Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Advice to a New Author: Before You Hire an Editor

While trolling Craigslist for a suitable shed I could turn into a chicken coop, I ran across a post from a "new author" that said, in part: "I have a manuscript and desire an editor to review and make suggestions... any insight anyone can give me would be helpful."

Since I'm a sucker for new writers asking for help, I contacted the poster. A lengthy e-mail dialogue ensued. So many of his questions were common for writers who have finished a manuscript only to wonder "NOW WHAT?" So here is my two cents' worth of advice:
Photo by Scott Liddell from

1.  Betas Before Brass Tacks

If you have just finished your manuscript, you may be more in need of a beta reader than an editor. You could pay me or any competent editor to perform that service for you as well, but you may be further ahead to first find 2 or 3 readers familiar with the genre in which you write. It might be advisable to wait for a professional edit until your beta readers have read and reviewed your manuscript and offered their views on the structure and content.

2. Be a Savvy Shopper

All editors are not created equal. Some charge by the hour. Some charge by the job. Some charge by the word or the page. Solicit several quotes, both for turnaround time and estimated charges. Then, do the math necessary to compare apples to apples so you know what you're agreeing to.

For example:

I charge from $1 to $2 per page for editing. Quick reads with minor corrections bill at the low end. Major edits, fact checking, formatting and consistency issues, and revisions that take more time bill at the high end.  On average, a 100K manuscript has 300 pages. (Properly formatted, with 1" margins and double spacing, 250 words per page is the rule of thumb.) The math is pretty simple.

I know of one "editing service" for a vanity press that charges between $.018 (for light copy editing) and $.029 (for major editing) per word. While, on the surface, this looks inexpensive, simple multiplication reveals that you'd be paying between $4.50 and $7.25 per page. The same 100K project could cost between $1,800 and $2,900. (This is significantly higher than every competent freelancer I know.)

It's true, cheaper isn't always better. But it's worth your while to know ahead of time what you can expect to shell out.

3.  Know What To Expect

When bidding a major editing project, I typically edit the first 3 to 5 pages free of charge. That gives me the opportunity to see how much editing and revision the work requires so I can make an informed bid. It also gives the author the chance to see the sorts of changes and comments I provide, and to determine whether he or she thinks we can work well together.  If the editor you've chosen has a different bidding policy, you might want to ask for an edit of only a few pages at first to make sure the two of you are compatible.

Some editors differentiate between their fees for a light copy edit (primarily grammar, spelling, and punctuation) and a major manuscript edit that includes formatting, continuity, construction, plot, and other big-picture things. Know what you want. Know what you need. That way, you'll understand what you're paying for.

4. Do Your Homework

When hiring an editor, get testimonials from former clients. If a freelance editor is reluctant to provide you with the names of satisfied customers, consider that a red flag violently waving in warning. Take a few moments to check out some of the books they've edited. If at all possible, scan through them or read a chapter.  Notice the editing in the book and pay attention to how it "reads."

5. Remember: You're the Writer

Don't expect your editor to rewrite your book. That's why God created ghostwriters and co-authors. Truth be told, most editors are perfectly competent to do rewrites. But when I wear my ghostwriting / co-authoring hat, our relationship changes. So do my rates.

Turn in your best, most polished product to an editor.

Editors don't mind misspellings and rough edges. We live for finding typos and errors in parallelism. We relish discovering plot holes and inconsistencies. What we don't take kindly to, however, is a client who turns in a rough draft expecting us to wave our magic Word wand and make polished, publishable prose. You're the writer. If you expect the editor to do a great job on your manuscript, be willing to step up to the plate and do your job first.

6. Do Not Argue With the Nice Editor

...Because, really, life is just too short.

(I found my chicken coop, by the way: A lovely 8 x 8 structure, complete with windows and a mini-loft that weighs a freaking ton.

Moving it was a total dog and pony show that involved, at one point, my friend holding a 10 foot section of 4" PVC pipe above his head to hoist up the electrical wires that hung too low over the road so the trailer and shed could inch underneath. But I digress...)

Have you every worked with a freelance editor or are you an editor?  Please share any pertinent words of wisdom for new authors (or for chicken coop movers) in the comments below.


Unknown said...

I've used a freelancer and I think one thing you don't consider at first is agreeing on a time plan. It's not fun when it takes half a year for them to finish the work.

Anne R. Allen said...

This is a much-needed post. Listen up: beta readers first! Get in a critique group before you even think of talking to an editor.

People who are still riding a wobbly baby bicycle with training wheels suddenly want to compete in the Tour de France. They think hiring an editor is a shortcut to learning to write. It's heartbreaking, but I'm turning away 90% of edting work these days. Or rather I tell them they're asking for ghostwriting and quote ghostwriting fees.

On the other hand--beware the editor who knows nothing of the publishing business. An out of work English major may be able to help with grammar, but they may undo all your sentence fragments and make a novel read like a Master's thesis. Not what you want.

M.E. Summer said...

Great post! As a freelance editor myself, it's nice to see someone post a list like this for authors who may not know. I'm writing a guest post for another blog about the different types of editing, and I'll be linking back to this post to make sure any readers contemplating hiring an editor will get the benefit of your wisdom. :-)

Ami Hendrickson said...

(My face is red since I'm one of your betas who has not been timely about getting your *whole* ms. read & commented upon.) I strongly encourage including a deadline in an editing contract. Missing a deadline should occur only under extreme duress. Sending one's manuscript to an editor should never feel as if you've flung it into a black hole.

You speak words of wisdom. Love the Tour de France cycling analogy. It's true, too many people think they are ready for an editor when what they really need is a brutally honest beta or a ghost.

Ah, you honor me. Thanks so much. :)

Unknown said...

Betas like you are doing me a favour! You have no reason to blush. It's a big difference between a beta and someone you pay for a job to be done. A paid editor is a professional commitment and should be treated in the same manner as if you paid a plummer to come fix your sink.

Ami Hendrickson said...

I couldn't agree more re: "A paid editor is a professional commitment." I strongly encourage editors to bid jobs in terms of both turnaround time AND cost. Missed deadlines on the editor's part should result in savings on the writer's part.

In my opinion, half a year to edit the average book (as opposed to, say, the entire collected works of Chaucer) is extreme. The writer would be well within reason to request what is edited of the manuscript thus far. It would also be reasonable to stipulate a deadline for the project to be finished by, with cost benefits to the writer if the editor misses the deadline.

Karen said...

Just found this blog through SheWrites, and have enjoyed looking around. Great advice about Beta readers. A first draft is rarely ready for professional editing. Unfortunately I've noticed too much of a tendency to go in the other direction. Lots of self-publishers on a budget are relying on their Beta readers alone. Professional editing services are essential for most self-publishers. It's just a case of getting it done after your Beta readers have weeded out all the more obvious stuff.

Ami Hendrickson said...


Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I agree: too many people equate Betas with "free editing." This, in my opinion, is akin to saying, "I rode on a carousel once, so I know how to ride a horse."
There is great need for both: betas first to do the heavy lifting, then editors for the spit and polish.