This article is one in a series on finding and working with a freelance editor. Part 1 details the types of edits available for novels, part 2 is where to find an editor, part 3 is things to consider when deciding on who you want to work with, part 4 is knowing when you're ready to start editing, and this is the final post, part 5.
You did it! You finished a book and you researched editors and you’ve sent your baby off to be critiqued by a professional and oh no was that the worst decision ever?!?!
Deep breath :) It was a great decision and a necessary step toward getting your book published.
Necessary though it may be…the editorial feedback will incite emotions. Maybe it breaks your heart, or maybe it is exactly what you were hoping for. It could be devastating or enlightening. How the editor’s comments and suggestions feel to you depend on many things – how the feedback is framed, how you accept constructive criticism in general, how personally or not you feel about something you created, your understanding of and belief in the editing process, and so much more.
When you get your feedback from an editor – or anyone, really; this pertains to betas and critique partners and agents and anyone else you’ve asked for opinions – read through it, and if it makes you feel anxious or defensive or hurt or anything negative, just walk away. Give yourself some distance from the MS and this other person’s response to it. Take some time to vent to an author-friend if it might help. When you come back to read the feedback again, try to not take anything you consider negative as a personal attack and keep in mind that this is only one person’s opinion.
Think of your book like a recipe. You'd probably want someone to tell you that you added a cup of baking powder to your cookies instead of just a teaspoon, right? Or if you’ve offered your friend who hates raisins an oatmeal raisin cookie, she probably isn’t going to like it. Just because you created these cookies doesn’t mean that mistaken measurements or personal tastes make you a bad cook or a less-than person. You are not the thing that you created.
You are a wonderful, beautiful, valid person regardless of how you write (or cook).
Also, know that all the examples I offer in this post are ones I’ve seen several times. So if you’re reading this and thinking, “She’s talking about me,” even if I am, you’re definitely not the only one!
I’ve worked with authors who love that I give them detailed critiques about how to improve their stories and what is lacking structurally, and I’ve worked with authors who completely shut down and don’t know what to do next. Both are valid responses, as is every other response along that spectrum. However you feel about feedback is how you feel. And there’s always a way forward.
Comparison can be debilitating and I hope you’re able to learn to avoid it. Please don’t compare yourself to other authors. Everyone has a different writing journey, different backgrounds and experiences, different networks of people and knowledge to support them. And please please please with whipped cream and a cherry on top don’t compare yourself to authors who have five or ten or twenty books published. They’ve been doing this for years. You wouldn’t walk into a new job on Monday morning in a new role you’ve never performed and assume you should be just as savvy about this company as the CEO, right? It’s the same with writing fiction. This is a new job you must learn even though you’ve been writing and reading since elementary school.
That’s all the philosophical and emotional and ephemeral stuff. Now let’s get into the practical techniques of reading, acknowledging and accepting feedback.
So you’ve done the first read of your editorial letter, you’ve called your bestie to cry or rage, and now it’s time to hitch up your pants and get to work. Let’s do it!
Hopefully you have an editor who is telling you what they love about your story as well as where they see opportunities for improvement. Bask in the positives and be realistic about the opportunities. Often editors will point out something that isn’t working for them and explain why it doesn’t work, but leave the actual changes up to the author. They may even offer a few examples of how the revised section might develop to give you some ideas or different perspectives. If you agree, that’s awesome! Go ahead and make those revisions. If you don’t understand what the editor is asking for, then contact them to get clarity. And if you disagree with their suggestions or their reasoning, you don’t have to make the change!
You’re an indie author, which means you are not obligated to take a single revision from your editor. (If you're traditionally published, there are more rules.)
I don’t recommend going into the editing relationship with that as your banner, but it’s the truth nonetheless.
Editors are here to guide you, but we don’t know everything, we can’t fix everything, story is highly subjective, and these characters belong to you. You make the final call on the revisions in your book.
Once you do start to revise, I recommend doing it in a couple different rounds that go from wide and overarching story aspects like character arc or goal (anything included in my Six Foundational Elements) to narrow and focused like repetition in the writing or lack of detail.
