Writers in the Storm

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August 30, 2013

Hiring a Professional Editor—Shrewd or Shameful?

Just a quick reminder: Laura is teaching a class at Margie Lawson's Writers Academy for the month of September - Submissions that Sell!  If you need help on your submission, check it out!

Now, here's Lori!

By Lori Nelson Spielman

I typed The End and did a little happy dance in my office. I’d finished my manuscript and could hardly wait to query Agent X. How quickly would he sell it, I wondered? I’d been writing the entire story with him in mind. He had, after all, read my previous manuscript and liked it. He called me a talent. He invited me to submit future projects. So naturally, he’d scoop up my new project, right? Wrong.

Agent X’s rejection—an impersonal form letter from his assistant just one day after the query was sent—stopped me cold. The easy path to publication I’d hoped for was starting out exactly like my previous attempts—with rejection.

I knew landing an agent was a vital first step on the path to publication, and arguably the most difficult. I didn’t have friends in the industry. I didn’t have writing credentials. I was a teacher, not a journalist. What I had was a story I believed in. But was I willing to repeat the past, submitting query after query and collecting rejection letters? No, I wasn’t. This time, I had to do something different. But what?

After much deliberation, I decided to make an investment—a fairly hefty investment at that. I hired a professional editor.

I didn’t want anyone to know. Hiring an editor seemed like cheating to me. Shouldn’t a genuine writer be able to see her mistakes and fix them herself? Would it still be my story? And if the manuscript wasn’t already good enough to gain representation, then maybe I didn’t have the chops to be a writer.

I was afraid I’d be judged--the girl who had to attend remedial writing class. Can you imagine a teacher being expected to teach for free, sometimes for an entire school year, all the while being critiqued by a supervising teacher? Or a doctor, providing medical care under someone else’s supervision before venturing out on her own? What about a cook, offering free samples from his test kitchen before actually serving it to his patrons?

Um, well, yes, we can imagine these scenarios. Of course other professions require consultation and internships and residencies. Why should writers be any different?

Through the recommendation from a friend, I hired Erin Brown from Erinedits.com. Erin had worked as a women’s fiction editor at two major publishing houses, so she was a perfect fit for my manuscript.

Now, here’s the hard part…professional editing is expensive! Most editors have a variety of packages available, ranging from a complete manuscript evaluation and feedback, to simply a query letter and/or synopsis review and edit. A complete manuscript evaluation and feedback can cost upwards of $3,000! That’s right, not exactly chump change. And query and synopsis reviews are typically a couple hundred dollars each. So, whether it’s your last stop before publication, or you simply want to take your manuscript to the next level, it’s important to proceed cautiously when hiring a professional editor.

  1. Unless money is no object, make sure you believe in your project whole-heartedly.
  2. Ask other writers for referrals.
  3. Scour editor websites. Make sure the site and the editor look professional. Does s/he belong to editor guilds or associations? Who are their other clients? Can you contact them?
  4. Ask the editor for a sample edit, either one s/he has available, or a sample page or two of yours.
  5. Check out the editor’s credentials. Does s/he have writing or publishing experience?
  6. Look for an editor who specializes in your genre, if possible.
  7. Ask about a payment plan.
  8. Try negotiating a discount if you choose to purchase a combined package.

Since selling the book, I’m no longer embarrassed to admit that I used an editorial service. I’ve learned it’s actually quite common among published authors. Today, publishing houses expect a polished manuscript, not a work in progress. And so do agents. The onus is on the writer to find, and pay for, outside editing.

I have no way of knowing whether The Life List would have sold had I not invested in an editorial service, but I’ve never once second-guessed my decision. Having someone with expertise read my work, provide feedback and suggest changes was invaluable, and very likely made the difference between a pass and a purchase.

So, what do you think? Would you ever consider using an editorial service?

IMG_1779A former speech pathologist and guidance counselor, Lori Nelson Spielman currently works as a homebound teacher for inner-city students. Her debut novel, THE LIFE LIST, has sold in 16 countries and Fox 2000 has purchased the film option. Lori and her husband live in Michigan.

59 comments on “Hiring a Professional Editor—Shrewd or Shameful?”

  1. Hi, Lori,
    I'm an editor and I hire an editor when I'm getting ready to publish a novel. It's a matter of perspective: most authors stop seeing their own words after two, three, seventeen drafts. I'm pretty good at self-editing, but I need a fresh set of eyes before I go public. I feel it's a good professional move, and I see no shame in it whatsoever. Thank you for the post.

  2. Lori,

    As Laurie noted, I think it is difficult to "divorce" yourself from your own manuscript after several drafts. A professional editor can help in so many ways and, in my opinion, isn't very different from using feedback from critique partners, contest judges, or beta readers to improve an MS. Even once the book is purchased, it will go through another few rounds of editing before publication...and no one considers that "cheating" the ultimate consumer/reader who purchases the book.

