laura appleyard

Flickr Creative Commons: Laura Appleyard

You’ve taken your novel as far as you can.  You’ve reworked it until you can’t really see it anymore, but still feel there’s something wrong somewhere.  Or maybe your family and friends have raved about it, but have lots of questions about your plot and characters.  Or your critique group agrees on the problems, but isn’t giving you any hints as to how to fix them.  Maybe you just want to make sure the book is as strong as it can be to impress your favorite agent.  In any case, you’ve decided it’s time to call in a professional editor.

A quick search uncovers a lot of editors on the market with varying degrees of expertise and honesty.  How do you find the one you can rely on to help you bring your vision to life?  How do you pick your editorial soul-mate?

One clue that will help you weed out the less competent is price.  Editing is a profession.  Skilled, experienced editors charge accordingly.  My own hourly rate is a little more than a mechanic’s and a little less than a psychotherapist’s, which strikes me as the right balance.  Editing is also time-consuming.  You can’t skim through a manuscript and then know how to shape someone’s character voice or build tension toward an upcoming plot twist.   When I’m working at my best, I can usually read no more than forty pages an hour, or edit eight to ten.  So if you find someone who is willing to edit your manuscript for two dollars a page, don’t expect a considered conceptual edit.  Chances are good you’re going to get a superficial proofread — occasional corrections to your grammar and punctuation and not much else.

Note: I’m not disparaging proofreading.  I have a lot of respect for good proofers, and they provide a valuable service.  Copy editors — who will often correct stylistic problems as well as grammatical ones – can be helpful as well.  But if you’re not sure your story as a whole works, then it’s too soon to call in the proofers.  The time to make every page perfect is after the plot, characters, and style are as strong as you can make them.

Look for an editor with experience, as well.  You want someone who’s been in the business long enough to expose themselves to a wide range of writing styles – and learning styles.  Some of my clients just need me to give them a few hints and then step out of the way.  Others want more detailed, hands-on guidance. If you get an editor who doesn’t recognize how you learn, you’re likely to get good advice you won’t know how to apply. Reputation also counts for a lot.  Ask other writers you trust for recommendations.

You can get an idea of an editor’s skill level from seeing their work, either published clients’ books, or samples available online, or both.  Don’t expect a professional editor to give you free samples, though.  I’ve had prospective clients send me a first chapter to critique so they can decide whether or not they want to work with me.  This isn’t just presumptuous. If you’re looking for in-depth editing, it’s meaningless.  You can’t tell how an editor will handle your story from work on a few pages.  It’s just not possible to edit well without knowing where the story is going.

If you’re not sure if an editor is the right one for you, look for an assessment or a preliminary critique.  (I call it a diagnostic reading report.)  The editors who offer these usually charge a dollar or two per page of your manuscript.  For that fee, they read your book and write up a few pages of fairly detailed feedback on what works and what doesn’t.  This gives you a chance to judge whether or not the editor is what you’re looking for.  If the preliminary report articulates problems you long suspected but couldn’t see, then he or she is probably the right one for you.  If the editor wants you to turn your book into something completely different, it might be a good idea to look elsewhere.

It’s also at this point that an honest editor will tell you if your manuscript needs a major rewrite.  It’s a big waste of money to edit pages, chapters, or entire subplots that should be cut.

Bear in mind that there are crooks out there.  In fact, there is a special circle of hell for editors who praise weak work and dangle the possibility of huge book deals in order to get writers to send them manuscripts.   Preditors and editors (link), the review site for everything from proofreaders to publishers, will flag the worst of the lot.  But they can’t catch them all.  If several of your readers have told you your manuscript has serious problems and a prospective editor tells you you’re the next Toni Morrison, be warned.

I recently had a client who was very much a beginner, with a lot to learn before he was ready to start submitting his manuscript.  I told him so in the diagnostic reading report.  He rewrote the first half of his story based on what I’d said, then wanted me to reread his revisions.  Since some of his problems were with his plot, I recommended that he finish the manuscript before he paid me to look at it again.  Instead, he sent the first half to another editorial firm that called it a “great novel” and persuaded him to have the first half edited before they’d even read the second half.  He was so happy that someone liked his novel that I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that he’d fallen among sharks.

Know what you’re looking for with the editing process.  You may just be looking for help to get your current work ready for publishing.   But some editors focus on improving the writer as much as on improving the manuscript. Instead of editing straight through, beginning to end, I do a coaching line-edit.  I work in batches of about fifty pages.  This allows the client to input my changes and edit the next batch before sending it to me, working ahead of me through the manuscript.  By the time we get to the end of the book, they’ve learned the skills they need to fix their writing problems.  Some editors will do an entire manuscript at once, but give you copious marginal notes so you can learn from their editing.  Either way, the editing is like an in-depth writing seminar, with your work as the only example.

Finally, your editor can provide emotional support.  I often get to know and care about my client’s characters and story nearly as much as they do.  I recently finished the last batch of a novel – in which the main character dies – editing with tears in my eyes.  When I sent it to the client, he told me he input my changes with tears in his eyes as well.

Writing can be immensely lonely.  You can’t write well without pouring yourself into your manuscript.  It helps immensely to have someone to go through the process with, to remind you of your strengths, to share your struggle.

And to share your triumphs, too.

About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.