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I had done some research on the options open to me if and when I finish my first novel (It has the cheery theme of life in America after a large-scale nuclear war). Self-publishing was ruled out from the outset, so the only choice I felt I had was contacting an agent after I had hired an editor to clean up my manuscript. That led me to delve into the editing market.
Unlike brain surgeon or dentist, “editor” is a generic term like health practitioner. It is also just as vague in relation to the qualifications a person needs to label themselves as one. Roughly speaking, there are three categories, professional, freelance, and something else. Depending on who uses it, a professional can either be a person who is paid on a salary basis or someone who possesses the skills needed for doing work in a certain field. A freelancer, on the other hand, sells their work on the open market, usually on an hourly basis.
Most writers will never deal with a professional editor in the above sense unless they have an agent who gets their work accepted by a large publishing house — the editors assigned by small, niche publishers will most likely be freelancers. The exception are those who have pockets deep enough to pay a clearing house for editors like NY Book Editors. Its rates are $2,226 - $2,954 for a manuscript critique, $4,536 - $5,174 for a comprehensive edit, and $10,800 for a proposal. This may sound like a lot of cash, but the editors they assign will, according to the company, have worked for renown publishers in the past. For those who think they’ve written a potential best-seller, hiring such an editor could be a very smart investment.
Approaching a good literary agent might seem a way of getting a free appraisal of the quality of a novel; if the agent says they’re not interested it means they don’t think the novel is publishable; if they are, they think they can make money from the fifteen-percent cut that’s going to be subtracted from your sales revenue. But there is a catch: agents normally assume a novel has undergone a professional edit before it was submitted. Still, a good agent’s sniffer may tell them a novel, flawed as it may seem to a layman, could wind up being a best-seller, which would translate into piles of money for them. This was the case with Harper Lee. Her agent submitted the manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman” (The title was later changed by the editor to “To Kill A Mocking Bird”, already a huge improvement) to ten publishers and received ten rejections before it was finally accepted by now defunct Lippincott. It assigned veteran editor Tay Hohoff the task of cleaning up the novel (she described it as “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived work”). The editing took three years, during which the novel was rewritten several times in a give-and-take between author and editor. Lippincott made a fortune from the novel and the agent must have, too — Lee made $5,000 a day from her royalties. The only person who didn’t benefit financially was the one who made the novel a success — the editor.
For those wary of approaching an agent and who don’t want to hire a professional editor, the only remaining option is hiring a freelancer. Oddly, they usually describe themselves as professional freelancers, which may seem like an oxymoron, but is really meant to imply they earn their living from editing — presumably a non-professional freelancer is someone who dabbles in editing from time to time.
One way of being sure your getting a professional freelancer is to hire a member of EFA — the Editorial Freelancers Association. The Editors: Its homepage helps writers find an editor suited to their genre and editing needs. EFA offers something many writers will appreciate, receiving a free evaluation edit of an up-to-500-word sample of their work. Fees are based on a nominal rate of thirty-fve to forty dollars per hour. In practice, this means clients who opt for the full editing palette can expect to pay around $10,000 for a 70,000-word novel.
In addition to freelance editors who are associated with organizations, there are lone wolves like Ellen Brock who is widely known through her blogs and courses on writing. She calls herself a Professional Freelance Novel Editor, which I take to mean a freelance editor whose livelihood is derived from editing work. She's expensive, but she is willing to work with her clients. She’s not for me because from what I’ve gleaned from her blog, she seems to specialize in genre fiction. But if that’s what you write, she might be just what you need.
Last and definitely least are the editors in the something-else category. They are cheap; judging from the widespread complaints about them, they have to be. Hiring one of them is almost certainly a waste of time and money — just as there are no cheap brain surgeons, there are no cheap editors.
Why A Bad Editor Can’t Harm A Good Writer, But A Good One Can
Critiquing has made me aware what awful mistakes bad writers can make. They burden their openings with descriptions of everything from carpets to teeth, to hair color, to wallpaper… . They think they have immersed the reader in the story by describing an irrelevant incident. They don’t reveal the main character’s name until ten paragraphs later. Every paragraph is filled with elaborate window dressing or stage directions. They start a new paragraph for each piece of dialog and tag it with “he said” or “she said.” They have never heard of sentence or paragraph transitions. They think six back-to-back four-word sentences are cool. A bad editor will tell them their writing is great because it’s like theirs. The financial transaction is then complete; both parties are pleased. No harm has been done. Maybe. Loosing money could have a sobering effect by teaching the writer the meaning of “you get what you pay.” But on the other hand, they may not be aware they've been fleeced and so the edit, instead of making the writer aware of their problems, encourages them to make more, a sort of anti-edit.
Even good writers make mistakes, all kinds of mistakes, spelling and punctuation errors, tense violations, contradictions in the plot, failed attempts at interior monologue, and so on. A good editor will spot all of these and more. If it’s a comprehensive edit they may make suggestions for changing the plot, changing the narrative perspective from third-person to first-person or vice-versa. I have great respect for such editors. Nevertheless, I’ll avoid hiring one because I’m afraid of becoming an edit junkie, relying on outside help to correct errors I either didn’t spot or wasn’t aware existed, and hoping it will gradually lead to my becoming a better writer. That would be an expensive mistake; although a writer can learn from the corrections a good editor makes, they can learn much more by starting the day by reading a chapter of a novel by a first-rate writer and then going to their desk and revising their last draft five times, and, for future reference, making annotated notes on why some things worked and others didn’t. And it's absolutely free.
Once a writer reaches the stage where they can author a novel, they may want to hire a professional editor to add some polish, certainly they’ll need a proofreader to catch typos and spelling mistakes. How this works out in practice will vary from individual to individual. In my own case, the major issue would be whether the proofreader should have a free hand in making changes. I think this is debatable, especially if they slavishly follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which is really more suited to academic publications than fiction, where a writer has a certain latitude in punctuation, for example, in using the much maligned comma splice, which I think is an elegant way of joining two independent clauses; it improves readability by avoiding the pause of a full stop or a semicolon. Editors hate it, but readers couldn’t care less. If I did decide to hire an editor, I’d want to make sure they would leave decisions like using comma splices to my discretion. More generally, I’d expect them to justify any stylistic changes they make and also agree that I have the final word on what goes and what doesn’t. I’m sure I’m very atypical in this respect, but I would recommend before hiring an editor, make certain they are going to work with you instead of against you. ♦