Revisions take as long as revisions take. I’ve known authors who can plow through a developmental edit in a week and others who take three months. Again, writing is no place for comparison. You just do the work that is required is improve your story. While you're doing that, you're learning and growing as an author with every revision and every new book.
And because I’m me – and you should be expecting this if you’ve read this whole series – once you’ve finished your revisions, it’s time to celebrate! So break out that champagne and toast yourself to getting one step closer to publication.
This article is one in a series on finding and working with a freelance editor. Part 1 details the types of edits available for novels, part 2 is where to find an editor, part 3 is things to consider when deciding on who you want to work with, and this is part 4.
There are steps you can take before the manuscript goes to your editor to ensure we (editors) are receiving the best, cleanest, strongest version of your story. I recommend self-editing before the editor gets the document because it gives us the chance to delve into your story and writing style to really polish the final product and help you level up. If you send us your first draft as soon as you type The End, we may end up spending time on things you could have fixed without paying us, and we don’t have the opportunity to do any polish work since we’re focused on basic story structure.
First, finish your manuscript and put it away. Get that happily ever after wrapped up then hide the document from yourself for a few days or even a few weeks to let your brain take a break from it. You need some space to find the objectivity to edit your own work. Read other books, catch up on some TV shows or movies you’ve been wanting to watch, maybe even start a new writing project. However you do it, ignore that finished manuscript for a little bit. I promise that your brain is still noodling on aspects of that story in the background while you’re focused on other things. That’s how brains work.
When you’re ready to start self-editing, open that document and do one of the following…
1. Print that bad boy on paper and grab your red pencil!
2. Change the spacing, size and/or font in the document
3. Forward it to your Kindle or phone, wherever you can read and take notes (Word has a mobile app, if that's useful for you)
Basically, you’re tricking your brain into thinking this is a brand-new document that it’s never seen before. Your brain isn’t quite that gullible, but I promise that seeing the story in a different format does help it feel new.
If you didn’t do this while you were writing, step one is to outline your story structure and ensure you’re hitting all the story beats. I break structure into six foundational elements of goal, motivation, conflict, character arc, flaw, and stakes in my online course. Gwen Hayes reviews beats in her book, Romancing the Beat, which include story points like the meet cute, adhesion, and the dark night of the soul. Editor Jami Gold offers a spreadsheet (scroll down to find the romance-specific one) that calls the beats by different names than Gwen uses, but it’s the same format and it includes a formula to let you know approximately where in the story by word and page count each beat should fall.
Once you know your structure is sound, you can use one these books as a guide to edit your own work – Intuitive Editing or Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Both books will walk you through big-picture story aspects as well as tighter line-editing tasks.
Welcome to your second draft! Celebrate it! Self-editing and revising means that you’ve accomplished twice as much as many new authors who finish the first draft and immediately fire it off to an editor. You now have a stronger, better story and your editor definitely appreciates the work you’ve put into it.
Next, you can send your revised manuscript to beta readers or critique partners. Keep in mind that these folks should not be your close friends or family members unless those people also happen to be widely read in your genre and are willing and able to give you critical feedback. Your mom loves everything you do, so she is likely not a good beta reader candidate.
If you have the opportunity to learn a bit about your betas or CPs, try to find out what they focus on or notice most often when reading. Ask them what they love about your genre and what frustrates them in the books that they don’t end up liking. Some readers keep track of timelines in their heads, and if you mess up ages or days of the week, they’ll catch it. Others adore deep characterization, where they feel they really get to know the main characters, their personalities, their backstories, and their thought processes. Still others may be sticklers for grammar and good at pointing out misspellings or clunky sentence structure. There are readers who want a tightly-paced novel, so if it slows down too much or gets boring, they’ll notice immediately that the pace is lagging. However, your beta or crit group shakes out, try to have different types of readers giving you feedback so you don’t end up with three people who only point out your misplaced commas.
Be specific about what feedback you’d like from each of them when you give them the manuscript. Online you can find lists of questions you can ask betas to answer, if you feel that’s appropriate.
