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To Hire Or Not To Hire -- by Geoffrey Fowler

   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. ♦









Posted by Geoffrey Fowler 30 Sep 2019 at 03:42
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Responses to this blog

Rellrod 30 Sep 2019 at 18:56  
Well said, Geoffrey, and very informative. Thanks!

Rxd01 30 Sep 2019 at 20:24  
Some really useful advice here (some I wish I'd known before I went on an editor hunt for my last book).
All the editors/proof readers I've known or worked with (which admittedly is about 6) leave the final decision on any changes is up to you, that's not something I'd be overly worried about.
Talexander 1 Oct 2019 at 00:34  
Wow Geoffrey, well done and thanks for the insight and information.

I find myself in general agreement but believe the entire discussion is tempered by Genre. I am too lazy and too cheap to go the self publish route, so I must convince an agent to invest their time, talent and treasure in my manuscript.

I'm a self taught writer, poor editor and a dreadful proof reader. On the other hand, I'm a great story teller, a master of plot and subplot. Fortunately for me, I write, mainly, in the commercial thriller genre (dabble in fantasy) where Dan Brown and David Baldacci are the gold standards for me. I mean no offense to these two successful writers (I read everything they write), but no one has accused them of being a great literary writer. I don't see a Pulitzer Prize in their future or mine.

So what type of editor does the commercial thriller writer need once he gets to a good, no very good, draft of his manuscript. Answer: he needs a proof reader. The publishing house will assign a great editor and the work will still need substantial editing, but the end product will be a commercial success.

The problem with paid editors is the business model does not allow them to voice their honest opinion, to wit: this sucks, it's unpublishable, and don't quit your day job. I hired an editor (a published author, and teacher) to review my first 25 pages. I took several classes from her and she had a 25 page special on her website. Overall, I was pleased with the services provided. If I elected to self publish, her final bill might be $8,000, and I would still need a copy editor.

Even worst for the traditional publishing route, there's no guarantee that an editor will make a difference in finding an agent.

T Alexander

Sandree 1 Oct 2019 at 00:57  
I have heard some other advice on some of these points. I understood that it is not common for an author seeking a publisher to hire an editor themselves. Usually the publisher foots that bill and the editing happens after the manuscript is accepted. I’m sure there are writers who hire an editor before seeking an agent in order to present a more polished manuscript but I think many do not.

Also, $10,000 or even $8,000 for a freelance editor sounds very high. Of course, if you purchased a developmental edit, copy edit, line edit and proofread you might get closer to that.

But I am coming from a self publishing viewpoint where I now understand that I need to carefully watch my costs. Just wanted to let people know that you can find editors for less who are adequate, though probably not anywhere near the level of those from professional publishing house. It all depends on what you need.
Jadenstate 1 Oct 2019 at 23:45  
When I first started, I definitely hired the cheap editors. They gave me a few pointers and assured me my work was great. Then I handed my writing out to family, and they noticed little things or asked me questions about stuff that I thought an editor would catch. I wont name names, but I found someone who had lots of experience (or seemed to) and good reviews on a outsourcing site. Was definitely a waste of money. So good to know about the EFA. Although would be tough if you spend the money to edit and then have the publisher edit again.
Czing 2 Oct 2019 at 02:08  
I have talked to a number of agents in person and more via social media and I don't know of any of them who assume or expect your book to have been professionally edited prior to querying (or prior to them submitting to publishers)
Jadenstate 2 Oct 2019 at 04:10  
That's good to know. I'll assume they want it the best you can get it though. Especially if it's your first.
Glitterpen 2 Oct 2019 at 15:37  
Great blog post! I was thinking about buying a one-year membership to one of the writing analyzer websites but, for the next year, I think I'll focus on improving my writing skills by getting critter feedback, re-reading how-to-write books (for fiction writers) and practicing as much as I can. I've been thinking about self-publishing (there's a great little company in my city that does line edits and evaluations) so I might hire them.
Jadenstate 2 Oct 2019 at 18:15  
I bought prowritingaid for a year, and it does help. But it should also be taken with a grain of salt. I put the first two chapters of Divergent in there and it found 20 things it didnt like. But overall its still worth it.
Geoff 4 Oct 2019 at 18:46  
I have heard some other advice on some of these points. I understood that it is not common for an author seeking a publisher to hire an editor themselves. Usually the publisher foots that bill and the editing happens after the manuscript is accepted. I’m sure there are writers who hire an editor before seeking an agent in order to present a more polished manuscript but I think many do not. .
Are we talking about approaching a publisher or an agent? If it's the former it would have to be a small publisher, the well-known ones won't accept unsolicited manuscripts and the little known publishers are not likely to hire an expensive editor. So I assume you mean agent. But there are agents and there are agents. I was considering hiring one in New York who, if they agreed to take me on as a client, would have contacts with big-time publishing houses which would assign a professional editor. A dream, of course, but one thing is for sure: The agent will want to see a synopsis and the first chapter; the better written it is, the better are one’s chances of being taken on as a client; after all, first, the agent has a reputation to protect so they don’t want a publisher calling them and saying, “Why did you send me this garbage?” and second, they're not going take on someone on as a client unless they think they can make money from their fifteen-percent cut.

