How Not to Talk to Editors
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
This is going to be a vent session, but I hope you get something useful out of it.
Let me start by saying that I've had many, many wonderful clients. And I'm grateful for every one of them. Each has contributed something to my life and my career. But they're not easy to find. I see dozens of job postings a week from writers looking for an editor. And I don't apply for every job I see!
Here are some things to know when you’re writing an ad looking for an editor:
Editing and proofreading are not the same thing.
In fact, you don’t want your editor proofreading your work! Of course we fix mistakes as we’re editing, but editing can also introduce new mistakes. (It shouldn’t, but let’s be realistic here.) Plus, once anyone (writer or editor) has seen a manuscript more than once, their eyes become blind to errors. That’s because the brain knows what it should be seeing, and it ignores what the eyes say.
Also, copy fatigue is a real thing. We all just get sick of reading the same words.
Proofreaders should come in at the end—when the manuscript is typeset for publication. A good proofreader is looking for typesetting issues and other problems that occur only in the typeset file.
So when you need a proofreader, advertise for a proofreader. And when you need an editor, advertise for an editor.
Editing one chapter at a time is not a good way to work.
I won’t even bid on jobs that ask that the editor work on and submit one chapter at a time. Editing is organic. The first chapter isn’t done until the last chapter is done. I read a manuscript twice before I return it to the client. I get to know an author’s style, and I often undo edits when I do the second pass. I also catch inconsistencies in earlier chapters only when I’m reading later chapters. Editing and delivering one chapter at a time is self-defeating and frustrating. In the end, you'll get a manuscript that could have been better, no matter how good your editor was.
Don’t ask for before-and-after samples of editing work.
The manuscripts I edit don’t belong to me. Plus, how would you like it if I showed another writer that you didn’t know the difference between its and it’s? But I am happy to do a sample edit on YOUR work so you get a feel for my style and I get a feel for your manuscript.
I want you to build me a house. How long will it take and how much will it cost?
No home builder would reply to that question—except with more questions of their own.
Editors need details! Give us word count. Don’t tell us how many pages you have. Font size and spacing have a huge impact on the meaning of page count.
How much work is needed? That’s what we really need to know. I base my bids on word count. And I don’t charge by the hour.
But word count alone isn't everything we need to know. I badly want to ask, “How good is your writing?” I know that would be crude, but really, that’s the crux of the issue. Three hundred pages of well-written copy is must faster (and cheaper if charged by the hour) than three hundred pages that need detailed editing.
I usually don’t know, roughly, how long an edit will take until I’m a couple of chapters in. Sure, samples help me guess, but I’ve had authors send me their best few pages—pages that aren’t representative of the entire manuscript.
I don’t want to touch your baby.
In a recent meeting, I asked a group of editors how they feel when an author refers to a manuscript as “my baby.”
They all laughed nervously.
We don’t want to touch your baby. Or the manuscript that you’ve given your "all to every day for the past six years.” I read a job posting that said, “I’ve sacrificed and lost a lot because I’ve been so focused on this book for the past several years.”
Oh god, I don’t want to touch that manuscript. That’s just code for “I’m going to be the client from hell.”
It can be your baby. But when you lead with that, it’s just going to scare us off.
Your job description says a lot
Don’t write a novel’s worth of copy to describe your manuscript. Don’t call your book a “fictional novel” (I run from those ones). And don’t be insulting before you’ve even met us.
I was once invited to submit a bid for a job and was so offended that I told the author so and immediately blocked them. This person was clearly infatuated with their own writing genius and had very little respect for editors. One part said something along the lines of “Please be willing to do a sample edit so I can assess how skilled you really are instead of hearing how skilled you think you are.” Or something to that effect.
And don’t compare yourself to famous, published writers. I sometimes see claims like, “I’m a little like a combination of Tom Wolfe with a touch of Truman Capote.”
God help me.
Here’s what you can say that will help you find the right editor:
Be clear and detailed.
Say right up front how many words your manuscript is.
Disclose what genre it is.
State a hard deadline if you have one. (And remember: ASAP is not a deadline.)
It’s also helpful to know what program it’s in.
Do you want line editing, copy editing, or developmental editing? If you don’t know, ask to get on a call with the editor to discuss.
Don't assure us that it will be "an easy read" because you've already run the manuscript through Grammarly.
Editing is a skill and an art. It takes time, effort, training, and a great deal of thought. (Not to mention research.) Grammarly isn't a trained, skilled, sensitive human brain. Grammarly doesn't address many, many things. I asked a group of editors recently if they use Grammarly. None of them do. I don't. I did a manuscript review recently for a writer who said her manuscript was ready for publishing because she'd run it through Grammarly. Well, Grammarly didn't catch the tense shifts, the narrator shifts, the misspelled proper nouns, or the run-on sentences! Not to mention the sentences that were properly spelled but made absolutely no sense. (She also claimed she'd had two people already edit it for errors. Uh, what?) She had 116,000 words and felt that the month I said I'd probably need to edit (two passes) was too long.
Trust us when we tell you how long we need.
I love that old quote: "You can have it fast, good, or cheap. Pick two."
Editors are people. We’re not software. I edit seven days a week. But I also need to do laundry, walk the dogs, sleep, go to the grocery store, and work in the yard. Sometimes I even like to read a book that I’m not editing. We need breaks to rest our brains and our eyes. We need to move our bodies and get away from the screen. And when I do, I do a better job.
I’ve been lucky. The clients I’ve worked with over the years have been lovely. Some even became friends! Many are repeat clients who bring me all their projects. I love my clients.
But I screened them carefully!