The competition is stiff, but Carrie Frye (editor, writer, hero, friend) has sharper editorial skills than anyone I know. For two years she was the very model of a managing editor at The Awl, and now she has her own freelance editing business, Black Cardigan Edit. Last week, Carrie and I chatted about her time at The Awl, what it takes to start and run a freelance editorial business, and how she digs in and helps writers shape and share the stories that are most important to them.
You were, of course, managing editor of The Awl from 2011 to 2013. You should know that when I was offered managing editor of The Toast , they specifically told me “We want you to be our Carrie Frye.” (It may or may not have been implied that I could not possibly live up to the standard you’d set, but was expected to try.) Can you talk about what you did at The Awl, and what it was like working there?
That’s very kind, and I love that we are fellow members of the Former Managing Editors of Much-Loved Websites Club. So The Awl was founded in 2009, by Alex Balk, Choire Sicha, and David Cho, and I was brought in a couple years later to manage the features. So, similar to your arrival at The Toast, I was joining a website that was already established and had a devoted, sharp readership in place. There was already a distinct sense of what an “ Awl feature ” was, and my job was to interpret and foster that—and to keep the site a place where, if you were a writer, it was fun and great to have your work published.
I had a roster of writers I worked with regularly—an incredible group (seriously, I look forward to the full history one day)—and then new writers who would send in funny, magical pieces too. Features were reported political pieces, including from abroad; personal essays; cultural criticism and reviews; and then the columns. (A few: Nicole Cliffe’s Classic Trash series on classic trashy novels; one on British tabloid stars by Emma Garman; and Ask Polly by Heather Havrilesky—I’d always feel clear on life after I got to edit an Ask Polly.) And then we were publishing lots of longform essays too. Big pieces that The Awl could make a home for in a way that other sites weren't necessarily equipped to do. (Again, similar to The Toast there! I'm thinking of Carvell Wallace ’ s tremendous The Negro Motorist Green Book and Black America's Perpetual Search for a Home). Choire and I both worked on those. Meanwhile, he and Alex were posting several times a day, along with Dave Bry and, for a fun stretch near the end of my time, Ken Layne. And there was the Poetry Section edited by Mark Bibbins, and Tom Scocca ’ s daily Weather Reviews. (Both still going!) Which makes us sound multitudinous, but it was, in fact, sort of bananas how much everyone was doing.
We were publishing maybe ten to fifteen features a week, and when I think back on it, it was like I was sitting backstage at a fantastic theater as some sort of costume manager-person, and the writers were streaming by me on their way to the stage and it was my job to duck around and make sure everyone was looking their best before they went out there. It was frantic and exhilarating and really, really great. Sometimes—and you know this from your time at The Toast and now at Catapult—all a writer needs from you is the editorial equivalent of a re-tuck of the shirt. And other times they go by you, and it ’ s like, “Whoops, that’s an amazing outfit, dearie, but the kilt doesn’t go on your head!” So you get the kilt where it’s supposed to be and send ’em out.
By the way, I should note here that The Awl ’ s currently under the direction of Silvia Killingsworth, and it ’s turning eight this April (!), which is amazing.
What were some favorites pieces you worked on at The Awl?
Favorite pieces is hard, so I will riff and smatter. Maria Bustillos was one of the writers I worked most closely with, and her story Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library was huge but I love other pieces of hers too, including The Question . Likewise, Cord Jefferson’s Don't Stop Running still moves me. Jane Hu’s A Complete History Of Gerbiling So Far pairs interestingly with an Elon Green piece, written separately, on Maureen Dowd’s early journalism . They would syllabus well together on any course treating the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, but they’re also just each fascinating. (Side note: Jane’s gerbiling history includes one of the funniest quotes from a source begging to be left alone that I’ve ever read. I still cackle whenever I think of it.)
I love this Evan Hughes’ reported piece on the man who invented sea-monkeys ; it has that David Grannian thing where you keep thinking the story can't get any stranger and yet it keeps getting stranger. Mallory Ortberg and Anne Helen Petersen achieved the perfect kicker in a back-and-forth about why the movie Crash is so terrible. Sarah Miller wrote a gorgeous essay for us on Winona Ryder and her Marc Jacobs “ Forever Sweater ” —it’s hard to describe, but it's funny and oddly sweet. On the essays side, three others I love are Mary H.K. Choi’s on her experience inside the last sensory deprivation tank in New York; Rachel Monroe’s The Killer Crush on teen girl fandom; and Maud Newton’s on the Rapture and her fortieth birthday.
Michelle Dean has written a lot of wonderful cultural criticism for the site but I’m going to mention this reported piece of hers, The Struggle For The Occupy Wall Street Archives , along with Lili Loofbourow’s The Livestream Ended about Occupy Oakland. I was thinking about them both the other day while thinking about some of the pieces coming out right now on this intense political moment.
You now run a freelance editorial business called Black Cardigan Edit . How did you decide to start your own business, and what exactly does it involve?
Black Cardigan Edit (Logo by Hallie Bateman)
An old friend suggested it, and I thought it was an excellent idea. I’m working on a book and I needed a job that would let me set my schedule. This allows me to do that, and I can do it from Asheville. And editing is something I love to do! It didn’t involve much to get started—I got a website and set out my shingle.
That was a year ago. Initially, I envisioned it as a business where people could send me whatever difficult thing they were working on, whatever it was (resume, essay, book, speech, whatever), and I’d send it back to them all cleaned up. What I found, however, is that I’m the kind of editor who likes to work in a close, ongoing way with people, and working on books is a good match for that. (Few are the people who want to work in a close, ongoing way on their resumes.) So now Black Cardigan Edit is entirely focused on books and longer creative projects, and when I say “now” I mean “as of this week!” The new website is getting spruced even now.
