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Navigate the Editor Landscape: When and How to Choose the Right Editor. And the Right Type of Edit

Updated: Feb 7

What kind of editing do you need?

Continuing from our article last month where I outlined some realities of both traditional publishing and self-publishing models, now we discuss how to choose the right editor for your chosen publishing path.

Things to consider first are:

Your level of experience and/or expertise. If you are writing your first book and have taken only a cursory study of the craft of fiction writing, it's highly likely you are not yet ready for an editor. This means, if you intend to publish traditionally, you still have a long way to go before sending that MS off to an agent or publishing house. Many manuscripts (MS) suffer from being submitted to professionals too early. I.E. the writer hasn't yet sufficiently developed their skills, and/or their story on the whole. Most agencies and houses will stipulate that if the MS has already been rejected, not to submit it again, unless they specifically invite a rewrite/revise and resubmit (R&R). Never send in an R&R without a specific request.

In terms of self-publishing, we all know that there are plenty of instances where the author became too enthusiastic too soon – or lacked sufficient ability to evaluate their story and writing skills objectively – before hitting the 'publish' button. Then they wonder why their story isn't gaining any traction or has received poor reviews. Every book, and its quality, is a marketing tool for the next project, so getting it right – or as good as you can – is extremely important and takes time. Unfortunately, too many inexperienced writers jump from draft to proofread too soon, often because they haven't done their research of follow bad advice.

In either route, at this stage, writing classes or a mentor/coach might be more appropriate. Certainly garnering some feedback from some writing peers is a good first step. Not only to gauge some initial reactions to your writing but because receiving feedback from other writers also prepares you for receiving feedback from editors. You'll be more familiar with established writing terms, and it will break down some of your natural defensive barriers so that you are more open to constructive criticism. Freely communicating with an author is extremely important for the exploration of ideas, and for a strong working relationship when needing to find the best way around the trickier areas of a manuscript. If a writer is highly defensive about their work, that can really affect the writer-editor relationship. Reciprocating feedback with a critique partner is also an excellent learning curve. It will help you develop your own editing skills and instincts.

If you decide that traditional publishing is for you, then you do not need to employ an editor prior to submitting your MS to a publishing house or an agent. Part of a publishing deal means the editing is paid for in-house, so either of these establishments will work with you on it. The quality of in-house editing can very much depend on the size of the publisher, how long they have been established and their budget. Don't assume just because it's a publishing house, the editing will be sublime. We all know there's published work out there that defies normal standards of quality. This is often a case of low budget editing, so do your research before entering any contracts.

The key with the trad gang is to learn your craft to the best you can, make sure you have a unique idea or bring an entirely new perspective to more traditional ideas, write fascinating characters and plots. They read a ton more unpublished ideas than you realise, and similar concepts often crop up that you wouldn't be aware of. If the book needs fewer revisions, editing will be easier and less expensive. Far more preferable to an MS that careens around its story world like a formula one driver at Monaco Grand Prix while on magic mushrooms, requiring major structural or developmental adjustments. I have come across the occasional agent who likes to get stuck into edits in the early stages of an MS' life, but these are rare.

If you're lucky enough to have several publishing houses wanting to buy your work, it's worthwhile chatting with each to establish how they see your work, how hands on they might be, and if you feel they are on the same page as you or, if not, how their page might (or might not) benefit your work.

You've decided that self-publishing is for you? Read on...

Employing Freelancers

A decent, trustworthy editor will not take on your book under false promises. If the level of writing is too inexperienced, messy or weak, they are likely to decline the project if you request the MS is fully edited to publishing standards. That would be beyond any reasonable budget and a waste of your money. They might offer you a manuscript assessment instead, if you are really keen to employ a professional at this stage. A good assessment will report on what works or what needs more work and offer suggestion on how to tackle any rewrites. It can be a good mix between mentor, beta reader and editor.

If you are a more experienced writer, you may feel the MS has advanced as far as your skill set can go. It's time to ask yourself if a professional eye in a developmental edit can help lift the MS that echelon higher or if you are satisfied with the draft as-is on a structural and developmental level. What serves the story in the best way? Are the plot, character, pacing, tension, stakes, etc., sufficiently developed and in place, so you can move onto line edits or a copyeditor? Know what kind of editing you need and be clear on what you want your editor to do:

· Developmental/substantive.

· Line editing.

· Copyediting.

· Proofreading.

· Typesetting/formatting.

(Refer to Part 1 of this article for more info on those).

Each of these types of edits are required for different stages of the MS, and editors will often specialise in one or two or the above, rather than all.

Finding the 'One'.

Choosing an editor is a little like choosing the right builder. You want someone who is professional, reliable, yet friendly. Someone you feel comfortable letting into one of the most intimate places in your life – either your home or your book. So, if you are writing a book and also renovating, this post can help you twofold! I happen to have experience in both fields, so if you are looking for either, here's some tips.

First thing's first, don't over-commit to begin with; test them out. Never, ever consign a large project to an unfamiliar editor or builder without getting a sample first. Give them a small project to begin with, but preferably something that will show off their skills. Something that isn't going to cost you too much and – should they really make a hash of it – won't be too costly or time-consuming to fix. This gives you a chance to assess their standard of craftsmanship, their punctuality and if they're prone to brag more than graft. You will also get to know them a little better and decide if they are someone you can work with when problems arise. As is always the case when larger projects get underway. But commissioning a small project works both ways. It gives your editor an opporunity to see what they are dealing with in terms of the writer's skills, so that they can provide the appropriate services.

