Posts Tagged how to find an editor

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.

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Who will read my book?

Last week my post – as you may have seen – was a letter to a writer who was losing confidence. Thank you all for your comments and tweets – I had no idea it would be so widely appreciated.

I also had a comment from Steven Lyle Jordan, who felt I’d glossed over some hard truths. And I agree we should think about them.

Here’s what Steven said:

I’m surprised that the letter managed to miss an all-important question which I believe all novelists ask themselves, whether they admit to it or not: Will anybody care?

I don’t believe writers write in a vacuum. If they write, it’s because they want someone to read what they’ve written. If no one wants to read your book–if no one will buy it–it does two things to a writer: It breaks down a great deal of the confidence that was built up in order to write it; and it forces the writer to consider whether all that effort, no matter how good, no matter how enjoyable, was worth it.

After writing a number of novels, I firmly believe that I know how to do it right. But lack of interest and lack of sales does more to discourage me, and prevent my bothering to write the next novel, than all of the other points in that letter combined. (It still may prevent me from writing the novel I’m actually developing right now; at any moment, I might “come to my senses” and pull the plug.) If that letter had been written to me, and it did not touch upon that point, it would be essentially worthless to me.

Who will care about what we’ve written?

From time to time I hear a writer wistfully bleat: ‘the good novels rise to the top’. What rubbish. The novels that rise got lucky or were marketed smartly. We certainly need more ways to find fairy godmothers for deserving books (and I’ve talked about quality control and recognition recently here).

Steven continues:

You might have also asked Lucy if she was comfortable with the state of publishing, the industry turmoil she’d be injecting herself into, the multiple channels of the ebook industry she may have to master, the likelihood that ebook piracy would rob her of some amount of possible profit, etc. All of that has been known to sink many a prospective author before they’d sailed.

First, piracy. Discover the atom and someone will make the bomb. We invented ebooks and we got piracy. Anyone who argues that piracy is flattering or beneficial should be strapped down while their house is burgled. Steven, I agree. It’s a shark’s world out there. And it’s going to get more bloody.


Now authors will pay to make their books better, we’ve got critters willing to fleece them for editorial services of dubious quality (in an attempt to avoid this, here are my tips on choosing a good critique service).

We have authors aching to be recognised, and we have schemes charging astonishing fees for awards and seals of approval. On the law of averages, many of these books will be rough and a glance at the opening will be enough to tell the reviewers that. The reviewer only needs to read for as long as the book is up to standard. Some sort of fee seems fair because time and expertise aren’t free. But many of these schemes charge several hundred dollars a pop – for what must on average be ten minutes’ work.


While we dodge the rip-offs, we’re giddying from goldrush to goldrush. Last December, it was free Kindle books. Now people are so used to piling free books into the infinitely deep pockets of their Kindles they never look at them.

Right now we’re dancing can-cans about Kickstarter. How long before some investor makes a mighty fuss that all they got was a lousy T-shirt? There will be a sacrificial lamb – whether a crook or a well-intentioned author – and that will be the end of it.


Another point is simmering under Steven’s comment, and it’s worth considering. Never has the writer’s livelihood been more precarious – and that’s even for those who have ‘broken in’. About 20 years ago, a publisher’s advance would realistically fund you to write a book. Now you have to write the first book for nothing and if you get an advance for the second it’s pitiful.

What’s more, publishers seem to do very little for the percentage you hand over. For most writers the editorial services have been cut to minimal levels. And recently the estimable publishing guru Jane Friedman advised that if you want your breakout book to be a hit (and thus to increase your chances of having a traditionally published career at all), you should hire your own publicist. Yes, even if you have a publisher. In which case, I have to ask, what is the publisher doing for you?

So, Steven, I agree it’s not rosy at all, especially if writing is your livelihood.


Right now, it’s anarchy. We are all trying to thrash our way to a better spot in the food chain – writers, publishers, editorial pros, agents, investors, teachers, tech companies, retailers, distributors, conference organisers. But people want to write and people want to read. That means we have an industry – and even a way of getting our work out. Who will be making a decent wage from it? Can emerging writers still cling to the dream of supporting themselves only by their novels? Perhaps those days are gone. Or perhaps the publishing economy is about to become a lot more equitable.

Maybe at the moment, we have to see our publishing dreams as separate from our writing dreams. Our writing dreams have always been the same – write a book that somehow matches up to our hopes for it. Do whatever we can to honour the reader and the artform. Make good work, and never stop trying to be better. Sit out the bloodbaths and keep writing. Which is what started all this anyway.

Thanks for the pics 05com and alq666

What do you think?

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here and you can add your name to the mailing list here.

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