By Florence Osmund
I’m pleased to welcome Florence Osmund back to The Book Designer. Today, Florence explains almost everything you need to know about working with editors. I think you’ll find this article very helpful. You may also wish to check out Florence’s previous guest posts:
An editor is a person who knows more than writers do but who has escaped the terrible desire to write.– E.B. White
After months (perhaps years) of laboring over it, you have finally finished the manuscript for your first book. There is no feeling like the one you get the moment you’ve written the last word—it’s hard to describe it if you haven’t been through it. You feel a little taller, bigger, and stronger when you share the account of your achievement with others, and you have trouble suppressing that satisfying grin on your face when you do. It’s a proud moment for you—a well-deserved one.
Understandably, once the manuscript is complete, you are anxious to get it published. But the decision to first send it to an editor continues to nag at you.
I’m a good writer, you tell yourself.
Do I really need one? Editors are very expensive, so you’ve been told. You consider all the time you’ve spent on making it perfect.
And I really don’t want anyone messing with what I’ve written, you resolve.
If that isn’t enough justification for avoiding an editor, you convince yourself that the book will be fine without one because you’ve engaged your brother-in-law, who got an ‘A’ in Miss Theo’s fifth-grade English class, to proofread it.
None of the above is a good enough reason for publishing a book without the benefit of professional editing—especially the brother-in-law one—and here is my rationale for saying this.
- Most authors haven’t been educated in all aspects of writing and don’t possess requisite skills like editors who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in English, creative writing, communications, or journalism.
- Editors are likely to catch errors that authors miss, since it’s easy for authors to inadvertently skip over errors when they know what they meant.
- Editors can be more objective than the owner of the writing.
- After living and breathing the manuscript for so long, writers often become too attached to it to be critical. Editors don’t have this problem.
- A good editor will challenge writers to take their writing craft to the next level, a benefit to their current and future work.
- An opinion from someone who knows what sells can be invaluable.
Traditional Publishing Versus Self-Publishing
Whether your goal is to find an agent and publisher willing to represent your work (traditional publishing) or you decide to take on the production of your book yourself (self-publishing), you’ll want to submit a manuscript that is as close to perfect as possible.
If you send a manuscript that contains blatant errors to an agent or a traditional publisher, it will likely get rejected. Even if the manuscript is in fairly good shape and they accept it, they will either assign an editor to your project or require you to hire one.
Alternatively, if you self-publish, the choice of whether to have your book professionally edited is yours to make, but if you want to be respected as a serious writer and compete with traditionally published authors, you’ll choose to have it edited. A good editor is crucial in either process.
Levels of Editing
Even well-established, successful authors benefit from an editor, as writers are often too close to their work to clearly see what needs to be done in order to take the book from good to great. That’s where an editing staff comes into play. I specify ‘staff’ because there are many levels of editing—arguably five of them—and different editors have different skill sets.
Five typical levels of editing are listed below.
An industry standard doesn’t exist for what is included in each of the above editing phases. Talk to one publisher, and he’ll list ten different things his line editors look for in a manuscript. Talk to another, and he’ll list six of the same things and three additional ones. Talk to a third one, and he’ll tell you something different.
I’ll take a stab at listing what I most often see in the way of differentiating the various levels of editing.
Manuscript assessment (also called a critique)
- strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript
- story line evaluation; character development
- feedback on:
- narrative style
- plot structure
- point of view
- book marketability
- accuracy of facts
- clarity of sentences and paragraphs
- sentence and paragraph flow
- scene development
- plot consistency
- use of clichés
- feedback on:
- sentence and paragraph structure
- use of transitions
- word usage
- issues with:
- Issues with:
- subject/verb agreement
- verb tense
- a second check for most things listed under line and copy editing
In the end, it’s up to you, the author, to decide how much or how little editing you want for your book. Knowing and understanding what to expect with each level is an important part of the process.
If you are unsure of what level of editing your manuscript requires, seek advice from someone who has been there. And keep in mind that traditionally-published books go through all editing levels.
Due to the lack of industry standards, when an editor tells you what he or she is going to charge for a particular service, it is important that you ask what is included to avoid any surprises.
Most editors charge by the word. I’ve listed below some typical fees (2019) for each level of the editing process. That’s not to say you can’t find less and more expensive editing rates out there—these are simply the rates I most often see.
The above ranges are based on manuscripts that have been reasonably self-edited and are in fairly good shape. Editors will charge more for problematic manuscripts that require extra work. You can learn more about the self-editing process in How to Edit Your Book—Your Ultimate 21-Point Checklist by Jerry Jenkins.
Experienced editors who charge by the hour typically range $40-80/hour, depending on their expertise and level of service they are providing. I personally prefer being charged by the word as it discloses the amount of the final bill before the work is done.
How to Choose an Editor
The first thing to consider when searching for an editor for your manuscript is to find one who is comfortable with your genre. Editors who specialize in a specific genre are more likely to know:
- the genre’s idiosyncrasies
- the potential market for the book
- reader expectations
Referrals are a good method to use if the person doing the referring has written a book like yours and has first-hand experience working with a specific editor. Questions to ask your fellow authors are:
- What type of project did you work on together?
