Hiring an editor too soon wastes time and money.
by Anne R. Allen
Learning to write books is hard. Earning money from books is even harder. So some writers figure they’ll bypass the expensive stuff like hiring an editor.
This is not a good idea if you’re planning to self-publish. We are all blind to our own mistakes. And newbies especially need help in shaping and polishing a book.
But what if you’re going the query route? Do you need to hire an editor before you start sending out a book to agents and small presses?
What an Editor Can (and Can’t) Do
Newbies often aren’t clear about what editors do. When I worked as a freelance editor, I was amazed by the number of people who came to me with over-inflated ideas of what I could do for them.
They’d arrive with collections of transcriptions of court proceedings, notebooks full of verses and random jottings, or stacks of old letters they wanted me to make into a commercially viable memoir or novel.
One potential client actually brought a pillowcase full of ancient cassette tapes and dumped them on my dining table and asked me to “edit” them into a book.
I had to tell these people I couldn’t help. Editors polish a manuscript. They don’t create it.
There are people who spin raw verbal straw into book gold. They’re called ghostwriters. If you have a story to tell and don’t feel you can do it yourself, a good ghostwriter can do it for you. I can recommend an excellent ghostwriting service–Your Memoir–where M. Summerfield Smith works with many clients (some high profile) to turn their memories into books.
But a ghostwriter does more (and costs more) than an editor.
Unless you have deep pockets, if you want to write a book, it’s best to take writing courses, go to conferences, join a critique group and write it yourself. (For memoirists, here’s my post on writing memoir.) Then hire an editor.
The Term “Editor” has Several Meanings in the Book Business.
1) The “in-house” editors at publishing companies
These can be managing editors, who are often also acquisitions editors: the people who decide what manuscripts to publish. They don’t work directly with authors, but manage the editors who do.
Then there in-house copy editors, content editors and proofreaders, whose job it is to polish the manuscript for the marketplace. How much work they will do on your manuscript depends on the house. According to agent Jenny Bent, the amount of hands-on work they do, “varies wildly from editor to editor…because many editors simply don’t have the time or desire to actually edit.”
You’ll probably get more editing from some smaller and mid-sized literary presses than you will from the Big Five. But there, too, the policy varies wildly from one editor to the next. I’m lucky to have had great editors at all four small presses who have published me.
No matter what the size of the publishing house, by the time a manuscript lands on an editor’s desk, it needs to be as polished as the writer can make it. It’s not wise to assume “they’ll fix it later.” Agents do a considerable amount of editing these days, but they don’t have time to teach their clients to write.
So do make sure your ms. is well proofed and correctly formatted before you send a requested partial to an agent or small press.
2) Freelance Editors
Anybody can set up shop as a freelance editor. So make sure whoever you hire has some bonafide credentials. Some have actually worked as in-house editors and others have worked for literary agencies or are even former agents. Others have studied creative writing as well as English grammar and some are authors themselves.
If you decide to hire an editor, do your research and be clear in your goals. You don’t want just any out-of-work English major. If her specialty was the Cavalier poets, she probably won’t be much help in tightening up that psychological thriller.
If the editor doesn’t have a good knowledge of the publishing industry, your money can be wasted. I’ve seen “professionally edited” manuscripts that are ridiculously long, or contained song lyrics (prohibitively expensive) or copyrighted characters.
Mostly you want an editor who knows the business. Preferably somebody who knows what’s selling now and how to write for today’s marketplace. The best way to find a good editor is by referral from satisfied clients.
And there are many kinds of freelancers. Most do all kinds of editing, but some specialize.
Proofreaders do a careful once-over of your ms. looking for typos, grammar boo-boos, disagreeing tenses and squabbling subject/object clauses. They can also pick up inconsistencies and those bizarre things we do like changing a character’s name halfway through the manuscript.
My favorite typo is leaving out articles. A good proofreader keeps my prose from looking like bad translation from original Russian manuscript.
Every author needs a proofreader. Or several. Hiring a professional is the best way to get a piece proofed, but you can also trade proofing with a trusted fellow writer.
But don’t hire a proofreader until you’re absolutely sure the book is polished and ready to go. After any substantial revision, you’ll need to proof it again.
b) Copy Editors
Often “copy editor” and “line editor” are treated as synonymous, but a line edit can be more thorough than a copy edit.
Copy editors do the proofreading stuff in more depth, plus look for inconsistencies in spellings, character traits, and general continuity stuff. (Where a character gets into a Lexus on page 10 and gets out of a Rolls Royce on page 11.)
They will also flag things for fact-checking or getting permission for use.
c) Line Editors
A line editor does all of the above, plus they address awkward phrasing, changes in tone, diction, overuse of words, confusing phrases, repetitions, and over-writing. They will also recommend cuts or additions and rewrites of weak language, clichés and other things that need improvement.
