18 February 2015

What to look for in an editor

You've written the thing - the chapbook of poems, the collection of short stories or essays, the novel(la), the nonfiction book that's going to change the world (or at least hopefully make you a few bucks) - and now what you need is another pair of eyes to help you refine it to publish-perfect form.

You look in the LinkedIn forums or on Twitter, you ask friends and writer acquaintances for recommendations, and you come away with a few names. But how do you choose the right editor for you and your project?

Here are the top five qualities I look for in an editor of my own work.

1. Interested partner. The most important trait I look for in an editor of my own work is that they're interested in what I'm writing. If they're interested, they're going to be engaged in the project and more likely to be (nearly) as invested in the outcome as I am. I want that! I want to feel like the person I'm working with wants my project to succeed and it isn't "just a job" to them.

That said, I don't want them to take ownership of the project. I want a partner in my writing process, someone who cares about the final product and wants to see it succeed, but I don't want a boss. I want an editor who understands that, in the end, it's still my book. If I say clearly that, despite their advice to do x, I've decided to do y, I want them to say, "Okay, so let's think about how you can do y and still address these concerns I raised over here." And I'll be all like, "Awesome. Let's do it."

2. Articulate. Because I want a partner in my writing process, it's important for my editor to be able to say why they're making the suggestions they're making. Because what if one of their suggestions takes the ms in the exact opposite direction of what I'm trying to do? I need to be able to have a conversation with my editor to understand why they suggested the change so we can think together about how to address what's not working for them while at the same time keep in alignment with my vision for the work. And if my editor can't explain - in terms I can understand - why they made the suggestions they did, then that conversation's going to be a real struggle.

3. Expert. Unsurprisingly, I want an editor who's really good at the type(s) of editing they do. Some people confuse experience with expertise, but I see a clear distinction. Someone can have a natural talent for editing and not have years of experience editing others' work. It's more important to me that my editor have the critical thinking skills and grasp of the language necessary to help me take my writing project to the next level than it is for them to have been editing for 20 years. (Experience does play a role, though, and I'll get to that below.)

4. Active Writer. I want my editor to be a writer. An editor who's a writer is getting first-hand experience of the writing process. They are encountering some of the same challenges I will encounter and experimenting with solutions, which means they can present me with some options for smoothing out the kinks in my work. (For this reason, too, I want my editor to be a reader.) I'm sure there are excellent editors out there who are not active writers, but for me, it's important to know that my editor can empathize with me.

5. Experienced. The main reason I care about my editor's experience is because there are certain things a freelance editor only figures out with time. Take me, for example. I edited other people's work as a friend, classmate and teacher for eleven years before I became a freelancer, but only after I started freelancing did I start to get a sense of how many pages per hour I could edit. I also didn't realize that it takes much longer to edit academic writing than it does to edit fiction. So when, a few months into my freelance career, a fiction writer asked me for a quote to copy edit his 300-page novel (which had already gone through one round of copy editing), I gave him an estimate based on my academic editing work that was WAY off, and I lost the job. Thus I learned the importance of a sample edit to providing accurate quotes.

I also want to know that my editor has experience editing the type of work I'm producing. Editing academic papers is totally different from editing fiction is totally different from editing poetry. There are different conventions involved, different expectations the audiences have, different approaches to the editing.

And a bonus quality:

6. Affordable & Available. Is the editor reasonable priced (see the Editorial Freelancers' Association's rate chart if you're not sure about what's "reasonable") and are they available to edit your work on a schedule that's consistent with your project's timeline? Yes, these are important, but here's the reason I didn't include them in my top five: I'd rather wait/save up for the right editor than spend my hard-earned money on the wrong one.

So how do you find out which of those editors is the right one for you?

First, start a conversation with them. If they're actively seeking projects, they should be willing to engage with you, and you can use a brief email exchange to gauge the extent to which they might be interested in your project and whether they're articulate. Then, when you've narrowed it down to a couple of likely candidates, ask for a sample edit. Editors just starting out may offer a free sample edit, but established editors will usually charge for the sample edit. Be prepared for that. And remember that you're both on trial here: Your interactions with the editor and your ability to deliver the pages and payment on time help them decide whether they want to work with you.

This post originally appeared as a guest post on Nancy Christie's blog The Writer's Place on December 6, 2013.

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