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!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part VI: what to find out before you shell out the dosh

It’s a mite stormy here in Seattle, the most snow, the old-timers and local talking heads say, since the 1970s. My lights keep flickering, and most of my neighbors seem to be either sledding or sloshing their way back from trips on foot to stock up on cat food and peanut butter. (My new office set up has a spectacular view of the environs.) Is it me, or did some great cruise director in the sky suddenly decree that ’tis not the season for shopping for non-necessities?

Myself, I’ve been running only frivolous errands, on general principle. In the face of semi-hysterical admonitions from state Department of Transportation officials, begging everyone who possibly can to stay far, far away from anything that remotely resembles a road, my SO and I have felt downright brave to have been out and about to meet friends for brunch. The restaurant was so empty that the hostess practically burst into tears when we walked in, and the manager declared that happy hour had been extended to the entire day.

I’m as pleased as anyone to be regaled with half-price crab-and-artichoke dip, but I couldn’t help but wonder what these days on end of Seattlites staying home meant for the local economy. Was everyone who intended to purchase last-minute presents wrapped up in blankets at home, huddled over computer terminals and praying that somewhere out there was a company that would deliver through the proverbial sleet, snow, and dark of night? Or were folks just throwing up their hands and returning the wrapping paper to storage until next year?

Let me tell you, it made me feel pretty smug for having spent yesterday’s post on a present that not only can consist of a handwritten card saying that the giver intends to pay for X amount of freelance editing for the recipient, but probably should, because this is the type of present a writer will want to pick out for herself.

For those of you scratching your heads, wondering what on earth I’m talking about, last time, I suggested to the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver — and anyone else who might be biting his or her nails, wondering what to give loved ones that would not involve braving half a foot of snow to purchase — that some freelance editing might make an unusual-but-useful gift for the writer in one’s life. (To forestall suspicions of self-interest here: my client list is already full for 2009. The book doctor is, therefore, out.)

But not just any editorial service from any editor will do: a savvy writer will want to pick one with an extensive background working with a specific type of book.

Why? Well, since writing norms vary quite a bit amongst book categories, and what is and isn’t considered a cliché can vary even more, good developmental editors usually overtly specialize in certain types of books, far more than line editors or proofreaders do. But the fact is, even if they do not advertise themselves that way, almost any editor with experience will have developed at least a genre preference over time.

As I mentioned yesterday, while any good editor can make a manuscript conform to the overarching rules of English grammar, substantive or developmental editing — or even heavy copyediting — writing advice from someone with a truly firm grounding in the SPECIFIC expectations for YOUR type of book is going to be of more practical use to you.

So it’s a good idea to check in advance whether the freelancer you’re considering has experience with your type of manuscript, regardless of the level of editing needed. Or, for that matter, any philosophies of editing or reading habits that may conflict with your notion of what the book should be.

And that, my friends, is going to entail asking a few pointed questions.

A word to the wise: determining this is going to require some conversation with potential freelancers, either by phone or via e-mail (a better idea, as you will have a written record of the terms discussed), and I assure you, you will be much, much, MUCH happier during that conversation if you have already given some serious thought to what you want to get out of the editor-author relationship.

While most freelancers will be thrilled with the novelty of a potential client whose opening line is more complex than, “Um, I need an editor; what do you charge?” the conversation will go more smoothly if you (or Santa, if this is a gift, although I recommend leaving the final choice of editor up to the writer) have a few specific pieces of information already at your fingertips. Heck, you might even want to include them in the initial e-mail:

1. What’s the book’s category?
Yes, I am talking about the same information you would include in a query letter, pitch, or on your title page. As in a query letter or pitch, subsequent conversation with a freelance editor tends to be more productive if you stick to the established book categories, rather than a seven-page synopsis. (If you’re unfamiliar with the hows and whys of selecting a book category, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section on the list at right.)

Why use the professional designation, and why should you mention it first? To save yourself time, mostly : if a reputable freelance editor is approached to work on a type of book he’s never edited before, or with which he has scant experience, or which he doesn’t even like to read in his spare time, he will say so up front.

2. What level of editing are you seeking?
Professional editing services range from simple proofreading (to catch spelling and grammatical errors, period) to line editing (for formatting, consistency, sense, and to avoid repetition) to developmental editing (in-depth diagnosis the manuscript’s problems, taking into account current market trends). I went over the different levels yesterday; for further pondering directions, my editors’ guild has an excellent page of tips on how to find the right level of editing for you.