    To me, paying a good editor to help you learn the craft isn't much different from paying a professor to teach you. Many of us come to writing as a second career and haven't the time or money to invest in an MFA program. Thus, we learn what we can via books, webinars, and conference sessions to help us improve. A few thousand well spent on good editorial services is smart if/when you can afford it, especially in the earliest stages of one's writing journey, even though it won't guarantee commercial success. At the end of the day, whatever approach a writer uses to improve his craft should be applauded simply because the motivation to produce his or her best work is at the heart of it.

    Congrats on your success and best wishes for your future writing. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Thank you, Jamie. Like you, writing was my second career, and I didn't have the time or money for an MFA program. A professional edit was right for me, as it seems to have been for you, too. Best of luck w/your writing, and in all you pursue.

  3. I've always believed in copy editors, but just learned about developmental editors - the folks who look at your story in the early stages, before you've invested years in writing. Have you used one of these, Lori?

  4. Getting a fresh perspective on your work is essential. You also have to know what kind of editor you're looking for and what you want out of it - developmental editing to help with the structure of a manuscript that isn't quite working or a "clean up" edit before you hit send. Either way, smart move!

    And the proof is in the debut manuscript that goes for a second print run within days of being released! So there you have it folks ... listen to Lori. 🙂

  5. I found myself in the same situation as you. Agents said, "This is a good story, but..." I flailed around for a couple of years, doing rewrite after rewrite. But, for the life of me, I could not figure out what I was doing wrong. Also like you, I hired an editor.

    As another commenter mentioned, I look at the expense of editing the same as I would taking an expensive writing class. I mean, you could spend $500 a pop attending people-packed seminars by folks like Donald Maass, James Scott Bell, and Les Edgerton. So I chose to view the editing as "private tutoring."

    After I worked with the editor, I ended up self-publishing, never having queried my novel again. I can't know 100% for sure if the editing I paid or would have sold my novel to an agent and, ultimately, a well-known publishing house. However, I feel confident it would have improved my chances 100%.

    So, in short, I don't think you did the wrong thing at all. In fact, I hear of a lot of writers hiring a developmental/content/substantive editor on their path to traditional publication. For some, it's the only way they can get a foot in the door.

    Here's what I wonder. What do all the writers who DON'T hire an editor have that we don't? Critique partners who have traditionally published? Are they simply more intuitive? Faster learners? More IQ points? Did some agent decide to expend time and energy to help them get their novel into sellable shape?

    I don't have an answer. Just thinking out loud. Congratulations on selling your book. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Catie. Congratulations to you, too. I'm happy we're on the same page (no pun intended) re: hiring an editor. Glad you pointed out the expense of attending class after class. So true.

      As to your questions, I don't have an answer, either. All of the above, perhaps?!

  6. I hired an editor after writing my first book. She taught me how to write. I am still querying, but am now sending out the query letters for my fifth book and still no agent. My work has progressed to the point that I truly believe I can write well but I'm still getting rejection after rejection. Granted, my personal editor is an author of historical fiction and I write women's fiction but she's been in the business for a long time and really is the reason I write better these days. I wonder, though, whether it would behoove me to hire someone, like you did, who knows about women's fiction. Hmmmmm...

    1. It's a thought, though it sounds like you have a lot of respect for your current editor. Congratulations on querying your fifth book. Sometimes it's hard to put aside one manuscript and move on to the next project, but you certainly have! That's huge. Most authors, including me, have many rejected manuscripts filed away. Keep the faith, Patricia! I'm rooting for you!

  7. Great insight! I hired an editor, and think it's so important! We're all prone to typo (and factual LOL) blindness with our own work—and editing is a totally different skill set and animal, IMO. It's also important to realize that they're only human (we may still have errors) and to find a great one—to your proceed with caution point. 🙂 I think that asking for references, a sample edit of our work etc., is wise. It really can be expensive, but it's a worthy investment. Bonus, when a reader writes us pointing out BUTT instead of BUT on page 48, we can blame someone else! 😉 JK

    1. I love it, August! So true. After I-don't-know-how-many edits, I still have a glaring error in my finished book. I called Lady Lulu, the female horse, a gelding rather than a mare! (Orly pointed this out, thank you, Orly!) Obviously, neither I, nor any of the editors or copy editors were horse people! But yes, there is comfort in another set (or two or three) of eyes!

  8. I've always hired an editor to hunt down grammitical stuff and left out words etc. I read my work outloud to myself and I discovered something. I tend to read in the left out words and comma stops even when they are missing because "I" know they go there! That makes it darn hard to actually see what's missing. A fresh editor is a must. I haven't tried one that actually helps with story. That would be a new experience. I've always depended on my crit group for that but when the book is done, I can see the benefit of fresh eyes making sure the story flow is perfect and that all the problems in the story are resolved to the satisfaction of the reader.

