Working with an editor: Part one

If the writing and editing forums I frequent on Facebook are any guide, the relationship between an indie author and their freelance editor can be fraught with difficulty. And it’s a two-way street. Authors complain about editors destroying their vision. Editors complain about authors not knowing what they’re asking for.

In this pair of blog posts, I’ll be examining how we can best make that author–editor relationship work, because it’s critical to the success of a project. If the relationship is a marriage, the book it produces is its precious offspring. And you want your book to be the bright, happy, beautiful kid who’s friends with all the cool crowd at school, not … the other one. Don’t you?

What should an author expect from an editor?

Technical competence: It should go without saying, but one of the main reasons you’re employing an editor is that they have an advanced understanding of the technicalities of writing: grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting. Your brain might be wonderfully creative, but perhaps you’re not so hot on the differences between their and they’re and there, or where the comma goes in relation to the speech marks. So your editor, first and foremost, should be great at that stuff.

(As a side note: even professional editors make typos. It’s not necessarily a cause for alarm if there’s a spelling mistake in that quick email they dashed off at 6am before they took the kids to school; they probably just needed a coffee, or their other glasses. Editing forums on social media are full of sorry tales from great, accomplished editors about signing off emails with ‘best retards’ or describing themselves as ediots. One editor confessed to writing ‘thanks for contacting me about shit’ instead of ‘thanks for contacting me about this’ and I regularly mistype my own surname – which is unfortunate because it comes out as a word for a female dog which many people regard as highly derogatory. For more on this topic, see here.

Specialist knowledge: Editors working in specialised fields should have at least some knowledge of them; this applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. It’s pretty obvious that you can’t edit complex scientific material well without having at least a basic grasp of the terminology and conventions that apply to that area. You might think that anyone can edit fiction, but it’s a pretty good idea for a novel editor to understand the basics of how stories work. And, if they’re working in a particular genre – high fantasy, say – then it’s also a good idea for them to understand the expectations of that genre’s readership. Just as you wouldn’t expect Lee Child to suddenly write a novel about a fairy princess falling in love with a dragon, many fiction editors limit themselves to a particular genre or genres, because they know their subject. And that makes them useful people for an indie author to know.

Communication: Freelance editors are busy people (or at least, we hope to be) but it’s poor practice to just take the manuscript and run. Failing to communicate during the process – particularly during a long project – is unhelpful and can leave you feeling like someone whose close relative was wheeled into the operating theatre eighteen hours ago for a tonsillectomy and hasn’t yet emerged. A good editor will acknowledge receipt of your manuscript, will keep you up to date with progress, will answer your questions, and will contact you with any queries they have rather than just making assumptions. (Don’t make me say that management-speak thing about what we do when we assume.)

A fair price: authors have a right to expect that the editor will charge them a fair price for the type and amount of work undertaken – but ‘fair’ isn’t necessarily ‘cheap’. Some types of editing are more expensive than others, but they all require a high level of skill and concentration. Editors are professionals, with training and qualifications, and you should expect to pay for their expertise. Sure, you can find ‘editors’ working for a dollar an hour on several popular freelancer sites, but those people aren’t, by and large, the professionals. More often than not, they’re just people who know how to use Grammarly. You can do that yourself for free, and using Grammarly is not the same as editing. Whisper it quietly: sometimes, Grammarly is wrong.

The editor should tell you before they start work what their estimate or quote covers, and how it’s calculated. Are they going to charge you by the hour or by the word, or have they set a fixed price for the whole job? Do they need a deposit to book a slot for your project (many do)? Will they expect payment of the full amount before releasing the work to you? Will they allow you to pay in instalments? How do they accept payment?

Suggested minimum rates for different types of professional editing are available on the SfEP (UK) and EFA (US) websites.

A written contract / terms and conditions: many freelance editors use these to define the terms of a project, so don’t be surprised if yours asks you to agree to a contract or other documentation. This is for your protection and theirs, and they’re not trying to trick you – they’re just making sure that both sides know what has been agreed so there are no nasty surprises later. This leads us on to …

The kind of edit you expected: many editors offer a sample edit (sometimes free, sometimes not) so that both sides know what to expect. The sample edit means that the editor can see what shape your work is in and, if necessary, suggest a different kind of editing from the one you requested. It may even be that they decide they’re not a good fit for the project once they’ve seen what it needs (this is more common than you might think – most editors will not take on a job that they don’t think they’re suited to, and many will make efforts to find you another, more appropriate, editor).

Remember, too, that even editors can’t always agree on what the various terms mean. One person’s ‘copy-edit’ is another’s ‘line-edit’ is someone else’s ‘proofread’. Whatever terminology they use, if the editor hasn’t done a sample to show you what to expect, then they should be very clear at the outset about what they will and will not be doing.

Once the project parameters have been agreed, either with or without a sample edit, the editor has no business rewriting sentences or suggesting alterations to the plot if all that was requested was a proofread, and shouldn’t be wasting your time and money nit-picking about comma placement if you asked for a developmental edit to refine the big-picture story structure.

Homework: The editing process is more of a conversation than a lecture. You can expect your editor to return your document with tracked changes, suggestions and comments, and it’s up to you to decide what to do with them. That, I’m afraid, means more work for you. You’re not obliged to accept any of the suggestions or changes, of course – it’s your book, and always will be – but your editor is expecting you to go through them and make some revisions.

Depending on the stage at which you entered the process, it’s likely that your manuscript will need more than one round of editing. If you employed a developmental editor to help the flow of your story and suggest a way out of that problematic tight corner in Chapter Nine, then they won’t be dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s at the same time. (Yes, I know Word does that automatically. You know what I mean.) No: they will return the manuscript for you to revise, and they will expect you to send it to a copy editor – who may or may not be the same person – when it’s done. And the copy editor may well expect you to have a further round of proofreading before publication.

Safe keeping of your files: A good editor will have multiple backup systems in place – which may include external and cloud storage as well as storage on their computer. They should not work on the original file you send them, but will make a working copy. That way, they will always have the original to return to if something goes wrong. Their systems should be adequately protected against software glitches, malware and viruses, too. None of this is to say, of course, that you shouldn’t be taking care of your own files too. Your editor is not your mum. Tidy your own bedroom.

In the next part, we’ll flip things around to look at what editors need from authors.

Looking for an editor?