You don’t want a line or copy editor until your book is pretty well shaped and complete or you’ll have to hire another one after you do more rewrites.
d) Developmental or Content Editors
A developmental editor–sometimes called a “content editor” improves the overall quality of a book. They look at pacing, plotting, characterization, focus, plausibility, organization, tightening, and sharpening. They may tell you to cut your prologue, consolidate characters, start your book in a different place, and remove unnecessary scenes. A good developmental editor can cut a bloated 150K word novel into a sleek 90K word page-turner.
This is what in-house editors used to do, but don’t have much time for anymore.
e) Writing Coaches
“Book Coaches” or “Writing Coaches” are not always editors, although they may help with editing. Writing coaches are part therapist, part editor and part private tutor. For people who are new to writing and need help with motivation and creating good environment for writing, a writing or “book coach” can be really helpful.
Most new writers don’t have the money to hire a coach, but if you do, it can be wonderful to have somebody in your corner when you have self-doubts.
Most writers learn their craft through workshops, extensive reading, critique groups, and conferences. Writing coaches are a luxury, but often a major time-saver.
Beware Hiring an Editor too Soon
Those wannabe writers who brought me pillowcases full of cassette tapes and stacks of scribbled journals were really jumping the gun. They were trying to hire an editor before they even wrote a book.
But it can be just as counterproductive to hire an editor when you’re struggling with your first “practice novel.” Too many newbies hire editors when what they really need is a few basic writing classes and some knowledge of the industry.
Most agents I’ve talked to say you don’t need to hire an editor before you query. Do have that book self-edited and proofread, but an agent wants to know how well YOU write, not somebody you’ve hired.
She will almost always want more edits, as will your in-house editor, and if people have paid for a pre-query edit, they tend to balk at changing the manuscript again.
If you do hire an editor before you approach agents, don’t say in a query your work has been “professionally edited.” That suggests you’re probably a beginner who doesn’t have the skills yet to go pro.
The number one mistake new writers make is trying to publish too early. With the self-publishing revolution, the problem has become much worse, because now they can publish whatever and whenever they want. A lot of writers feel they can dash off anything, then hire an editor to clean up the mess, then blame the editor when it doesn’t sell.
But no amount of editing can fix a book that is seriously flawed or amateurish. Hiring an editor isn’t the same thing as learning to write. And learning takes time.
Where Do You Find an Editor?
The best way is word of mouth. Nothing substitutes for a satisfied customer. One who is selling successfully is best, obviously.
A lot of self-published authors will sing the praises of their editors, so visit their blogs. Or ask a favorite indie author for a recommendation.
As of this month, I can recommend my editor, Mark Williams, who has recently hung out his shingle as a freelance editor. (More info below.)
If you don’t have a glowing recommendation from a friendly author, a great place to look is Reedsy, a site that lists all kinds of author services and provides lots of author support and information.
Hiring an Editor is Expensive, So Don’t Waste Your Editor’s Time.
The standard pay scale for editorial services is posted by the Editorial and Freelancers Association.
Some editors charge by the hour, some by the page, and some by the type of job. Plan to spend from five hundred to several thousand dollars for a book-length manuscript.
But this is why you really don’t want to hire an editor to teach you the basics of grammar or storytelling (or transcribe a pillowcase full of cassette tapes.) So join a critique group, get some beta reads, and workshop that book as much as you can before you contact an editor.
If they have to spend all their time hunting down wayward apostrophes or dealing with substandard punctuation, they’re not going to be able to deal with the big picture items where you most need help.
Who should hire a Freelance Editor?
The people who benefit most from a freelance editor’s work are:
- Self-publishers. If you’re not working with a publisher, you absolutely need to hire an independent editor before uploading your book. Most writers are blind to our typos and our own pet crutches and quirks. Longtime pros generally only need a line editor, but a fairly new writer should get a developmental edit. I’ve tried to read way too many indies who only hired a proofreader. It’s not enough.
- Experts whose primary field is not the written word. This includes self-help books by psychologists or medical professionals, specialty cookbooks, local history, etc. Some people think nonfiction is easy to write. But it’s not easy to write well. They will probably need a thorough edit before querying or publishing.
- Memoirists who have a unique, marketable tale to tell, but don’t want to spend years honing writing skills for one book. They will need a developmental editor, and may need several edits before they query or publish.
- Writers who have been requested by an interested agent or publisher to give the book a polish. Many agents will ask a writer to hire an independent editor at this stage. (But don’t hire one who is employed by the agency, because that can be a major conflict of interest.)
- Novelists who have polished their work in workshops and critique groups, but after many rejections, can’t pinpoint what is keeping them in the slush pile.
Red Flags to Watch for When Hiring an Editor
There are scammers who charge big bucks and then simply run a book through spellcheck, so do a search at Writer Beware for names. Writer Beware is also great for in-depth advice and a list of some hair-raising editing scams. Here are some warning signs:
- Extravagant praise and promises. Anybody who guarantees you a place on the best-seller list is either crooked or delusional.
