In the increasingly difficult competition to get published, writers know they must put their best foot forward by sending out only a professional, polished, and persuasive new proposal or manuscript to any prospective literary agent or publisher.
Many authors have come to understand the value of objective help before taking the plunge, and I don’t mean from family, friends, or the local writing group. Such support is valuable to have close at hand, but even with the best of intentions, it’s not as useful as professional feedback and guidance.
Full disclosure: I’m an Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons and I also work privately as a developmental editor with selected authors. But I’m not the only such practitioner, and not necessarily the best one for you. There are plenty of other developmental editors out there.
Ask for referrals from authors you know and from agents and editors you meet at writers conferences, expos, or book store signings. It takes hustle and discernment.
Some independent editors have websites that list their services and former clients. If authors are listed, you can try to get in touch with them through their agent or publisher. The authors may be happy to endorse their editors and may well want to lend a helping hand to a fellow writer.
Be very careful when evaluating and making a final choice. Here are some of the primary considerations I think are important when selecting an editor.
Evaluating a freelance editor
• Professional Status
Is this individual a developmental editor? A developmental editor works with a writer to improve the basic concept of the book, the way it’s focused and structured, the style and attitude of the narrative voice, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.
In a non-fiction book they’ll help clarify and organize the ideas and information. In a novel, they’ll work on the plot, characterizations, dialogue, visual description, and literary style.
It’s important to distinguish developmental editors from copy editors, who take a manuscript that has already been developed and correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and in some cases fact-checking.
Ask about the editor’s educational background and experience. A developmental editor is likely to have a vitae that includes a degree and perhaps graduate studies in literature or a related subject.
It’s also very helpful to have in-depth experience as an editor working with a broad variety of authors in real-world commercial book publishing.
• Track Record
Has the editor worked on books that have been published successfully? Your prospective editor should be able to provide an author list of published titles that you can examine.
Be sure that the editor you’re considering has a breadth of experience working specifically with books and not primarily short-form magazine-length pieces. There are important differences in the skills and techniques necessary for the development of a book-length story and plot structure, voice, narrative arc, and pacing throughout. This is true both in fiction and narrative non-fiction works.
Ask the editor to provide references and endorsements, and be sure to follow up.
Don’t be shy. Get in touch with a prospective editor directly. If you live nearby, make an effort to meet. If that’s not feasible, have a good phone conversation. It’s important to see how they respond and to hear their voice, to establish a relationship you can trust and enjoy.
You don’t have to love your editor but it helps to like one another and have an open, honest channel of continuing communication. A good fit is important.
Humor and compassion also go a long way in forging a productive relationship!
If your candidate is slow to answer emails or never returns your phone calls, that’s a bad sign, a harbinger of future problems. Being busy is normal; being absent or invisible for long periods of time is not acceptable.
Remember: It’s your book
Once you’ve narrowed your search or made an actual choice, I always advise authors to establish the ground rules up front and take an ongoing proactive role in protecting their interests.
Good developmental editors subsume their own egos and enter the world of the writer’s consciousness. They’re not writing their own book but helping you create the book you want to write.
A good professional should never take over a book, conform or contort it to their way of writing, or make any changes unilaterally or without your approval. That’s why the tracked changes tool on your Word document manuscript is so useful. You can see everything in the original with any edits, deletions, or additions, highlighted in another color in a way that can be either accepted or rejected.
Establish clear financial terms
Some independent editors have a written contract, and others don’t, preferring to operate on a basis of trust. In any case, you will want to agree on a minimum and maximum fee, and how payment will be made.
Most developmental editors charge either an hourly rate or a flat fee depending on the length of the book and how much work is needed. Not inexpensive, to be sure, so consider how much this kind of investment is worth to you, and choose very carefully.
Also be clear about your ability to follow up with more questions, brainstorming and feedback on subsequent revisions. Is that part of the original estimate or an additional charge?
Agree on an exit plan
Before you start, agree about how you can stop in the middle and leave the deal without rancor.
This rarely happens, but if a major problem develops over communication or work in progress that just can’t be solved, it should be discussed in writing so there’s a clear record and no misunderstanding — even if there’s no formal contract.
Maxwell Perkins: A role model for editors
Maxwell Perkins may be familiar to students of American literature as the legendary editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons (now a division of Simon & Schuster) who during the 1920’s and 30’s worked with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, and other famous authors.
Perkins was well known for his intelligence, humility, passion for good writing and unconditional support for the writers he edited.
He maintained close personal relationships with his authors, nursing the alcoholic Fitzgerald through vast improvements in The Great Gatsby. He advocated the then revolutionary publication of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He suffered through two years of persuading Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from his first novel Look Homeward Angel.
Here’s a passage from one of many letters Perkins wrote Thomas Wolfe in 1937 during a period when they were struggling over the length of Wolfe’s second novel Of Time and the River:
My impression was that you asked my help, that you wanted it. And it is my impression too that changes were not forced on you (you’re not very forceable, Tom, nor I very forceful), but were argued over, often for hours. But…unless you want help it will certainly not be thrust upon you…I believe the writer, anyway, should always be the final judge. I have always held to that position…The book belongs to the author.
Given the success of Perkins’ work with Wolfe, this window into their professional process shows just how sensitive and complex a relationship this can be.
Any experiences with editors to share?
Every successful writer I know has a relationship with an editor they trust. But it doesn’t always happen easily, or the first time around. We’re interested in hearing about your own experiences finding and working with an editor, and the impact on your writing and getting published. And if you have any questions about all this, fire away in comments.