Read as Mary Harwell Sayler talks about her career as a Poetry Editor. Find her at www.marysayler.com and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview. Follow her blog about various aspects of poetry on www.thepoetryeditor.blogspot.com. Mary also has two Kindle e-books now for poets at all stages and ages: the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry and the Poetry Dictionary for Children and For Fun.
What do you do for a living?
I’m a freelance poetry editor, writing consultant, instructor, writer, and poet.
How would you describe what you do?
Being a freelancer means I’m self-employed rather than on staff with a publisher or other company. So I’m either working on my own poems and manuscripts or helping other poets and writers with theirs.
What does your work entail?
To work as an independent poetry editor first means making sure other poets, writers, and editors can find me, which necessitated my beginning – and continuing to maintain – The Poetry Editor website and blog.
As a writing consultant for all genres, I offer practical suggestions to help writers improve their poems or manuscripts, consider their readers, and make their work more marketable. I do this in my “poetry editor” mode too.
Also, as a poetry editor, I do not revise poems (other than my own) but offer helpful comments poets can incorporate as they revise their work. In addition, I help writers identify the particular strengths and weaknesses to which they’re most prone, so they can be aware of those areas as they revise their present work and write or edit future poems.
I also aim to attune myself to the poet’s natural voice and encourage the way of speaking that’s most comfortable and natural for them – and unique. I correct errors, too, of course, in English grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntax in the manuscript I’m editing with little side notes in the margins to explain what, where, and why those changes need to occur.
Maybe it’s my tendency toward teaching, but I like for clients to get more than they paid for or expected! So the best way I know to do that is to help poets and writers recognize what to look for in their own work and avoid or enhance those areas in the future. As my motto says, my editorial goal is “helping poets to become their own best editors.” If I’m successful that puts me out of a job! Nevertheless I consider that a great success and my best advertisement, too, as other poets and writers seek my help because of recommendations.
What’s a typical work week like?
Untypical! One day I might have my own writing projects to research, deadlines to meet, and markets to study before submitting my manuscripts to editors of literary journals, e-zines, or book companies. Another day or two or three might be devoted to reading, re-reading, and critiquing manuscripts by other poets and writers or doing a final edit on a batch of poems, chapbook, children’s picture book, or poetry book. Occasionally, I judge poetry contests, too, and review traditionally published books of poems, anthologies, or books about poets and poetry.
Since I provide resources for poets and writers through a variety of blogs, I also write and revise new articles then post on the most relevant blog site. This doesn’t stop there, though, as the best resources do no good unless poets and writers actually know where to find them. So I spend a lot of time each day, social networking on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
How did you get started?
Actually I began writing and occasionally memorizing poems or song lyrics as a child. As an adult, I chose to be a stay-at-home mom and, during school hours, started writing parenting articles then children’s books then whatever interested me in whatever genre worked best.
As my publishing credits began to build, people often asked me to “take a quick look” at their poems or manuscripts, which is never quick! I enjoy helping people, though, and didn’t want to say no, but neither did I want to work for free. The best solution was to decide on fair fees to charge then say, “Yes, I’d be glad to help,” then give the person a printout or hotlink to my fees.
What do you like about what you do?
Besides the perks of helping poets and writers improve their poems and manuscripts, encourage their creativity, strengthen their writing voice, and learn how to go about getting published, I like the variety in my work. Since I need to keep up with contemporary poetry and I enjoy reading poems, I like to receive free review copies of traditionally published books I probably would have bought anyway.
What do you dislike?
With the advent of the Internet, people from all over the world now ask me to “take a quick look” at their poems for free, either not realizing how much work is involved or implying that I somehow owe this to them because they have a special need that makes them an exception, or because they see no difference between professional guidance and suggestions from their neighbor who loves to write little poems, or because “all writers are rich,” and they’re not. What this really says is that their work matters much more than mine and that they’re somehow much more “special” than anyone else. To me, everyone is special!
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Educating people about my work often comes before educating them about theirs, but as soon as poets and writers see that freelance writing involves study, practice, and an apprenticeship of some kind, they “get” that I provide this apprenticeship, which combines editing, consulting, and offering professional feedback. Then, as with any professional service, I charge a professional fee for each edit or critique.
How much money do Poetry Editors make?
Most charge $25.00 per hour to start and go up from there – sometimes way up –as they gain a reputation and experience. On average, though, I try to stay around that initial rate, even though I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years!
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
A firm grasp of the English language is a must and so is a love of reading. Having an “editorial eye” that’s quick to catch mistakes helps too. People skills also matter as does an ability to communicate well and express empathy, interest, and encouragement.
That said, the route I took to becoming a poetry editor was arduous and slow, so I highly recommend that anyone who wants to become a poetry editor will first complete a B.A. or Masters in English, which, unlike my Bachelor of Science, will interest companies in their editorial skills and, perhaps, help them to get a full-time, salaried job with a publisher.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Scheduling the unknown! Some days I’m on overload and others just the opposite.
What is most rewarding?
Helping people improve the quality of their writing and receiving an autographed copy of their book or hearing the good news of their success.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Study, study, study poetry! Read classical works, poetry anthologies, and books of poems by contemporary prize-winning poets.
If you want a reliable income and would rather read a book than write one, get at least a B.A. in English. If, however, you mainly want to write with editing as a source of extra income, focus first on building your publishing credits as you place poems and other manuscripts in journals, e-zines, anthologies, and newspapers. Then gain experience editing and critiquing poems for free, working out the kinks before you establish an editorial service where you charge for your time and professional expertise.
How much time off do you get/take?
As a freelance editor, I can take off anytime I want! However, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That, because my office is at home, I don’t work.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
Since I’m now out of print copies of the book version of my poetry home study course I wrote and used for years in working by mail with students, I want to update that course and upload as an e-book. I have a poetry dictionary and other resources for poets I’m working on, too, and hope to have those ready this year. My big dream, though, is to have at least one book of Bible people poems published and to sell lots and lots of copies of my environmentally-themed book, Living in the Nature Poem, that Hiraeth Press published earlier this year.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
The work of a freelance editor often involves keeping up with new markets, trends, and the changing needs of poets, writers, editors, and, our very important readers. Staying in touch has been greatly helped by the Internet and social networks, so I hope people follow my blogs, check out the services offered on my website, and “Like” or connect on the major social sites.
Mary, this is a very good interview. I already knew how busy you must be and yet, you are always so helpful and considerate with your assessments of someone’s work. Without your help and encouragement, I would have never sent any of my work to a publisher. I did not have a clue about where to start, and now my credits are building. Thank you for believing in me and giving me a nudge in the right direction.
You’re a natural, Nells. Thanks for encouraging me!
Thanks again for this interview! To help poets and writers in our Christian Poets & Writers group on Facebook, I was looking through my archives to see if I could find relevant articles and remembered this. Besides posting a link on our group page, I thought I’d give an update. 🙂 After our chat here, I uploaded 3 Kindle e-books on Amazon: the Christian Poet’s Guide to Writing Poetry, the Poetry Dictionary For Children & For Fun, and the Christian Writers’ Guide. Hope readers find something useful in each of those. Re my own dream/ goal, last week I received a contract from Kelsay Books for my Bible-based poems, Outside Eden, to be published before the end of 2014! Hallelujah!