The dreaded arbiter of your writing. The judge and jury of your style. The only thing standing between you and publication. The unrelenting taskmaster. The sensei of craft to your grasshopper of words.
An editor should be all these things, yet all too often, many freelance editors are not much more than glorified beta readers. They catch inconsistencies, make some suggestions, and run your manuscript through an automatic proofreading software program, all for less than a penny per word and a guaranteed quick turnaround time.
Ask yourself when was the last time an editor really dug into your story from a conceptual and structural point-of-view, demonstrating a solid understanding of plotting, world-building, character development, and pacing? When was the last time an editor pushed your development as a writer? I’m not just talking about nagging you about using too many adverbs. I’m talking about challenging you to sharpen your prose and cultivate your unique voice.
Don’t get me wrong. Not all freelance editors out there are bad. But, to be perfectly honest, the good ones are few, far-between, and usually booked up or running behind. They are also expensive.
Editing is one of those things where you really do get what you pay for. A fraction of a penny per word is great for your budget, but probably not so great for the quality of your book. It’s worth delaying publication and saving up to afford a really top-notch editor.
The Editorial Checklist for Editors
How do you know you are getting a good editor? Well, here are some things to look for:
- Look at their website. Is it clean, professional, and well-written?
- Look at the other books they have edited. Take a read through one or two sample chapters. Does the author still overuse adverbs, trite descriptions, and too much stage direction? If so, move on. This is not the editor for you.
- See what the editor has to say about developmental vs. line-editing. Developmental editing means the editor knows the science and art of plotting and structure inside and out. Developmental editing means the editor has the ability to understand your world-building and think logically about what is missing/inconsistent/inaccurate – especially with genres like epic fantasy, historical, and science fiction. Developmental editing means being able to spot where the story slows, where to slash and burn, and what to put in its place…and being unafraid to make these suggestions to the author.
- Line-editing has some absolute basics than any editor MUST demonstrate: knowledge of correct vocabulary usage, grammar, and punctuation. It’s a total turn-off and disappointment to read a book that has been “edited” and find words used incorrectly. Editors should also be able to point out areas where you can improve your writing overall. Is your dialogue stilted? Your editor should be able to help you learn to write better dialogue. Do you spend too much time on description? Your editor should be able to demonstrate and teach you how to write more concise descriptions.
- Do you have an authorial ‘voice?’ If so, a good editor works with your manuscript in a way that keeps your voice conceptually and helps you refine it on a practical level. If you don’t have a real style or voice, a good editor can help you develop one by identifying your strengths and weaknesses, and helping you experiment with different styles until you find what fits.
- How long does it take an editor to turn around edits? Beware the fast turnaround. Serious editing is hard, time-consuming work. Reading the manuscript as an editor takes much more time than reading it as a lay reader. Working through the plot and concepts takes thinking time, struggling time, and writing time. Line-editing, if done right, takes a high degree of concentration and time to work and review. But, in the end, you get a better book, and isn’t that worth it?
- Will the editor provide a sample page or chapter of edits? Will they critique a synopsis? Can they articulate a clear philosophy of editing, standards for their working relationship with the author, and expectations for a project?
No Pain, no gain…and no bargain, either
This probably makes working with an editor sound more daunting. It should. Editing should be a daunting process, a crucible that burns away the useless in your manuscript and leaves a cleaner, purer story. Editing shouldn’t just be accepting changes in track changes mode. Every time you work with an editor, you should come away with a little more polish to your writing, a better technique for approaching your weaknesses, and a sense of a battle well-fought.
Does this mean you have to work harder to find an editor? Yes. Does this mean that editors need to up their game? Absolutely. But, in the end, holding everyone involved in a book to higher standards is the only way that self-publishing is going to survive as an industry.
(Full disclosure, I do provide developmental editing services, but this is not a pitch for business…these are opinions I’ve come to after years of working in publishing, both as a writer and an editor.)