Dear Author: Is Your Editor REALLY an Editor?

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

I’ve been working the last couple of days to catch up on submissions at Evolved Publishing, where I, as managing publisher/editor, am responsible for such things. I always wade into our submissions queue with a sense of hope and optimism, though that doesn’t usually last long. I hate to say that, as it sounds so negative, but it’s the harsh truth.

One of the most frustrating things for me is to have to review a submission for which the author has clearly spent little time revising and polishing. Nothing irritates me more than seeing someone’s rough first draft. I always want to fire off a harsh note, but I refrain out of simple courtesy and professionalism — traits I wish those authors shared.

Equally as frustrating, but aimed at a different target, is the piece that has been “professionally edited” prior to submission. My first reaction to seeing that in an author’s email is to thank the heavens. However, what I find upon opening the manuscript is often discouraging.

A recent submission mentioned this editing, and even included the editor’s name and links to Facebook and website pages. After reading the first paragraph of the manuscript (1 simple mistake and 2 bad choices), then the rest of the first page (2 more obvious mistakes and several more bad choices), I had to go to that editor’s pages to see who this person was. It was another writer who, apparently not having a lot of luck as an author, decided to hang up a shingle as editor. This person’s qualifications? I don’t know. I can’t seem to find any.

Now, I’m sure the author in question paid for this editor’s services in the hopes that she would have a final manuscript that was clean, polished to a fine sheen — a true professional presentation.

She should get her money back.

I’ve also recently received inquiries from authors who stated that they paid for editing services previously, but that they still felt their manuscript needed some work. They wanted to know if I was available to edit their piece, and if so, at what rates. When I told them, they gasped a little, having already paid for editing once. I understand; I really do. However, it’s not my job to work for less than minimum wage to clean up another editor’s poor work.

This — editing or writer coaching — is like any other product or service: you get what you pay for.

The problem seems to be that, just as anyone can publish last week’s grocery list and call themselves an author, anyone can hang up an online shingle and call themselves an editor. In this internet age, the old “Buyer beware!” adage is more relevant than ever. So what is an author to do? How can you be assured you’re getting good work from your editor? The simplest answer is to get a second opinion, and maybe even a third.

Before hiring an editor or writing coach, get a sample edit. The sample should cover at least 1,000 words, and it should offer enough in the way of edits and instructional notes to make you feel comfortable that the person knows what he’s talking about. And then? Get a sample from another editor/coach, and compare the two. Is one apparently far ahead of the other in terms of skill and insight? Well, there’s your choice. Are the two really close? Then maybe a third opinion is needed.

At the very least, hop on the phone (or Skype, as I use) and talk with the editors/coaches, and get a feel for them. Which one sounds like you’ll be able to work with her? Which one can offer you concrete answers to your questions? Which one can point to previous success stories?

REFERENCES: This one is tricky, because I think it’s entirely possible for someone to be both relatively new and very good. Hey, we all started somewhere. However, when in doubt, and lacking any other method for deciding between candidates, let those references guide you. Get contact information on those references, and a blessing from the editor to contact them. Hey, this is a job interview, after all!

Finally, if the editor in question is one of the many who first came to the industry as aspiring writers, then switched modes and became an editor, read their work. If they have a book or two published, at least take advantage of the free sampling available at retail sites. If their work seems less than stellar, not up to your standards, then you know that’s an editor to avoid. Yes, editing and writing are, in many respects, two different skill sets. Just because someone is a great editor doesn’t mean they’ll be a great writer, or vice versa. However, if the editor’s own writing is laden with errors, bad prose and structure, and utterly clichéd stories and characters… do you really want that person editing your work?

So please, be careful in choosing your editor, lest it be money down the drain. No editor can guarantee you success, of course, but a good one will help you grow as a writer, and make your finished product one that you can be proud — and certain — of. In this internet age, there are a lot of unqualified people passing themselves off as something they’re not. Exercise caution and due diligence, and remember: you get what you pay for.

13 responses to “Dear Author: Is Your Editor REALLY an Editor?

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Man, some of what I read is so bad. And not just “editing” minimums which some people think is enough. Just because all the commas are in the right place doesn’t mean it’s been edited! Passive voice, story doctoring, head hopping, cliche characters and phrases, they ALL need to be addressed. This is why I would never call myself an editor. I’m a great BETA reader and content editor but I’d never suggestion someone use me and not have another editor go through it. Commas be damned! 🙂

    Thank Gods for you and Melissa. My books with Evolved are absolutely the most professional I’ve put out and I’m looking forward to bringing the others up to standard.

