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!

2 Replies to “Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part V: the dreaded e-word”

  1. One thing that occurs to a financially challenged person such as myself is having the first chapter given a high end edit. If that chapter catches the eye of a good agent, they might see past the imperfections of later chapters to the potential of the novel and help the author edit sucessive chapters.

    I was reading one of your interviews on Philip K. Dick. If your first ambition was to write science fiction, you might know what would grip an agent who represented science fiction better than the average freelance editor.

    1. You anticipated me, David — one of my upcoming suggestions is to get feedback on an excerpt. It can be a good idea for two reasons: if the early parts have problems, few agents or editors will keep reading past them, and if there are systemic problems that appear early on, a writer could potentially extrapolate from feedback to revise the rest of the book.

      However, I would caution anyone about assuming that in this ultra-tight market, any established (read: with enough connections not to be desperate) agent would be willing to take on a manuscript that had problems later on because s/he was so taken by the opening. Remember, Millicent’s goal in screening submissions is to find reasons to reject them; many, many manuscripts get rejected after page 200.

      Few agents are willing (or have the time) to perform editing — and those that do generally say so up front — although most will give some feedback after they’ve already signed a client. It’s usually substantive feedback to render a manuscript more marketable, rather than actual line feedback.

      That represents something of a sea change in the last 20 years, especially for SF/fantasy, a genre range that has traditionally rewarded authorial risk-taking more than others. (It’s also tended to attract agents and editors with a broader sense of what is plausible than other genres.) The more mainstream it has gotten, the more the expectations have come to conform with those of the industry in general.

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