When you receive the feedback from your betas or CPs, take it with a grain of salt. Everyone has an opinion about something, and just because they say it, doesn’t make it correct. But do remain open to their critiques – you’ve asked them to provide feedback because you trust their reader instincts, so don’t ignore everything you don’t agree with. Take some time to consider the snags they are pointing out and decide whether revising your story with their points in mind will ultimately strengthen your story. If more than one person is pointing out the same thing, it's probably something you should look a little deeper at.
Some famous author or editor said – basically – that others can point out where something isn’t working in a story, but their suggestions on how to fix it aren’t usually the right answer. Only the author can actually resolve the issue. That’s why my editing comments and letters generally offer a lot of questions and examples rather than a flat order of “Do A to fix B.”
Woohoo! You’re on your third draft! Celebrate some more! It’s a lot of work but I promise it’s worth all the time and effort in the end.
Next, run that baby through a free online editor like the one in Word or Grammarly to catch any lingering grammar or spelling mistakes. These programs aren’t perfect and they certainly throw plenty of false positives, but I use Grammarly when I copy edit since human eyes and brains are fallible as well.
And now, finally, your manuscript is ready to go to your editor!
If this long-ass blog post isn’t clear enough, this self-editing process can take weeks or months to complete. When you book a specific date with your editor, keep the schedule in mind and be sure to give yourself enough time to do a couple rounds of revisions before the editor expects the document.
Especially for new authors, I don’t suggest setting or announcing a hard release date until your book is at the copy edit or proofread stage. Often you have no idea just how much work may be involved in your own revisions or what the editor is going to suggest. Maybe you can turn around their suggestions in a few days, but I regularly see new authors taking two to three months to work on the revisions from my developmental edit. And if you have children or a day job, all calendars should just be lit on fire because you know how impossible it can be to schedule writing around them.
The editor has your manuscript and now it’s time to celebrate again! You’ve done an incredible amount of work in writing this book!
This is a series on finding and working with a freelance editor. If you missed the earlier articles, check out these links to learn what types of editing are available and where to find editors.
There are several considerations to keep in mind when you are evaluating editors, and every author will have a different arrangement of priorities. Some people have a strict budget they must adhere to while others may want to focus on the personality of the editor they will be working with. There is no right or wrong answer on which aspect is most important, there’s only the issue(s) that is most critical for you.
Regardless of the order, these are the points I suggest you examine.
Your editor should be experienced editing in your genre. Each style of book – romance, memoir, thriller, essay – is packed with conventions that, if ignored or overlooked, can result in bad reviews, poor word-of-mouth, and low sales. An editor who is well-versed in your particular genre will help ensure that you’re not blindly missing or trampling over any reader expectations.
Editing can be expensive. A developmental edit on a 75,000-word manuscript could run anywhere from $300 to $3,000 depending on the editor you’re working with. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a page of recommended rates, but there are certainly editors out there charging way more and way less. To be honest, the romance community often charges on the lower end of the scale, but there are still huge variances even in our genre. Know your budget and be realistic about what you can afford.
How and when does the editor take payment? Do they require a deposit? Do you pay in full, or half when you submit the manuscript and the other half when the edits are complete? Is any portion refundable? What if you aren’t happy with your edits? Do they offer a payment plan? Do they take payment via PayPal or Transferwise or check or bank transfer or credit card or gold bullion?
Some editors present contracts or agreements for authors to sign and others use the emails you’ve exchanged as an informal statement of work. What are you comfortable with? Would you prefer to sign a contract or would you consider that a hassle?
5. Editing process
Proofreading and copy editing are pretty straightforward, and the vast majority of editors will edit in Word with Track Changes on or in Editing mode in Google Docs. Both applications allow you to see the changes that have been made and either accept or reject each individual edit. Line edits could include an editorial letter, or they may only have inline changes in the document. A developmental edit and a critique may be detailed completely in an editorial letter or might include comments in the document. Some authors appreciate a phone call after the edits have been delivered to talk through the changes and take the opportunity to ask questions. Others want a few days or weeks to process the suggestions and revise on their own without any additional input from the editor. If you aren’t sure of your process yet, ask the editor what their availability is after the manuscript is delivered for you to follow up with questions or requests.
