There is always a lot of talk online among writers and editors about the importance of having one’s manuscript “professionally edited.” I couldn’t agree more: this question is of the utmost importance, and can decide for you whether your manuscript gets published or not (or is even publishable). Writers are often on the fence; editors always say they’re ready to do the job. So far, pretty obvious opinions and responses.
But all of this leads to many more questions than solves this riddle: Who do you trust to edit your manuscript?
New writers seem to think they can get away with doing little, once they’ve finally wrenched the words from their brains. They often send out manuscripts that shouldn’t have even found the bottom of a drawer for two years before they came to their senses and used it to stoke the fire.
Seasoned writers understand that, at the very least, someone who knows books and can read critically must have a go at their “readable” draft before they take (another) “final” look at the manuscript. This could be a literary friend, or a professional editor. The difference between these two methods shows that new writers are yet married to their words, while seasoned writers accept that their first good effort (which could be the 4th draft!) may need a lot more work than they had thought.
This brings us to The Professional Editor.
While editors are schooled in the art of editing (you’d better believe that editing is an art — my 20 yrs of experience has taught me at least that much) — seeing the global picture, understanding structure, how characters work, how narrative flows &etc — they are human beings, with all the potential for error in judgment, aptitude, and practice. We writers want to believe in editors; we want to trust our editor. But in the end, our story is our creation; few of us want to be told to cut this, change that, take out this character, or build a new character from scratch, as these (one or all) “can make your book better!”
“Better” is a loaded term. So are “marketable” and “readable” and “great!”
Professional editors may be just as suspect as pub houses these days (and their contracts). You can group agents in this same category. While an agent will want you to get your book edited before they take you on (they have lots of names “on file” that they’ll gladly “share” with you) this brings in all possible scenarios of suggested changes. Are you ready, or willing, to make those changes? Next, the pub house an agent helps you to sign with will then assign you an editor, who, likely, will see the book in yet another light, and suggest (or dictate) further changes.
Are you seeing what can happen to your book? Do you understand how your story can suddenly be written by committee?
There is a different approach to the trust question. Writers need to understand that they need to be their own best editor; to understand what the story is about, how the characters fit and work, and then how to properly write and re-write that story (as a wordsmith, not a story typist). Only then will writers understand how to judge professional editors. Remember, editors are just like any other human, but who (hopefully) have read more and can understand a manuscript and a story (AND, especially, your story). Oftentimes, editors are not the best of writers (that’s why they’re editors). I learned that the best editors are also pretty damn good writers themselves.
The famous Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, barely touched Hemingway’s novels; made various minor suggestions to Fitzgerald; and worked hundreds of hours with Tom Wolfe. If you read their work, and know them, you’ll understand why. Should we all be Hems and Fitzes? Yes, why not; they knew their characters, they knew what they wanted to say, they did it in a concise (or at least needful) manner.
Here, then, are my four most important tips on how to chose an editor:
1. Be your own best editor, first of all (you can do this by being a damn good writer); understand your book and all that it is supposed to do for the audience. If/when you work with an editor, you can explain what you’ve done with your story, why, and why it works as you have written it. (of course, the story should need no explanation)
2. If you use an editor before you send out that ms to an agent or publisher, find an editor with a professional track record; an established House he/she has worked for helps; better yet, get referrals from authors, and read the authors’ stories the editor worked on.
3. Ask the editor if he/she writes; if the editor doesn’t write, tell him/her to have a nice day, and move on; for the editors who do write, ask to read their work.
4. Find an editor who edits your type of writing. If you write literary fiction, don’t work with a genre editor; and vise-verse.