If you needed brain surgery, how much time would you invest in searching for the right brain surgeon? Knowing that outcomes vary, experience and dexterity matter, competence is paramount, and an incompetent practitioner can leave the patient in worse shape than when he began, I guess you’d spend as much time as it took to find the right person.
Writers in search of an editor need to exercise the same rigorous search, because editing, especially editing of fiction, is a sort of brain surgery. The editor operates in the gap between the book the writer envisioned and the one that actually made it onto the page. Thus the editor must see clearly not only the imperfect story on the page, but the story it wants to become, its ideal self. If the author has taken chances in the writing (as good writers tend to do) some of these will have succeeded and others will have failed. If cutting is inevitable, the surgery must be performed delicately – because the last thing any editor wants to do is to excise healthy tissue.
What I mean to do in this post is to talk about some of the decisions writers face with regard to editors: whether to hire an editor and if so, what sort of editor to hire; at what point in the process; how to recognize good ones and avoid bad ones. But I should begin, in the interest of fair disclosure, by saying that I myself am an editor and writing teacher as well as a novelist. You can, depending on your disposition, take that as an admission of vested interest or as an indication that I have had occasion to think seriously about the intersection of writing and editing.
Types of Editors
First off, we need to define terms. There are different types of editing. A novel acquired by one of the large commercial publishers typically undergoes four layers of editing by at least three different people.
Developmental editors look at the big-picture items: pacing, structure, characterization, style, point of view, theme. They track plot and subplots, consider the arcs of the major characters and the novel as a whole, examine the opening and ending of the novel as well as its structure.
Line editors examine the novel on a line to line basis. They look for continuity, logic, clarity, consistence in POV and tone. They will also address grammatical and style issues, though not to the extent that a copy editor does. In publishing houses, developmental and line editing are usually done by the acquiring editor and may be combined.
Copy editors focus closely on language. Their job is to rid the manuscript of any grammatical, spelling, usage and punctuation errors, as well as stylistic inconsistencies.
Proofreaders are the last line of defense, the final readers. They read typeset proofs to look for the same mistakes that copy editors do, including errors introduced by the typesetting process.
In this post, when I refer to editing, I’m talking primarily about developmental and line editing.
Should Writers Hire Editors?
Some should, some shouldn’t. It depends on the writer’s intentions. I believe that writers who intend to self-publish should, in fairness to themselves, their books and their potential readers, have their books edited. Few self-published writers can afford the four separate layers of scrutiny given to books published by commercial houses. But many editors offer combinations of developmental and line editing, and some offer copy editing as well, although ideally that should be done by someone other than the developmental editor. In editing, as in surgery, two pairs of eyes are better than one. If the writer at that point is confident in her ability to spot any deviations in the proof from the copyedited manuscript, she can do her own proofreading.
Having one’s manuscript edited is a learning experience. As writers grow more experienced, one thorough edit in addition to their own careful revisions may well suffice. But every writer has a tendency to make certain types of mistakes, everyone is blind to their own worst prose; and writers who publish without an editor do so at their own risk.
Writers who aim to be commercially published have a different set of calculations. On the one hand, all four levels of editing are provided by the publisher at no expense to the writer, and the editors who provide the services are usually first-rate. Good editing is one of the great perks of being professionally published. On the other hand, the bar to acceptance is very high, and if the book is almost but not quite where it needs to be, a good editor can make the crucial difference.
I advise writers who are trying to make their careers in traditional publishing to do everything they can with their manuscripts before they consider hiring an editor. Writing is a craft that takes a great deal of practice to master. Learning to revise your own work is very much a part of that process. Writers can take classes, which I highly recommend, the more rigorous the better. They can join critique groups and seek out skilled, savvy beta readers; they can read books by great practitioners about their craft; they can study the work of writers they admire; and they can apply all that they have learned and are learning to their work in progress.
A novel is not written in one go, and first drafts are still soft clay. I think it’s dangerous to turn an embryonic first draft or incomplete novel over to an editor. It should go through serious revision and refinement before that step is considered.
In fact, it’s not a bad idea for a writer to begin submitting that final draft to agents and seeing what sort of response she gets before deciding on hiring an editor. If the response is positive, she may never need to hire her own. If, on the other hand, she gets a significant number of rejections, it may be time to consider enlisting a freelance editor or manuscript evaluator (basically the same thing as a developmental editor), someone savvy and objective who can help her see the book as she could not see it herself.
Anyone can call himself an editor. He may as well call himself a “professional editor” too, while he’s at it; it sounds even better and means just as little. Anyone who’s ever corrected a child’s school essay is an editor, but not necessarily one who would be useful to an aspiring novelist. Academic degrees do not necessarily confer competence in the field of editing fiction. What qualities should a real editor have?
I’m going to respond to that from the point of view of a novelist whose books have been greatly enhanced by smart, sensitive editors. These are the things that I would look for in an editor.
