Is ironic that I should write a piece about editing, and not get it edited (or even review it myself). Having said that, let me put forth my usual disclaimer for this series.  This is a DRAFT essay which is intended to be part of a book which I am writing (and this essay was voice dictated on to the computer… there will almost certainly be transcription errors, live with it).  The essay is not edited, and not intended for publication in its current state.  I’m posting it here because of the considerable interest in this topic.


There is often a great confusion about the role of editors in publishing.

When I’m at a conference, and I tell someone that I am an editor, there is invariably a sudden burst of light in his eye–the excitement of a man who feels he has just sat down next to someone who can make or break his career.

I’m not that kind of editor.

Editors used to be just that — people who polished written works to make them publishable. A publisher would acquire a book, and an editor would polish it. To ensure the greatest reliability over the quality of editing, publishers would hire their own in-house editors.

Given the their experience with the written word, publishers started relying more and more on editors to actually acquire the books. With the advent of the word processor, millions of aspiring writers flooded the market with manuscripts, and editors soon began raising the standards for books that they took — not in terms of quality of the story, but rather in terms of how well it was written. Before long, books needed to be fully edited before an “editor” would even consider acquiring it for his publisher.

The result is that an “editor” in the publishing world is now most often thought of as a curator who choose which books a publisher will ultimately take, and they often do very little, if any, actual editing.

Agents then took on a good deal of the editorial work, realizing that unedited work would no longer be accepted by publishers. Deciding (rightfully so) that this wasn’t really their job, and the market still over saturated with manuscripts, agents quickly began no longer taking work which was on edited.

That leaves the bulk of the editing work to freelance editors – people like me.

There are two types of freelance editors, line editors and content editors. For the most part, a line editors simply goes through your work, from beginning to end, and make sure that it is grammatically correct. He fixes spelling, punctuation, and grammar. A content editor looks for larger issues, issues with pacing, continuity, believability, and structure.

For the most part, all editors do a little of both. As a content editor, I always do line editing. I tell my clients that I will only line edit up to a standard acceptable by most agents (about one mistake every 500 words) and publishers (though not as high as you would want if you were going to self publish or to the standards of an article in the New York Times). Line editors should get you down to about one mistake every 5000 words. They will almost always keep an eye out for serious continuity problems, but ignore structural problems that could easily prevent a book from getting published.

This begs the question… do you need an editor? How do you know when or if you need one?

The bottom line is, you always need one (if only a content editor). Hemingway had an editor. You don’t necessarily need to pay for one, or get a professional, but you do need someone who’s opinion you trust, with some experience in the industry, to at the very least glance over your work.

The simplest explanation is this… writing is about conveying ideas. It is almost a form of ESP — I can have an image in my head, describe it, and then you have a similar image in your head. The accuracy of the image you construct will be based on the quality of my description, and your own personal idiosyncrasies in how you interpret what it is I say.

The more practiced a writer, the more they can overcome their own idiosyncrasies, and get a better idea for the common language — that which is understood by most people, not necessarily just your self. The fact is all of us have unique experiences. Many of our experiences in our lives are quite common to all humans — loss, love, anger… some are common only to people of the same nationality as us, some common only to a small town or regional area, and some only to a particular family.

We are often able to make reasonable determinations between that which is a more global experience, and that which is a more personalized experience, but the truth is we never really know for sure. If you grow up in an inner-city, you may think all police officers across the country are criminals. If you try to write a realistic book, you may have police officers in your story who come from the suburbs who behave like an inner-city cop. Many Americans would not find the image to ring true, a fact which might be shocking to you, the writer.

The same is also true for language. Many phrases which one might believe to be quite common might actually only exist in a very small circle of people to which that writer has been exposed.

A content editor’s job is first and foremost to make sure that the image that you have in your head is conveyed as accurately and easily as possible to your readers. And editors second job is to try to find ways you might not have thought of to make your story more interesting.

In some ways, an editor’s job is very easy. It is much easier to critique someone else’s work than it is to make your own. All of us have seen movies or read books and found ways to improve them, maybe change the ending, or kill off a certain character, or even change major plot threads.

But in doing this with your own work is nearly impossible. Our work already contains our best ideas, put together in the best way we could. A book is comprised of hundreds, if not thousands of ideas for what should happen and how it should be done — even someone who could not have come up with half as many good ideas only has to be able to come up with one idea better than something we are currently using in our book, and they have improved it.

This is not to say that a book should be run by committee, that you should ask a million people to read it and listen to everything they all say. But a good editor has a phenomenal amount of experience with a wide range of stories, and can almost always come up with ways that you will like of improving your story, making it say things that perhaps you weren’t even aware you were trying to say.

Some editors do this beautifully, some editors fail miserably. Just like a book is a piece of art, an editor is an artist (though of a very different type). Editors who are horrible by most standards will still have authors who swear by them, and even the greatest editors in the world will have a few talented writers who truly find their work despicable. Finding and choosing an editor is a tremendously personal thing.

I am an editor, and I write books. I have all of my books edited by someone else, because despite being a successful editor, I cannot edit my own work (the man who represents himself has a fool for a client) -I’m too emotionally attached to it, and just because it’s something I find interesting doesn’t mean the rest of the world will.