- Claims that publishers require a professionally edited ms. Not true. It’s also not true that an edit guarantees a read.
- An agent or publisher who recommends their own editing services or gives a specific referral. Beware conflicts of interest. In the 1990s, Edit Ink scammed writers by giving agents kickbacks for referrals and even setting up fake agencies to tell queriers they’d get representation if they used Edit Ink’s expensive, useless services.
- Knowledge of your genre. You need somebody who’s familiar with your genre. Conventions that are required in one genre, like romance, can be poison in something literary or action-oriented. Nonfiction needs to be edited differently from fiction, as well. Some editors are knowledgeable enough to edit any kind of book, but most specialize. Here’s a fantastic in-depth piece on how to hire a romance editor.
- Direct solicitation. Scam editors sometimes purchase email lists and blitz the writing community with emails. Beware if they’re gathering a huge number of clients. Good edits take time, so mass-editing is going to be minimal and pretty useless.
- Sales pressure. “Limited time offers” are rarely good deals.
- No client list. You should be able to get a list of clients if you ask.
- No sample edits. Most editors will offer a sample edit of a few pages before any money changes hands. This protects them as well as you, because they don’t have to take on something they can’t fix.
A good editor can make the difference between a successful book and a dud. Choose your editor carefully and work until you have a marketable project.
And most of all, don’t hire an editor too soon. Editing is polishing, not re-writing. First you have to put in those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell says are necessary to learn a craft. That’s a lot of hours. Go write.
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) June 4th, 2017
What about you, scriveners? Have you used a freelance editor? What kind of experience did you have? Have you ever been scammed by a bogus editor?
Mark Williams is international bestselling author of the mega-hits Sugar and Spice and Anca’s Story (writing as Saffina Desforges.) He is now offering his editing services for a limited time.
Mark is the former owner of Mark Williams International Digital Publishing and is a specialist in global markets.
I personally can vouch for his editing chops. He has been my editor since 2011 and has saved several of my books from dusty death. He has taught me to write for the contemporary reader with shorter chapters, lots of white space, and faster pacing. His edits can be fierce, but he never interferes with my voice and always makes my books better.
Mark is accepting a few selected clients. He will take on some novices who need a bit of coaching as well as pros who mostly need line editing and a second set of eyeballs (and help in bumping off a few of those “darlings.”) He will edit the first 5000 words FREE and his prices are very reasonable because of low overhead. (He’s a British ex-pat living in the Gambia.)
BOOK OF THE WEEK
SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2
Two editors—Mark Williams and the late Dr. John Yeoman —loved the structure of this novel and said it was their favorite of the Camilla mysteries.
Suddenly-homeless American manners expert Camilla Randall becomes a 21st century Maid Marian—living rough near the real Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaw English erotica publishers—led by a charming, self-styled Robin Hood who unfortunately may intend to kill her.
When Camilla is invited to publish a book of her columns with UK publisher Peter Sherwood, she lands in a gritty criminal world—far from the Merrie Olde England she envisions. The staff are ex-cons and the erotica is kinky. Hungry and penniless, she camps in a Wendy House built from pallets of porn while battling an epic flood, a mendacious American Renfaire wench, and the mysterious killer who may be Peter himself.
Here’s a great write up of Sherwood, Ltd from Debra Eve at the Later Bloomer
Available in ebook from:
Available in paper from:
Creative Nonfiction magazine seeks TRUE personal stories or profiles about people starting over after a failure or setback. Up to 4000 words. Paying market. $3 submission fee. Deadline June 19, 201
EMERALD THEATRE 10-MINUTE PLAY CONTEST $10 ENTRY FEE. Theme: “That’s so gay.” A character must say the words, “That’s so gay.” Two to four characters. No children’s shows or musicals. Ten pages (10 minutes) max. Will be staged in strict “black box” style. $300 prize Deadline June 30, 2017
Haven Writers’ Retreat. “Come find your voice in the woods of Montana with New York Times best-selling author, Laura Munson, and find out why over 400 people say that Haven Writing Retreats changed their lives. Offering special discounts for readers of this blog for both June retreats. June 7-11, and June 21-25
New American Press Fiction Book Contest. A prize of $1,000 and publication by New American Press is given annually for a book of fiction. Lori Ostlund will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a collection of short stories or flash fiction, a novella, or a novel of at least 100 pages with a $25 entry fee by June 15.
20 Literary Journals that publish new writers. Compiled by the good folks at Authors Publish magazine.
Costa Rica Workshop. F*** Branding. What’s Your Artist’s Mission? Weeklong workshop for writers and other creatives. July 15th—22nd. Price includes 1 week at Norma’s Villas, including 3 meals a day, morning yoga before workshops, and one day trip to the beach (surf or kayak lesson included), and a shuttle to and from the airport. Anne has a coupon code for $50 off the price for readers of this blog.