‘More like a Stradivarius and less like a woodchip’: An interview with Editing CEO Karen Lee

Author, editor and journalist Gary Kamiya said an editor is responsible for making a piece of writing ‘more like a Stradivarius and less like a woodchip’. He intriguingly suggested that the primary responsibility of an editor is not to the writer but to the reader.

Karen Lee, CEO of the Institute of Professional Editors Limited (IPEd) sent me Kamiya’s short piece on editing when I first made contact with her about contributing to a guest blog series for Margaret River Press in August 2020.

So as part of that series I was interested to follow this up with Karen, and explore with her the purpose of IPEd and the role of editors in the writing process.

This is an edited version of a recent Zoom interview with Karen. The short video clip below will serve to introduce her and give you some idea of her passion for what editors do.

I asked Karen how IPEd had come about. If I was an editor, I said, why would I want to join IPEd?

Karen said that the majority of IPEd’s members are freelancers, sole traders, mostly working independently from home, and therefore potentially professionally isolated. She said the association came about when a number of smaller societies came together because they saw the need to network, to talk about professional standards and to consider professional development. Last year the Australian-based IPEd extended its reach to New Zealand, and is also seeking to better serve those working in-house in business and government.

Editors join IPEd for reasons similar to those of authors who join writing workshops and go to writers’ festivals, Karen said – to improve and hone their skills, and also to network, to get to know other writers. IPEd provides an opportunity for editors to get to know each other, she said, to form some connections. And sometimes there’s an additional spin-off – new business.

As a result of the various constraints and working-from-home requirements over the past few months, many organisations have moved to a new reliance on technology to keep staff in touch. It seems IPEd was already ahead of the game, as Karen explains in the video clip here:

While IPEd’s use of technology and its paperless office have helped the organisation cope smoothly with recent external changes, I asked Karen how members were faring under the Covid-19 slowdown. After all, editors, particularly freelancers, normally have a bit of ebb and flow in their work because they’re reliant on writers who also have ebb and flow. How had it been for them in recent times?

Karen said that they had undertaken a survey early in the closedown period, and from more than 200 responses, about half said it was too early to tell if there would be any effect on their business, and about the same number were already experiencing some downturn, with advance bookings dropping and workflows slowing. ‘But we’ve heard of some others,’ she said, ‘who say they’re going gangbusters.’ It seems that some authors were dusting off their manuscripts now that they had time to work on them again. At the time of this interview, Karen said IPEd planned to regularly monitor how members were going.

I also asked Karen about the impact the pandemic might have on IPEd’s future operations. You can see her reply here:

In reply to my question about how a writer might find an editor that’s just right for them, Karen assured me that the Editors Directory on the IPEd website is the way to go.

The next question a writer might of course ask is how much is having a manuscript edited likely to cost. It seems that there is no standard fee, and that IPEd members may use different criteria for a quote, as Karen explains in this video clip:

A major question for writers is, of course, whatever the basis for the fee, is it worth paying an editor to edit your manuscript. Is there likely to be sufficient value added to justify the cost and effort? Should we expect a Stradivarius? Karen Lee said that if you want to really incense an editor, suggest to them that what they do is ‘just proofreading’.

As a professional association, IPEd has to look inwards to serve the needs of its members. But at the same time, it extends its influence outwards into the community of writers through the activities of those members.

I asked Karen Lee the rather large question of what contribution she thinks the body of editors as a whole makes to the publication process. You can see her response here:

In that video clip, Karen Lee mentions that she is also a writer. I finished the interview by asking her whether she has a favourite author.

Karen said that of the authors she admires and who inspire her, Amy Tan is right at the top of her list. Also, recently she’d been introduced to the writing of Elif Shafak, a Turkish author who writes about religion in Turkey and the status of women in that country. Karen said that Elif Shafak’s writing reminded her of that of Isabel Allende, in that she writes very lyrically and very passionately, but also that she writes about issues that pick up on her country’s political nuances .

Another favourite is Yangsze Choo, a Malaysian author in America. ‘It was such a delight to read stories that were based in Malaysia with Malaysian-Chinese culture,’ Karen said, ‘and that had been well received at an international level.’

You will have seen even from her responses in this blog that Karen Lee is passionate about the role of editors and the purpose of IPEd. 

In the short piece she sent me from Gary Kamiya, he admonished editors to ‘make it light and tight and strong so that it sings’. Writers and publishers alike would be glad to hear such a song.

Still to come

In the final blog for the Margaret River Press series, each of the three people I’ve interviewed adds another fascinating dimension to the writing and publishing process.

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