Should You Hire a Professional Editor?

PhotobucketI’m seeing more queries these days where writers claim their manuscript has been professionally edited.

And it’s no surprise. People inside the industry—like myself!—are known for emphasizing the importance of submitting a flawless manuscript.

Rather than a reassurance, though, queries that mention a professional edit can leave me feeling less confident about the work. I’ve heard agents say the same thing.

This seems grossly unfair, doesn’t it?

There are 3 elements at play:

    1. Most writers don’t clearly understand how an editor might improve their work (or to what extent). Writers must have a level of sophistication and knowledge about their work (or themselves!) to know where their weaknesses are, and how a professional might assist them. When writers ask me if they should hire a professional editor, it’s usually out of a vague fear their work isn’t good enough—and they think it can be “fixed.” There are many different types or levels of editing, and if you don’t know what they are—or what kind you need—then you’re not ready for a professional editor.

    2. I review “professionally edited” manuscripts all the time, and I see no evidence of professional editing. And in consultations with writers, I hear about some pretty lousy advice that has been delivered by these “professionals.”

    3. Writers may sincerely seek professional help, but very few are willing to pay for it. You probably will not receive a quality review on your entire manuscript—that will actually affect your chances of publication—for less than $1,000—unless it’s line editing (copyediting, proofreading).

Can you benefit from a professional edit? Maybe. Your work already needs to be very good and deserving of the investment. Even the best editor in the world can’t turn a mediocre work into a gem. But they can make a good work great.

Tips for Hiring a Professional Editor

  • Look for referrals from your writing friends/network first.
  • Look at the editor’s credentials. Has she worked on books that have been published in your genre? Do you see evidence of her experience and know-how in New York publishing (assuming your goal is to get published traditionally, by a commercial press)?
  • Are they asking YOU the right questions? Quality editors will not take any job thrown at them. They look for projects where they know they can make a difference, and feel like they can work with a writer in a meaningful way. Quality editors turn down projects all the time, and can be choosy in who they work with.

If you have trouble finding a solid recommendation, try subscribing for a month ($20) to PublishersMarketplace. Credible and independent professionals have member pages.

For another viewpoint on this issue, check out Jim Adam’s guest post for me over at Writer’s Digest, How to Save Time and Money With Professional Editors.

I’d love to hear from writers about their experiences working with professional editors, and if it has made an impact on getting their work accepted.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s Mr. Wright

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About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ve just decided to hire an editor. I keep paying for classes, and I really am doing it to get a solid read on my work. That advice is even more questionable than one from an editor, though I might approach it with more skepticism. The editor I’ve hired is a former memoir writing instructor whose opinion I highly value, which I think is incredibly important in any writing relationship. And I have very specific questions and needs. I believe going in with that in mind will make the time (and money) more useful. Thanks for the post!

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  2. Christy Hayes says

    Like Jim Adams, I have used Peter Gelfan at The Editorial Department. I agree that having the right editor is a fabulous tool in advancing your writing. Before finding Peter, I used a freelance editor who loved my work and told me, “This is the one that will sell.” Well…it still hasn’t (not that her help on the manuscript didn’t make it better) but those pats on the back can give a writer unrealistic expectations in a very tight market. The right editor can and will make you work harder and improve your writing whether or not you act on every piece of his/her advice. That being said, professional editors are very expensive and using them can become addictive.

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  3. says

    As someone who does freelance editing, I have had to turn down a few potential clients when I have realized (after previewing their work) that it wasn’t an editor they needed, but an intensive writing class. Or a series of them. As for cost, I try to undercut my competition in order to help writers at least get some help and guidance without spending a small fortune, because I know from experience that writers are often broke and I don’t care to take advantage of that.

    One thing I would add here (and one thing I offer to all potential clients) is a free sample. For a novel, I will edit 20 pages free of charge so they can see what they might expect from me. Many of them like what they see, and some don’t. I think in most cases it’s due to expectations. When you think you’re presenting someone your best writing only to get it back looking like someone took to it with a weed whacker, you’re going to feel a little deflated, and possibly antagonized. You will then seek out an editor (or more likely a friend who reportedly “loves” your work) who will be kinder to your ego.

