Interview with Mriga Maithel
New Delhi, India
Q1. Please share your educational and professional journey with us. What attracted you to the editing world?
I grew up reading books. We had a dedicated room, aka library, in the house. Reading well-written American and British books while growing up, I developed a keen sense of proper English and usage. Seeing badly written menus, advertisements, etc., would irk me, and I would often want to edit these for the people.
Naturally, English Honours from Delhi University was the obvious choice for higher studies. This was followed by a Masters in Communication from Doon University because three years spent away from family were unbearable for me. Family is my source of happiness and peace, and living alone and away from home was not pleasant. The sooner I came to terms with that, the sooner I would start shaping my career to accommodate that one non-negotiable condition of my life.
When I first told my parents I wanted to do editing, they were sceptical. They felt it made sense to do it as a hobby, and in the world of MS Word and Spell Check, why would anyone need editing?
But I persisted, and took up the first job I found, for a meagre 12000 rupees. From there on, there was no stopping. I would send out emails and resumes to every publishing industry address I could find online, and eventually, I landed up at Penguin Random House. The PRH family showed me a whole new world and that world keeps getting bigger!
Today, I freelance with Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Bloomsbury, apart from independent authors who reach out to me.
Q2. What kind of problems have you faced in your editing career?
Remuneration has been the biggest. Copyeditors in India don’t get paid in proportion to the amount of skill and hard work they put in. “Do a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is all very nice, but I feel earning well matters in the long run. Abroad, people charge by the hour, and in dollars, and proportion to the work. In India, the rates are abysmally low for this work that requires immense concentration and expertise.
To make matters worse, every company I apply to abroad directs me back to their Indian counterparts – it is cheaper for them, and it keeps the cheaper resources in India itself.
I kept being bounced back to India for a long time, and with a small copyediting community in India, mostly freelancers, getting contacts or even guidance is not easy.
Networking is critical as a freelancer, and I am still learning how to market myself online – it doesn’t come naturally to me – and that has been my Challenge of the Year for 2021 – learning to grow online.
Q3. So how do you grow in the editing field?
(Chuckles) I simply work harder. I focus on honing my skills and concentration levels so that I can do projects faster and better, take on more projects, tougher projects. I try to find new tools and apps that aid editing, and I try to stay abreast of the developments in the language.
With editing, skill and experience count a lot because every book and every author is different. With each project, one comes across new things, and over the years, one learns a lot that can’t be taught through courses. That skill and experience are what pays – apart from, needless to say, networking networking networking!
And I would be ungrateful if I didn’t tell you that I have come across some amazing people in my professional sphere who have mentored me, guided me, and believed in my potential to do well. That matters a lot. People walk in and out of your life, but by the time mentors leave, they have made you a better person and given you something to help you stand taller and stronger.
Q4. What is the main role of a copyeditor in book writing? Why is a copyeditor necessary for authors, especially new authors, before publishing?
First of all, a copyeditor is essential for all authors, whether they are writing for the first time or the nth time. An author cannot edit his/her own book because they will not be able to see it from the reader’s perspective and realize what is self-explanatory and what isn’t. Besides, all of us have certain ways of talking or writing that are not necessarily correct or appealing to readers. Talking and writing are very different – and one realizes that when one works with an editor.
A copyeditor’s job is not simply to spell check or fix commas and full stops. It is also to make sure that the author’s way of writing is retained but falls within the boundaries of correct language, grammar and syntax. It is also to make sure that there are no gaps in the plot, that the reading is seamless and good, that the writer is making sense and is being understood with every sentence, that his facts are in place and he is not misspelling any names of people or places, and that, very importantly, he/she is not offending the sentiments of any community. But don’t misunderstand me, an editor’s job is to suggest all this to the author – it is eventually the author’s book and the author’s discretion to take up or disregard every single suggestion given by his/her editor.
In a way, an editor makes a book more crisp and articulate.
Q5. How many types of editing are there in publishing?
There are chiefly 4 types of editing – Developmental, structural, content and copy.
Developmental editing is wherein an editor helps an author develop the content of his/her book. It is different from ghostwriting in the sense that the editor is not writing the book – but he is advising the author on what the book needs to add or remove to complete the purpose of the book.
Structural editing is when the necessary contents are in place but the book needs to be structured so as to make it understandable, chronological, and interesting.
Content editing is when both the above have been done, and the editor now focuses on the content – the words, language, sentences, the plot, character development, and so on.
Finally, copyediting is wherein the copyeditor fixes the errors in the book according to international standards of language, writing and grammar, and it involves knowing the technicalities of the nuances of the English language in all its magnitude and scope.
Q6. What skills are necessary to become a professional copyeditor?
I feel that apart from an innate need to fix things and make them better, one needs a keen eye for errors, a passion for the language one wants to be an editor in, and perseverance.
Q7. After the success of Online Self-Publishing platforms, people are coming into the writing domain in a large way. Are these platforms harmful to actual talent or an opportunity?
I believe self-publishing is a great opportunity for people to be published, to share what they know or feel or imagine with the world. And from there have emerged some spectacular writers and books. The beauty of online content is that good content will trend sooner or later – and it will trend the world over. These platforms have brought up some remarkable talent that might have gone unnoticed had we not had the boon of the Internet.
Q8. How do you see the Indian market for English Books by Indian Authors compared to that in English countries?
That’s a question for a commissioning editor.
Q9. Do you have any encyclopedia for editing?
The Chicago Manual of Style is my go-to for every question related to editing. It has millions of nuances and scenarios for language and styling.
Q10. How many books have you edited so far? Do you have anything you’d like to say to authors?
I have edited 100+ books across genres and publishers since I began editing in 2013.
Yes, authors could perhaps do a spell check of their book before sending it in. It removes some silly mistakes and can be a good cleanup of the manuscript. It helps an editor to focus on what requires his/her skill if we are not constantly fixing basic spellings that even a spell check can.
Q11. You said ‘across genres’. How do you edit a book when you do not know the subject matter?
A lot of people ask me that. Well, it is not for an editor to judge right or wrong in terms of the subject. If the book is coming through a publishing house, that vetting has already been done before the book reaches me. If an author is approaching me directly, I do clarify that I offer language services and am not a subject matter expert. I will fix the English, make it readable, ask a lot of questions so that the content comes to the level of the lay reader, and point out any blatant errors. But I will not advise on the facts of the book – those are the author’s responsibility. If he/she has written an entire book about it, they are supposed to know what they are talking about.
Q12. You keep mentioning errors that you will mark apart from grammar. Can you give us an example?
You have to understand that when I say error, I do not mean that an author is ignorant or negligent. I mean a perspective that the author could have that might invite unnecessary criticism and trolling. I would want to protect my author from that – point out statements of potential conflict. For example, an author referred to Lord Krishna as a shepherd (he was a cowherd) and a Casanova (that would have caused an uproar!). Some people insist on calling the northern territories India-occupied Kashmir – it’s a very conflicting statement.
Once, in a book, we had a part of the story evolving on a beach. Over the course of editing, the plot changed a bit and the author decided to localize the story to Coimbatore. This was when the book was close to the date it would go to press. I checked Coimbatore on the map – it is landlocked. The protagonist’s house couldn’t have a sea view! We had to fix that or it would have been a very awkward error even for fiction!
Q11. Having edited so many books, do you want to publish one too?
I have the niggling doubt that nearly every other editor wants to do that. Perhaps someday I will too. 😊
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Linkedin: Mriga Maithel