. My motto is, “Every writer deserves an editor,” so I wish I could hire someone to edit my books.

I’ve been surprised lately by a lot of anti-editor sentiments on the part of Goodreads writers. I try not to get too upset about it—after all, those who are the most anti-editor are usually inexperienced and don’t know what they’re talking about. The relationship of editor-writer is not inherently adversarial; in the best scenarios they’re allies. I love to be edited; I love it when someone with sharp skills gives my work their time and attention. I always learn something.

What are your opinions of self-edited work by authors? I understand the issue of affordability. I even understand the fear of newbies who don’t want to make themselves vulnerable to editors. But I just can’t bear the quality of writing that’s on the Internet and in indie publishing. The typos, the dropped words, the misspellings, bad grammar, lousy punctuation…it drives me crazy. Even the New Yorker and the New York Times have mistakes these days. It’s just appalling.

I’ve been happily surprised to find  a lot of self-published books are much better than I expected—but none of them are without errors of the kind that could be corrected by any average editor. I loved a book by one writer‑who seems to be quite successful—who didn’t know the rules surrounding quotations and dialog. She’d write: “I like you,” he smiled. People do not smile in quotation marks! Quotations indicate speech, perhaps with a smile; they don’t indicate facial expressions! I don’t know why, but this stuff makes me nuts. I’ve been called a few funny and unprintable names for being such an obsessive editor. I call myself Slash-and-Burn, which I pulled from a hilarious book by Ed Sanders.

Please could you tell us about the process involved with editing for, say, a 100k word Manuscript. That’s a lot longer than most of the manuscripts I generally edit (an average book is 60-75K words). In any case, first I read through the book fairly quickly, to get a sense of what kinds of problems I’ll encounter; the same errors are usually committed repeatedly. The first reading also gives me a chance to read the book without working on it—though I have to sit on my hands not to do so. But I don’t want to be reading it for the first time when editing, because I might get lost in the content. I’ll get too caught up in the forest and might miss noticing the trees.

The second time I read slowly, editing each sentence as I go. Occasionally I have to go back to review something that might’ve been complicated, but mostly I go straight through from start to finish. I do a third reading with my edits included to see how it flows with the changes. There might be further edits to do, and occasionally I might change the text back to what it was in the first place. That happens at least a few times in every project.

How lucrative is the work? Hah! As you can see I put a good deal of time and attention into editing a book; an average sized manuscript can take anywhere from 40 to 100 hours‑and I work relatively fast. I’m frequently offered payment in the range of $200-400 a project. If you do the math you’ll see how pathetic that is. Very few grown-up people would work for these amounts. And in fact I’ve lost out on many jobs from clients who say my fees are too high; they can always find someone on the Internet willing to work for less. And they can, and I know it, and they know I know it. Of course, you get what you pay for; but the way people are educated today (or not!) I don’t think they can even tell the difference in quality.

Someone recently decided they couldn’t afford to hire me to edit their non-fiction psychology book. I told him I’d charge him $2.50 a page, and when he balked I went down to $2. It was still too much for him. He must’ve expected the whole thing to cost less than $500‑which is what “employers” on most of the online job sites offer. I’ve been turned down repeatedly because my fees are “too high.” And yet, the Editors’ Freelance Association recommends charging twice as much as I do.

What is the difference between proof-reading and editing? (Line edit, content edit etc.) To be perfectly honest, we’re all making this up as we go along. I have seen so many different definitions of all the various forms of editing.

To me, line editing means primarily making corrections to misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors. Content editing means all that, plus rewriting sentences or phrases to improve or clarify the prose. Substantive or developmental editing includes all plus paying attention to plot, pacing, character development, believability, plot twists‑in other words, evaluating the full range of elements that contribute to a work of fiction. During the process I take voluminous notes to discuss later with the author. If she or he agrees with my comments, one of us makes the changes. Naturally, the more complex the editing the higher the price.

Do you have part of the process you really enjoy? Is there a part you don’t? Two parts of the process I most enjoy are (1) line editing in a quiet space, or performing the actual work. Editing is like solving a crossword puzzle, which I do for relaxation. My other joy is (2) if I find something in the narrative that tells me the author left something out, either intentionally or not, and when I ask her about it she has a sudden revelation. I’ve discovered something in the writing she didn’t articulate but meant to, something that moves the story to a deeper level. She’s thrilled and I’m proud, almost as if I’d just delivered a baby….well, maybe it doesn’t go quite that far. It’s more like I had a big part in creating the work.

Outside of your work as an editor do you read for pleasure? What genre do you enjoy the most? Of course! My favourite genre is the good old-fashioned realistic novel. I read contemporary fiction, but lately I’m reading a lot of classics, since books over 100 years old are free on Amazon for the Kindle. I’ve discovered a few writers I’d never read before and knew very little about, such as Edith Wharton. I’ve also been reading indie published ebooks, free or very cheap, and found some surprisingly good ones.

If so do you find yourself editing the work as you go or are you able to “switch off?” Groan! Yes, unfortunately, I do edit while reading. It slows me down and can seriously dilute pleasure. Also, I have to say something here: There is a difference between books by professional writers that undergo the traditional editing process, versus indie authors who view editors as enemies: the latter always, and I mean always, make mistakes, usually the same mistake throughout the entire book. Someone who doesn’t know that it’s means it is, while its is a pronoun, and she uses the apostrophe with the pronoun, she doesn’t just do it once, but every time. And since she stays away from editors because she thinks their goal is to destroy her prose, she never will learn the difference. Meanwhile I’m gnashing my teeth and inwardly cringing as I read.

What advice would you give to someone starting out as an editor? Recently someone on Goodreads asked me that very question. I told her to first hire a good accountant who knows what freelancing is. I wish I had. She should have this person set up her books and show her how to keep them, and do her taxes for her, quarterly if she can manage it. (Otherwise the IRS charges interest). Freelancers get screwed by the tax system. And “normal” people really don’t understand freelancing, especially those of us who work with words. I am not exaggerating. I hope that newbie takes my advice; as I once got in a fortune cookie, if I can’t be a shining example at least I can serve as a warning.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to self-edit?

Not a good idea. As I said, every writer deserves an editor. If it’s absolutely impossible financially, and I know about that, believe me, then at least ask a reasonably intelligent person to be another set of eyes and attempt to catch glaring mistakes. Do not rely on computer spell checkers or grammar advice. Read it through yourself a few times. If you’re lucky you’ll submit it with very few typo’s.


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10 thoughts on “Editor Interview Number Five – Marcy Sheiner

  1. Very informative post, Ms. Steiner. I may be in the minority but thank goodness for editors. In my opinion, the advent of electronic devices, pop culture and relaxing grammatical standards have added to the lack of editing in all types of correspondence these days. Do you know why this was done, this relaxing of standards, especially when it come to comma usage? I find myself re-reading all types of correspondence simply because the lack of comma placement sometimes causes me to misunderstand the meaning of more than one sentence. I don’t even think a lot of people proofread anything that they write before they let others read it. And no, I am not an editor.

    One more thing–isn’t the term “exactly right” redundant? I just had to get that off of my chest. LOL! Thank you.


  2. Great interview! I love editors – good ones anyway. I’ve had experience with both. A good editor makes your story better, your prose tighter. I agree with Marcy – most self-pubbed books are badly edited. I was lucky to get an excellent editor for my recently published novel, Almost Adept, and I can’t thank her enough. I also edited a community newspaper a few years ago, so I sympathize with Marcy’s earlier experience: the touchy writers, the unwanted stories, oh yeah. Thanks, Marcy.


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