Sometimes, aspiring writers will want an editor to read the entire manuscript and write the equivalent of an editorial memo at a publishing house, giving very general advice about what needs to be changed. While there are editors who do this, experienced ones tend not to offer this service, for the simple reason that it’s a pretty time-consuming enterprise: to make a profit at it without rendering a read-through prohibitively expensive, a pro would have to skim — not the best level of reading for catching serious problems.

3. How many pages is the manuscript?
We’re talking about pages in standard format, of course — and in case anyone’s forgotten, that’s double-spaced, single-sided pages in 12-point font with 1-inch margins AND two spaces after each period. Most good editors will not consider working with single-spaced manuscripts.

The reason any editor will want to know the length immediately is to make quick mental calculations about how long it will take to edit. (PS: with pretty much any level of editing, your adhering closely to the rules of standard format in the manuscript will make it less time-consuming — and thus less expensive, typically — to edit.)

3a. How much of the manuscript would you like edited?
While most seekers of professional feedback prefer to have an editor take a gander at an entire work, that’s not the only option. It’s not a bad idea to start with only the first few chapters, to get a feel for the experience — or, if funds are tight, only the first chapter.

4. When you would like the editing to be completed?
If your first instinct is to answer, “Why, right away, of course,” do be aware that an experienced editor with a good reputation will often be booked up months in advance. Some freelancers will build flexibility into their schedules to accommodate rush projects, but a 20%-30% rush fee is fairly standard for this piece of convenience.

Why? Well, unscheduled projects with ultra-quick turnarounds often require editors to inconvenience other clients and/or work double shifts.

It is worth your while to plan in advance. So if you wanted your FNDGG to give you editing assistance on a contest entry that is due, say, in mid-February and wanted to avoid a rush fee, you should be approaching editors now, not in early February.

4a. Is there currently an externally-imposed deadline hanging over this project, in addition to your desired turn-around time?
You’d be AMAZED at how often editing clients neglect to mention that their agents are expecting a revised draft by the end of the month, or that they intend to enter the first chapter of the manuscript in a contest three weeks from now. Being up front with this information will render it easier for the editor to help you meet your deadlines.

5. How would you prefer to receive feedback?
Unless you are seeking only the most basic proofreading, a reputable freelance editor will not make her suggested corrections directly in your soft copy; since most editorial feedback results in considerable revision, doing so could raise ethical problems or even questions about who actually wrote any given sentence. Thus, a freelance editor will want to give you feedback so that you may make the suggested revisions.

Specify whether you would prefer feedback on hard copy (usually a little cheaper, if the editor charges by the hour) or as parenthetical comments on a computer document. Do be prepared for the editor to insist upon the former, since it is so easy to transfer computer viruses through attachments.

If the editor works in hard copy, expect to print it out yourself, rather than e-mailing it and having the editor print it for you.

5a. If you plan to submit in soft copy, what kind of word processing program do you use, with what operating system?
This is important to include, for the sake of attachments. The industry standard is MS Word, so you should definitely tell a potential editor up front if you use anything else.

It’s NEVER a good idea to assume that anyone who deals in manuscripts for a living — and this includes agents and editors at publishing houses — is using the same operating system you are. To minimize the probability of translation problems, save Word documents in Rich Text Format before sending them. (It’s one of the format choices under the SAVE AS… menu.)

6. What is the manuscript’s submission history?
Has it been seen by many agents? Publishing houses? A particularly vicious writers’ group? No one but your dear old white-headed mother?

Having this information up front will assist the editor in assessing what your manuscript needs and answering your questions, as well as giving you a common language to discuss the project in question. (Not to mention making the freelancer think spontaneously, “Oh, thank goodness: this one isn’t vague. What a welcome change!” )

7. Do you have any specific goals in mind for your next revision?
If you feel you need to chop 200 pages from your 600-page manuscript, this is the time to mention it. Ditto if you seek to make your manuscript fit more comfortably to your chosen book category, are trying to render it more marketable to agents, or have had agents tell you your premise is implausible.

8. Will you also want the editor to help you polish your query letter and/or synopsis, or to suggest agents who might be interested in this particular book?
Not all freelancers will do any of the above, but it’s worth asking if it’s a possibility.

Seems like a lot to think about before approaching a pro, doesn’t it? Well, it is — but if I have one principle in life, it’s not to waste the time of people who charge by the hour.