    I always urge people to remember that I don’t get paid to pet their egos. My reputation rests in the quality of a finished piece, so I have a vested interest in honesty. It is my job to read their books with the earnest eye of a new reader, without preconceived notions or fears of damaging a friendship.

    If a writer has the emotional maturity to face straightforward evaluation of their work, they are ready to hire an editor.

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  4. says

    I’ve worked with three professional editors over the past seven years; mostly for manuscript critique of narrative nonfiction. Finding the right balance between getting it done and getting it right is difficult when an ‘expert’ is advising you to ‘cut’ ‘redo’ ‘expand’ etc. The writer has to remain in control and know where he/she is headed; otherwise, the editor’s opinion can consume your voice, time and energy. I learned this the hard way after working for two years with an editor who required me to develop certain ‘threads’ that I felt were distantly related to the story (she wanted to know more about my good relationship with my father because hers was not) which were cut in final versions by final editor. Great post; appreciate your insights.

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  5. says

    I agree with Allison as well about writers sometimes looking for someone to stroke their ego. I’ve edited two books (one went on to publication through a large publisher and the other was for online publication after the large publisher realized the first edition was too expensive to print yearly, as required). Both times the writer has had a difficult time hearing what ultimately served their works better. I think it’s important to put your ego aside when dealing with critiques of any kind. Of course it’s nice to hear that your work is great. But the advice that has always taken me to where I needed to go is that which I fist balked at.

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  6. march 19 says

    I’ve edited novels professionally and never will again. Too many clients used me as a substitute for learning the craft. It was sad. I got out of the business after 18 months because I felt I was stealing money from these people! Most could not understand what I was doing or why because they were such neophytes.

    Writers, it takes time and endurance to develop into a professional. There are plenty of wonderful resources available to help you achieve your dream. Be patient, and spend your money on learning and your time with butt in chair, hands on keyboard!

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  7. says

    When I put up my editing info at my website, I “borrowed” an idea from talking with Jordan Rosenfeld, and I wrote up a downloadable PDF to let people know what they can expect from a critique–both what I will try & give them and how they might feel, if they’ve never been deeply critiqued before. I think a lot of people go in, looking for what you’re talking about, Jane–a fix, but need to know that what they’ll be getting is, hopefully, strong feedback that will help them take their own book to the next level.
    .-= Becky Levine´s last blog ..Author-Appreciation Week: Friday Five Excerpts =-.

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  8. says

    Like most relationships, its pot-luck. As with interviews, perfect resumes, and love at first sight, it just takes time before you know where fate has landed you. I don’t mind spending the money, when the return is valuable. I’ve gotten what I asked for with my current editor: narrative arc advice, what to keep or cut. But, sometimes you just don’t know what you need. That’s what I pay for: someone to show me a landscape I’m unfamiliar with, and how to interpret it. Then, finally, how to row through it and come out upright on the other side. I know my work is really good, as even strangers have told me so. But it needs the sage, the magician, to make it great. Show me the person who can point out the way to finding that gift. Now that would be a beautiful thing!

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  9. says

    I am a professional editor (a.k.a. “Book Doctor”) and I’d like to echo this:

    “I review “professionally edited” manuscripts all the time, and I see no evidence of professional editing.”

    I, too, get manuscripts from clients all the time who say they’ve had it edited previously, and I can’t tell either. I don’t know what these other so-called editors are doing for these people.

    My guess: they’re doing a superficial copy edit and calling it a day. That’s no help.

    I gave a talk last night at the monthy meeting of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA.org — a great organization to join if you’re in the Pacific Northwest) all about what book doctors do, which bears exactly on Jane’s point.

    It’s the difference between developmental editing, and line editing or copy editing.

    Developmental editing is big-picture stuff, looking at your novel from the perspective of its underlying premise, the construction of the plot, the portrayal and development of the characters, et cetera.

    Line editing is a much narrower view of a work, focusing on the words on the page, and how to improve it at the sentence-by-sentence level.

    Copy editing gets you a human spell-check, grammar-check, and fixes your punctuation. Maybe some light fact-checking as well.

    I spent an enormous amount of time in my talk last night making sure the audience understood the difference between those three things, and when to ask for each.