That doesn’t mean the chapter should be edited by a professional freelancer, just that it should look like the work of literate person. Harper Lee, who I discussed at length, was an exception because she had a hot topic — race relations in the Deep South.

Writer01 8 Oct 2019 at 12:11  
Self publishing seems to be a pathway to getting work out to the general public. I have yet to read any self published work that I thought was worthy of publication, however. The authors (?) I have read seem to think that their work, simply because it has appeared in print, is a quality piece of fiction. To me, it would never have been published in the normal way (through publishing houses, etc). They are basically deluding themselves into thinking they are authors.
I have a novel in process that I am eventually going to have to have proof read and edited. I do what I can, edit, set the piece a side for a week, edit again, repeat, but I know I am not the one to say that the piece is as good as it can be. This blog has given me some insight into the steps I will eventually have to take to get my novel published.
Tgreen 8 Oct 2019 at 12:44  
You clearly haven't read many of them then. Because there are multiple self-publishing authors making seven figures with it, like Mark Dawson or Craig Martelle. Really, just because you saw one or two self-pubbed books that you thought were bad doesn't mean anything about self-publishing in general.
Giglio 8 Oct 2019 at 16:00  
I'm in agreement with Geoff on this piece, maybe for the first time.

I can't add much other than to note the distinction between copy editors and developmental editors. (Discussed in the forums) The latter makes suggestions to character, plot, structure. Ideally, they copy edit too. I worked with a DE for two manuscripts and over two dozen short stories or memoir and have no regrets. She sees what I don't and can't see and we've developed a working relationship over the years. I may add her to my will.

I found my editor at a large university with an established writing program. They have published authors and some gifted people on staff. Universities are a good place to look.

I paid $5 a double-spaced page to start. That's since dropped to $4 since I'm a returning customer and good-looking. Worth every dollar to me.


Tgreen 8 Oct 2019 at 19:23  
Also, so I contribute to the actual topic - like everything else in self-publishing, editing is a skill that's needed along the way. Like with all the other needed skills, one either learns it or pays someone to do it for them.
Personally, I'm not a fan of developmental and classic editing for self-publishing, because the I-buy-everything way with getting (multiple) developmental edits, traditional edit, proofread, after one goes through the costs of those two + proofreading + cover + the necessary cost of adds + images for adds, the production cost of the novel is so huge it has to be a strong bestseller to make back the investment. If one has money to burn, sure, but it's, objectively speaking, risky because that cost is never coming back if one makes a mistake like getting the genre tropes wrong. Of course, there's the chance of the first book becoming a smashing hit, that happens too, just not that often.
Learning how to do developmental editing, standard editing, and how to use photoshop on one's own costs time, blood and sweat, but is doable and significantly punches down the production cost. I haven't found a way to get around having a proofreader/good-but-takes-it-easy editor, but those are by far the cheapest from everything I mentioned.