During your preliminary interactions, you’re going to want to ask questions, too. Your goal here should be to elicit enough information to make substantive (and not merely cost-based) distinctions between the editors you’re interviewing, so get specific with the questions. Some good ones to get you started:

1. Does the freelancer have a genre specialty?

2. How much experience does s/he have with your book category?

3. What does s/he read for fun?

4. What is her average turn-around time for a book-length project?

5. Does s/he write in the margins, or prefer giving feedback electronically, in the text itself?

6. Does s/he provide a write-up about the book instead or in addition to marginalia?

7. Does s/he charge extra for follow-up questions? (Most pros do.)

8. Does s/he require a deposit to reserve time in advance, and what is his or her policy on refunds if a pre-scheduled project is canceled? Will there be any additional charge if you need to push back your scheduled manuscript delivery date?

Ask, too, about her availability. Don’t be surprised if she’s booked a few months in advance; although there are sometimes last-minute cancellations, the more experience an editor has, generally speaking, the less likely a brand-new client is to be able to book her time within the next month.

Rest assured, none of this is pushy; it’s is perfectly acceptable to ask a potential editor about her background, methodology, and policies. If she’s brand-new to editing, these questions may surprise her, but most of this information is standard first-meeting stuff.

Don’t be surprised if the editor who sounds like a great fit suddenly turns a bit cagey on the subject of references. It may not be by choice: it’s not uncommon for published authors and even merely the agented to be rather secretive about using the services of a freelance editor.

I’m quite serious about this: my work is hardly sub rosa, given how much I write about it here, but some of my clients’ agents and publishers would be fairly astonished to learn of my existence. Some published authors don’t even thank their personal editors in their acknowledgments.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to find out how experienced any editor you approach actually is, particularly in the current slow economy: published authors with no editorial experience whatsoever do occasionally out their shingles as book doctors. Sometimes, these folks are talented feedback-givers, but do be aware that the mere fact of having a book or story in print doesn’t necessarily guarantee that.

Why? Well, think about it: since the published generally have agents and editors looking over their manuscripts, telling them what to change, they may not have much experience editing even their own work. And as any professional editor, freelance or otherwise, would me more than happy to tell you in confidence, plenty of books come to publication only after a whole lot of in-house editorial assistance.

Instead of requesting references, consider asking if she would edit 5 or 10 pages as a work sample before you commit to a longer project. Most freelancers will do this happily, given sufficient advance notice, but do expect to pay full price for their time. (For a glimpse at average rates nationally, click here.)

An editing sample will give you considerably more information about how the editor works — and, after all, fit between editor and client is EXTREMELY important. An editor — freelance or otherwise — not familiar with the norms of your book category can actually harm your end product, and since everyone gives feedback slightly differently, it will save you both time and money in the long run if you do some comparison shopping to find someone who can give you professional-level feedback in the manner that will be easiest for you to incorporate it into your book.

It’s also a rather straightforward way for the shy to gain a sense of precisely how any given editor likes to approach a manuscript, what services he provides, and how much each part of it will cost. It’s worth your time to make some rate comparisons, if only to find what the local prevailing rates are.

Do be prepared, though, to pay the local market rates for what you expect to get, not only because it is fair, but also because many experienced freelancers will walk away from a negotiation if they feel that a potential client is trying to haggle down to the very last second. (Since post-service haggling is not unheard-of, most freelance editors require clients to sign a contract.)

If you encounter a freelancer who seems to be charging too little, be wary. An inexperienced editor might well not be aware yet how long giving feedback can take, and thus under-price himself — but a low price may also be an indication of an experienced editor who habitually gives minimal feedback, relying on volume to make a living. At both ends of the spectrum, then, it makes a great deal of sense to ask for a very specific indication of what to expect from the feedback.

If you’re genuinely not sure what the kind of editing you would like to receive should cost, consider posting your project on a freelance editors’ association’s job board and asking for bids. (The Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild has a dandy job board, very easy to use.) Be sure to include the full list of preliminary information above (okay, you can save the bit about how much you’ve shopped the book around until a later communication), and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions of those who respond.

Do I hear some put-upon sighs out there? “But Anne,” some harried souls cry, “isn’t the point of this to make my life EASIER? Tracking down a good freelance editor sounds like almost as much work as pulling together a list of agents to query!”

Well, not quite, but admittedly, finding the right editor for you may take a bit of searching beyond just checking who charges what, or even what credentials various candidates have. It involves taking the time to find an editor who loves your kind of book and who has the skills to make your manuscript the best it can possibly be.