Editors are not perfect. They have idiosyncrasies two, and sometimes they will misjudge how your audience may react to something. But at the very least, an editor is an independent eye, preferably someone who did not grow up in your environment, someone with experience in the industry, who can make sure your story is doing exactly what you want to do.

A short and simple example is the following phrase:

“John loves money more than Jill”

What does this sentence mean?

Roughly 40% of the people reading this think it means one thing. Another 40% of the people reading this think it means something else. 20% of the people reading this realize that there is no way to know what that sentence means.

In an effort to be concise, the English language has picked up the ability to use implied words. These are words that are actually missing from a sentence, but are implied to be in there. One of the ways an editor can be useful is in situations where, while the implication may be obvious to you the writer (you know what you meant to say), it is not to your reader.

There are two possible sets of implied words in the above sentence. The first set is “loves money”, and the second set is “he loves”. The author of the above sentence meant to say one of two things:

“John loves money more than he loves Jill”

“John loves money more than Jill loves money”

Which one did the author mean?

People often think that this can be told from context, but usually it cannot. Your audience, reading the original sentence, will use the implied phrases they feel are most appropriate based on their own lives and experience with men and women. If they make the wrong choice, they change their opinion of a both Joe and Jill in a way the author did not intend, and will often lead to confusion down the line. Either that, or the reader realizes that he cannot determine the author’s intent, and gets rather frustrated, realizing that there is a world of difference between the two possible interpretations of that sentence.

It should be the goal of every writer to improve, to learn about these kinds of mistakes and learn to overcome. As this is done, the role of the editor becomes less important. But ultimately you will still always need an editor as a safety net, someone to double check your work, someone to see if there’s anything you missed, someone who understands audiences to be your test subject.

Finding a good freelance editor is not particularly easy. Most people go through several bad editors before learning to get a sample at it before they began. Oftentimes people are so excited about being in the final stages of getting ready to submit their work for publication that they take any editor which appears reasonably well. This is not necessarily advisable — getting the wrong editor can cost you both time and money. It is a better idea to spend five months getting a good editor, then it is to spend four weeks getting a good editor, $2000 on a poor edit, 12 months shopping around a manuscript which I believe has been properly edited but really hasn’t, and then another five months getting a good editor of the second time around.

Editors use different pricing schemes, some go by page, some go by word count, but for the most part it all reduces to dollars per hour. An editor who charges by the word will not tell you how much you will charge per word until he gets a pretty good idea of how much editing you need — a 300,000 word book which is poorly written will actually cost more than one which is not. In either case, ultimately you are paying for the editors time and experience.

On the low end editors charge between 20 and $30 an hour. I’ve seen the editors charge $120 or more an hour (some of them scams, some of them legitimate) but if I were to pick the top five editors I’ve ever met (freelance editors who work for national newspapers and magazines and whoever edited hundreds of bestsellers), they all charged between 60 and $80 an hour (an editor who charges more is usually preying on the ignorance of his clients — this doesn’t mean he’s necessarily a bad editor, but in my experience that is an outrageous price).

So you can expect to spend roughly $50 an hour on getting your manuscript edited. How many hours will it take to edit? Well, you won’t know that until an editor looks at it, or until you’ve had a lot of experience with editors. My experience has been, for a 300 page book, a serious but unpublished writer usually needs 35-45 hours of editing. A professional writer with a good deal of experience may need half as much or even a little less, and a new writers often need a considerable amount more (though I’ve seen exceptions to all of these… these are marginally accurate guidelines I’m providing so that you have some idea as to what to expect).

To throw a final kink into all this, you must remember that this is a largely subjective field. There are a large number of people who predict things with relative accuracy (all the major publishers and agents, despite numerous public blunders (like the numerous agents who turned down the first “Harry Potter”), have managed to make money in this field accurately predicting what’s going to be popular), but there is still a lot of subjectivity to it. There is a school of thought that says you should never get your book edited before you approach agents — the reason being that many agents will tell you you should get it edited no matter what the condition. If you just have it flawlessly edited, an agent will look at it and still find ways to improve it (there is no such thing as a perfect work, any work can be improved). The agent doesn’t have to pay for the editing, so of course the agent will tell you “well, I like it, but if you get it edited it could be even better”. That’s always true. There is no book that could not be improved by an editor. But it’s a wall of declining returns — you always have to pay the editor to read the book, and the more times it gets reviewed and edited the less you get for your money. Once you have a single professional editor go over your book, your return on your investment for having more editors go over it will be significantly diminished. Again, however, the agent makes money based on how well your book sells, so the agent wants the book to be as good as possible, so if an agent can ever sell you on the idea of getting more editing, they will. It doesn’t cost them anything.

Further, some agents prefer different types of editing work, they emphasize different things (they may feel you have character issues, where your previous editor was more concerned with the structure). Getting your work edited should increase your chance with most agents, but will certainly decrease your chance with a few who disagree with the direction the editor chose (another reason you should choose an editor you like — that way that editor chooses a direction you like, and it makes it actually easier to find an agent you like him because the agent will be someone who agrees with the direction that’s been chosen)

If your work is already edited and quite good, will an agent reject your work if you refuse to get it edited again? Hopefully not, I suspect not, but who knows? The truth is a good editing job will significantly improve your chances of finding an agent, but it’s no guarantee that an agent won’t push for you to get it edited again.

For more information on editors, agents, and other useful tips and tools for writers, feel free to visit www.nsoutter.com

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