Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
As we turn our attention to free-lance editors and how they fit into the publishing system, I’d like to start out with a description from Beth Adams at Guideposts as to the training she received before she became an editor.
“I started out as an editorial assistant at a big New York publishing house,” Beth explains, “and worked my way up. This is how most editors in the ABA world start out. You’re mentored for a few years by an experienced editor (meanwhile, you’re answering her phone, making photocopies, reading submissions, and learning the business firsthand), and then you start to take on projects of your own. Eventually, you have enough experience to go out on your own. There weren’t any tests or shortcuts (and I know, I looked for them!); it takes time, perseverance, experience, and skill to learn to do the job right.”
Knowing how to do the job “right” is a big part of what an in-house editor brings to an author. These editors are surrounded by experienced pros and are mentored in the role. Of course, some publishers choose to hire freelance line editors, copy editors and proofreaders. What those publishers look for in these freelancers can be instructive for a writer who is thinking about hiring a freelance editor.
Carol Johnson got it right when she said: “I believe the “editorial eye” is born, not made–a person either ‘has it’…or not. For example, my husband reads a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, and he often knows something is wrong with a passage or sentence, but he wouldn’t know how to fix it. Not to say that a book fixer’s skills can’t be improved–certainly they can! I’m still learning and improving my craft. But there has to be that inate ability to recognize the problem and figure out some ways to improve or correct it. A personal anecdote: I read Little Women as a 12-year-old, and I bought a Kindle last year, and this was the first book I downloaded (it was free!). In rereading it, I came across a passage with a writing glitch I had been bothered by during that first read years before.”
Vicki Crumpton of Revell Books spoke to the issue of qualifications when she wrote: “In twenty-two years, I’ve personally seen one copy edit that was so bad we simply started over. The outside editor had personal visions of what the project should have been, which were totally contrary to what we had contracted. Our book was essentially hijacked. I do believe my managing/project editors have seen inadequate copy edits and didn’t always tell me. They just brought the project up to our standards. The managing/project editors I’ve worked with over the course of my career have cared as much about projects and their authors as I do, and I’ve always felt like the manuscripts I turn over to them have been in the best of hands.”
How do publishers vet freelance editors? They:
- Ask for references from others in publishing who have used that editor’s services
- Have the editor take an editing test, which is designed to show if the editor understands the Chicago Manual of Style (which all the publishing houses I know use); if the editor knows how to smooth out a rough writing spot; if the editor picks up on grammar, punctuation and spelling errors; if the editor sees inconsistencies; if the editor knows when to question whether a source needs to have a footnote or endnote; if the editor has a heavy hand and really is more of a writer than an editor, etc.
- Take into consideration the editor’s resume. (Note: Being an author seldom is sufficient to qualify. That just means that person has been through the publishing process, not that the individual is qualified to edit.)
So how can that list translate into something helpful to a writer looking for a freelance editor? The main point is to hold the editor to a high standard. Don’t hire someone who doesn’t have the experience to really benefit your manuscript. Yes, such a person will cost you more money. But this truly is a situation of getting what you pay for. Look for a person who can offer you recommendations from publishing houses, not just other authors. Give the person a small sample of your writing and ask him or her to take an editing test with it. If you know someone (a grammar teacher, a creative writing instructor, etc.) who could look it over for you, that would help.
Before you hire an editor, know why you’re doing so. What goal do you want that person to achieve for you? Knowing your goal(s) will help you to decide the qualities you’re looking for. If you know you’re weak in grammar and punctuation, then concentrate on finding someone who can upgrade that aspect of your manuscript.
Also, I have to say that it’s not imperative you have your manuscript professionally edited to place it with a publisher or to find an agent. I’m always concerned when I see an edited manuscript. I don’t know where the writer left off and the editor stepped in. Did the editor save a bad story and turn it into something good? Did the editor take an unfocused manuscript and give it focus?
Agents and publishers like to know what they’re committing to. Will the writer always hire someone to cover the flaws? Probably not. But relationships are being formed based on a manuscript that has benefited from an editor’s work. It can prove to be a significant problem.
But you give me feedback.
Have you hired an editor?
How did you find that person?
What did you want the editor to achieve for you? Were you satisfied or disappointed?
Have you been told you need to hire a freelance editor? For what purpose?
I hired an editor to look at just the first chapter of my ms. I’ll confess there were two reasons for this: 1) I was being, ahem, thrifty; and 2) I was worried that an editor would change things to the point it wasn’t my book anymore.
It was a wonderful investment and an outstanding experience. The editor helped me discover my crime of nostalgia and led me to recognize how much I needed to tighten up the manuscript. I was also under the mistaken impression that it wasn’t a prologue unless there was a big header that said PROLOGUE. I would hesitate to have my whole book edited prior to submission, but getting input on the first chapter gave me a lens through which to view the rest of the book. Invaluable!
I have a reader who is teacher by occupation. Prior to giving her my most recent manuscript, I made my work the best it could be through my own revisions of slashing backstory, proofing for typos, tightening narrative, etc. As she read my manuscript, we communicated back and forth via e-mail regarding some minor changes. When she finished reading the entire manuscript, I corrected typos I’d missed before and again slashed some backstory. I found it to be extremely helpful to have another pair of eyes review my work before sending it to an agent, as I mentioned in a previous post. My reader didn’t change my story or compromise my writing style so I didn’t feel like I lost my story in the shuffle. I agree with Vicki Crumpton on many of her points, and I would have been extremely concerned if I’d had my manuscript returned and it no longer resembled the story that I’d written in the first place!