If you have a specific timeline that you’ll need your edits completed by, then I suggest finding your editor well in advance. It’s not uncommon for editors to be booked out three, six, or even twelve months in advance. Rush jobs may be available but are often significantly more expensive. Also be sure to ask what the turnaround time is for an edit. Once you deliver the manuscript, does your editor plan to get it back to you in four days, two weeks, or a month? And don’t forget to schedule enough time for your own revisions before the next round of edits. I have a couple clients who can churn out a second draft on a developmental edit in four or five days, but the majority of my clients take anywhere from one to three months to fully revise their manuscript.
Evaluate the personality and communication style of editors through their websites and their emails with you. Do you want to spend hours of your day reading this person’s thoughts about your manuscript? If you get a sample edit from them, do their suggestions feel empathetic, implementable, and realistic? Do they offer encouragement and explanations or examples? Are their responses to your emails timely and professional?
As I mentioned earlier, these aren’t in a particular order of most or least important. You’ll make that determination based on your own needs. But each point is important to consider in your overall evaluation of editors.
Part 2: Editors in the wild (AKA – Where to find them)
So you understand the different types of edits a manuscript may need and that there are lots of editing skill sets to choose from because you read part 1 of this article.
But how do you track down one of these mythical beings? Read on, my friend, and I’ll tell you where we hang out. (Hint: it’s the bar at writing conferences.)
The best way to find an editor? Ask your writing buddies for referrals. Just like when looking for a new doctor or a new job, referrals from friends and colleagues are indispensable. Though not every author-editor pairing will be a match made in writerly heaven, asking friends for recommendations gives you the chance to learn more about the working and communication style of the editor before you ever contact them.
If the referral track isn’t working for you, then next I recommend checking out the copyright and acknowledgments pages of the books you love and respect. Often, authors thank their editors for the work they’ve done, and some indie authors will list their editors (and cover artists and formatters!) on the copyright page.
Still looking? Facebook has approximately eleventy bajillion groups for writers. Join some! Make some new author friends. Ask in the groups if people have editors they recommend. If you write romance, check out the Romance Editor Q&A group to get started.
Online searches work too! I probably get one inquiry a week through my website where the author says they simply googled some combination of romance+edit/coach and my site came up.
As you’re looking for editors, be sure to find professionals who know your genre. There are lots of unspoken “rules” in genre fiction that you simply don’t know if you don’t read widely in that genre. And though it’s okay to break rules in writing, it’s best done when you know what the expectation is and flout it intentionally. Ignorance of the standards often just angers readers and makes them throw your book at the wall or – worse – leave a bad review.
Once you’ve narrowed your list of potential editors down to your top three or so, ask them for samples! This will give you a chance to see how they work, evaluate their communication style, and decide if you mesh as a team. Some editors charge for samples, some charge and put that amount toward your final invoice if you book with them, and some will do a sample for free. Some proofreaders won’t offer sample edits because proofreading is relatively clear cut, but other types of editors usually will. Some editors will request pages from the middle of your manuscript since that’s usually been through fewer rounds of perfecting than the first chapters, but some will take first pages also. There's a lot of flexibility around samples.
A compassionate editor will always give you positive feedback about your story as well as making clear, actionable recommendations on what can be improved. Avoid anyone who only tells you what you’re doing wrong.
And there’s my two-part series on finding an editor for your novel. Stay tuned for more posts about working with editors, things to consider (like cost and schedule), and the emotional gut punch that your first editorial letter will probably be.
Part 1: What does an editor actually do? (AKA – Do I really need an editor?)
You’re writing a book. Or maybe you’ve finally typed The End on your manuscript. Congratulations!
Now, it’s time to find an editor.
You can actually do this at any point in the process. You don’t have to have a finished manuscript (MS) to research, communicate with, or even schedule an editor. Though I do recommend being self-aware enough to know whether you can stick to a deadline if you book that editor before your MS is done.
So, what’s the first step to finding an editor?