    I like to make an analogy to a house. If you’re not an architect or a builder, but you set out to build a house, chances are you’re going to end up with a cracked foundation, walls that aren’t plumb and square, doors that don’t open smoothly, and a floorplan that doesn’t flow well. This is to be expected: you’ve build a house when you’re not an expert in the art of house-craft.

    Ditto with novels, especially the first few novels you try to write. Chances are, unless you are a particularly gifted writer whose talents will inspire envy in all around them, your first manuscript is going to have serious structural flaws. This is to be expected. You’re not an expert yet.

    Now when you try to sell that house–or query your manuscript–what should you expect? Not much. Nobody’s going to buy a deeply flawed house, nor a deeply flawed manuscript.

    A developmental edit is like hiring a structural engineer to fix the place up right.

    A line edit is like hiring a painter to put a fresh coat on, inside and out.

    A copy edit is like hiring a cleaning service to come in and make the place spotless before you start inviting prospective buyers in to see the place.

    The problem is that most writers, especially those who are just starting out, don’t know about the existence or value of developmental editing. They finish the manuscript, and I get an e-mail in which they excitedly ask for a line edit. That’s most people’s traditional image of editing. They don’t know there are other kinds of editing that might serve them better.

    They don’t need a line edit, because there is no amount of paint you can slap on a house with a cracked foundation and holes in the wall that’s going to make it sell. There just isn’t. It’s a waste of time and money for all concerned. Before anything else, they need that structural engineer to come in and take a look first.

    I want to echo this that Jane says as well:

    “Quality editors will not take any job thrown at them.”

    That’s true, too. Personally, I won’t turn any client away, but neither will I do a line edit just because someone asks. Most of the time (in excess of 95% of the time, honestly), that’s not what the client really needs.

    I love doing line edits because they’re more work, so I can charge more for them, and because I really enjoy working with the words on the page. That’s fun for me.

    But there is nothing harder in this world for a book doctor to do than to line edit a manuscript that you know will never sell because you can see the structural flaws in it.

    So what happens is that in most cases, after I explain the difference between line editing and developmental editing, the client ends up opting for the latter. Which is ultimately better for them. Why pay a lot of money slapping paint on a broken house?
    .-= Jason Black´s last blog ..What makes a sympathetic hero? =-.

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  10. says

    As a published author I know the importance of a good editor – a fresh eye to point out continuity errors, too many POV changes, the occasional slip into author’s voice. A good editor helps with that final polish and brings expertise into turning a good book into a great book.

    I so agree with most of what Allison and the ‘Book Doctor’ (above) have added. I often help/advise new authors who want to get published or are considering independent (self) publishing their work. The majority of these writers have no idea about editing and assume it means correcting punctuation, spelling and grammar. Coherence of content has not even been considered.

    I have also come across writers who ask for an honest opinion of their work and who then turn sour because I gave an honest opinion.
    I do not see the point of telling a writer their book is wonderful if it is in desperate need of a good edit! Although, again agreeing with Allison, too many new writers, sadly, are in need of learning how to write, not an edit.
    I must add, I am also very proud to have helped several new authors in their first tentative steps into writing and who have gone on to produce a fabulous read (after being professionally edited!)
    Finally – thank you to my professional freelance editor who not only knows her job, but is also a trusted friend. And trust is something that must be nurtured between author and editor.

    Thank you for a most interesting article!

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  11. says

    I’ve been writing for roughly 15 years, which is actually more than half my life. I’ve never hired a professional editor, but at age 17, began attending a writer’s critique group. I’m now into my second group (due to a move) and honestly feel I get great advice from the folks there–one of whom happens to be a writing professor at a local college. Several of the members give me tough, sometimes even cruel critiques, and while sometimes tough to swallow, once I take my ego out of the equation, I see the value of their suggestions.

    While I wouldn’t necessarily rule out using and editor in the future, I am skeptical of what good an editor will do that would be better than my local critique group. Of course, once I’m under contract with a publisher and/or agent, I *will* be open to suggestions from them, but I feel that’s different than hiring an independent editor. We’re on the same team then, and all of us have a vested interest in my book.
    .-= Liberty Speidel´s last blog ..My Favorite Resources =-.

