Working with an Editor: Are You Up for the Challenge?

Whether you’re submitting to literary agents for the first time or preparing to self-publish your book, you probably know the value of hiring an editor. Copyeditors are indispensable in that they not only correct errors, but they also create clarity and consistency; luckily, their changes tend to be easy to incorporate. Content editors, on the other hand, focus on big-picture issues like narrative arc and premise. Are you prepared to rethink such issues—or to have someone suggest that you do this in the first place? Here are four questions to ask yourself before you hire a content editor:

Are you ready for criticism?

Last year, I created a feedback form to send to my clients. I thought it would be helpful if, after receiving my notes, they answered a few brief questions regarding my editorial approach, turn-around time, pricing, etc. I even included a section in which they could write in suggestions. Just before I was about to send it out for the first time, I hesitated. What if I started giving preferential treatments to clients who gave me high ratings? Or what if a client wrote a harsh suggestion in the open comments section that prevented me from picking up my pen? Maybe there was a reason only corporations—not solo business owners—solicit feedback!

I never did send out that feedback form. As curious as I am to find out what my clients think of my advice, I also dread finding out. Maybe you feel the same way about your writing? When I was an acquiring editor, I’d have to pass on most submissions I received, so I’d try to soften the blow by explaining my reasoning in my decline letters. This would cause a delay in my response time, and one literary agent called me on it by saying something like, “I just need a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’—not a longwinded response.” After that, I starting writing brief, to-the-point pass letters, even though I knew they might sting. What if you—like this agent—just want to know if your manuscript is ready for representation, or not? If this is the case, maybe you don’t need a critique from an editor, and agents’ responses to your query letters will suffice? As for me—I learned that the best way to receive feedback is to observe how clients respond after I hand in my notes. If they come back for another service, then I’m pretty sure that they were pleased. And maybe one of these days, when my skin is thicker, I’ll ask them for specific comments.

Are you ready for the work it might involve?

Once when I was an in-house editor, I wanted to commission a seasoned author to write a sample for a book idea I planned to present at an acquisitions meeting. Our editor-in-chief suggested that I ask our legal department for specific wording on how to approach the situation. This would save us the trouble of having to draft a contract and discourage the writer from using the guidance I was providing in good faith to sell the idea to another publisher. The advice from members of our legal team was so thorough and helpful that Editorial started turning to them for all kinds of issues. But soon we were finding that incorporating their feedback into what should have been simple exchanges with authors and agents was both time-consuming and overly cautious. One editor remarked that every time we spoke to Legal, we were asking for trouble.

When you hire a freelance editor, you are, in a way, asking for the same. If we told you that your project was perfect as is—that you just needed to change a sentence or two and it would be ready to publish—we wouldn’t be doing our job. Writing a book is incredibly hard work, but revising a book—figuring out that delicate balance of backstory and plot in fiction, or making a case for your platform in nonfiction—is so much trickier. A seemingly simple change can affect the entire structure, and finessing one thread can introduce errors in another. If you’d rather not spend too much time on the revision process, you could consider hiring someone to be your co-writer or collaborator. Just remember that rewriting involves a very different kind of work than editing and commands a different, usually higher, fee.

Can you afford it?

Lately I’ve been receiving referrals from an agent I’ve known for many years. I’m thrilled that she’s encouraging her clients to work with an editor and feels that I’m the right fit for the task. The writers this agent sends me tend to be pleasant to deal with and determined to do whatever it takes to increase their chances of getting book deal. What concerns me, though, is that they might be hiring me only per her suggestion. As much as I admire these writers’ can-do attitude, I wouldn’t want anyone to spend money they don’t have to please their agent. Not only is hiring an editor expensive, but it provides no guarantees—just feedback that the writer may or may not agree with or have the time to follow.

If you’re at an early stage of your writing career, you can always work with an editor on a first draft only, so that he or she can help guide you in the right direction. After that, maybe you’ll want to share drafts of your book with a writing group, critique partner, or beta readers? Another possibility is to hire an editor only after you feel that your draft is ready to submit to agents and need a second opinion. Some freelance editors are willing to give a discount to students with a valid ID or to members of a certain association like SCBWI. Others work on a sliding scale. As for my approach—I’ve tried to make my pricing reasonable and offer a flat fee alternative to reviewing a full manuscript. Although I tend not to negotiate pricing, I have negotiated the payout when a writer’s financial situation has called for this. 

Do you want to make connections and get published?

Of course you want to make connections and get published—almost every writer does! And many freelance editors are well-connected, especially those of us who have worked at a major publishing company. The publishing industry is very small, so the chances that we have had lunch with or spoken on a panel with the agent of your dreams is fairly high. If we haven’t done a deal with this agent, a colleague we know with probably has.

Freelance editors understand how important it is for writers on the traditional track to land an agent, and we want nothing more than for you to land one, too. Your success indirectly affects ours. But if your main goal in hiring an editor is to get to their connections, the likelihood that you’ll get your money’s worth is low. I for one don’t put clients directly in touch with agents, but if we reach the point of having a phone discussion, you can ask me any questions you like. Also, most of us are happy to share resources to help writers narrow down their agent search

If you’d like to make connections, writers’ conferences are the ideal venue.  They too can be expensive, but they also provide an excellent opportunity to network with agents, acquiring editors, and like-minded writers. Just don’t forget that, although connections may speed up a response, they won’t necessarily help your manuscript get picked up, and they aren’t a replacement for what matters most to agents: quality writing. If this matters to you too, please let me know. I’m ready to take on the challenge of helping you improve your craft. Are you?