What to give a writer for Christmas, Part V: before you shell out the dosh


The water is pretty nicely contained now (as here, in a container in my back yard — and yes, I’ll get off the photography kick soon) up Seattle way. I’m told, though, that the area around Chehalis is still pretty frightening, and that if you want to drive from here to Portland, you sort of have to drive a couple of hundred miles out of your way onto the other side of a mountain range to do it. Not pretty.

Speaking of the other side of the Cascades: don’t forget, Spokane-area writers, that I will be giving a talk on how to avoid common rejection triggers TOMORROW (Thursday, December 6th) at the Old Country Buffet, 5504 N. Division, at 11 AM. A good time should be had by all, and I have it on good authority that there will be informative handouts. For particulars, please visit the Spokane Authors & Self-Publishers’ website.

Last time, I suggested to Santa — and anyone else who might be listening — 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 closed until I can make it through a full working day without a nap. The book doctor is, therefore, out.)

But not just any editorial service from any editor will do: pick one with a background in your type of book.

Why? Well, since writing norms vary quite a bit amongst book categories, good developmental editors usually 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 anyone with experience will have developed a 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 via phone or via e-mail, 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. I went over the different levels of editing yesterday; for further pondering direction, my editors’ guild has an excellent page of tips on how to find the right editor for you.

While most freelancers will be thrilled with the novelty of a 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:

– The book’s category

– How many pages it is in standard format. (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. 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.)

– How much of it you would like to be edited now (it’s not a bad idea to start with only the first few chapters, to get a feel for the experience)

– When you would like the editing to be completed

– Whether there is currently a deadline hanging over it (of which, more below)

– Whether you prefer feedback on hard copy (usually a little cheaper) or on a computer document

– What kind of word processing program you use (that can be important for attachments)

– The book’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 answering your questions and give 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!” )

During your preliminary interactions, you’re going to want 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. Does the freelancer have a genre specialty, for instance? What does she read for fun? Does she write in the margins, or prefer giving feedback electronically, in the text itself? Does she provide a write-up about the book instead or in addition to marginalia? Does she charge extra for follow-up questions? (Most pros do.)

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

Ask, too, about her availability and average turn-around time. 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.

So if you know you have a deadline coming up — say, if a contest entry is due by a certain date — you’ll have better luck if you start editor-shopping early.

If you do find yourself in the market for last-minute feedback (say, to get requested materials out the door by a certain date), please bear in mind that unscheduled projects with ultra-quick turnarounds often require editors to inconvenience other clients and/or work double shifts.

For this reason, most freelancers charge extra for rush jobs — a 25% price bump is pretty standard — so it is worth your while to plan in advance. It’s also not unusual to ask for an advance deposit to book an editor’s time; you will want to find out up front whether there will be any additional charge if you need to push back your scheduled manuscript delivery date.

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 to be rather secretive about using the services of a freelance editor. (My work is hardly sub rosa, given how much I write about it here, but some of my clients’ agents would be fairly astonished to learn of my existence, I gather.)

Instead, 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, with sufficient advance notice, but do expect to pay for their time. (For a glimpse at average rates nationally, click here.)

This 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.

If you encounter a freelancer who seems to be charging too little, you might want to 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.

As you may see, my friends, finding the right editor for you may take a bit of searching, but the right fit is worth it. And finding that entails compare-and-contrast exercise that entails far more than 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.

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 track record, you honestly 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!

7 Replies to “What to give a writer for Christmas, Part V: before you shell out the dosh”

  1. Anne — My best to you tomorrow as you travel to Spokane. Here’s to a successful talk!

    Taking your earlier good advice to heart, I’ve posted on my website some very good tips on wrist health for writers. Please feel free to copy/steal any or all that you feel appropriate.

    Thanks also for the advice on freelance editors. I use a pro, but she loves my work too much. I need someone with a whip and a surly lip to help me from time to time. I’ll carefully read the tips you offer.

  2. Help, anyone – my expertise , I should say ‘lack of”, will now be exposed. I can’t open Anne’s pictures, or snapshots. I am using Windows xp but still I sit helpless and forlorn, unable to view. Be kind in responses, I hope this doesn’t violate the use of comments but I’d truly like to see what I’m unable to. Make sense??

    1. Hi Gordon,

      Anne’s pictures are routinely in tiff format, which isn’t an Internet-compatible format by default. You can view those in Windows Picture Viewer by right-clicking the images and saving them to your disk.

      Alternatively, if you have Apple’s Quicktime installed on your computer, it will open the images right in your browser — but they will be so tiny they are hard to see.

      Hope that helps,

      1. Sorry if everyone can’t see the pictures — the TIFF format is the default for snapshots on the Mac, and snapshots from existing pictures are what my blogging program requires. (Honest; it’s in the instructions.)

        I’m glad you let me know, Gordon, because I’m about to do a series of posts that will assume that people CAN see the pictures of actual pages of text. This gives me the heads-up to include Chris’ advice about how to open them in the posts themselves — so thank you, Chris.

        1. No problem, Anne! Also, you might bring it up with your webmaster, to see if he knows why JPEG images aren’t allowed. A lot of digital cameras take images in that format, so your blogging software might assume that as the default. Either way, I’d be shocked if blogging software didn’t support JPEG format images, if not also GIF and PNG. Your webmaster might know of a good, free image conversion/editing software package for the Mac. I know of plenty for the PC and a few for Linux, so there must be something for the Mac, too. Feel free to shoot me an email if there’s anything I can do to help with this (just offering — no insult intended to your webmaster).


          1. I’ll put it on the to-do list for sometime in the new year, when I have the energy to install and learn new software. At this point, though, it’s still pretty difficult to be posting on a regular basis at all (maintaining this blog is enormously time-consuming for a volunteer activity), so while I appreciate the suggestion and offer of help, the timing just isn’t right.

            Frankly, this doesn’t seem to be a problem that bugs many of my readers. I don’t think it is at all unreasonable to expect the ones with older operating systems to take a single extra step to view photos, considering how seldom I use them.

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