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  12. says

    There are two groups of writers who I think should especially consider a professional edit, whether they have to pay for it or can trade or just get a friend to do it: memoir writers and fiction writers. Non-fiction writing tends to be more straightforward and easier to self-edit. But if you know your story and characters like the back of your brain, you are going to be less likely to catch your own omissions, errors, and self-indulgences. And for these reasons, I think memoir writers and fiction writers should put their work through one or two professional processes before submission. After all, you only get one opportunity to impress. Make the the most of it! But as far as disclosing about it, or mentioning it in a cover letter or query…I wouldn’t. Why mention it? You are just a pro, making sure that your work is of publishable quality. No need to disclose it for fear of exactly what Jane said. You might insert a shadow of a doubt into your gatekeeper’s mind, which will essentially undo all the good you’ve done. So, mums the word, I’d say.

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  13. Sharon Bially says

    Jane, just a quick note about the word ‘editor.’ Often this is a euphemism for ‘ghost writer.’ As a publicist I have hired ghost writers for business people who have book ideas but no writing skills or time. Invariably, the ghost writer is referred to as the ‘editor.’ Ever look in a book’s acknowledgements and wonder why thanks are given to an editor who doesn’t work for the book’s publishing house? Hmmm. Often this ‘editor’ is far more than an outside consultant who has done line editing or developmental editing, as Jason so nicely defined. And while it happens most often in non-fiction, believe me, it happens in fiction as well!

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  14. says

    Jason, I chuckled when I read your house comparison. I often use the same one.

    Sometimes I feel bad when I refuse an editing job, but I won’t paint a house that’s ready to fall down, either.

    Regarding free sample edits: People need to get a feel for the quality of an editor’s work, but at the same time, editing twenty or so pages (and often studying your synopsis to check for obvious structural issues) can take upward of an hour depending on the writing.

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  15. says

    I hired a professional editor, and I have no regrets. She focused on story (i.e., it wasn’t about proofing & copy-editing), and my novel is much, much better for it, in terms of plot, character, POV, tone, flow, and overall depth.

    Her critique took a broad, big-picture view of what I thought was my novel – developmental, as opposed to line- or copy-editing. It was up to me to then rewrite it, and incorporate her suggestions into my new conception of the book.

    I doubt the industry cares whether writers hire an outside editor before submitting – they’re interested in getting a manuscript they can sell, however it gets in that shape.

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  16. says

    I’m not at this point at all in my manuscript but I have people edit my school work all the time. Though it might be considered cheating to some – I have horrible grammar and often my words get away from me and I write in circles for a paragraph. Recently it has been pointed out that I switch from present tense to past tense as well. Because I know about these things, I just get editor friends to go over my school work and I probably will with my manuscript as well. But I wouldn’t want my words changed anyways.
    .-= Liz H. Allen´s last blog ..To boldly go where every college student goes eventually. =-.

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  17. says

    I think it’s fine to hire an editor, but do your research. There are loads of “editors” out there who just slap “, Editor” after their name and charge outrageous prices for shoddy work.

    *Just like you wouldn’t query or sign with an agent you know nothing about, don’t just sign up with any random editor with a flashy website.*

    If someone approaches me with something they want edited, the first thing I do is send a sample contract and my CV so they’ll know exactly what they’re getting into and what my qualifications are. It boggles my mind when people don’t ask for this information when they inquire about my services in the first place.

    On the other end, when I read queries that say they’ve been professionally edited, most times the editing is not that great. I’ve seen typos in the first pages, confusing wording, and other times I just have to sit back and wonder who told this author that this was the best place to start their novel?

    I guess it goes along with the MA/MFA holders–their queries are usually the worst because they think that their MA/MFA will hold them. Queriers with “professionally edited” manuscripts often think this will be enough to keep them in the running too.

    No amount of empty promises or shiny/flashy pictures will get your work to the best place it can be. In the end, it all comes down to great writing and a great story. Find a great editor that will help you get there.
    .-= Cassandra´s last blog ..Friday Five: Advice for Writers =-.

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  18. says

    This post is great, and the comments even better. I especially like Jason Black’s house analogy.

    It’s not surprising that writers are like this. We have a cultural predisposition to focus on curing symptoms rather than learning about problem prevention or how to cultivate healthy development in the first place. Make it and push it out into the world; fix it later.