You must understand what the different editing passes are, how they affect your MS, and who performs them. Editing skills come in all shapes and sizes, and many editors prefer to specialize in a certain type of edit or even a particular type of story. Take me, for example – I only work with romance authors.
The first type of edit a book needs is focused on content.
A content editor reviews your story as a whole. In general, they don’t care if you have typos or your character changes eye color in chapter five because they are making sure that you have strong characterization and dire stakes, a clear goal and ever-rising conflict in your book. They ensure your plot makes sense and follows the guidelines of your genre – if it’s romance, the people fall in love by the end; if it’s mystery, the crime is solved and the bad guy is caught; if it’s thriller, the pacing stays fast and keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
A content editor may advertise their services as a content edit, a developmental edit, or a substantive edit. These three terms mostly mean the same thing, but request clarification if you’re not sure exactly what an editor is offering.
And before you ask…
(Warning: soap box)
Yes, you need a developmental edit. This is where cranky Editor Jess comes out, because I see new authors needing to save money on the production costs of their book, and I totally understand that, you guys, but if you’re not putting out a quality story, you’re not going to get the sales you need to be able to afford to keep writing. Yes, some people (like the old Amazon scammers) released not great books that made lots of money, but that was because they also paid thousands of dollars in advertising to make sure they were casting the widest net in finding readers. If you can’t afford a developmental edit, you likely can’t afford $10,000 in advertising either.
There are ways to make a dev edit more affordable if you have a tight budget. I’ll write a post on that one of these days too. But please don’t skip this step in your production process!
(/end soap box)
Because a content edit deals with the whole story, it doesn’t make any sense to edit the actual words on the page until you know your plot is solid. That’s why content is step one. It’s a waste of time and money to check the spelling in Chapter 1 when you might end up removing that whole chapter.
As we go deeper into the manuscript, a line edit is the next level. This is also sometimes called a substantive edit, so again, ask your potential editor for specifics on what their services are. Line edits are still looking at your story, but this time it’s more about writing style and how you convey the story. At this point, the editor is considering your pacing – do you have a lot of white space on the page for a fast-paced scene? Do you slow down and give the reader a chance to breathe after a particularly thrilling scene? Are your characters interesting or relatable? Does the voice of the writing match the character you’ve created, their life experience and education and career? Are your chapters ending on hooks that entice the reader to keep turning pages rather than set the book down?
After the line edit is the copy edit. Now, we’re finally at the step that many people think of when they hear the word “editor.” The copy edit is all about the technical stuff – grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling – plus consistency and sometimes fact-checking. The copy editor has an ear for repetition, so if you’re repeating words or phrases or even sentence structure too often, your copy editor will point it out and may offer suggestions or simply edit the document to make changes. The copy editor is also on the lookout for that eye color change in chapter 5 and other story inconsistencies as they correct misspellings and misplaced commas and confirm the dates of real-life events you mentioned in the MS.
And finally we get to the proofreader. I always always always recommend that this be a new person, regardless of how many other people have worked on the MS thus far because you want a fresh set of eyeballs looking at your writing for this last step. No editor is going to guarantee they will catch all the typos in your MS, so having more than one person looking for those typos is essential.
Some editors offer manuscript critiques or assessments as well, and those are often similar to a developmental edit – they are focused on story, not grammar – but in a lighter style. My critiques, for example, are usually a scaled-back version of an editorial letter that outlines the two or three aspects of the story that are working really well and the three or four that could use some additional strengthening.
Keep in mind that not all editors perform each type of edit. It’s not uncommon to find people who only work on content edits, or only on copy editing and proofreading. Some editors may also decline to do more than one or two passes on an MS. I usually max out at two – a dev and maybe the copy edit after the author revises. I know that if I try to go through the MS a fourth time (because I do two rounds on the dev), that I’ll miss glaring typos because I’ve seen the document too many times already. My brain will automatically fill in correct information where it’s actually typed wrong or simply missing.
And there we have the different editing passes. This has turned out to be way longer than I expected, so check out part 2 for where to find editors in the wild.
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