How to write a book · self-publishing · Writer basics 101

Writers – how to find the editor that’s right for you

I was asked this recently by Lyda McLallan who was working on a blog for HuffPost. I don’t know if the piece was published, but these are questions I get a lot, so I thought I’d answer them here.

It all began when Lyda asked…

What should you do before you hire an editor…

Me: Talk to them!

1 Establish the kind of editing that will be suitable for your manuscript. Authors are often surprised that there are many things an editor can do.

They usually know about the mistake-spotting edits – proof reading or copy editing – but they don’t know there’s a more fundamental stage to do first, especially for an author who’s new to publishing or is working outside their normal area of experience – I work with a lot of authors who are converting to fiction after a successful career in non-fiction or drama. What they most need is a developmental edit.

What’s a developmental edit?

Essentially, it’s an MOT of the content. If the book is a novel:

  • does the story work
  • is it right for the audience/genre
  • are there credibility problems
  • do the story craft and characterisation hold up?

For non-fiction:

  • does the book keep its promise to the reader
  • is the approach effective and suitable?
  • If it’s a how-to, is it complete, clear and authoritative? If it’s a creative type of non-fiction, has it fulfilled its potential?

You can probably see that a developmental report will give the author a lot of new work – more sections to write, sections to reorder. Perhaps there will be sections to remove! Therefore… you’re wasting your money if you have it proof-read before these fundamentals are checked because the text might change a lot.

But if you’ve had a thorough MOT for the content, you should be ready for copy-editing and proof-reading (here’s a post where I explain the production steps).

5 production steps for publishing brilliant books

Line editing

You might also have heard of the line edit, where the editor rewrites to sharpen your style. Most book authors don’t need a special stage for this – any problems can be flagged in the developmental and copy edit and the author can usually sort them out for themselves.

So ‘editing’ means a lot of things and step 1 is to establish which you need.

2 The second discussion is about the book’s audience.

Editors all have different strengths and expertises. They might specialise in particular fiction genres, or be good with poetic approaches. For non-fiction, they might be great at making technical material accessible without dumbing down. Or they might have wide experience navigating the tricky pitfalls of memoir. Check their fortes meet your needs.

3 What else do you hope your editor can help you with?

Do you want an editor who’s very market savvy, up to date with the features of the latest bestsellers? Or do you want an editor with a more nuanced, individual style who will help you discover your voice and identity? Or a bit of both? Raise all these points and see if you’re comfortable with the answers.

And other thoughts…

Lyda didn’t ask these questions, but I’m sure before long she would want to.

Why does editing take so long?

It depends on the kind of editing.

A copy edit and proof-read are a straightforward check for accuracy and consistency. They can usually be turned around quite fast, within a week or two, though much depends on how complex the work is and how careful the author has been with details. Yes, this is like asking how long a piece of string is! But it’s a relatively controllable piece of string, because the editor’s job is simple compared with….

A developmental edit. This usually takes much longer, obviously depending on the author’s proficiency with that kind of book. The issues may not be straightforward and – unlike copy editing and proof reading – the editor aims to help you solve them. They might suggest solutions, or they might discuss the issues to help you understand how a problem arose and what you might change to solve it.

This kind of feedback takes a lot of thought – rather like solving the problems in your own book, it doesn’t come instantly. When I edited for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, our standard quoted turnaround for a developmental edit was six weeks. That allowed for the required mulling time so the editor could give a wise and thorough answer.

How soon can I publish after editing?

Each edit might give you a lot to do!

The developmental edit might require a complete rebuild or just a light coat of paint. If the book is your first, or your first book of that type, don’t make any firm schedules until you’ve had the developmental report.

Once that’s done you’re on a more predictable path, so you can line up your other experts and make a schedule. Be prepared for the copy edit to present a few logistical headaches. In novels the most common problems are with fact-checking and the story timeline (you’ll find expert tips on avoiding this pain in the Nail Your Novel Workbook) .

Should I ask for an editing sample?

It depends! Generally, no. A sample won’t tell you much.

Is that surprising? Let me explain.

If I give you developmental comments on a test page, they’ll be meaningless. I won’t have enough of the manuscript to make a useful judgement, except on the style, which is just one element. What you really need to know is whether I’m in tune with your aims and expectations for the whole book. And whether you’ll understand my explanations. That’s why the preliminary chats are important.

Samples have more value in a line edit, where the editor’s individual style can drastically change the actual text. But how big a sample? Editors don’t mind a small test of a few paragraphs to show how their style mixes with yours, but you might need a bigger sample, for instance to check how the editor would shape a sensitive anecdote or a chapter. That’s a major undertaking for the editor. It can’t be dashed off quickly and you should expect to pay the editor’s hourly rate.

The short answer: I refer you to my first response. The real question you’re asking with a sample is ‘will we suit each other’? So get talking! Either with ears (Skype) or text (email, Messenger, whatever), check you’re on the same page.

And finally, Lyda asked

What’s your editing tip that will make a book better?

I can’t say this often enough: Read widely – both in your chosen genre and beyond. Notice what you enjoy and how the writer achieved it. I’ve written lots about reading like a writer – find it all here. I suppose I should also mention my own editing services, though that wasn’t why I wrote this post. So here’s the page, presented with a discreet cough.

Any more questions? Ask in the comments! I’m all ears.

Meanwhile, here’s what’s been going on at the Morris desk while I write, edit – and, of course, read.

How to write a book

Why your editor admires you (and why you might not realise this)

5730710531_07b49820e8_zWhen I write a report about an author’s novel, it usually runs to at least 25 pages of detailed notes and developmental suggestions, plus annotations on the manuscript. Sometimes I’ve written 60-page reports. Although I make my responses constructive and helpful, and discuss strengths as weaknesses, I know it’s daunting to receive such a screed. I know my writers think ‘crikey, she needed to say all that? Did I get it so wrong?’

And this: ‘I thought the book was perfect. What kind of shambolic half-wit does she think I am?’

Well today, I’d like to let you know how the editor sees your book.

My open letter to the edited

Although it may be hard for you to believe when you see the size of my report, I know your manuscript represents aeons more time than the hours it takes me to glide through with my editorial eye. I never underestimate the care you have put in – because I write novels too.

I know the painstaking research and life experience you’ve used to create the world and the plot.

I know you invented – from nothing – a long, twisty path between beginning and end, with carefully laid crumb trails, reversals and surprises. And that it didn’t all happen in one Eureka moment.

sidebarcropI know you’ve invented the people from thin air, with their lives, loves and losses.

I know you’ve chosen every name after careful deliberation – and possibly many rejects. Ditto for the style, language, themes.

I know this manuscript is the result of many decisions and readjustments, made month after month – and that although you might have beta readers, the only thing you could rely on was your own spider sense. Although I might remark on research, locations, character back story and other material that does not fit, I know that you have reams more, which you were already disciplined enough to excise.

I never forget that the draft you give me doesn’t represent just enthusiasm, but also dedication – to persist when the problems were drowning the pleasure.

So yes, you get reams of comments from me, and they’re usually a shock because you thought you were done. But when I write them, I don’t feel like I’m telling you you’ve done it wrong. I feel I’m pointing out the details you didn’t have time, distance or expertise to see because you were already doing a superhuman job.

And so, when this editor sends you her notes, she also sends her admiration.

Thanks for the pic soccerlime

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.