Choosing An Editor For Your Work

Yesterday over at The Blood-Red Pencil, they featured: Ask The Editor Free-For-All Tuesday Today by Morgan Mandel.

I jumped in with:

1) How should an independent writer — who will direct publish — select an editor?

2) Should an editor, after a first read, tell a writer they really shouldn’t work together because the editor is not in sync with the work, instead of doing a half-hearted job?

And got two interesting replies that can help anyone who is interested in professionally going the direct-publishing route.

an upfront editor will do as I do – take first 30 pgs. or so and make the determination if he or she is going to be in sync with the author, and if you are paying for only that 30 pgs. neither side is out too much time and money. Also get an upfront cost per page rather than by hours. This way you have clear understanding of exact cost of entire MS.


Mike, the writer/editor relationship is crucial to the creation of a polished, marketable manuscript. It is the synergy of the two people that contributes to the WOW! factor. (And remember that “marketable” extends beyond agents and publishers to include the most important of all: your potential readers. For this reason, “marketability” is as applicable to self-publishers as it is to those who go the traditional route.)

It shouldn’t take a full read to determine compatibility. A spot read and in-depth phone conversation(s) should lay the foundation for your working together or the editor’s recommending someone better suited to the project.

Additional thoughts: no professional editor should ever do a half-hearted job. For example, I edit a lot of books I would never choose to buy, but my edits do not reflect that. EVERY professionally edited manuscript should shine when it is completed. Whether fiction or nonfiction, all areas (continuity, flow, hooks, character/plot/topic development, dialogue, verb choices, word usage, etc.) should be addressed with equal effort and capability.

Suggestions: Ask questions of editors you are considering. Listen carefully to the answers. Discuss your goals and your audience. Request references. Ask for a short sample edit and talk together in detail about suggested changes. A great writer/editor relationship creates a powerful book. Take the time to find the right person—the one who listens to you, respects your work and your goals, and has the necessary skills to take your book to where you envision its going.

Having a damned good editor is important. It’s not just the editing part that matters, it’s having an editor who can see your intent and help you fulfill it.

One example: The editor of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead told Rand that the affair Roark was having with an actress should be cut. Rand disagreed, but then she ultimately did it. Can anyone who has ever read that book imagine it the other way, with Rand’s original idea? I don’t think so.

I have zero sympathy for so-called writers who rely on friends or Internet pals for “editing.” Even though they can be helpful, they are not professional editors.

This previous post from 2008 still stands: Writers: Would You Call A Doctor Or A Healer?


Filed under Writing

8 responses to “Choosing An Editor For Your Work

  1. Ian

    The problem with friends and internet pals as editors is that they won’t actually look at your work in the critical way that someone who is a professional or at least impartial can. If something doesn’t work, an editor will tell you. Your friends might just turn around, smile weakly, and help you maintain a self delusion that Chapter 3, about an unrelated ham sandwich incident, is a turn of literary genius.

  2. Editors deserve to be paid. Period. Relying on free labor, you get what you pay for, if you get it at all; even with pro friends, you get moved to the bottom of the stack in favor of paying gigs. Which is to be expected.

    If you can’t invest in your work enough to hire an editor (my fans paid for mine, the wonderful Annetta Ribken), you aren’t committed enough to your work.

    • mikecane

      I don’t advocate free in that post anywhere. But at some point a new arrangement will come into being which sort of mimics what traditional publishing was but it will be distributed and networked. All of those editors who will soon be unemployed are going to want to stay in their field, not become food service workers.

  3. Yes!

    Friends and family are wonderful for gut-checking your work against how a likely audience will receive it. But you’re fooling yourself if you think that you’re going to get anything from them more than “I liked it” or “eh, it wasn’t my cup of tea.”

    This shouldn’t be surprising. Unless your friends and family are published authors or book editors themselves, there’s no reason to expect that they have the level of training in novel-craft that would allow them to give you useful, substantive feedback.

    I mean, I know the difference between a virus and a bacterium, and if you ask me I can probably tell you whether you have a fever or not, but no one in their right mind should come to me for a real diagnosis of what’s making them sick. You need a doctor–someone with specific training and experience in infectious diseases–for that.

    And I must say, I was so glad to see this quote in your post:

    “…it’s having an editor who can see your intent and help you fulfill it.”

    Because that, really, is what separates true developmental editors who can help you write a better book, from line editors and copy editors who might help your prose flow more smoothly but can’t do more for you than that.

    It’s important to make sure that the editor “gets” what you’re trying to do with the book, and offers suggestions that help you reach that goal. You don’t want an editor who’s going to try to re-shape the book into something they might like better. It’s your book, after all.

    If an editor is giving you “do this” or “change that” feedback without explaining WHY they’re making such recommendations, or without explaining how those changes would put the book closer to YOUR vision for it, watch out. Be very skeptical.

    What you want is an editor who tells you things like “I see what you’re trying to do with X, but keep in mind how X in chapter 7 relates to Y in chapter 8. I see a conflict there, and one way you might fix it is by Z.”

    Make sure the editor understands your vision for the book, and can channel you well enough in their feedback to help you see a way to get your book closer to your own vision.

  4. great post!

    i do independent editing and its refreshing to read a balanced view

  5. Colleen Walsh Fong

    Thanks for the advice. I’m in the process of looking for an editor now, having found friends and other nonprofessionals unable to provide solid critique and direction for a number of reasons.

  6. Carole Crosby

    Are different editors suited to different genres of books ? My potential book is an autobiography

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