How do you find most of your freelance clients now?
Right now it’s a mix of people who knew me already, referrals, and writers who’ve gotten to know me through the Black Cardigan Edit newsletter .
Yes, your newsletter is one of my favorites, as you know! I imagine the process varies depending on the client, but do you have a preferred editorial process you try and stick with when working with writers?
It does vary. I’d say one constant, especially with longer projects where there are more variables in play, is getting a super clear idea upfront about what the writer’s intentions are. What do they want their book to be ? When you’ve talked about that together and have a shared picture of it, it becomes easier to see what has to happen in the manuscript to get it there. Like if, for example, a particular section is strong but directed toward a different Ideal Reader than the one that’s been established for the project, then something has to happen with that section—and you and the writer have a shared way of talking about it.
This sounds obvious but when you’re the writer, who’s been going over the same patches of text in your Word document for weeks or months (or even years), this can get hard to sort out or even see anymore.
What do you like best about freelance editing? And what’s the biggest creative and/or editorial challenge?
Ooh, I just find editing tremendously satisfying work. One of my favorite things about it is the unexpectedness of what other people think and write about. I love being a vicarious part of that. As for freelancing, I do sometimes miss being at a site or a publication—but I still get variedness and the connection of the editor-writer bond, and Black Cardigan has been better for letting me work on my book, too.
Biggest challenge as an editor is always, always the moment after I first dive in and start making the first editing decisions. This goes here, and push that over there, wee inflection change here. The trepidation isn’t indecision—I usually can see pretty quickly where things should go—it’s the awareness that you ’ re handling someone else’s work that they’ve entrusted you with. I sometimes remind myself that at least it’s not actual surgery. “If chopping that sentence turns out to have been a hideous mistake, it can be SEWN BACK ON.”
What advice do you have for other talented editors who might be interested in doing freelance work?
Set out your website shingle! Just do it. The nice thing is it’s something you can do wherever you live, and you can Google up a storm to see what other people are offering and charging, etc. As I said, I didn’t know Black Cardigan Edit was going to be focused on books when I started out—I had to find my way there. If you happen to know your niche right away, I think that’s grand—and I’d encourage you to be specific about it upfront. (If you’re at all good with words, people will, understandably, want to bend your services in whatever direction they need.) However, if you don’t know yet, cast a wide net: other writers you know, family, friends, business contacts. And then see what happens as you go. Which projects felt most fulfilling to work on, which clients did you make most happy, that sort of thing.
Now for a pedestrian piece of advice: keep timesheets! Especially in the beginning, when you’re still getting a sense of how long different projects will take you. Clock in when you start and when you stop. Even on little things, and even if you already quoted the project, and it’s not going to change what you’re charging for it to know your time. This was a trick I learned from my husband, who’s had his own design and programming business forever. It’ll help you quote fairly and manage your time better as you grow.
You are an absolutely wonderful writer as well as editor; you wrote one of my favorite essays for The Toast, on Miss Havisham. How do you come up with essay ideas, generally? And what is your own research/writing process?
Ah, that’s one of the favorite essays I’ve written so that means a lot. Thank you! With that one, I do remember where I got the idea. I’m a big Charles Dickens fan (she said, instantly getting herself invited to a thousand parties). I reread the novels all the time, and I like listening to them on audio, too. One summer, my husband and I were listening to Great Expectations on a road trip home from the Midwest, and he went into a gas station and I was sitting in this Kentucky parking lot thinking about Miss Havisham and wondering where she came from. Like, how had she looked in Dickens’s first notes about her, how had she changed in drafts (if she had), that sort of thing. I asked Nicole Cliffe and Mallory if I could write about it for The Toast—this was before you were there—they said yes, and I promptly . . . didn’t write it for two years . . . until I turned it into you, my friend, your last couple weeks on the job and at 7,000 words. (Hee! SO TERRIBLE.) But it became a way to write a biography of her that was also a biography of Dickens, and from an angle I hadn’t seen before. For example, I find it fascinating that she is in her late forties when Pip meets her, and that Dickens was in his late forties when he wrote the novel.
I have such a long list of essays I want to write! I usually hear about something I find interesting—like that the actress Tippi Hedren had a pet lion —and that I want to know more about, and add it to the list. Usually the kind of essays I write are library research-type projects, as opposed to reported pieces, so it means lots of reading. DIY autodidacticism. I like taking notes on index cards until I’ve amassed a good heap.
I tend to go all in on research. During the Miss Havishaming, I nearly came to a bad end twice when the pile of books on the couch toppled onto me when I was working. I do this until I have the shape of something in my head that feels fresh and worthwhile. Still, even if I had a good idea of an essay’s flow before I start writing, it’ll keep changing and revealing itself as I go.
Lately, I’ve been getting more interested in personal essays, but I’m not sure what I’ll do with that yet.
I can’t wait to see what you do there. Now, before we close, please tell me more about the novel you’re writing!
Well, I’m trying to do the thing where you write the kind of book you most enjoy reading yourself and, in my case, that means a big fat smart potboiler. So that’s what I'm trying to do. The whole Wilkie Collins. Murder, sex, murder. It has two storylines—one set in the 19th-century Arctic and one in the current-ish day, and they go back and forth. (I wrote more about it here .) I love it; it’s a beast; I can’t wait to be done with it; and the next book is going to be funny and short. So short.