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Should You Mention Using Freelance Editors?

The Florida conference this weekend was actually very…relaxing! Not what I usually say about a conference. But in between pitches and meals with the attendees, I got the chance to sneak away to the pool and bask in the 86 degree sunshine. So I don’t have any pictures, nor do I have any shenanigans to report. In fact, I’m thrilled that this was a very easygoing and low-key conference. (Thanks to all the attendees, the FWA board, and Mary Lois Sanders for having me!)

Today’s question is a quick one, and comes from a recent post soliciting questions, from Zoe:

If a writer decides to have an MS professionally edited by a reputable editor known in the biz (I dunno, an Alan Rinzler or a Lisa Rector perhaps), should the writer ever mention it in the query?

It’s totally up to you whether you choose to mention your connections to a freelance editor in your query letter. There are a few thoughts that spring to mind for me when I read in a query that a manuscript has been freelance edited.

On the good end of the spectrum, I think: Oh, great! This writer is used to working with someone else in an editorial capacity and has probably had to revise this manuscript quite a bit. They may be more savvy that some others in my slush about the whole process. I’m about to read a polished piece of fiction.

On the not so good, these are the thoughts that can also come up: A freelance editor always improves a manuscript, but how much did this one improve and, more importantly, at what level did it start? Did the writer solicit a freelance editor to put some professional polish on the project, or because it had gotten rejected all over the place and they needed serious help? Does this writer belong to a critique group or do they rely solely on freelance editors?

I know that lots of writers work with freelance editors. There are pros and cons to this, as well as to mentioning it in your query. (You can read some more freelance editor thoughts from me here.)

If you’ve managed to work with a big name freelance editor, my ears might perk up, of course. The bigger the name of your editor, the more selective they can afford to be. They tend to vet their projects and pick the most promising writers to work with. But this is not always the case. So while a freelance editor’s name may trigger good associations for me, or lift my hopes, it’s not going to be the deciding factor in whether I want to represent you or not.

It always comes down to the work. And, in the back of my mind, I always want to know that you have arrived at your work in large part because of your own writing craft. So if you have used or continue to use a freelance editor, I will want to know about it at some point, whether it’s in the query or later, as we’re discussing representation. I’ll want to make sure that you actually have the chops to create a great, skillful manuscript on your own, as well.

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  1. Claire Dawn’s avatar

    Interesting. I hadn’t thought f how mentioning a freelance editor might affect you negatively.

  2. Athena Hernandez’s avatar

    Thanks for the advice; as always, it’s very helpful. I had not considered mentioning working with a freelance editor in the query, as I am not at the phase with my MSS. I will definitely take your advice into consideration.

  3. Tracey Baptiste’s avatar

    A freelance editor should really only advise a writer how to enhance their work, so their influence shouldn’t take away from the fact that the author actually wrote the piece, unless the freelance editor is really a book doctor, in which case, the author’s weaknesses would quickly come to light when they’re working with the acquiring editor.

    I think that during the working relationship with an acquiring editor, I’d mention if I worked with someone else on it, but I wouldn’t put that information in a query. A query is about the story as it is, not how it came to be.

  4. Chris J. Behrens’s avatar

    Good post! It’s my understanding that some agents want a work professionally edited before they will even take a look. I am in the finishing stages of having a work professionally edited. It’s been an amazing experience.

    It might make sense to have the editor give some feedback about the process, and whether or not the writer has the chops.

    Also, the writer’s history may help his/her cause. What did they major in? Have they had anything else published or win/place in any contests.

    What are your thoughts on a writer doing very well in one of the biggest contests out there?

  5. Cyndi’s avatar

    no shenanigans to report?? none at all? …but that’s why I read the blog!! lol

  6. Jen Zeman’s avatar

    I also wouldn’t have thought about mentioning the use of a freelance editor in my query. I’m currently working with one and it’s been a fabulous experience. I always value constructive criticism and believe there is always room for improvement. I’d much rather pay for the services of a freelance editor than rely solely on the input from a critique group. Don’t get me wrong – I love critique groups – but I think a reputable freelance editor provides guidance that another aspiring writer cannot offer.

  7. Chris J. Behrens’s avatar

    I echo Jen Zeman’s comments, and I liken this discussion to sports. If you want to get better, you have to play with and against the best. That was instilled in me from a very young age, especially with basketball. As a youngster, my parents paid for every b-ball camp they could afford. They wanted me to learn from the best. Sure, I could’ve stayed in our hometown and worked my tail off. But I wouldn’t have received the best instruction possible. And I wouldn’t have been challenged by other great players. I learned from Bobby Knight (Indiana) and played against Mark Jackson (NY Knicks.) And those are just a few of the greats I met along the way.
    I like to think that I’m applying those same ideas to my writing career. I’ll do whatever it takes to improve. Classes, critique groups, professional editing, conferences, first pages, critiques, etc. I don’t care what it is. And I’ll do it positively and keep moving forward!

