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Five Dos and Don’ts for Picking an Editor


It used be that editors picked authors. But these days, with self-publishing flourishing, and with an ever-increasing number of authors looking to tweak their manuscripts before sending them off to prospective homes, sometimes it’s the author who is picking the editor. And that can be a tricky thing! I mean, an editor’s work is by nature invisible—if you can spot it, they’re generally doing it wrong. But if not by the evidence of their work, by what should you judge this would-be judge?

Of course, you can’t just judge all editors on the same scale. Editors come in all types and experiences, just like writers. And an editor who is an awesomtastic fit for one author may be an awful fit for you. So really, the important question is how to find an editor who is a good fit for you and your needs. This means finding an editor who has both a strong understanding of what you are trying to achieve and the editorial skills to help you achieve it. And, perhaps most importantly, it also means finding an editor who communicates in a way that works for you.

Finding the perfect editor for your book could take a while—but it’s worth it. A good editor is like a book’s best friend: they share the author’s vision and help draw it into even sharper focus—making it the best version of that book it could possibly be. So, to that end, here are a few of the dos and don’ts for how to play matchmaker for your manuscript, and suss out just the right editor to satisfy you both.

DO Ask the Right Questions

It seems self-evident, but making sure you and a prospective editor are on the same page is vital to satisfying edit. Even the term “editing” can hold confusion! I mean, there are many different types of editing, from developmental or story editors who work on things like plot and characters (and the hiring of whom most of this article addresses), to copy editors who focus on things like spelling, grammar, and inconsistencies.* So, it pays nail down your expectations—and those of the editor—before getting in too deep. And that means . . .

Tell them the right things:

  1. What stage is your manuscript in?
  2. Do you want to pursue self-publishing, traditional publishing, or something else entirely?
  3. What are your expectations for the edit—what do you want to get out of it?
  4. What kind of book are you going for, and what books are similar to your book? (This is very useful for an editor—if an editor doesn’t know what you’re going for, she can hardly help you achieve it.)
  5. What are your general concerns about your manuscript (dialogue, structure, character, etc.)?

And ask them the right questions:

  1. What genres and age groups has the editor worked with/does the editor read regularly?
  2. What is included in an edit (editorial letter, inline notes, skype conversation, how much back-and-forth, level of detail, etc.)?
  3. What does the editor focus on in an edit (writing style, character development, spelling, truthiness, etc.)?
  4. What is the editor’s editorial background (how many years and with what publishing houses doing what, and if they have any author testimonials or editing blogs you can peruse)?
  5. How does the editor handle the business side of the edit (timeline, contracts, cost calculations, payments, etc.)?

And, of course, if they have a web site, read it! Many editors already have most of this information online, which can save you both time while simultaneously convincing the editor of your savvy professionalism, killer research instincts, and excellent reading comprehension skills.

*For the record, I recommend those looking to self-publish get both a developmental edit and, later, a copy edit--if not a proofread for extra shiny text.

DON’T Skip the Beta Reader

So here’s the thing: you want to get your money’s worth from a freelance edit? Then get your manuscript as clean as possible before handing it over. If you give an editor a piece that’s architecturally challenged, she’s going to have to spend all her time stopping the roof from caving in—rather than helping you draw out thematic elements, fiddle with plot arcs, and capitalize on characters. Because you just can’t do the advanced stuff until the basics are solid. And that means getting a beta reader.

A beta reader is literally your first reader—well, second, after Alpha Author. They’re usually another writer (or group of writers), whose manuscript(s) you’re beta-reading in turn. Beta reader notes are rarely as exhaustive as an editor’s notes—you’re not paying them, after all!—and they rarely have an editor’s training, but they’re damn useful for first reactions, and for helping work through those basics.

And also? Beta readers are free. Freelance editors? Not so much. This makes a lot of cost-conscious authors want to skip editors altogether and just use beta readers—especially if they have some killer beta readers at their disposal. And it makes others (who enjoy looking gift horses in the mouth) want to skip beta readers and just use editors. But really, they serve different purposes, and if I were self-publishing, I wouldn’t go without either one.

DO Ask for a Sample Edit

You can’t just ask for a sample of an editor’s work. I mean, that would mean exposing some poor, unsuspecting author’s bare, unedited prose—and the editor’s comments on such--which is something many editors would consider to be a breach of confidentiality. (Would you want your raw prose exposed to the world, complete with editorial commentary?) I mean, sure, some authors are cool with it, but not all, and it sets an interesting precedent. But you can totally ask for a sample edit.

A sample edit means the editor edits just a portion of your manuscript—usually something like two to three chapters, or so. Enough so that you can get an idea of how the editor works—what their inline notes are like, what their editorial letters look like, and how the discussion with the editor goes afterward. This is also an excellent opportunity for you to see if you like their approach to your manuscript, and whether you think they understand what you’re going for and will be able to help you achieve it.

Of course, a sample edit is rarely free—it’s a lot of work for the editor--but it’s a lot less than a full developmental edit, and it’s invaluable for helping make sure you get a good fit.

DON’T Judge an Editor Just by the Books She’s Edited

Just because an editor has worked on your favorite book of all time, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great fit. Likewise, an editor who has worked on a book you absolutely loathe may actually prove to have just the insight you need. You can get an idea of an editor by what she’s edited—but you can’t really judge her by it.

This is because, when it comes down to it, it’s the author’s book. The editor can edit the hell out of a manuscript—suggesting every change you’ve thought of and more—but at the end of the day, it’s the author who writes the book. And, especially in freelance editing, where an editor might only see a book once, the author is free to keep, ignore, or differently implement any bit of advice they may receive. After all, it’s the author on the book cover—not the editor.

Of course, the books an editor has worked on are invaluable for telling you the editor’s experiences (like whether they’ve worked at a publishing house before, and whether they’ve worked with authors similar to you before), their expertise (subgenres they’ve worked with, markets they understand, age groups they tend toward), and their taste (assuming, of course, they got to pick the books they work on). All this is more useful for ruling editors out than ruling them in, but it is a good start.

DO Be Professionally Savvy

Choosing an editor is a big commitment! So, as with all big commitments made with complete strangers over the internet, be smart about it. Make sure you know the terms of your contract ahead of time—what is included in an edit, how long it will take, what it will cost, and how the business aspects will be handled. Read their editing and writing blogs, if they have them, to get an idea of the kind of advice they give. Check Preditors & Editors or ask around to make sure the editor you’re considering is on the straight and narrow. And if you feel uncomfortable with any part of the situation, find a different editor! While trying out an editor for the first time is always a little scary, you deserve an editor in whom you have confidence.


Happy Writing!

Read more Writers Don't Cry
Follow me on Twitter @susanjmorris


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