Once you have decided on your editor (or builder), make sure you contact them well in advance. Both the building trade and the editing profession suffer a common denominator – clients tend to assume work can start within a couple of weeks. This is rarely the case. Neither builders nor editors are just twiddling their thumbs, waiting for you to come along with your project. They already have other clients booked in. They might not have any slots for large projects for some weeks – months, on occasion. Best to book your editor (builder) at least three months in advance of when you expect to finish your draft.

If substantive or developmental editing is what you need, an early draft is best rather than a finely polished, flawed story. If you lack confidence in how to craft a story effectively and need either some handholding or a little guidance in key areas, this is the edit for you. If you're confident all story elements are working as you want them to, then line editing and cleaning it up is what you're after. But make it as clean as you can. This might save some cash if corrections are minimal, though it depends on the editor.

As with renovating, get the professionals in for the technical stuff, but do as much as you can within your skill set to keep costs down. Be the errand boy/girl when your builder needs supplies to save them the trip. Paint your own walls once the plastering is done. Do your own proofreading on your MS draft before turning it over to a pro, or learn how to format your MS for both ebooks and paperbacks.

A good substantive editor will give it to you straight if something's not working. Just because you are paying them directly instead of through a publisher doesn't mean they will be "yes" men. You want your book to be the best it can be. That means taking on constructive criticism that may not align with your own opinion. But you are the one who gets the final say. You need to be someone who is open to ideas so that any decent editor (or builder) feels they can communicate freely with you over any proposed changes, even if you disagree with each other at times. Don't forget, traditional publishers use a team to review manuscripts, and do not rely on just one person's perspective.

Be clear on the stage of the manuscript and what you expect from the editor. If smoothing out prose and correcting grammar is not required at this stage, then communicate that to them. Same as with building work - make sure they are doing the job you want at the stage you're at. You have a budget and deadline to meet.

Always ensure you pay your editor or builder on time. They are freelancers and sole traders who don't get paid for sick or holiday and rely on a steady flow of cash to keep the business running. Mess them around and they might not be so keen to work for you again. Worse if you gain a reputation for being unreliable or difficult. (Yes, that works for clients, too. Builders talk!)

Any decent editor should be able to work across most genres. It still might be best to find one that specialises in the right niche if your story requires particular knowledge and expertise. There is also an element of personal taste and personality alignment involved in the relationship between writer and editor. Just as with finding an agent, you ideally want someone who gets where you're coming from and can get behind the project with enthusiasm. It's also true that editors need to love the work, too, if they are to reread it several times. It's vital you both feel comfortable working with one another and are working as a team. Don't forget, you'll credit your editor in acknowledgements and they'll want your book to be of the highest standard. You both have skin in the game, so your editor is friend, not foe.


Your finances will dictate what kind of editor you can afford. However, it is worth discussing with any potential editor what they can offer within your budgetary limits. Some might take stage payments, or you can negotiate a set amount of hours or chapters/words with a cut-off point. A partial edit on an MS can still be a huge help in addressing common issues in the work or in gaining insights into any potential revision and revise.

The most experienced and highly qualified editors demand premium rates. They will also give you the most kudos points in the acknowledgements section. However, that doesn't automatically make them the best editor to employ. As the title of this article states: how to choose the right editor. That means the right editor for you. While many freelance editors won't carry the same clout as an ex commissioning editor from the big five, there are plenty out there who will do an excellent job. Don't be too quick to dismiss them. Give them a small project to try them out and see how that goes.

What kind of writer are you?

Aside from expertise in specialised niches, it's also worth considering if they fit with your style of writing. Do you write high concept fiction that requires a more visionary partnership? Someone who thrives on exploring big ideas with you, and who can help you concrete the more abstract ideas into something a reader can more easily digest? Or perhaps you write more introspective fiction that requires excellent character development to carry the plot. Maybe plotting is your biggest weakness and finding someone who can help you strengthen that aspect of your writing would be the most helpful. Again. communication is key. Explain to any editor during negotiations where you feel you're struggling the most. A good editor will not only help you with those, they'll also help you with struggles you didn't even know you had.

What to do when you receive your manuscript back.

Take the attitude before you open the file that your writing isn't perfect. There will be areas flagged for change. That's just part and parcel of the writing process. It's what you pay an editor to do: highlight what's been overlooked.

Don't take anything personally. Just because they flag issues doesn't mean you're no good at this. Creating a story is a finely tuned balancing act. Don't expect to think of every miniscule thing. And it's not a rejection of you, either. If your editor strikes out chunks of text, it's more likely due to pacing issues or redundant information rather than because they don't 'like' it.

It's natural that criticism – no matter how constructive – will heckle your defences to some degree. Take a step back, leave it for a few days and chew it all over. Some corrections will resonate with you and some won't. For the ones that don't, or if you feel confused by some of the feedback or corrections, discuss them with your editor. They might not have picked up on certain things, so a correction in one area might turn out to need stronger accentuation elsewhere to make things clearer. You won't know until you ask.

All in all, when you should seek the services of an editor depends on both your level of writing and if you are emotionally prepared to receive professional feedback.

How to find the right one very much relies on your communicating accurately what you want, what you're capable of in writing terms, and where you need the most help.

What type of editing you need hinges on what stage of drafting your are at.


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