Finding the Best Freelance Fiction Editor

Welcome back to the blog! Before we begin, I want to highlight a few things that are not quite relevant to today’s post, which will be focused on how to hire a good freelance editor. If you are only here for that info, go ahead and scroll down. If you enjoy the content, I would love for you to hit the follow button just below the comment section. No pressure, and if this is the worst thing you’ve ever read, I’ll go sit in the corner of shame.

For everyone still reading this intro, I am assuming that you are one of the regulars, so thank you again for all your support. A few weeks ago, I posted a few episodes of a podcast, though it pittered out because in the subsequent interviews there was a super annoying static that I only recently fixed. Obviously, I couldn’t post these because the static was distracting, awful, and almost as bad as my writing.

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Now that I have the whole audio problem fixed I have been knocking out episodes. Instead of posting interviews as I go, I’m collecting 26 episodes together and will post one episode every two weeks. Each 26 episode set will constitute a “season,” and there should never be a gap in the interviews beyond the standard two weeks.

The podcast (which I still haven’t settled on a title yet) will focus on writing, publishing, and editing in much the same way that this blog does. If you are a writer, editor, or otherwise involved with the publishing industry and want to be a guest, feel free to send me an email at stcapps17(a)gmail.com with the subject line, “Podcast Guest,” and tell me a little about yourself and the possible topic you would like to discuss.

Anyways, sorry from keeping you all from today’s post. Let’s get to it.

Finding the Best Freelance Fiction Editor

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This post is geared towards those who want to self-publish. If you are trying to traditionally publish (especially if you are trying to get an agent) I recommend that you do NOT hire a freelance editor to work on your manuscript before you submit. There are two major reason for my stance.

  1. The publisher will provide their own editor to work on any manuscript that they accept. You will essentially be wasting thousands of dollars to hire a freelance editor because the publisher will have their in-house editor work on the book and they may have a completely different editorial style than the freelancer you hired.
  2. The big reason why you shouldn’t have a freelance editor work on your manuscript is because most agents need to know how YOU write, not you and the editor, but you. This isn’t just me saying this. This advice comes from a panel of agents from 2016’s WorldCon.

Should I get my Manuscript Professionally Edited before I Submit?

Last August, I loaded up in my car and drove about five hours to Kansas City, MO to attended WorldCon. Since I’m by no means wealthy, I left the night before so I didn’t have to pay for a hotel for the first night. (Just in case anyone isn’t aware, I drove halfway across the country because WorldCon is the World Science Fiction & Fantasy Conventions. The biggest names in the genre come together and generally talk about their work, writing, and publishing.

Throughout the convention I attended panels on these topics. One of those panels was a Q&A with Agents. These agents were big names and represented huge authors. Since I wanted to get more info on how to land an agent, I thought this was the best place to go. When it came to my turn, I asked one simple question.

“Should I get my manuscript professionally edited before I submit to an agent.”

Their overwhelming response?

No.

There was not a single agent who even hinted it might be a good idea. Every one said that I should not do it and all had various reasons ranging from wasting my money when the publisher would provide an editor to Joshua Bilmes’s response. (Joshua is the agent for #1 New York Times Bestsellers Brandon Sanderson and Charlene Harris and owns Jabberwocky Literary Agency.)

Mr. Bilmes said that if he receives a submission and the cover letter states the manuscript has already been professionally edited, he automatically rejects that submission.

As an agent, he invests his time, effort, and money into a writer’s career, not just a single work. If a writer cannot currently write at a professional level without the help of an editor, it will be incredibly difficult to sell any future works to a publisher or to trust the writer can handle possible revision requests.

He would rather work with someone who has the skill level needed to write professionally, now, than to take a risk on someone who may need a large amount of help in the future.

But Writers Need to Submit their Best Work in order to Get Published

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Some may argue that a writer should do whatever they can to stand out from the countless other stories in the slush pile. Besides, there is no reason why a writer should have to mention they’ve hired a freelance editor to work on their manuscript in a cover letter. While this is true, it seems a bit dishonest and not the best way to start off a professional relationship.