A question…what is the percentage of books that actually get “total rewrites” before making it to the production stage? Does that even happen?
Thank you, Janet, for your series this wk!
Wow…thank you for this invaluable information! You not only answered my question about whether to have a manuscript edited prior to submission to an agent or publisher, but you provided tools to objectively evaluate an editor.
I have a couple of friends advertising as editors for self-publishers. I have hesitated involving either of them in my writing project, because I haven’t known how to judge their capabilities, other than instinct. (And reading some of their responses to me.)
I appreciate your suggestions in deciding ahead of time what my goal for an editor would be. I hadn’t thought about defining my goals, I thought “they” (the editor) would just somehow know what I wanted. (Maybe I was thinking of a mind-reader, not an editor.)
Currently, I am working with my writing coach (an encouraging and helpful author), and am not yet ready for an editor, but it has crossed my mind many times, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Thanks again for the concrete advice.
Oops…I see I do need an editor…even to make a comment!
Sarah, hiring an editor to work with you on your first chapter is a smart move for all the reasons you stated. It ensures your manuscript won’t be over-edited, but it gives you the benefit of a pro’s opinion.
Cynthia, I’m not sure if you’re asking about books that get over-edited or books that an editor guides the author in rewriting. With the former, I’d say very few, and hopefully most of those are caught by the in-house editor who fixes the manuscript so the author never knows the roads that text has traveled.
Rewrites are more common, especially novels. Even seasoned novelists can just tell a story wrong and have to rewrite it–more than once sometimes. Novels are a very tricky business.
Kate, I laughed at your line about looking for a mind-reader. It’s good to know you were being unrealistic, right? I mean, you’re unlikely to find a mind-reader when you’re asking for an editor.
Excellent article to round out the week. I figured I would hire an editor prior to submitting my next manuscript to a publisher, but now I’m not so sure. This comment, ” I don’t know where the writer left off and the editor stepped in,” captured my eye. It’s a good point. How would you know?
If I decided to hire an editor, I have a few people I know from writers conferences that would fit the bill. I’ve taken their workshops, so I feel I have some idea of the way they work. I would still seek out references, but I would rather work with someone I am familiar with.
Thanks for a wonderful week of helpful advice and insights.
I have never had a manuscript edited, but I have paid for professional critiques of the first one or two chapters. These are sometimes very good and sometimes a waste of money, depending on who is doing the critiquing. I have toyed with the idea of buying an edit instead of going to two conferences a year. Because having an editor work with my novel would teach me much more than the generic classes that I’ve sat in so many times already. In the end, I keep going to the conferences because I love hanging with writers.
I did go to a “whole novel workshop” a couple of years ago, with a great editor–Stephen Roxburgh–and five other writers. He read our novels and gave us one-on-one time each day as well as group instruction and group critique. It was a wonderful experience. I’d go to a different workshop every year if I could afford it.
I recently hired an editor to work through the first 15 pages of my completed Christian mystery. I hoped she would rip it to shreds so I could mend it together stronger than it had been. She fulfilled my hopes, but several of her comments seemed as if she hadn’t read consecutive sentences. I don’t believe I picked the right person.
I am working on getting a different person to edit/critique my work. I trust this professional and have been working with her in an online class. I see the validity in having someone who can find problems and know how to fix them. I also understand the point that agents need to know who wrote the book – the author or the editor.
I don’t plan to have my entire book edited. I just want some input to help me correct errors that I don’t see.
Thank you for this post and all the information!
The consensus seems to be that it’s worth hiring an editor or a critiquer for the first several pages of your manuscript because that provides you with feedback you can apply to the rest of the manuscript. I was thinking all-or-nothing; so thanks to each of you who mentioned this option, I can see the merit in having a chunk looked over.
That would apply to nonfiction as well as fiction. If you get off to a good start with your nonfiction, you’re likely to be able to maintain that pace.
Sally, I can appreciate how torn you are between attending writers conferences or paying to have personalized input. As you noted, some writers conferences offer a bit of both. Maybe the answer is to attend a less expensive conference close to home so you don’t need to incur air fare expenses. That way you would still get time with other writers, which I think is so valuable.
Then you could use the money saved to invest in individual feedback on your material.
What do the rest of you think?
I hired a freelance editor to go over my first three chapters. She was recommended by a multi-published author friend who writes in the same genre. The ironic thing is that she pointed out things that I had previously changed at the recommendations of various critique partners but had wondered about. Very helpful and it made me feel more confident in my MS.
Carol J. Garvin
Thank you for this series. It’s been so helpful.
I had the first fifty pages of an early manuscript evaluated by a freelance editor and writing coach, and I learned so much. Her extensive notes provided guidance that I’ve been able to utilize in other writing, although I wish I had the money to have more of my work critiqued. It would be reassuring to have professional input on full manuscripts before sending them out on submission but the cost is beyond my means.
I have loved reading what you’ve had to say about this, Sarah. I was a rewarding experience for me on many levels as well!