  2. I write book reviews. There are many times I know something’s not right or not working in a story. But I couldn’t tell you what exactly. That’s why I think editors are magical. Thanks for this, Lane. Very insightful.

  3. I completely agree about the sample. In fact, someone can have all the credentials and references in the world (and really, references aren’t always reliable, as it is often a “blind leading the blind” scenario in this industry), but until someone sees the editor’s work in action, those credentials are worth nothing.

    I am primarily a writer, but I briefly worked in the world of freelance editing. I eventually became too disillusioned by the tendency most writers had to devalue the work. Nearly every sum I quoted was too high, whether I was charging rock bottom rates or top tier or middle of the road, even when they loved my samples and wanted to hire me. It was just “too much.” And it was “too much” because they failed to see the true value of what they were getting, and in a world where newspapers and publishers are dropping editors from their rosters like flies in the name of cutting costs, I suppose I get their lack of gravity on the issue of editing. I don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars just lying around either, but I do not answer that by saying that I don’t need the edit or that I can do it all myself. I am lucky that by working in this industry as long as I have and scratching a lot of backs and doing a lot of networking, I have finally developed some connections to get quality edits at a discount. But not every writer can expect that, nor do they want to do it either.

    Finally, I got out of business when I discovered that most of the people who came to me for editing services didn’t need them. Well, they DID need them, but it wasn’t the most important thing they needed. They needed writing lessons. They needed a writing coach. They needed an education on how the industry actually works and someone who could relieve them of their delusions. I could edit out their typos and give them advice on character and narration, but they would be no closer to understanding the craft or the industry in which they wished to work. In fact, it’s appalling to me how many people who wish to write for money have absolutely no inclination to learn the ins and outs of the writing business.

    Of course, they could do what I and many of my colleagues did and learn by doing it for several years, failing and getting back up multiple times, but most people want to take the shortcut. If I could bottle and sell the dose of reality most hopefuls need, I could treat my writing royalties like play money and retire on a mountain of gold. 🙂

    • “They needed writing lessons. They needed a writing coach.” — I wholeheartedly agree, Allison. It’s the reason I changed my freelance services (which I rarely engage in anyway, given my job duties at Evolved Publishing and my time constraints) from editor to writing coach. I discovered that most of my clients needed a walk through the fundamentals of writing first, before we could even talk about simple editing. They didn’t understand what “editing” really meant, nor had they prepared themselves for that level of service. They needed much more.

      Most writers bring a mix of bad habits or undeveloped skills to the table, and most of those, in my experience, fall into one of about a dozen categories. First they need to learn what’s wrong and what’s right, and how to turn what they’re doing wrong into the right way. Yes, they need a writing coach.

  4. The advice is good. However, in the first sentence, the words “Managing Editor/Publisher” should not be capitalized. Just fyi.
    🙂 and best wishes,
    – Mary, a freelance editor (substantive and copyediting)

    • You are correct. This is what happens when you copy/paste from an email signature. 🙁 I shall correct it. Thanks, Mary.

  5. Amanda J Spedding

    Word of mouth, I’ve found, is the best way to find an editor. If you’re a writer, then you interact with other writers, and someone should be able to point you in the right direction. Like any profession, there are good editors out there, and then there are those who claim to be editors who’ve no right to do so.

    If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money, make sure you do your research! 🙂

    • Indeed, Amanda. However, in this you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours internet world we live in (just look at book reviews), even word of mouth can be tricky. This is why that sample edit is so, so important.

  6. I personally know an author who told me he could write reviews because he was an author. He proceeded to write a few reviews for me that did not indicate the genre/s in which the book fell nor did he comment on the plot and characters. In fact, he reviewed Joe Hill’s NOS4R2 and pretty much limited his comments to complaining about Joe’s references to Stephen King’s work. Dude then set himself up as a publisher with the worst copy writing and copy editing I’ve seen on a kickstarter page, yet authors still choose to publish with him. Needless to say, I won’t review any of the books he publishes.

    There are courses, certificates and even university degrees to equip editors. More editors need to actually study editing. Seriously.

    • Well, I’m a little wary of school systems that teach techniques that are 100% out of phase with the real-world industry. I prefer industry experience to education every day; however, one often follows on the heels of the other. Additionally, there are so many great books available to aide in the self-education of writers/editors. I’ve read about 90 of them over the past 30 years, and some I could have lived without, but many I view as invaluable to my professional growth. Even those that seem to offer little always have at least a few critical tidbits.

  7. I have known writers who have suddenly declared that they were now ready to take in work as an editor. At least two, I thought, had no business at all being editors.

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