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!

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