- Did you sign a written contract that details the editor’s services, fees, and deadlines? If so, will you share it?
- Was there anything the editor did that you didn’t like?
- Did the editor meet all agreed-upon deadlines?
- Was the editor responsive to your phone calls, e-mails, text messages?
- Were there any hidden or additional costs you weren’t expecting?
- Did the editor help you become a better writer?
- Would you rehire this editor?
There are also websites you can peruse that include directories of vetted editors. Here are several of them.
I do not recommend looking to social media for an editor or doing broad searches on the Internet to find one unless you’re inclined to weed through thousands of search results that include everyone from a top-tier New York Times best-selling editor to someone with virtually no credentials.
Once you can narrow down the list of potential editors to three or so, it is acceptable to ask them for a sample edit of one of your chapters. Most editors will do this for free.
The reason for this exercise is two-fold—it will give you a good idea of what they will provide for the fee they charge, and it will give them an idea if they want to take on your project.
Be sure to ask each one to edit the same chapter so you are making sensible comparisons. Even if you have a limited budget and can only afford an inexperienced editor, you should be able to make an intelligent decision based on the comparison of the young editor’s sample edit to that of a more seasoned one.
When you have selected an editor, be sure to ask about their lead times, and don’t be surprised if they are months long. Taking this into consideration, you’ll want to get on their schedule in advance, and then work under mutually-agreed-upon deadlines.
Selecting an editor is like any other service provider you hire—some will be more compatible with your needs and requirements than others—so it pays to spend time vetting them before engaging in a contractual agreement.
Working with an Editor
If you’ve never worked with one before, you may have concerns about what an editor will do to your manuscript—you’ve labored over writing what you believe to be a great piece of work, and your fear is that an editor will tear it apart.
While it may initially feel like they are destroying your work, good editors spend their time making suggestions on how to improve it. They work for you, and their role is to provide insight and options, not to change your work to their liking.
Contrary to popular belief, editors don’t exist to make your life miserable—they exist to help you make your work accurate, clear, credible, and marketable.
Working with an editor requires thick skin and open-mindedness. You must be prepared for the editorial feedback you’ve sought after, especially the high-level feedback.
While it’s easy to accept someone telling you to use a semicolon instead of a comma in a particular sentence, for example, it’s quite another thing to be told your main character isn’t believable or lacks depth. Keep in mind that an experienced editor has been down this road many times before and knows what readers want. Be open to criticism to get the most out of the process.
Moreover, don’t think you can throw a messy draft at an editor and expect him or her to fix it—that’s not how it works. It is advisable for you to go through a self-editing process after you’ve pounded out a first rough draft before sending it to an editor for him or her to take over.
Finally, if after you decide to put your trust in an editor, you feel the editor’s feedback on a specific issue isn’t on target or useful, do not feel compelled to change your original content. After all, it’s your name on the book’s cover, not the editor’s. But when this happens, I suggest that you don’t reject their feedback immediately. Think it through and discuss it with the editor before rejecting it—good editors are happy to share their reasoning with you.
If after contemplating it, you still think the suggested changes will negatively affect the story, I would go with your own instincts. My only advice is to really (and I mean really) try to be as objective as possible before abandoning the suggestion. If a seasoned editor is recommending a change, it’s likely there is a good reason for it.
I’ve talked about the reasons I think you should work with an editor, but if that hasn’t convinced you yet, here are some consequences for choosing not to do so:
- Books that are not professionally edited risk the chance of getting bad reviews. That’s not to say they definitely will—some readers care only about the story and not the quality of the writing. But keep in mind that writers are readers too, and if a writer reads your book, and your book contains technical errors, you can bet it won’t get a good review.
I’ve seen it happen—all it takes are a few bad reviews immediately following a book launch to kill its success.
- Some book vetting organizations, such as:
who evaluate self-published books, will immediately reject books that have not been properly edited. Vetted self-published books have a better chance of selling than non-vetted ones.
- Without an editor pointing out their mistakes, writers will likely continue to make them, and therefore will not develop the skills required to become a better writer. For myself, I feel that each book I write is better than the previous one, and I owe much of this to my editor.
I believe that when you have invested so much time, heart, and soul into a writing project, it makes sense to invest in it further by taking it through a professional edit. It will surely improve your book’s marketability, allow you to grow as an author, and give your book the recognition it deserves.
After a long career in the corporate world, Florence Osmund retired to write novels. “I strive to write literary fiction and endeavor to craft stories that challenge readers to survey their own beliefs and values,” Osmund states. She has currently written seven novels and is in the process of creating a “How To” book for new and aspiring writers. Her website www.florenceosmund.com offers substantial advice for writers including how to begin the project, writing techniques, building an author platform, book promotion and more. Florence lives on a small, tranquil lake in northern Illinois where she finds inspiration to continue writing.