As an editor who reads countless stories in the slush pile, most stories are just not good enough. While an editor can certainly improve one’s prose, story, and pretty much everything else in regards to writing, most freelancers are not going to tell a possible client, “Hey, your story is so derivative that it would be easier to write something new rather than pay me to work on this and do all the revision needed to make it unique enough that a publisher will take notice.”

Freelance editors do not have a reason to be invested in a story beyond the fact that you are paying them. It doesn’t make sense that they would deny work even if they knew the story had little chance of being traditionally published. This creates a conflict of interest because the editor must balance giving the best advice they can (start something new) and taking your money to work on a manuscript that doesn’t really have much of a shot.

Now that I’ve gotten the bit about traditional publishing out of the way, I am assuming everyone still reading is interested in self-publishing in which case it is imperative to hire an editor. Let’s talk about what a writer should look for this critical piece of the publishing process.

Self-Publishers Need to hire Editors (notice the plural)

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Before you hire an editor, it is wise to get the manuscript as solid as you can on your own through self-editing and alpha reads. Taking these steps can fix most of the big problems and help your editor focus on the more subtle details that will turn a story from good to great. If you submit a story and know that there is a giant plot in Chapter 7, the editor will pick up on that and waste tons of time trying to give you feedback on how to fix it, when you could have been paying them to work on problems you hadn’t noticed.

After you get your manuscript as solid as you can on your own, it is time to look for editors. Notice how that was plural. Just like there are several genres, they are several types of editors. Well, more like four types.

The lowest level of editor is a proofreader. This should be someone who has never seen your manuscript before. They will read through the work looking for typos and errors. While they may fix some grammar mistakes, that isn’t their real job. They really are just a reader and are there to catch any mistakes that have slipped through the editorial process.

Copyeditors are what most people think of as “editors.” They comb through a work looking for inconsistencies and grammar errors, and also fact-check the work in order to keep the author from accidentally putting their foot in their mouth.

Both of these types of editors are relatively safe to use as long as the person had some sort of qualification (i.e. a degree in English or relative work experience). Neither of these two types dramatically change the author’s words and serve more as a safety net to prevent mistakes from slipping through. Because of their limited role, they also have minimal impact on the over quality of a story. A boring story that has been copyedited and proofread is still a boring story.

The most important (and most expensive) editor to hire is a developmental editor. They dig into the meat of your story—plot, characters, scene, pacing, emotional beats, and pretty much any of the abstract elements that contribute to the ideas behind the words. They give feedback on how to fix the elements that are broken and how to improve the things that are already working. That last bit is important. Many stories have rough diamonds that need polish even though there is nothing actually “wrong” with them. A developmental editor should be able to recognize what has potential and give feedback on how to make that potential shine.

The next type of editor should be employed after a writer has had their story developmentally edited but before they send the work to copyeditor. A line (or style) editor works through the prose of a piece and improves the language that an author uses. This style of editing can turn a lackluster piece into a work of art but is dangerous as it almost always results in the voice of the writer shifting to resemble the voice of the editor.

These last two types should not be given to anyone calling themselves a “freelance editor” or even someone claiming to be the exact kind of editor that you are looking for. Since these fundamentally alter a writer’s story it is imperative to have an editor who has experience working in this and are not actually just another writer who has decided to call themselves an “editor.” The skills required to analyze another’s writing, understand their intent, and push them to deliver on that intent in ways that the author didn’t understand on their own is different from just writing a story. 

What Makes a Good Editor?

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In order to develop the knowledge base required to do this, an editor needs to have read a large amount of really bad stories. Bad stories are a great way to learn because their problems keep the writing from casting the spell that lets a story play in your mind like a movie. If anything is wrong, it is glaring. The most common way to get exposure to these types of stories is to work for an actual publisher that combs through a slush pile in order to find stories that have true potential.

