some point in our calling as writers we’ll work with an editor, whether
a professional we’ve hired to review our work, or a friend we’ve asked
There’s a fallacy about editors
that “those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach.” But good editors
often write just as well and should have the writers’ best interest at
heart. When selecting an editor, you want someone who, above all, edits
well and understands writers and the writing life. The person probably
won’t become your best friend, but will strike a balance between
professional objectivity and nurturing your talent amid the pruning
Why Work with a Pro?
Writers often opt for
professional editors and literary agents often
recommend them, especially for first-time authors, because mistakes,
simple and complex, are easy to miss.
• Simple mistakes (grammar,
punctuation, spelling) can be easy to fix,
but complex problems (plot, theme, character development, transitions)
can be tricky. An editor with knowledge in these areas can be
invaluable. So can one with a thorough knowledge of grammar.
• Working with a pro can
save time, money, and aggravation by showing
you sooner rather than later the recurring errors that may be keeping
your work from publication.
• You may want to take your
work to the next level, and a professional
editor can provide the necessary perspective.
• It can be an investment in
your future. Writers often invest in
master’s degrees and conferences, but degrees are expensive and
time-consuming, and you may need a more personal touch than conferences
allow. A good manuscript edit educates you in areas of weakness.
• Although publication is
never guaranteed, not even for authors with
multiple books in print, your chances improve as your work improves.
You can also gain notice from publishers who would otherwise pass on
your work because it lacks polish.
• Professional editors have
contacts in publishing, and many have
worked in the field. Not only can they offer wisdom about those
relationships, but also some provide referrals if they like your work.
Types of Editors
Editors come in various flavors, but there are three basic profiles:
development, content, or line, and proofreaders:
In a nutshell, development
editors scrutinize for big ticket items:
character, plot, theme and transitions. They consider other aspects,
too, like grammar, punctuation, and spelling, but their strength is the
• Content or line editors
scan for the big picture, but they’re looking
largely for whether the writing flows, scenes make sense, and the story
generally works. They also watch for grammar, punctuation, and
• Proofreaders, the good
ones, get out the magnifying glass. They’re
detail-oriented and look for errors you want to eradicate before
sending the draft to your agent. Some development editors recommend
using proofreaders before sending the final draft.
Send your best
work to an editor, otherwise you waste time and money.
Once you polish the draft, here
are some tips:
Referrals are preferable, even in a nonpaying arrangement.
• Problems will arise, so
professionalism, even with friends, is key.
• Don’t react immediately
when you see the corrections, which are
likely to be more extensive and different from what you were expecting.
Instead, put the manuscript aside for a day before going over it.
• When you come back to it,
review all the observations before passing
judgment. Then test the changes by implementing them. Most often,
you’ll see improvement.
• If you’re still in doubt,
write your questions and review them before
sending them to your editor, making sure to use the opportunity for
clarity and not to snipe.
• Each writer-editor
relationship is unique, so don’t be surprised if
your experience differs from that of others, even when you’re working
through a referral.
• At some point the
honeymoon will be over, but this can be an
opportunity for the relationship to mature. How you handle it sets a
precedent for how you’ll handle other aspects of the writing life, like
reviews and publicity.
• Remember, this is a
business—for both of you.
Questions to Ask Before
Before hiring an editor, ask these questions:
How long have you been doing this?
• What’s your specialty (fiction or nonfiction, and genre)?
• How much do you charge, and how do you charge (by the hour or the
• What books have you edited? Would I know any?
• Can I give you a four- to five-page writing sample to edit free of
charge before committing?
• What’s included in your price (character development, plot,
At some point, all of us work with an editor, maybe more than one at
various stages of the work—before your agent sees the manuscript and
before publication. So, it’s important to understand and make the most
of the relationship. Remember that balance is key and when in doubt,
ask before assuming.