    This approach certainly helps overcome things like writer’s block, but it’s a double-edged sword.

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  19. says

    Good post.

    So many writers are just not ready for a real developmental edit and take it personally when they receive back a thorough developmental edit report. I’ve had clients who, although they asked for a “really honest, no B.S report” (which of course is the only kind I do anyway), when they received it back, are either rude or personally offended, or both. And if I suggest a writing class, some react as if I’d said they were illiterate. These are also often the same writers who at first thought all their work needed was “a bit of copy editing.”

    On the other hand, I’ve had wonderful relationships with others who value the input. Perhaps NOT unexpetedly, these are the writers with a mature attitude about how hard it is to polish something, not just “finish” it. Regardless of the amount of work I may indicate still needs to be done on their manuscripts, these writers invariably are open and receptive to the feedback (even if they don’t agree with all of it), and I find they are also the ones who’ve spent considerably more time and effort developing their craft before I ever see the text.

    For those reasons, I now spend a lot more time talking to a prospective client before taking on a project, to find out as much as possible about their writing life and what they’ve already done up to that point to improve their craft.

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  20. says

    Excellent post. As a published author I know the benefits of having an editor do a ‘developmental edit.’ My first novel, I hired an editor and he suggested I develop another secondary story line within the novel, as I had written an incident and then dropped it. I could see the value of that; I rewrote several pages to the novel and sent it back to him. He again, edited it, along with a copy-line edit and pronounced it a finished product.
    I don’t agree that ‘workshops’ have the same benefits as a professional editor. The people in your workshop are aspiring writers also, and may not have the best judgement regarding your work, although they often do have very good suggestions.

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  21. says

    Jane, it’s clear from the number of comments that you have touched a chord. And rightly so. While I’m an advocate for editing, I’ve seen a lot of terrible stuff that passes for “professionally edited” work. Then again, during my years as a magazine editor, I saw a lot of bad work that passed for professional freelance writing. And you’re right. Editing can’t fix bad writing…not without a rewrite, and that’s not editing.

    As you say, Jane, the skills of a writer and editor are different. A few can do both, but the number is very small. Good writers who want a good editor: I’d like to invite you to take a look at the Story Circle Network-Editorial Service. Here’s a link: http://www.storycircleeditorialservice.org/

    My business partner and co-author, Matilda Butler, and I worked with Story Circle Network to help them set up the program. These women are good. We invite writers to review the background of each editor and select the person they would like to work with.
    .-= Kendra Bonnett´s last blog ..Memoir Writing Contest Award Winner for February =-.

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  22. says

    Interesting post and great comments. I also like Jason’s explanation of the differences between the editing types.

    I’m a self-published and currently in contract with a traditional publisher (currently in edits). I used a professional editor for the latter, but I think having a writing coach (through a group) helped more in getting the contract.

    Even so, when I’m ready to submit my next book, I’ll be using an editor again.

    I do reviews and I’m also a co-moderator of a children’s critique group. I come across a number of self-published books that have obviously not been critiqued or edited. I think the new writers should take the time to learn how to write in their chosen genre. There is so much free information out there, and critique groups that they can take advantage of.
    .-= Karen Cioffi´s last blog ..Showing vs. Telling Part 2 =-.

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  23. says

    I used two fantastic editors and I had to try them out to see if they “got it.” My book has a unique voice, very unique and my editor needed to just show me one or two pages of what they would say to me or recommend. The first editor actually helped me put the book in order and be there chapter by chapter. Something happened between us and I had to find a new one. She started to act like it was partly her job to get involved after the editing was done. The second I found online and he “got it.” I could tell. I never saw him but he liked what was done so far and then helped me finish and write my query. Contact me if you want his hame. I never believed a man would end up working with me.

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  24. says

    Interesting topic. I have an editor friend, she helps me if ever I need it. I am rather fortunate as it is on a promise for a copy of my book.
    I would like to point out that I write in UK English, and mentioned an editor to my friend,(prior to her generous offer). She warned me that they were from the US and may correct in US English.
    This might be something to take into consideration when looking around.
    .-= Glynis Smy´s last blog ..Writing My Synopsis: How I Reached My Goal =-.

