How We Edit: Karen Conlin

Editors edit differently. Some of us jump right into a project on page 1 and get to work; others get a bird’s eye view first before getting into the project. Some give a letter’s worth of comments as they’re going through a document, while others save most of their feedback for an editorial letter at the end. I’ve written about how vital good communication is to the editing process. Almost invariably, how we edit affects what kinds of clients we work best with.

This is the first of what I’m planning as an occasional series on how we editors do the work. Here, I’ll be profiling Karen Conlin, who specializes in editing indie fiction. In talking with Karen—and the other editors I’ll be highlighting—I’m hoping to show how we handle similar projects in our own ways, as well as how our ways of working can best fit your needs as the writer. I gave Karen a few questions to get her started:

What is your ideal kind of project to edit?

Bring us into your process. How do you start work on (1) a book (2) an article or essay and (3) an early- or mid-process draft vs. a near-final one? What are the first few things you do? 

What kinds of editing tools do you use regularly? 

I’m a big fan of learning from mistakes, so: What have you had to learn the hard way about the editing process and about yourself as an editor?

Karen and I each have different ways of tackling projects, giving feedback, and doing the work. I’ve learned a lot from her since following her on Twitter a few years ago; find her using #SpellcheckCannotSaveYou, among other great Twitter content. We’ve also learned a lot about ourselves as editors over the years—including from mistakes we’ve made. Karen especially loves editing

a rollicking epic fantasy or science fiction tale, complete with a style sheet from the author telling me all the idiosyncrasies in spelling and usage plus a list of all proper names spelled as they should be in the text. If I have that sheet, I have far fewer headaches.

She brings up a great point about getting a style sheet from the author. In the blog post about communicating with your editor from 2017, I talked with a colleague about how important early communication is between writer and editor—such as by providing a style or cheat sheet to avoid unnecessary edits.

I don’t edit nearly as much fiction as Karen does, but I always enjoy such work. Whether I’m giving my novelist clients an aerial view or a copy edit, I space out the work with planned breaks and stopping points. This helps me approximate how a reader will experience the book once it’s done. As I’m editing, I look for where the breaking points are—as well as where new ones should be. I also look for the good parts of stylistic choices that don’t need to be edited almost as much as I look for the parts needing work.

When I start any kind of project, I do an editorial flyover to check out the project and look for what stands out. It could be extra spaces, wonky formatting, tables or other visuals, and basic pagination. If the piece isn’t already double spaced, I change the line spacing to make my work easier. Whereas I typically start with Find and Replace to fix extra spaces or incorrect dashes, Karen starts with SpellCheck:

That way I can enter proper names into the dictionary for that file and have the previously mentioned fewer headaches. Also, if I catch a name spelled two or more different ways, I can drop a note to the client and ask which is meant to be the “real” one. Once that’s done, I try (not always successfully) to read (not edit) the text to get a feel for the story, and I make any overall notes at that point (like “You have issues with prepositional phrases” or “You’re very fond of the word [whatever word goes here].”

Karen also uses her Twitter feed to share her reactions, as well as to start interesting potential readers. This is a very smart move. Depending on her clients’ preferences, she either quotes from the text or shares her reactions without naming the author or work, all the while showing her followers some of how she reads, edits, and reacts.

In terms of doing the work, Karen always has a free online dictionary ready: “either Merriam-Webster or Oxford, depending on the English being used in the project. I customize the dictionary for every project with proper names to cut down on frustration and minimize errors.” She also uses Intelligent Editing’s PerfectIt3 for final proofreading. “I do my best, of course, to catch hyphenation issues, styling issues, and so on, but that piece of software means I won’t miss a trick.” I’ve never used this but I plan to start soon. (Always get it right when we can, right?) I have a Merriam-Webster dictionary and the Chicago Guide to Grammar and Usage either on or right near my desk. When in doubt, I look it up…even if I’m certain I don’t need to. Many experienced editors use dictionaries, and most—if not all—of us have those gremlin words whose spellings we can never quite remember.

Karen and I have each learned some things the hard way. For me, it’s making sure I read clients’ sample sections closely when preparing a cost and time estimate. Early in my editing career, I looked at the page length but not the word count…not realizing until I’d started that the text was in 10 pt., which meant I had significantly more to edit than I first thought. (See here for more things I’ve learned about freelancing in the past 10 years.) For Karen:

Not everyone appreciates the approach of a developmental editor. I don’t mean my personal approach. I mean a developmental edit, period. I go into more detail now when a would-be client contacts me, to explain precisely what I’ll do to their baby. Not everyone appreciates my work and that’s okay with me. This is also why I offer a developmental critique (less than a full edit, hitting only the high points of organization, readability, characterization, continuity, and such like) in addition to my usual edit (which I can tailor to each client’s needs, meaning some get fewer developmental comments than others).

Of course, a key part of how we work is how we communicate with you as our clients. Sharing options on the level of editorial critique, like Karen does, gives you the chance to tell us how you prefer to receive our feedback. I’ve had clients and colleagues who love getting a lot of comments all over their work; I’ve also had some who’d rather see minimal comments on the work itself but then get more substantive feedback in conversation or an editorial letter. Everyone is different, and good editors do their best to gauge each client’s needs and preferences. When in doubt, tell us up front how you like receiving feedback, and we’ll adjust our working styles accordingly.

When I was a professor, I always enjoyed talking with people about how they taught—i.e., the specific, concrete things they did in the classroom each day, such as what they wrote on the board or how they started discussions. The same is true about my life as an editor: I’m always curious about how we do the work in our own quirky ways, as well as how we can keep learning from each other.


Next up: Lisa Munro, a fellow former academic now doing all kinds of interesting things. If you want to participate and show off your editing methods, let me know via Twitter or email (


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