March 2019 Q&A: Laurel Cohn

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Laurel Cohn is a freelance developmental book editor passionate about communication and the power of stories in our lives. She has been helping writers prepare their work for publication since the mid-1980s. Laurel has a PhD in literary and cultural studies.

How has your month been?

Three weeks ago I was lapping up the likes of Yann Martel, Ben Okri and Anuradha Roy at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). I find such talk fests an injection of inspiration that help fuel my work, and JLF was a real treat, the perfect way to kickstart the working year.

Since my return, a rich variety of jobs has peppered my inbox: editing a picture book manuscript for a group of environmental scientists putting together the educational component of their research project; assessing the memoir of a former Queensland detective who spent many years in the homicide squad; answering structural questions on a queer comic novel; giving feedback on a women’s fiction submission; mentoring a writer through the process of turning a creative writing PhD into a manuscript for publication; copyediting a piece for a self-publisher; and guiding an extremely talented, but dyslexic, writer through the next stages of manuscript development. In amongst this eclectic mix is the administrative work involved in running a small editing business, managing my trusty team of editors, locking in dates to run workshops, and attending to the incidentals that arise, such as this interview.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

In my enthusiasm, I sometimes find that I take on more than I can comfortably chew. Distancing myself from a client’s urgency and allowing myself the space to tick things over at a steady, respectable pace are probably my biggest challenges. It’s the perennial freelancer’s issue, really.

What do you love most about your work?

I love that frisson of excitement as I turn to page one of a new manuscript. There is always that glimmer of potential that I will discover something stunning. That rarely happens, of course, but I love the moment. And even if the manuscript requires plenty more work, which it invariably does, I find it such a privilege to be invited into the lives and imaginary worlds of so many different people.

How did you get here?

When I was finishing my undergraduate degree I took a part-time job with a literary agent. This involved reading the slush pile, as well as general office work. It was a great way to learn how the industry worked. And a wonderful opportunity to read not only the unsolicited manuscripts that were sent in, but the works in progress of clients such as Helen Garner, Nadia Wheatley, Susan Varga and Beth Yahp. Later I was the administrator of the New South Wales Writers Centre for several years which gave me another perspective on the writing community. I moved into freelance editing about 25 years ago when jobs started to fall into my lap and haven’t looked back.

What is your average weekly workload? Does it vary throughout the year?

I have been able to maintain a pretty regular weekly workload over a number of years, with manuscripts booked in for assessment up to four months in advance. With a mix of short consultations, day-long workshops, week-long assessments, copyediting and pre-press jobs, and overseeing the work that gets sent out to my editors, I put in a pretty packed 30 hours a week over five days. I have four editors who I subcontract work out to, and this allows me to regulate my own workload. For example, when I was doing my PhD I was able to cut back on my load and give my editors more, then pick up my work when I finished. It helps having talented, flexible editors on my team.

If you didn’t have the job you are in now, what would you like to be doing?

Writers often assume that I am a closet writer but my creative expression finds voice in music. I was classically trained in three instruments and spent some time in east Africa studying traditional music. I have played in classical, jazz, world music, folk and children’s ensembles. I still perform professionally and fantasise about spending more time on my music and recording another CD. At the same time I am grateful I don’t have the pressures of trying to earn a living that way. Not much beats being a professional reader.

You can contact me at laurelcohn@gmail.com. My website is www.laurelcohn.com.au.

I’m not on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or anything else of that ilk. I quite happily run a successful business without social media.

Thanks very much, Laurel, for fitting us into your packed schedule.