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  25. says

    Good post, Jane, and great thread. Very interesting. I thought that 20-page offer was incredibly generous, and I certainly agree with those who said that not all those who bill themselves as an “editor” are equally skilled. You have to put in the time to be an editor, just as you do for writing. Some of the newer quick-turnaround online editing services I am hearing about are scary. I also agree that hiring a professional editor can only help so much if the writer hasn’t put in the time to be ready for that kind of help.

    If my current novel looks as good coming out the other side of revision as I am hoping, I plan to run at least the first ten pages by Judy Adourian at Writeyes for a professional critique as one of my last steps before finally being ready to start my agent hunt. I know her through the IWWG, where she has been an instructor for years, and I have heard many women praise her skill with words.

    So often, if there is a real problem—or even a herd of them—it will rear its head early-on. For writers like me, on the poor and struggling side of things, who are willing to put in the time and do the work, I think a lot might be gained from a professional critique of the opener that one could then apply throughout the rest of the story if or as needed. I can’t even think about a whole professional edit. That’s why I’ve put so much time into critique efforts, writing and editing study and practice, and cherishing very astute readers who won’t bs me, but I will still budget at least thirty dollars to Judy for her 10-page minimum and consider any feedback very carefully.

    To any aspiring writers following this thread, I offer a sterling bit of advice. If you have the great good fortune to find someone farther along than you who is willing to give you advice or to whom you have decided to pay out your hard-earned dollars for advice, do not begin your response to the advice with “But…”. Just do not do it, ever. Bite your tongue until it bleeds if that’s what it takes. Of course in the end you will take what you think you need and leave the rest—it is still your story—but treat all offerings with respect and gratitude. Don’t interrupt to argue and don’t “But…” in. Whoever said that sometimes the hardest advice to hear is what we most need was spot on. Say thank you and say you will give it careful thought, and then do just that.

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  26. says

    I hired Donald Maass’ wife, Lisa Rector-Maass to edit my manuscript. She did an amazing job. My experience with Lisa taught me ways to increase pace, write with vigor and to edit myself. Hiring Lisa was more like having a private writing coach. I felt like i left that experience with a new knowledge of writing and publishing. I encourage it for the same reasons Christina Katz gave and for a newbie writer.

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  27. says

    I’m currently working with a professional editor and it’s an experience I hate to love. Why? She asks the hard questions, the ones I know I should have asked at the beginning of the scene but was (frankly) too afraid to delve into. I need this kind of input!

    As mentioned above, too many writers hire editors or join critique groups to get stroked. I do that really well all by myself. No one can tell me that my novel is more fascinating than I can tell myself.

    That’s why I hired an editor, so I can pay for the masochistic and deeply satisfying experience of getting down to the nitty gritty of the the novel. Not the stuff I love. The stuff I cringe at when I read it again for the 3rd or 4th time.

    I doubt I would ever have the guts to mention in a query that my work was professionally edited. For starters, that means I’ve said to my editor, “Enough. It’s perfect.”

    That’s just something I’ll never be able to say.

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  28. says

    When I founded The Editorial Department in 1980, the biggest problem I faced was the perception of independent editors as taking money from “wannabees” to encourage them even if they were weak writers. We never do that–our editors will read any manuscript that comes in so we know what we’ve got, but we won’t take a writer’s money to work on it if we think this process isn’t going to result in a publishable manuscript. And a lot of the ones we DO take on end up getting published mainstream–you can see some of them (mostly first novels) at http://www.editorialdepartment.com. The biggest misconception about hiring an editor is that you don’t need to if you’re a good writer. The reason writers need editors is simple: your book is your child, and who among us can be 100% objective about our own chldren? I’m the coauthor of SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS (HarperCollins), a bestseller among writers for nearly twenty years, and I wouldn’t think of writing anything for publication I didn’t have edited. The best advice I can offer somebody looking for an editor is to check out Preditors and Editors. They’ll alert you to the good guys and the bad guys. And if you want to try us out,The Editorial Department has a $35 critique of your opening. Hiring an editor is really common nowadays, and many of our clients are published and miss the editing they used to get from their publishers. But it’s like anything else: do your homework!

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