What to give a writer for Christmas, Part IV: the e-word


As you may see, the waters are at last receding — due, in large part, to the crew of drainage specialists who have been crawling all over our yard like ants all day, bless their busy hands. A writer lives in our basement mother-in-law apartment, you see, and thanks to yesterday’s bailing and today’s rerouting, she can once again wiggle her toes in relative dryness. Hooray!

Speaking of someone’s computer potentially being submerged without warning: when’s the last time you made a back up of your writing files? Is your most recent back-up someplace both accessible to you and moisture-safe?

I’m just asking.

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) on yesterday’s high-minded lecture about the value of time. However, it occurred to me in the dead of night that my season-long illness (and possible second season of further convalescence) is going to prevent my picking up any new clients for a while, I can talk about a really, really nice present that writers might like without running into potential conflict of interest.

So if you’re paying attention, Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (a.k.a. Santa), I’m going to talk about how to go about purchasing some freelance editing.

Actually, I had been thinking about writing on this topic for some time, ever since clever and humorous reader Gordon pointed out that I had not, contrary to expectation, ever gone over how one might go about seeking professional editing services. (I’d been laboring under the delusion that I had written about it fairly explicitly at least once, but apparently, all I did was refer folks to the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild.) Thanks for flagging me down, Gordon, because to the uninitiated, finding the right freelance editor for your work can be a tad on the difficult side.

Did I just hear some of you long-time readers out there 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, is every freelance editor.

Note the distinction: an editor and a freelance editor are 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 making requests for changes in the manuscript, they are not necessarily line edits: at a large publisher, correcting the grammar and flagging problems with flow is the province of the copyeditor. The editor tends to concentrate on big picture issues and shepherding the book through the sometimes quite bumpy road to publication.

Hey, somebody’s got to make the marketing and the production departments communicate, right?

A freelance editor, on the other hand, works for the author, helping get the book ready for submission. (Or, less frequently, assisting the author in implementing the editor’s sweeping requests by a specified deadline.) We 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.

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.

If you were starting to have ideas in that direction, Furtive NDGG, few freelance editors issue formal gift certificates — although it’s an interesting idea. However, I think it’s safe to say that 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.

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 $2-$3/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. 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 Santa 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 $35/hour and climbing to 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.

Ideally, a developmental editor comes into the project near the beginning of the writing process, but in practice, the author often has a complete draft in hand. 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.

Agents and editors don’t read like other people, you know: 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 happy.

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 it’s 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. 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, after all.

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!

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