Here’s a question I got from Katie recently about freelance editing services and using a book editor:
I was just wondering if you recommend getting freelance editing services and getting one’s manuscript professionally edited? Do you think this would help the revision process or have an effect our our growth as a writer? What are the advantages/disadvantages to a book editor and can agents usually tell if a manuscript has already been edited professionally before? Are there any editor services that you recommend? If an editor does scouting for certain agents do you think this could help the writer get one foot in the door?
Using Freelance Editing Services
There are a lot of reasons to use freelance editing services and a lot of points in one’s writing journey when a freelance book editor could come in and help the writer to the next level. Some writers hire freelance editors at the beginning of their learning experience and give them a very early novel. Other writers hire a freelance book editor after several drawer novels and for the final draft of something they really think, after stumbling around for a while in the dark, might be The One. Some writers don’t hire freelance editors at all.
My thoughts on the subject are a little … complicated. Especially since I work as a freelance book editor, and have for the last five years, since leaving the literary agenting world. First of all, I have to say that there are a lot of wonderful writers and publishing professionals who either make a career in or supplement their income with freelance editing. Their talents are many and their insights are deep. However, I would not point all writers to freelance editors.
Considerations for Hiring a Book Editor
First, here are the types of writers who might benefit from the services of a freelance book editor:
- Writers who can handle constructive criticism (working with a freelance editor, as Katie guesses, IS a great learning experience)
- Writers who haven’t managed to find a good critique solution despite trying
- Writers who don’t work well in a classroom or workshop environment
- Writers who are starting out and want to strap rocket boosters on their learning curve
- Writers who are so stuck that their loved ones fear for their sanity
- Writers who are so close to a good, publishable manuscript, and know it, and want a more complex and professional opinion on the whole thing before querying or submitting
Then there are the types of writers who might not benefit from a freelance editor:
- Writers who cannot handle critique or constructive criticism
- Writers who have never been in a critique or workshop situation before
- Writers who just want to give their manuscript to someone in the hopes that it’ll get fixed for them
- Writers who don’t intend to learn during the process
- Writers who want someone to decide, once and for all, if their book is saleable or not… Not everyone will have the same opinion of this and, unless your editor has had significant experience in publishing, do not ask them to make this call
- Writers who don’t vet their freelance editors… Not all freelance editors are created equal… Ask for references, talk to them to see if you’re a fit, and don’t go with the first one you see…
The Caveat About an Independent Book Editor
Here is why I say I don’t want to send all writers to freelance editing services. And here is why, even if you get your book professionally edited, it might not be a magic bullet for the thing selling.
There are no guarantees, not even if you hire the country’s best, most expensive book doctor. The danger is this: Revision is the most important skill, after writing, that a writer has in their toolbox. Until you learn to revise successfully, I say you’re not ready to be published. An editor will edit you and give you suggestions for revision, but then it’s up to you to turn out the finished manuscript. If you like getting edited and lean on an editor for every manuscript… which is a very real thing that happens… you might not be learning the critical skills you need to see your own work with an editorial eye. And those skills are essential. You’ll be getting great advice, but you’ll be short-changing yourself. Revision will be your blind spot and, these days, it simply can’t be.
Another issue here, which I hinted at above, is expectation. Freelance editing services are expensive. And good freelance editing SHOULD BE expensive. This isn’t something to cut corners on, if you go this route. With expense comes the expectation that you’ll really get something out of it (in this case, a publishable manuscript). But do remember that the final burden is on you. You can get notes until you’re blue in the face, from teachers, critique partners, freelance editors, but it’s up to you and you alone what you do with them.
That’s why, to answer another of Katie’s questions, agents can’t really tell if a book has been freelance edited. When I was a literary agent, I didn’t spent time trying to guess … authors tell literary agents if they want to. It’s really what the writer does with the notes that ends up in my inbox, and if the writer can’t revise, or they take their revision in an unsuccessful direction, or they just didn’t have that strong of a manuscript to begin with, it’s an unpleasant surprise to hear that they’ve been edited already. There really is only so much even the best freelance book editor can do with a bad manuscript… they’re not God. It makes me wonder what kind of mess the writer had before the editor stepped in. On the other hand, if I see a clean, tight, and polished manuscript that has been freelance edited, I might be more wary of the writer’s revision skills, since I don’t know how much is them and how much is the editor they hired. It’s not a deal breaker, but I do want to see if they can revise with me, just to get a feel for how they do on their own.
As for working with editors who scout for literary agencies — a common practice — sure, that’s a way to get in the door. If your editor is good (see above) and well-connected, it could lead to a recommendation to an agent… but there are less expensive ways to get an agent’s attention (namely, writing an awesome book and querying or going to a conference) than hoping for an elusive recommendation.
Freelance Editing Services Are a Personal Decision
Those are just a few thoughts on this very complex subject. Like I said before, I think freelance editors are some of the hardest working and more under-appreciated people in publishing. They see a lot of messes. They labor quietly behind some great successes. They think and critique and inspire. But they’re not for every writer. The decision to hire one, when, and for which manuscript, in your writing career is a very personal one.
If you’ve read this advice and are ready to hire a book editor for manuscript critique, let me throw my hat in the ring for consideration. I’d love to work with you.