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What Should You Expect from a Freelance Editor? (A Timely Debate)

photo by Flickr’s ClaraDon

Today I’m going to interrupt my “Notes from a Desk” series to focus on editing, in part because editing is what’s on my mind right now; I’m thick in copy edits. So it was no wonder when a WU query about reviewing a new book on the topic of editing caught my eye, and I downloaded said book, and I started to read. And it was no wonder that when that same book became the topic of an online debate, that I took notice and joined in.

The Editor’s Eye: A Practical Guide to Transforming Your Book from Good to Great [2] was written by author/editor Stacy Ennis [3], and was the recent subject of a guest post on Jane Friedman’s website. The post, 5 Ways to Find the Right Freelance Book Editor [4], included advice on gauging the qualifications and experience of your potential editor, along with lists of questions to ask the editor and her former clients.

It was that last part about asking questions that caught the attention of the Writer Unboxed Facebook group [5], after one of our members (hey, Carmel Lile) shared the link to Stacy Ennis’s article. The debate began–lively and respectful, like 99% of the debates in the WU FB group.

One the one hand: Was it asking too much of an editor to answer a slew of time-consuming questions from a client who may not even be the right fit for them? Wouldn’t it be more telling to simply edit a set number of sample pages and then allow both parties to judge compatibility based upon that? As for asking questions of an editor’s prior clients, wasn’t that an unnecessary invasion of privacy for those clients when a previously published testimonial might be adequate? And wasn’t it unprofessional for an editor to give out this information in any event?

On the other hand: Wasn’t it fair for a writer to ask an editor a handful of questions when that writer would be paying a substantial sum of money for that person’s services? Wasn’t this process much like hiring any provider–even a physician–and wasn’t a Q&A simply due diligence? Was it truly too much to ask to converse with a willing former client, to get his/her take on that editor’s style, work ethic, and receive the former client’s opinion privately rather than via a carefully crafted website testimonial?

Full disclosure: I came down on the side of “the other hand,” and said I wouldn’t hire a freelance editor who wasn’t willing to answer questions and provide referrals. But what I really wanted was to hear back from author/editor Stacy Ennis. What would she say about all of this? Had she painted an idealistic picture in her book? Was there a shade of gray we hadn’t considered in the debate?

I reached out to Stacy, and she graciously agreed to step in and–after reading through the debate–offer some additional thoughts. She wrote: 

The majority of the authors I work with have dreamed of their books for years—some even since they were young.  Writing and publishing a book is often the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.  While this isn’t true 100 percent of the time, writing a book represents a major life achievement for most authors.

So, when writers take their precious manuscripts and look for an editor to help them make their dream of publication a reality, it can be an incredibly scary process.  Not only are they often clueless about publishing, but they usually don’t know the first thing about finding, hiring, and working with an editor.  When they finally get a referral or find an editor through an editor’s association or online search, they’re usually at a loss for how to proceed.  This can result in a poor author-editor match or dissatisfied parties on both sides.

I believe this relationship—between author and editor—is the most important part of the book-writing process. My advice to authors is to make sure they find the right editor, not just a good one.  Editors’ specialties vary widely, as do their personalities.  And I would argue that personality is as important as skill level and expertise.  The better the partnership between the author and editor—the better they work together—the better the book will be.  On top of that, writers are sometimes investing thousands of dollars into editorial services.

[pullquote]I believe this relationship—between author and editor—is the most important part of the book-writing process. My advice to authors is to make sure they find the right editor, not just a good one. [/pullquote]

When you consider these points, doesn’t it make sense that editors should be willing and able to provide references?  If you’re a qualified professional editor, shouldn’t you have references of some kind?

Now, a few people brought up privacy issues.  I would never, ever give out a client’s name or contact information without first asking permission.  You’ll notice, too, that my guest post said, “Be wary of any editors who aren’t willing to provide a reference, even if it’s just a written recommendation from a client.”  There’s some wiggle room.  But, editors, you need recommendations of some kind.

Let’s face it: There are bad editors out there.  Writers need a way to make sure they’re placing their babies (manuscripts) in good hands.

Of note, a few people [in the WU FB group debate] mentioned the difference between developmental editing, substantive editing, copyediting, and proofreading. This is a great point and something I Editor Eye [6]discuss in detail in The Editor’s Eye. Obviously, the process for selecting a developmental editor will be a lot more involved than choosing a proofreader, for example.

Just for comparison’s sake, since a few people brought up physicians: Before my daughter was born, my husband and I interviewed five different physicians of varying specialties.  Most of the interviews were around 30 minutes long.  All of the physicians were referred by friends or colleagues, so we had the opportunity to hear about their experiences with the physicians.  I also researched each of them online before our interviews.  Even with all of that effort, we ended up switching doctors when my daughter was two months old because the physician wasn’t the right fit for our family.  If a similar situation happens during the editing process, it can cost writers more than just time—they can be out a lot of money, too.  Worse yet, it can result in a not-so-strong book once it’s finally published.

Really, the vetting process goes both ways.  The initial “meet and greet” is a time for authors and editors to decide if they’d like to continue a conversation about working together.  Interviewing past clients—or, at the very least, reading written recommendations—is a way for authors to make sure they’re making the right choice for their books.

We’d like to hear what you think about this issue. Have you ever hired a freelance editor? What was that process like for you? Did you ask questions, interview former clients? Did you meet with resistance? Do you think in this, The Information Age, editors and clients both should be willing to provide additional answers when asked, or have we hit a limit and become too entitled? If you’re an editor, what are your boundaries and why?

And a big thanks to Stacy Ennis–book and magazine editor, writer, coach and speaker, for being with us today. You can learn more about her, her services, and her excellent book, The Editor’s Eye [2], on her website [3].

Write on, everyone. I’ll be editing.


About Therese Walsh [7]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [8], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [9] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [10], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [11] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [12] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [13]). Learn more on her website [14].