Monday, July 9, 2012

On selecting your editor

A while back, I posted something on editors, about how important it is for us writers to get one. The truly wondrous EJ Wesley asked a key question in the comments that day that I've delayed enough in answering.

Yes, we agree editors are the cat's pajamas. The bee's knees. The last Coke in the Sahara. The first daffodil of spring. The last cigarette in the party (at 3 AM). And we all want one. Desperately.

But, EJ asks, how do we choose one?

Now, I'm no expert. I never worked with an editor until three months ago. What I am is extremely lucky.

If you're looking for an editor, even just beginning to think about finding one, or maybe have given up on the whole thing because you got scammed (or heard of someone who knows someone who did), let me try and help.

What are you looking for? A panacea to turn your "great idea" into a marketable novel? A grammar fiend to help you fix the "small" details of verb tense consistency or dangling modifiers? Someone who can cut away those extra words in your 312K manuscript?


You don't need an editor. You may need a critique group, but first and foremost you need to read, maybe take a writing course or five. An editor is not a panacea for anything, especially not your shortcomings as a writer.

What an editor is is the tool that takes your already wonderful and polished-so-much-it-glows manuscript to the next level. He or she is that magician that takes your diamond and turns it into the gospel of the one true goddess (yeah, we're femininely inclined on this blog), that unearths the themes you wanted to touch on but kinda missed, that points out character arc bumps, plot development potholes.

And in order for them to do that, the manuscript you submit to them must already be the very very best you can make it. That means--yes, I'm sorry to say--you need to take care of those dangling modifiers yourself.

I'll assume your MS has had its living daylights polished out of it, you've read Self Editing For Fiction Writers and all the other books, and you're now in earnest searching for the editor to guide you to publishing Nirvana. How will you select him or her?

If you're in a critique group, you know that the opinion-asshole analogy is not just true but prevalent to amazing degrees. You've also--hopefully--learned that one cannot please everybody, that there will always be a whiner out there to howl, I don't get it.

And that's all right, right? We don't need to please everybody. What this is about is writing a f*cking brilliant story that speaks to a certain group of people, that makes someone out there say, this is exactly what I've been trying to say all along.

But here's the deal. In order for that mysterious alchemy of editor-writer to burst into flame and light the path of righteous storytelling, the first someone needs to be--taah-daah--the editor.

You need to find an editor that gets you. That reads your MS and goes, whoa. No, not someone that tells you how wonderful and precious you are, or how beautifully you turn a phrase. That's what your momma is for. Your editor should go whoa as in, I can work with this. And your editor's suggestions should make you go, why didn't I think of that? Of course you didn't, you're the scribbler, not the editor, but that's beside the point.

The editor you choose--and no one, I repeat, no one should charge you a dime before you agree to it--should feel like your better self. You should feel comfortable discussing possible plot twists, character backstory. Their suggestions should send you into paroxysms of creative brainstorming--ohmygod, yesofcourse, then she goes there to see what it's all about and THAT'S when he sees her for the first time! Their feedback, as harsh and blunt as it needs to be (you know it needs to, otherwise us thick-skulled Neanderthals wouldn't get it), must also be nurturing.


N u r t u r i n g.

You know, the kind of stuff that makes you grow, want to be better, like a Climb Every Mountain moment at a Salzburg nunnery. [If you're too young to get that, go see this video. No laughing.]

How do you find that right editor? The same way you find the right anything. Research. Check their blogs, their websites. Most of the reputable ones I've seen have testimonials from authors they've worked with--check to see if these authors are legit, check their published work to see if it matches your style, your themes. Goes without saying that if you write Tom Clancy thrillers, you probably won't make much headway with an editor that works with authors in the vein of Jeff Eugenides, or vise-versee.

The internet makes this very easy. All sorts of information is there for the picking. Do. Your. Research. Because if you don't, and you end up with an editor that rephrases your every word from Sentence One, I will not lend you my shoulder to cry on.

Once you've selected two or three editors you think might be a good fit for you, contact them. Send them an email, follow them on Twitter. Their websites usually have clear guidelines on How It Works--how much they charge, what kind of services they offer (editors are not to be confused with copyeditors, or book doctors). Most will offer some sort of "preview", whether it's a few pages edited for free, or an initial consultation--they read your MS, give you some feedback on how they think they can help. There's no money upfront.

That's right. No money upfront.

I work with two fantastic editors, and they're both amazing. Why two? Because they each have a particular strength (or strengths) that I desperately need.

One of them totally gets my culture-clash theme because she writes in the same vein, so her feedback in that sense is priceless. The other has an amazing arsenal of experience in publishing, which makes her invaluable in terms of smoothing off those rough edges that might snag a potential agent/publisher. She also provides big-picture feedback on the whole MS, and I really needed that.

That combination works for me; who knows what will work for you?

But the point I was trying to make is that neither of them requested money upfront. One of them provided free feedback on the first five pages, so I could get a sense of her style. Excellent method, by the way, and excellent suggestions! The other read the whole MS and we got together over Skype to discuss how to move forward. Once we'd agreed on the weak points that needed work--once she'd seen my willingness to take advice, and once I'd confirmed her advice was worth taking--she gave me an estimate. Only after I agreed to the cost did we begin any fee-incurring work, which turned out to be slightly less than originally quoted.

Finding the best editor in the world isn't easy, but it isn't as hard as you think. Will Fate drop you into the arms of him/her by magic? No.

But you knew that already.

Do your research. It's like a job--you don't show up for an interview without preparing a little, right? And, in the end, it's totally worth it. Your characters--and your readers--will appreciate it no-end.

Plus, you'll have developed a professional relationship of the most rewarding kind.


  1. Hear hear! The part about an editor helping you take your work to the next level rather than being a panacea is key. Your editor is not going to help you improve if every little thing has to be fixed. You have to learn to do most of the work yourself. The things the editor points out will then stand out, helping you learn and improve even more.

    1. Yes, exactly! An editor is part of the process, not a substitute for good writing. It amazes me how many authors sincerely believe the editor is like a magic wand, haha. Thanks for pitching in, Kristin!

  2. Is there a particular Web site (or sites) that you'd recommend as a good place to start researching reputable editors?
    Some Dark Romantic

    1. Hi Mina, and thanks for the visit. Honestly I don't have any sites, but I'll look some up for you and put them up on a post soon, ok? Thanks for linking to your blog--I'll be sure to stop by and let you know about this soon :) Maybe we can work together with others looking for editors, make a start-up list or something. Thanks for the comment and idea!

  3. Great post, Guilie. Tons of helpful information. Thank you.

  4. Very comprehensive coverage of this topic. An editor is the one who does the work the writer should have done in the first place.

    A Faraway View


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