  8. Jason Black’s avatar

    As an actual, working, freelance editor / book doctor myself, I guess I have to add my two cents to the discussion.

    My first thought on the article was that I’m glad it presents both the pro and con aspects. After all, it’s true: yes, a book doctor will help you improve your manuscript, which is bound to make a potential agent happy. But yes, potential agents are also looking for long term relationships with authors (at least, I gather most of them are), and knowing that you needed a book doctor to get your manuscript to where the agent would consider it implies that later on, this same assistance might be required.

    Given that a lot of agents are also de-facto book doctors (by necessity, helping their clients shape manuscripts up before pitching them to editors), I can certainly understand this concern. Let me give you a for example:

    For a manuscript of normal length, it takes me pretty consistently 10 to 12 hours to perform a developmental edit on the book. This is your classic form of book doctor feedback: I tell you where your writing is strong/weak, where your story is strong/weak, your character development, et cetera. I point out “in this chapter you said X, but in this other chapter you said Y, which totally contradicts. Which is it?” All that kind of stuff.

    This type of feedback makes for an excellent roadmap you can use to guide you in your revisions, and at the end of the journey you will have a much stronger manuscript. That’s all great, but if your prospective agent knows you paid somebody for this service in the past, and if they take you on as a client, they’re bound to wonder what’s going to happen with your next manuscript. Will you come looking to them for that same 10 to 12 hour workload–this time for free, more or less? Or will you, on your own initiative and your own dime, go back to your book doctor for help?

    It’s a totally valid concern, and with agents being as busy as they are, I don’t blame them in the least for approaching such situations with every measure of caution they think is reasonable.

    My second thought about this article, though, concerns the ending. It seems that Mary is setting herself up to be lied to. The sentiment comes across as: “Tell me or not in your query, that’s up to you. But I’ll need you to tell me eventually, and when you finally do admit that you used a book doctor, I’m going to question your underlying talent and maybe not take you on after all.”

    Full marks to Mary for honesty, for telling us all flat-out how she feels about the subject, but I have trouble seeing that as anything but an incentive for authors to hide their book doctor assistance from everyone. And that, it seems, can only lead to problems later.

    As a book doctor, I can of course only speak for myself and for the relationships I have with my clients. But with that in mind, here’s what I’d like to say to Mary and any other agents reading this:

    Not for one second do I view my job as telling an author how to write their story. It’s their story, not mine. I can at best offer suggestions for improvement, give them the craft and theoretical basis behind those suggestions, and let them make their own best decisions as to what to do with the book.

    I NEVER–and I do mean never–make changes to a manuscript in such a way that the author can’t vet them first.

    With developmental edit feedback like I described above, I’m not touching the manuscript at all. I read it, and I write a report about what I found. From there, it’s the author’s responsibility to make any and all necessary changes.

    With line editing and copy editing (by far the MINORITY of what I do for clients), I make all edits with “track changes” turned on in MS-Word so the author can review them. And I encourage authors to go through the exercise of reviewing and accepting or rejecting individual edits one-by-one. Why? Because to do otherwise–to do a blanket “accept all changes” on the whole document–is to throw away an enormously valuable learning exercise that the client _already paid for_.

    Let’s say you ask me for a line edit, and I find you have a problem with run-on sentences. I will painstakingly fix each one, but you won’t learn much by blindly accepting all revisions. However, if you take the time to go through them individually, to see with your own eyes every spot in the manuscript where you committed a run-on sentence, chances are you’ll learn a little something about how to spot run-ons and how to fix them. Chances are, your next manuscript will have far fewer of them to begin with. This is why I always encourage clients to treat my edits with a critical eye, and be sure they agree with them before accepting them.

    What I hope agents understand is that the work an author submits to them–if they used me as their book doctor, anyway–represents THEIR work, not mine. At the end of the day, it’s always the AUTHOR doing the revisions. It’s the AUTHOR making all the decisions about how to change the words on the page. Not me. Never me.

    They may be making those decisions under guidance, but the decisions–and the resulting words–are still theirs.

    I know it’s self-serving to say so, but I will close by asking agents not to feel so prejudicial towards book-doctored submissions. First off, there’s the pro-side as explained above. You’re likely to see something better than average, and you know the author is serious enough about improving their craft to shell out their own hard-earned dollars in that pursuit. Isn’t that the kind of dedicated, serious client you want?

