Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VII: a few last words about what professional feedback will actually entail, or, what if a manuscript isn’t practically perfect in every way?

For the last couple of posts, I have been talking about yet another present the legendary Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver might want to consider for the aspiring writers on his list: a few hours’ worth (or a few hundred pages’ worth) of professional editing. As I demonstrated last time, not all freelance editors will be equally good fits for every project, so you will probably want to do a bit of comparison shopping, rather than simply looking for the most feedback for the least money. Because the levels of professional editing are quite different, both in content and in price, it will also behoove you to make sure in advance PRECISELY what services you are buying.

Before you give your FNDGG a subtle hint that your manuscript might appreciate a bit of a post-holiday tune-up, however, and definitely before either of you invest what can be quite a bit of money in the editing process, I would definitely advise pausing to give some thought to not only what services you want to buy, but why you want to buy them.

Or, to put it another way, as a writer, what precisely do you you want to get out of the experience? Other than to be picked up by an agent and/or sell the book to a publisher immediately after taking the freelancer’s advice, of course.

Actually, you should be wary if a freelancer promises that — or anything that implies such a promise. Reputable editors are very, very careful in describing how a manuscript might benefit from their assistance. Since freelance editors stand outside the agency and publishing house, none of us can legitimately make promises that any specific advice we give will unquestionably result in landing an agent or eventual publication.

And if you encounter anyone who tells you otherwise, run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit. As on the Internet, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Let the buyer beware.

While I’m waving the warning flag, you should also be wary if an agency demands that writers shell out for professional editing reports as a condition of considering the manuscript, or charges for in-house editing, or if an agent responds to a submission by telling a writer not only that the manuscripts needs professional editing, but only from a specific editing company. All of these can be signs that the agency makes its money not by selling its clients’ books, but through payments from aspiring writers, not a good sign. (For more on how to tell a fee-charging agency from a non-fee-charging one, please see the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category on the list at right.)

Back to the business at hand: what, you’re probably wondering at this point, can a freelance editor legitimately offer you?

Well, among other things, perhaps answers about why a submission boasting a really good premise and good writing has been getting rejected. Remember, most manuscripts are rejected within the first page or two, for reasons that might not be apparent to the lay reader. A professional reader well versed in the writing norms of a particular book category or genre can often give substantial insight into how to tweak a manuscript to avoid pitfalls.

Call me zany, but I suspect that there are many, many aspiring writers out there who would like to be told if a fixable problem is triggering all of those form-letter rejections that don’t specify what went wrong.

(Are you listening, Furtive NDGG? You’ve already checked that list twice; leave it alone and pay attention.)

To bolster the egos I felt sagging during the last few paragraphs: not having some magical internal sensor that tells one just what the problem is most emphatically not a reflection upon one’s writing talent. Spotting a manuscript’s weaknesses is usually a matter of experience, pure and simple.

Here, a professional reader has a jump on the average writer. Agents and editors don’t read like everyone else, and neither do good freelance editors. Our eyes are trained to jump on problems like…well, insert any predator-prey analogy you like here.

The point is, we’re fast, and our aim is deadly.

Since manuscripts are now expected to be completely publication-ready by the time they reach an agent’s desk — although they are frequently revised afterward — getting professional feedback can be exceptionally helpful in whipping your work into publishable shape. Contrary to widespread belief amongst the aspiring, there is more to being publishable than merely being a good story well-written.

Which is why, as I mentioned yesterday, you’re going to want to find an editor with experience working with books in your category, if you are going to invest in editing more complex than proofreading. An editor familiar with the tropes, structures, and market trends in your book’s category is going to be able to help you better than one who does not.

You want to be able to trust the feedback you get, don’t you?

While I’m on the subject of trust, and since today is apparently my day of dire-sounding warnings, I should put the Furtive NDGGs out there on the qui vive: like editors at publishing houses, agents, and other professional readers, good freelance editors have to be quite explicit about what is wrong with a manuscript in order to do their jobs well. Writers new to having their work edited are often astounded, and even hurt, by just HOW straightforward professional feedback can be.

Think about that very, very carefully before you give this particular present.

Really, any writer contemplating hiring a professional editor should give some thought to just how much honesty s/he actually wants. Like an agent or editor at a publishing house, a good freelance editor is not going to pull any punches — amongst those who work with manuscripts for a living, it’s considered downright silly to beat around the bush. The manner of conveying the information may be kind, but if any of them believe that a particular writing issue is going to harm your book’s market prospects, they are going to tell you so point-blank.

That is, after all, what they are being paid to do.

That may seem self-evident, but in practice, seeing one’s own manuscript carved up by a pro can be pretty nerve-wracking. Obviously, if a writer is going to be given necessary critique, it’s quite a bit less traumatic to hear it from an editor whose job it is to help improve it than from an agent who is rejecting the book, but if one is not prepared to be told that a book has problems, it’s bound to be upsetting no matter who says it.

This response is, of course, completely understandable. Serious manuscript feedback generally isn’t fun even when it’s free and/or eagerly solicited. While the brain may understand that critique is a good idea, the emotions often hold the opposite opinion. Even authors with years of experience in accepting professional feedback have been known to become a trifle upset when told to alter their manuscripts.

Going into the editing process aware that the point of it is to ferret out manuscript problems, and as such is bound to be upsetting, then, tends to make it easier on the writer. Conversely, someone who approaches the process primarily seeking ego reassurance from someone in the biz that his work is fine as it stands is almost invariably going to be disappointed — and probably rather angry as well.