    1. I do the same thing, Sharla. After reading my words so many times, and knowing what I intended to say, I don't always see the errors. But as important as correcting the grammatical errors, it's great to hear which parts of the story need to be expanded or deleted, which character's voice isn't ringing true, etc. A good editor is can point out these things and take the book to a new level. Good luck to you!

  9. Oh man how I've debated this. I'm young and generally broke. Saving $1000 is a big deal right now (maybe it always is). But then again, this is my passion, why not invest?

    Difficult decisions up ahead after I finish my revisions.

    1. I feel your pain, Dani. Once your manuscript is polished and you've had feedback from trusted readers, perhaps try sending a few queries to see what kind of response you receive. But if you get a nothing but rejections, yet you still believe in your work 100%, you might want to make the investment. Another option is to take a novel writing or creative writing class at a community college, if one is offered near you. I got lucky and found a fantastic instructor who gave marvelous feedback.
      Good luck to you!

    2. Hi, Dani -- Another relatively inexpensive way to get good feedback is through conferences. Many offer manuscript critiques, often as part of a contest. The Pacific Northwest Writers Conference will accept the first 20 pages for their competition and for a modest additional fee provide feedback. At the SDSU Writers Conference Paul Bishop, a fine police procedural writer, read the opening to my second book, Read 'Em and Weep, and provided insightful feedback. Sadly, I have heard on this site that the SDSU conference is no longer active, but there are others.
      Good luck!

  10. Agree with everyone else: hiring a professional editor is simply smart. I did so for the first time this year and was so happy with the insight of this woman who was once an agent. She offered spot-on ideas that truly improved my writing (and, mostly, helped weed out my propensity for melodrama).

  11. Reblogged this on Being an Author and commented:
    Experienced authors know there's no way they can catch all their own mistakes. Besides, it is always helpful to get some professional feedback.

  12. I have every intention of hiring an editor when I've done all I can do. I loved your illustration of the physicians working under other physicians. I worked in a medical office for 15 years and, believe me, there was no shame in consulting with other docs, calling them, asking questions, etc. It takes a village, always.

    And many congratulations on your success, Lori!

    1. Thank you so much! You're absolutely right--it takes a village. Wishing you much success with your manuscript.

  13. Lori,

    We writers get to the point where we can’t see the forest through the trees. We become blind inside our projects. It is so important to get a subjective critique – others’ opinions are necessary to allow writers to go back to their projects with fresh eyes.

    During my writing career I’ve had professional story editors who were both good and bad. I’m fortunate enough now to have some fellow writers to critique my work and I do the same for them. With each critique I go back to work with more enthusiasm.

    When writers can’t pay for a professional edit they must ask friends to read their projects. Everyone has a friend who is avid reader – go to this person and ask for an opinion. Before your reader reads your work, ask that reader what makes a great story. He or she will have to think this over and concentrate, which in turn will benefit the critique of your writing. When your reader gives you their critique, compliment their literary knowledge – their feedback will open your eyes to ideas you didn’t consider prior.

    I have a husband and wife team who are English teachers. I pay them typo-edit all of my screenplays and various articles. They always find little things that I miss. When I pick up my material from them I ask for their opinions, which I value as each has different thoughts about various characters and situations.

    I’m told that great writers have good networks around them. It’s important for all of us to develop these networks as our writing itself is a time of isolation. I appreciate the writing network that I’ve been fortunate enough to establish.

    1. Thank you, Michael, for saying that!! 🙂
      I've been reading with growing dismay. I never thought about the need for an editor prior to reading this post, and have been thinking, how on earth am I going to find the money?
      However, I do work with a writing partner for one-on-one critique and a critique group. They'll have to suffice as my pseudo-editors! There is hope 🙂

  14. Michael, you make such an important point. Good critiques deserve to be complimented rather than brushed aside or taken offensively. Not every suggestion needs to be implemented, but far better to politely thank and privately ignore than to argue or defend.

    I love that prior to reading, you ask your reader, "What makes a good story?" Sets both of you up for what's to come. I'm going to steal this idea! And finally, congrats for finding a great network. You're right, writing is so isolating, and w/out those partners, it's hard to determine whether we're on our way to a great story or a major letdown.

    Thanks for adding to this discussion. Wishing you continued success.

  15. At the moment, I'm very lucky. I have a friend who edits for me. The thing that makes her so good is she is not a Native English speaker. She's French. She speaks English so well, you will never detect in her emails or other posts she is not American, Canadian or British. She nails it every time. She does translation work also. In return, I am teaching her the meaning of our slang and colloquialisms.

    Would I pay? Oh yes. Like Stephen Cannell, I have dyslexia. An editor is a must for me.