Ultimately, though, a good fit is worth the effort. When it comes right down to it, your work is too important to go into ANY critique relationship blindly. Just as you don’t want any random agent to represent you, regardless of sales record, trust me, you don’t want just ANY freelance editor to advise you about your book. (Or just any writers’ group, for that matter.)

Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit about why enlisting a pro’s help might be a good idea, along with some indication of what you should and shouldn’t expect. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part V: the dreaded e-word

I was going to end my sneakily double-edged series on gifts to give writers (and gifts writers can give themselves that might help them, you know, WRITE) this weekend with a high-minded lecture about the value of freeing up time for that noble endeavor. However, it occurred to me in the dead of night that my book doctoring business is booked up far enough in advance at this point that I can talk about a really, really nice present that writers might like — and which, like the other tidbits I have so far mentioned, might actually help their careers in the long run — without the appearance of devolving into self-promotion.

So please pay attention, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver: today’s post will give you some pointers on how to go about purchasing some freelance editing.

Why might a talented writer be pleased to receive a touch of professional feedback? To put it bluntly, because the vast majority of aspiring writers create in a vacuum, free of any feedback at all, or at any rate free of useful feedback that might prepare a manuscript for the microscopic-level scrutiny a successful book must undergo before landing an agent or publishing contract. Getting the professional opinion of someone well-versed in both the ins and outs of good writing and the vagaries of a particular book category BEFORE subjecting it to the scathing, hyper-critical eye of an agent, editor, or contest judge can save a writer a whole lot of heartache — and sometimes speed up the agent-finding stage of a career considerably.

Which is precisely why this is an area where a non-writer gift-giver, or even a writer who has never worked with an editor before, could usually use a bit of guidance. To the uninitiated, finding the right freelance editor, as opposed to just some yahoo with a green pencil and a desire to tell other people what to do, can be a tad on the difficult side.

Translation: this is not the kind of service for which an eager FNDGG can simply spend 15 minutes online purchasing a gift certificate. Few freelance editors issue formal gift certificates — although it’s an interesting idea. However, I don’t know a single one who would turn down an editing job just because someone other than the author proposes to pay for it.

This means, unfortunately for those who like genuine surprises to await them under a certain well-lit and -decorated tree, that this is the kind of present that a writer is almost certainly going to want to pick out for herself.

Did I just hear some of my long-time readers groaning? Yes, you’re quite right: I AM about to say that just as not every agent is the best fit for any given book, neither is every editor. Nor, more to the point and contrary to what some book doctors promise, is every freelance editor.

Note the distinction: an editor and a freelance editor are most emphatically not the same thing.

An editor, generally speaking, works for a publishing house and is, often, the person responsible for acquiring books for the house to publish. While this role usually entails writing the editorial memo requesting pre-publication changes to the manuscript, an editor will not necessarily line-edit: at a large publisher, correcting the grammar and flagging problems with flow is the province of the copyeditor, who typically doesn’t get her mitts on the pages until after the requested editorial changes have already been made.

I just heard hundreds of jaws hitting the floor simultaneously, didn’t I? Not too surprising: the common conception of editing is not most of what your garden-variety editor does.

Some do still prefer to do their own copyediting, of course, but for the most part, the editor concentrates on big-picture issues and shepherding the book through the sometimes quite bumpy road to publication.

Hey, somebody’s got to encourage the marketing and the production departments to communicate about your book, right?

A freelance editor, on the other hand, typically works for the author, helping get the book ready for submission. For the record, freelance editors do not acquire books — so those of you out there who persist in sending me pitches for books in the hope I will publish them, cut it out, please — nor do we, unless specifically requested, edit toward a particular publisher’s likes and dislikes.

A good freelancer who specializes in your book category can, however, show you how to make a manuscript appeal to what’s selling in that market now. Sometimes this is merely a matter of proofreading; sometimes it is a matter of radical reconstruction. What is required varies from manuscript to manuscript, book category to book category, and sometimes even targeted agent to targeted agent.

We’ve also been known to assist authors in implementing the editor’s sweeping requests by a specified, often very tight deadline, but mostly, freelance editors do what agents and editors at publishing houses used to do routinely: dig into manuscripts up to our elbows to root out problems and suggest practical means to render books better able to survive in the current super-competitive market.

Think of a freelance editor as a consultant who can give tips on whipping a book into market shape. Or, at the more intense levels of the biz, as a diagnostician who can figure out why a particular manuscript has been getting rejected. There’s good reason that the super-particular ones like me are known as book doctors.

