by David Carr
David Carr is a book editor from the San Francisco Bay Area here in California. His last article for TheBookDesigner was Dear Author: Deciding on a Voice. Today he turns to a problem that many authors confront when they decide to self-publish: how do you find just the right editor?
The editing process for a book or article is not just a matter of turning over your manuscript for correction. Generally there are two aspects for an editor to consider—the structure and the writing (each with several editorial considerations).
It is definitely easier for an editor if you’ve written from an outline or mind map (my recommendation these days is XMind.net—it’s free, and it creates both a visual and a linear [outline] format at the same time, so you can work in whichever mode is more comfortable for you—I like to map visually, but write following the outline) or from a plotmap that includes every character, setting, and time sequence for each chapter (Excel is fine for this).
Most writers wait until the first draft is polished (or unable to be polished because they’ve lost their thread). Consider having an editorial collaborator early in the process to make it faster, and likely less expensive in the end. That’s because it’s time consuming to tear a “finished” book apart to look at the structure if it isn’t working.
Build the outline or plot together, filling in as much detail as you can. Talk over what will work and what won’t and why. The benefit is that with a good map of where your piece is going, you have already thought through every angle so that the process of writing is simply a matter of dressing up “good bones.”
The Editor’s Different Roles
Once the structure is solid, the editor changes hats (some editors have one or two hats, some have as many as Imelda had shoes) and looks at your use of language. There’s no point in doing this first because there might be the need for extensive rewriting. Their evaluation considers audience, point of view, voice, complexity, richness, and so on.
Before you start looking for an editor, define where you are in your process and what you need from an editor:
- Support with the logical flow or structure of your material
- Coaching to develop your material
- Verifying content (someone who is broadly read and educated and has critical thinking and even research skills)
- Keeping you committed to the writing process, exploring blocks
- Refinement of your writing
- Proper grammar, punctuation, formatting
Some editors are skilled at structure, few at coaching, and not many can develop a distinctive “voice,” or enrich language brilliantly. Many more can correct for good grammar.
But don’t let grammar override your voice. Inflection and grammar are not always compatible, so make sure to specify your audience so your editor can tell whether your vocabulary, tone and inflection are appropriate. Proofreading is a specialized skill.
Finding the “Just Right” Editor
Finding an editor who is right for you is a delicate matter. First seek recommendations: ask other writers, who are often the best judges. Check Acknowledgements of books you admire, also a good source for the names of agents. Many of the editors you’ll find there are on the staff of the publisher—you are looking for a freelance editor.
There are also websites which provide editing services, and they will often edit a chapter for free so you can get a flavor for what they would do with your text. Go ahead and compare them, too—the nature of English is that coming from both Germanic and Romantic roots, we have two vocabularies and two grammars leading to the possibility of exquisite nuancing of ideas.
From what I’ve seen, these folks do not work on structure, only on language use and grammar. Please don’t interpret this remark as a racial slur: beware of India-based editors—Indian English is a distinct dialect and I have yet to find any of these folks sufficiently conversant with nuances of contemporary American usage.
Choosing an Editor
Check their website for content and tone. Who are their references? What do those people say? Ask for phone numbers of references—did those writers use their editor the way you would?
Some editors collaborate well, some need full control. You need an editor whose working and communicating styles feel comfortable.
Chat with potential editors until you have a sense of how you will feel arm-wrestling with them over your precious content. Although I haven’t met most of my clients, I have very intimate phone relationships with almost all of them. Ultimately, your content is yours, but you want someone who will explore opinions and prejudices with you. You want a sympatico editor—someone you enjoy talking with.
It is fair to ask for a sample edit—if you pay for it. Once I’ve been hired, I usually send my client the first marked up chapter to make sure I am taking their writing where they want it to go. The writing represents you, so make sure it satisfies your vision.
The Editing Process
Editing is often a two-stage process.
- Read-through for structure/character.
- Writer reworks it, then it’s edited to enrich the language.
Clarify which or both will are included in their estimate. To be sure that the process is within your budget, find out what it will cost before you commit.
That one editor charges $45 an hour and another charges $150 an hour tells you nothing about your final bill. I always spend an hour (no charge) to develop an estimate that is a firm maximum. I keep track of my hours and actually bill less if the project went faster than expected.
If I have grossly underestimated because there were unforeseen problems—like conflicting information that requires research to clarify—I will attempt to renegotiate the maximum. If we can’t agree, I will turn over as much as I’ve done for no charge—or swallow the loss and complete the project, depending on my relationship with both the author and the content.
And don’t be slighted if an editor fires you. They may feel the communication is not working for them, which can have nothing to do with you. I’ve had to fire a couple of clients over the years when the communication fell into the same pothole repeatedly. We weren’t speaking the same language and I did not estimate the frustration-value of the project.
Most of all delight in the process. You are the employer, no matter how extensive the credentials of the editor. As with your doctors and attorneys: they can offer you opinions, but it’s your life or finances or intention at stake, so YOU make the final decisions.
David Colin Carr (davidcolincarr.com) has been editing fiction and non-fiction since 1988. He works collaboratively with clients to activate their passion and vision—with clarity, coherence, and in their distinctive voice. David is dedicated to projects that value, expand, and connect our human hearts, offering his counseling experience and creativity to bring forth the brilliance of both the writing and the collaborative relationship. He is associate editor with Volcano Press.