Just my 2 cents
Redredrose 13 Oct 2019 at 15:32  
Well said. I learned quite a lot. Thank you.
Jongoff 14 Oct 2019 at 04:17  
There are tools you can use to catch a lot of what you might otherwise pay someone to find. Among them are a good grammar checker, spell checker (obviously), and a text to voice program, which can help you catch odd sentences, missing words, etc. I use Natural Voice, but Windows (I don't know about Mac) has a built in text to voice program that's serviceable.

None of these, nor an editor is, or should be, a replacement for mastering the craft. Grammar and spelling are essential to good writing, but there are other skills such as character development, plotting, writing a scene, establishing setting, good dialogue, etc. Grammar and spelling are the starting point, but people still ask me to read a manuscript with this preface, "I'm not a good speller and I'm bad at grammar."

I used to be nice and read the manuscript, while trying to point out their many errors, but I don't have time to teach a new writer basic skills they should have already mastered, so now I politely decline. I tell this story to make a point, many new writes assume that an editor's job is to fix their spelling and grammar. It's not. It's your job to produce the most professional, polished, grammatically correct manuscript that is humanly possible. It's an editor's job to catch things you'd miss because you're too close to the story, or make suggestions to strengthen a point of dialogue, or make a scene better. That's the kind of editor you can benefit from.

If you are paying someone to fix grammar and spelling, and other basic skills, you're helping them cheat you, and in a way, you're cheating yourself by not getting the skills you need to succeed in this business. I've seen "editor" prices that match or exceed what I've charged to ghost write. Something to think about, but overall, I thought the blog was well thought out and has some excellent advice.

Barksy 14 Oct 2019 at 12:41  
First novel, self pub I tried an editor. Finding an editor was a difficult experience, and I never felt secure in my decision. I asked for a higher level edit than a copy edit, but wasn't after a content edit, perhaps a paragraph level edit. Over all, I was unimpressed and didn't feel the product justified the expense. She did not catch repeats and sometimes changed my sentences to "It is" or "There is" constructions that I disliked. I did not perceive an improvement in style, though she caught various issues with commas etc. I couldn't care less about commas or semicolons or colons, truth be told.

So I purchased some tools: Weasel Words macros and ProWritingAid. Weasel Words is a convenient set of macros for pulling a novel in to close third person, avoiding emotional tell, deleting dialog tags and catching homonyms among other things. Then I scanned the novel with ProWritingAid which is overwhelming, so I limited my use to just a few of it's functions, catching repeated words in particular. When I pulled the novel into Word before creating the ePub, I scanned for the few residual punctuation issues. Thanks to this blog, I now know why Word keeps trying to make me change some commas to semicolons.

The editing was outrageously time consuming, but I took the process as a learning experience. Next time I'll probably skip using an editor until a final proof read. Thing is, I'm seeing boo boos in traditionally published books these days. And the tools self publishers can employ are incredible. In fact, some of the self published people could pass for traditional if they just jacked up their price.
Iguana10 18 Oct 2019 at 14:49  
There is a fourth option: Marry a good editor! That's what I did. We've had a blast reviewing my short-story memoirs for the past five years, and she's supporting me while I focus on writing for sixteen months. What an angel!
Geoff 18 Oct 2019 at 16:31  
I wouldn't call it an option; I call it a gift of God.

Out of curiosity I Googled ""writers married to editors" and "writers who married editors" and got no hits so it's possible you are the only writer on the planet whose spouse is an editor. But there are lots of examples of non-editor wives helping their hubby and of husbands assisting their writer wives in one way or another. For example, Tolstoy's wife Sophia helped find publishers and Virginia Woolf's husband Leonard supported her in various ways. In the same site that provided this information I found a quote that might interest you:

"However, it is a truth unfortunately not universally acknowledged, that most of these male giants of literature wouldn’t have been half as prolific or successful if it weren’t for the wives supporting them." — somebody who's read Pride and Prejudice.

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