Like other types of doctors, the more intensive the remedy required, the more likely experienced freelance editors are to specialize — which is why just opening the Yellow Pages to editing and calling the first business listed, doing a generic online search, or bidding because a particular editing service is going for cheap on eBay is probably not going to You wouldn’t want a dentist to take out your appendix, would you?

Be warned, however: what such services cost can vary quite a bit, depending upon what a particular manuscript needs. Straightforward proofreading tends to be quite inexpensive, because it’s relatively speedy for an experienced editor to do; expect to pay in the neighborhood of $3-5/page.

Line editing (also known as copyediting) is all about clarity and presentation, and is thus a great choice for a writer unfamiliar with the norms of submission or in question about grammar. Line editing involves both proofreading AND giving advice on how to rearrange sentences and paragraphs to maximize readability, so it takes far more time to do.

And that, believe it or not, is the good news.

Why? Well, a good editor will read and reread compulsively, remembering that on page 272 that you used that same phrase on page 28. Since this type of manuscript problem is virtually impossible for a writer to catch for himself, and since agents, editors, and contest judges tend to have similarly retentive memories for text, a freelancer’s compulsion to spend a few extra minutes keeping track of repetitions may be exceptionally useful.

The less-good news is that how much line editing any given manuscript needs varies almost infinitely, so even the best freelance editor may need to give the book a once-over before even being able to give you an estimate. However, to keep your from wandering around in the dark unassisted, the Editorial Freelancers Association has a nifty chart that will give you some indication of hourly rates for different services.

The stated rates aren’t binding, mind you, but it will at least give your FNDGG some indication of what he’s committing himself to shell out.

Developmental editing is the top of the product line, as it were, beginning at around $45/hour and climbing to much, much more, depending upon the editor’s experience, client list, and willingness to drop everything to counsel writers through midnight crises of faith. Typically, it encompasses both proofing and line editing, but also entails working with the author to correct overarching writing problems and refining the book on every level to tailor it to its intended target market.

And that, you guessed it, can take quite a bit of time, depending on how market-ready the manuscript already is. A good developmental editor will flag anything and everything in a manuscript that might conceivably make an agent or editor familiar with the book category hesitate for even a moment over the page. With that level of scrutiny, it’s not unusual to give feedback on practically every line of the book , so a developmental editor sometimes will spend hours on a single page.

Yes, you read that correctly. I wasn’t kidding about its being spendy. I sometimes blush when printing out my invoices.

Ideally, a developmental editor would come into the project near the beginning of the writing process, but in practice, the author often has a draft already completed. The more fundamental the changes you’re willing to make, generally speaking, the more you’ll like working with a developmental editor: it’s the closest a writer without a book contract in hand can come to the micro-level reading a manuscript will get before being picked up by a publisher.

As I MAY have mentioned once or twice before, agents and editors don’t read like other people: they read line by line, at least for the early parts of a submission, their little antennae alert for red flags. An experienced developmental editor can teach you how to keep those antennae happily swinging in the passing breeze.

Oh, then there’s substantive editing, which falls between line editing and developmental editing in both content and price. It, too, involves massaging a manuscript until the potential problems fall out. However, while a developmental editor will typically make all kinds of suggestions about different directions in which a particular scene could be taken, a strictly substantive editor will only work with what is already there.

To put it another way, a substantive editor comments on what is; a developmental editor works to make a book what it could be.

The line between the two sounds kind of slippery in theory, doesn’t it? I assure you, that’s only because the distinction is nebulous in practice. Many editor-seeking writers who begin looking for a substantive edit end up wanting — or needing — developmental services, so substantive is not a category every freelance editor recognizes.

Confused? I’d be surprised if you weren’t. Happily, my editors’ guild has been kind enough to post a blow-by-blow of the differences between the levels of editing for your dining, dancing, and comparison-shopping pleasure.

Given the broad range of services (and pricetags) available, it would behoove a writer thinking about hiring a freelance editor (or a Furtive NDGG thinking about doing so for someone else) to give some serious thought to the level and specificity of feedback a manuscript really needs. After all, if you just want to know that your book is free of grammatical and spelling problems, it doesn’t make sense to shell out for developmental editing — but if your manuscript has the literary equivalent of whooping cough, a simple proofing is not going to make that cough go away.

Do I see some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “I’ve never gotten professional feedback before. How can I tell what level of editing my book needs?”

Good question, disembodied voices, but shouldn’t you be off caroling somewhere? Isn’t it getting to be eggnog time in your part of the world?

In short, I’ll tackle the thorny issue tomorrow. Keep up the good work!