Experience. This can come from several different areas. Some freelance editors have experience working for publishing houses, and if I were in need of an editor, I would take a good look at anyone who had edited for a major house. Those jobs are highly competitive and you have to be good to get them. Ive worked with editors from Simon & Schuster, Morrow, Doubleday, Atheneum and Viking, and I never had one who didn’t contribute significantly to the finished book. Be careful, though. I’ve seen editors who claim to have publishing experience… but when you check out the companies they worked for, you discover that they are merely fronts for the writer’s own self-published work.
A lot of writers moonlight as editors, myself included. The advantage of having a writer for an editor is hands-on experience: they’ve wrestled their own novels into shape, and they know the tricks of the trade. The disadvantage is that these editors can be tempted to impose their own taste and style on the work to a greater extent than editors who are not writers: one reason that a sample edit is essential. (More on that below.) Writers who offer editing services should have solid achievements in their own fields; otherwise, you have to wonder how can they help you succeed if they couldn’t help themselves. For the same reason, I would never hire a writer to edit a novel if I didn’t know and admire his own fiction.
A solid track record. Everyone has to start somewhere, but you don’t want anyone cutting their teeth on your book. Editors should be happy to provide you with a client list. I would want to see that some of those clients at least had been published commercially. If the editor specializes in a particular genre, and you write in a different genre, that is at the very least a matter to be discussed. Many fiction editors don’t specialize, however, because while conventions may differ, good writing is good writing.
Respect. A good editor enters into what you are trying to do and helps you get closer, rather than trying to squash your work into preordained parameters. Part of respect is honesty. The editor has to be frank about what’s working and what isn’t. Soft-peddling problems to spare the writer’s feelings does that writer a great disservice.
Communication. The best editors are natural teachers; but every editor should be willing and able to explain the reasons for his recommendations. Honesty is important, but so is reasonable tact and the ability to point out what does work well, so writers can build on it.
Education. A degree in English is a useful credential for a copy editor, but has no bearing on that person’s ability to do developmental editing. I would look favorably at an editor with an MFA from a good writing program. Someone who has studied writing seriously can be a very discerning critic. But I’d also want to see evidence of practical experience and/or achievements. Otherwise, it could be like hiring an astrophysicist to fix your toaster.
Regardless of academic degrees, a good editor is widely read and conversant with the literature of the day, including the best genre writers. A wide frame of reference is a necessary prerequisite of the job. Editors also need a solid knowledge of the publishing industry, to be able to help writers who aspire to break through.
How to Recognize Good Editors…
1. They possess the qualifications listed above. I realize that this is a tall order, and that by the time you finish eliminating all the editors who don’t measure up, you may be left with only me. This is purely coincidental. *
Kidding, of course. There are many editors out there, and some of them are excellent. Others aren’t. That list of qualifications can be a useful tool in looking beyond the hype on a website.
2. They come recommended by or have worked with writers whose work you admire.
3. They are willing to provide a sample edit for a nominal fee.
4. They are discriminating. The hard truth is that some books are too rough to edit. They need to be substantially rewritten, which is not an editor’s job. Even when the writing is creditable, there’s also a question of fit. Not every editor is right for a particular writer. Good editors know this and do not take on all comers. The sample edit is an essential way to assess how writer and editor would work together. I never take on an editing job unless I’ve first done the sample edit offered on my website, and I would be wary of editors with set rates who accept work blindly.
5. The sample edit knocks your socks off. It may sting a bit at first, because there’s a part of every writer that wants to hear nothing but praise. But there’s another part of every serious writer that strives constantly for better tools and more facility with the craft. Once the sting wears off, a good edit should enunciate things about the work that the writer sensed but couldn’t articulate, as well as showing a way forward. Of all the criteria, the sample edit is the most important in choosing an editor.
… And How to Avoid Bad Ones
1. They don’t meet the qualifications listed above.
2. They make inflated claims. Anyone who promises that with his help, his clients will go on to sell their work is either a huckster or shilling for a vanity press. There are no certainties in publishing.
3. They solicit you. Good editors tend to be backed up with work. Anyone who solicits you is suspect.
4. They don’t offer to provide a reasonably priced sample edit, but press instead for a larger commitment.
I hope you find this useful and welcome your comments. I wish I could append a list of recommended editors. I do know several who are excellent for nonfiction, and I’ve referred writers to them; but unless I’ve worked with a fiction editor myself, or seen their work, I don’t feel comfortable referring novelists. I invite readers who have worked with first-rate freelance editors to share that in the comments section, as well as any other experience you might have had with freelance editors.
As I mentioned above, I do some editing myself when I’m not in the midst of writing a book; but my special offer is valid for any fiction writer who cares to take it up.
I also teach writing workshops several times a year. These classes are small, rigorous and intense. The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop me a line at ASAP: Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .
For more on this topic, see What to Do When You’ve “Finished” Your Novel and Good Writers Are Good Editors.
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I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback. (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.) NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.