  16. Lori,

    Glad you liked my suggestions. Check out my site thewritersstimulus.com for some great writing ideas about how to go deeper into your writing than you ever have before. I wrote for over 20 years before I had BLUNT FORCE produced last December, so I know what the “long hard road” of writing as all about.

    Hey, maybe you and I can be in the same network some day.


    1. Just checked out your site. The Writers' Stimulus sounds like a great tool. Thanks for sharing the website. And yes, would be great to be in the same network some day!

  17. I don't think there's anything shameful about hiring an outside publisher. I just can't afford one. I'm excellent with grammar and spelling, though and read and reread each chapter many times. Mostly, though, I depend on my wonderful beta readers to catch those little things my eyes miss. Someday, when I'm as famous as Jessica Fletcher (TIC) or Stephen King, I'll hire an editor. Till then, it must be DIY.

    1. I know what you mean about the expense. It's painful! Your diligence and exceptional grammatical skills, along with your wonderful beta readers, will serve you well. Good luck and much success to you!

  18. I've never paid a total content edit, but have learned a great deal about writing from critique partners and an agent's first reader. Writing workshops also taught me a lot over the years. I did pay for a line edit of my second book, Dashing Irish. The editor caught quite a few small errors, such as my over use of hyphenated words. She was a great help.

    Wonderful article, Lori, and discussion.

    1. Thanks so much. I agree, writing workshops and critique partners are invaluable. Wishing you continued writing success!

  19. I hired an editor, unfortunately she was not very good. At the time I'd just joined RWA and, with no local chapter, did not have a clue as to how to evaluate one or who to ask for a recommendation. Fortunately my agent recognized a diamond in the rough, took me on and got me with her assistant, who is a fabulous editor, before we submitted. I still send my first 4 chapters to an editor before sending them to either my agent or my publisher. So, all in all, I think it can be a valuable tool. Shared and reblogged.

    1. Hi Ella,
      So unfortunate that you didn't have a good experience with that first editor, but congratulations on your eventual success! I love the idea of having just the first four chapters edited. Those first four really are crucial. Best wishes to you, and thanks for sharing and reblogging!

  20. I am a copy editor and proofreader -- for other authors. I am writing a book and, believe me, it will be sent for editing. Every manuscript needs an impartial third party review. We are too close to our work to catch our own errors. What we read is not necessarily what's written or, in some cases, not written.

    1. Thanks for sharing your interesting perspective, Darlene. I never thought about an editor hiring an editor, but it makes perfect sense. That impartial third party is so important--even to a professional editor. Good luck with your book!

  21. When I first started writing fiction, I thought the way many do--hiring an editor means I'm not 'good enough' to do it on my own. I have certainly learned the error of That thinking 🙂 Ironically, having been a journalist for years, I knew very well that a story always went through 'more eyes' before it hit print. We can't always see what's lacking in our own work. Critique partners are invaluable, of course, but it would be good to have that 'other way' of looking at the manuscript. To solidify my change of viewpoint, a few months ago, I discovered that a somewhat new author in my genre who was getting much acclaim uses an independent editor. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments, Barbara. I was right there with you, feeling like hiring an editor was a sign of incompetence. Glad we've both had a change of viewpoint. Good luck to you!

  22. One of my childhood friends is now a best-selling author of romantic suspense. (I won't mention her name because it's not my place to reveal her personal secrets.) She'd won the Golden Heart award, but still couldn't find a publisher after twenty years of rejections. Finally she found an agent who steered her toward a professional editor. My friend tells me that without her help, she probably wouldn't have published her first novel. She published her third best-seller this year, so it really made a difference in her career.

    However, it's important to find someone who really knows what they're doing. Someone else I know used an editor who really didn't do the job right and left her manuscript in a mess. Remember that just about anyone can hire themselves out as an editor, but that doesn't mean they know how to do the job right.

    1. Great point, Kaye! Thanks so much for emphasizing the importance of hiring someone reputable. Best wishes to you.

  23. Great blog!
    There's certainly no shame in getting an editor if you can afford one. I always have my work edited by at least a couple different people - and always at least one who's a pro writer and editor. Another thing I do before getting to this point, is simply setting my work down for several days or several weeks and coming back to it. Without exception, I've always been able to greatly improve parts of my work by doing this as it removes me from the forest so I can see the individual trees with fresh eyes.

    Kaye has a good point about people who know what they are doing - there are many inexperienced editors out there. But it is also helpful to find someone who is familiar with the type of work you do. For example: In addition to writing fiction, I also design roleplaying games and have a campaign setting I've written. I'd much rather find an editor who knows what to look out for when editing settings and game material, as they are more likely to spot mistakes or omissions that are common in that industry.

    1. I agree! For me, it was helpful to have an editor with expertise in women's fiction. Good luck with your fiction, as well as your games. Sounds intriguing!

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