Writers should only hire freelance line and developmental editors if they can prove that they have had experience working for a publishing house. A B.A. in English or even an M.F.A. does not qualify someone to do this job. People without a deep knowledge base will often try to “fix” things that are really just a difference in style and can severely damage elements that make your work unique.

This doesn’t mean that all freelance editors without actual publishing experience are bad, but it is easy for anyone to claim the title, throw up a website, and “edit” others’ stories. Since their impact on a story is massive, the risk is huge. The number one thing to look for when researching a line or developmental editor is experience. If they cannot show the stories that they have previous worked on, they have no experience working for publisher, then you should not risk letting a new editor learn the ropes with your dream.

How Much do Editors Charge?

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Just as there are different types of editors, each have different prices. If anyone says that they do it all for a special, consolidated price they are either too lazy to do the process right, are overconfident about their own abilities, or are so naive about editing in general that shouldn’t be trusted with the job.

Developing the skills to be a good copyeditor—spotting typos, grammar errors, ect.-—are different than the skills required with being a good developmental editor. If your developmental editor is spending their time looking for comma splices rather than delving into the characters, they are not doing their job right, no matter how much red ink they put on the page. In the same vein, a line editor needs to have different expertise than someone who is trying to make your story arcs more compelling.

Below is a meme featuring the different standard rates for the types of editing. The more eyes you get on a manuscript, the better the final product will be.

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Where can you find an Editor?

The best way to find an editor is to research the editors for stories that you love, find them on twitter or through their blog. Make sure to hit the follow button because even if they are not accepting freelance clients at that moment, they might in the future.  Even if they never state that they are accepting clients, shoot them a message.

Many times they will be too busy, but it is possible they might be willing to take a look. Often, these editors will not take on just any story. You almost have to audition to be accepted. They may ask for your first chapter. If they don’t think they have the time to handle the level of problems it has, they will reject you as a client. These editors will almost always give the best result because they have demonstrated quality work and since they do not need your business to survive, the can reject the stories that are just bad.

The second tier is to find a reputable freelancer who used to work for a publisher. These can be found by looking at their bio and then contacting the places that they claim to have worked at. I highly recommend vetting any freelancer as it is too easy for someone to claim to have been an editor at Penguin when the have never even stepped foot into New York. Just look up the corporate phone number, call them (you will go to the receptionist) and let them know you are considering hiring someone who used to work at their publishing house and you want to know what they were like.

Once you have this editor vetted, see if they are accepting clients. If they are open, they will almost always accept a new client and will be willing to work on your manuscript given that you are able to mutually agree to a price.

Third tier editors can be found on websites like Upwork or Fiverr. While anyone can make a profile, just because they are ‘third tier” doesn’t mean they are bad. These websites make researching them simple and it shouldn’t be hard to find someone decent. Below is a screen shot of my profile, so you can have an idea what to look for in regards to reviews and feedback.

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I would recommend going with a high-rated editor from a site like this over using an editor who you don’t know even if another self-published author used them. Freelance sites protect clients by holding the project funds in escrow and if the editor doesn’t deliver, misses deadlines, or does a piss-poor job, you can get a refund. Editors working on these sites need to deliver quality services otherwise a bad review can ruin the possibility of them getting any future work and an editor who isn’t affiliated with them can ditch with little to no repercussions.

Bottom tier editors are those who have no experience and only offer their services through a Facebook page, blog, or other social media account. Hiring someone like this is a huge risk, and while they are often cheaper, they usually don’t know what they are doing. Many times, they don’t even know that they are lacking a solid knowledge base.

Parting thoughts.

Thanks for reading guys, and I hope this post was helpful! Like I said at the beginning, if you thought the content was helpful, I’d love for you to reblog and hit the follow button below. Remember, June 30th, I’m holding the Writer’s Toolkit Giveaway. If you want to be entered for a chance to win the books below sign up for my newsletter. I promise I won’t spam you (I only send out an email about once every 3 months or whenever I have a new story published somewhere).  Good luck with your writing.

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Don’t forget to scroll down, hit follow, and subscribe!

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