Did I sense some guffawing out there? “Oh, come on, Anne,” some self-confident sorts scoff. “We’re talking about writers who are willing to pay a professional editor to give them feedback. Isn’t it safe to assume that anyone likely to do that actually wants honest, well-informed critique? You make it sound as though there are aspiring writers who go to all of the trouble and expense of hiring a freelancer purely because they want to be told that their manuscripts are, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, oh guffawing scoffers, but isn’t that precisely what pretty much every writer currently wandering the earth’s crust wants to hear about his or her own work, subconsciously, at least? After all, most of us write in the hope and expectation that someone will pay US to read our work, not that we will need to pay someone to read it.

The result: pretty much every freelance editor who has been at it a while will have at least one story about the writer who showed up swearing that he wanted no-holds-barred, professional-level feedback — and then freaked out the instant he got it, because he hadn’t expected to be told to change his manuscript.

Oh, you may laugh, but actually, taking the fruits of the editorial process personally — whether the feedback comes from a freelance editor, an agent or publishing house, the essential pattern’s tends to be same — is a notoriously common writerly response to a first brush with professional feedback. Before anyone rushes to judge those who react this way, the hurt usually stems not from rampant egomania or even (as folks in the industry not infrequently diagnose it) from a frantic possessiveness over one’s precious arrangement of words.

No, in my experience, it usually stems from something far more easily fixed: a confluence of unrealistic expectations about how authors are typically treated and not understanding that the industry views criticism as an impersonal means of improving the marketability of a manuscript.

I am reminded of M.F.K. Fisher’s story about being solicited to write a preface for a charity cookbook — you know, one of those collections of recipes that were so popular as fundraisers in the 1970s, in which well-to-do local matron share the secrets behind their potluck-famous pineapple upside-down cakes and tuna surprise. The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came to visit Fisher, a neighbor of theirs, in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause, so she donated her expertise.

Well (the story goes), Fisher very kindly took the draft book from them and had a good, professional look through it. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies.

All of the things, in short, that professional writers and editors automatically flag in a manuscript.

When she paused for breath, she noticed that the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas from a professional point of view, she had been paying them the huge (and possibly undeserved) compliment of taking their project seriously.

Yes, yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. But as I have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about ‘em.

The fact is, from a professional perspective, whitewashing an editorial opinion about a manuscript is a waste of everyone’s time. In a freelance editor’s feedback, it would border on unethical.

For those of you who think that this mindset sounds like a pretty fine reason to steer clear of anyone who might be tempted or empowered to pay this particular stripe of compliment, let me hasten to add: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; in the long run, you will be much, much happier if develop it as part of your tool kit.

Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already have it up your sleeve. This is precisely why your dream agent should not be the first human being to set eyes on your work.

If you do not have experience rolling with harsh-but-true feedback, it is well worth your while to join a very critical writing group, or take a writing class from a real dragon, or (why didn’t I think of this before?) show some of your work to a freelance editor, before you send your work to an agent.

Trust me, it is much, much easier to accept suggestions on how to revise your work gracefully when your critiquer is NOT the person who is going to decide whether to take you on as a client or acquire your book. The stakes are lower, so it’s less stressful by far.

Getting used to the feedback experience alone is a pretty good reason to run at least part of your manuscript — say, the first 50 pages — across a freelance editor’s desk; that way, you can learn just how touchy you are at base, and work on developing the vital-for-authors skill of responding constructively, rather than with anger. Since, again, the stakes are lower, even if the critique makes you see red for a month, you can afford to take the time to blow your stack privately without running afoul of an agent- or editor-induced deadline.

Hey, that’s how published authors usually handle it.

Which brings me to my final piece of advice on the subject: if you are brand-new to textual feedback, or if the potential cost of having all 542 pages of your baby edited makes your head spin, there’s no earthly reason that you need to jump into professional-level feedback with both feet right off the bat. (I’m sure I could have mixed a few more metaphors there, but you catch my drift, I’m sure.)

Consider starting with the first chapter, or the first few chapters, and working up from there. Or even just your query letter, synopsis, or any other material an agent may have asked you to submit.

This may sound as though I’m advising you to feed yourself to a school of piranha one toe at a time, but hear me out. One of the toughest lessons that every successful writer has to learn is that, regardless of how much we may wish it otherwise, agents don’t pick up books simply because someone wrote them. Nor do publishing houses offer contracts to books primarily because their authors really, really feel strongly about them.

These are the first steps to becoming a professional author, but they are not the only ones. The pros learn not only to write, but to rewrite — and yes, to take some pretty stark criticism in stride in the process. Not because having one’s words dissected is fun on a personal level, but because that is what the business side of this business expects from the creative side.

Seeing your book in print is worth learning to live with that, isn’t it? The alternative, pretending that a manuscript that keeps getting rejected is already practically perfect in every way, may be appealing in the short run, but in the long run can prove a formidable stumbling-block on the already quite bumpy road to publication.

Next time, I shall try to wrap up my series on gifts for writers. After that, perhaps, I shall indulge in some discussion about gifts writers can give to themselves. Speaking of which, lest the less well-heeled out there have been gnawing on their nails throughout the last few posts, wishing that professional feedback were within their reach right now, don’t despair: I shall soon be talking about ways in which writers can scare up some genuinely useful feedback gratis. It requires investing more time and effort than simply paying a good freelance editor, of course, but it is definitely doable.

Whichever route you choose, stay warm, everybody, and keep up the good work!

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