    Second, an author who uses the experience of using a book doctor as an intensive, personalized writing and story-craft seminar (which is what it amounts to), is BOUND to produce a better next manuscript, all on their own. As I said above, while I understand the concerns about becoming the client’s de-facto, unpaid book doctor, I think those concerns are less realistic in practice than they may seem in the abstract.

    Writers skills improve with time and practice. Writers who employ expert book doctors, and do so with the attitude of wanting to learn something, see their skills improve much faster than those who don’t. And isn’t that, too, the kind of client you want?

  9. Chris J. Behrens’s avatar

    It was nice to hear from a freelance editor! It doesn’t seem much different than something one would do in a MFA creative writing program (so I’m guessing and hoping to find out.) I am registering for one as I write. In my research on MFA’s for CW’s, I found that most expect you to have a publishable piece by the end of the program. And that is after significant feedback from a professor/s. Is there a difference?
    For me, I wanted to get this piece over and done with before beginning my masters. After minor critiques and a lot of good feedback, I felt I had something worth pursuing. That’s why I went with a freelance editor. As I mentioned in another blog on this same topic, I never worked harder on my writing than I did on this piece. Honestly, when I received the first set of edits, I almost gave up.

    I like to relate things to sports, and most, if not all, great athletes have weaknesses. Look at Brett Favre. Did anyone see the game the other night. As bad as he played, he had his team in position to win in the last minute. However, his coach threw him under the bus in the post game press conference, pointing out all his errors!! A huge NO NO in sports. But Brett has been a phenomenal player for 20 yrs. His greatest strength has also been his greatest weakness. I’m not a Viking fan nor was I Favre fan. I’m a sports fan and have grown to admire all those who leave their heart and soul on the field, court, and ice. My point is–no writer/author is perfect no matter how many books they’ve sold, etc. And if you look hard enough, you will find some weaknesses.

    Is the glass half full or is it half empty comes to mind?!

    I like that Mary points out both sides of things. It makes you think!

  10. Jason Black’s avatar

    Is there a difference? Heh. Well, the MFA is going to cost you $15 to $20 thousand dollars, from the little checking I’ve done into those programs. Hiring a book doctor to do a developmental edit is likely to be 90 to 95 percent cheaper, depending on who you go with.

    Of course, the benefits are by no means equivalent. The MFA program is going to make you do a lot more writing during the program. You are going to get personal, hands-on attention from your professors. You’ll end up with an actual, accredited degree when you’re done, and like you say, a manuscript that’s likely to be publishable.

    Those benefits are nothing to sneeze at.

    A book doctor is going to take ONE manuscript you’ve already written, kick it around with you, and send you back to your keyboard with–like I said–what amounts to a roadmap for revision. It’s a roadmap that’s tailored to your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths, weaknesses, and untapped potential of the manuscript you’ve written. But you’re still basically on your own as far as taking that manuscript the next step.

    Caveat: This is how I do it, and it’s a process that seems to work fine for most of my clients. Other book doctors will have different models. I do have a few clients who pay my hourly consulting rate while they’re revising, in order to get the kind of on-going evaluation, back-and-forth dialogue, and so forth that I imagine MFA students get from their advisors.

    If neither time nor money is an issue for you, I think it would be difficult to advise you AGAINST the MFA program. Heck, if time and money weren’t issues for me, I’d be sorely tempted to get an MFA myself. But for most people that isn’t the case. Time to devote to writing and the study of writing is hard to come by, and money even harder.

    The way I look at it, it’s good to have choices. It’s good that there is a spectrum from MFA programs through book doctors like me and on down to tried-and-true writers’ groups. There are time/money/benefit tradeoffs all the way up and down that spectrum, but it’s nice that we each get the luxury of finding the place on the spectrum that best fits our own life circumstances.

  11. Chris J. Behrens’s avatar

    Thanks for the reply-Jason.
    As for my ? about the difference, I was only referring to the feedback and the process of editing. I knew the difference with $ and time and eventually having a degree, etc.

    My choice of freelance editors was a good fit for me at the right time. Just finished my bachelors and moving on to my masters. I really enjoyed the experience.

    As far as time and $ for a masters, I have good hrs. (knock on wood,) and I’ll keep eating PB&J’s for lunch and salads for dinner.

    Thanks for your input.

  12. Joe Iriarte’s avatar

    Hey, I was at that same conference! (In fact, I won the RPLA for YA.) Wish I’d run across your blog before then! :)

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