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Abigail Nathan: Hiring a freelance editor

First up in our self-titled Editing Month - which we are totally going to make a thing [UPDATE: a year later and it's still not] - is freelance editor Abigail Nathan of Bothersome Words. I came across Abigail when I went looking for an editor myself. I'd spent a gazillion years writing and then revising my manuscript, before sending out to all the rejections - at which point I figured (obviously belatedly) "hey, maybe I'm not the best person to be editing my own work because clearly I'm missing what's not working". So I started a search for the editor to end all editors, and was quickly referred to Abigail. A supremely talented (and tactful) editor, who has worked with some of the biggest names in Australian publishing - from Hachette to Penguin to Random House - Abigail has kindly offered to answer a few questions about the amazing world of professional editors. If you're a writer thinking about getting in some outside help for you manuscript, this is for you...

Abigail Nathan of Bothersome Words

So, I'm writing a manuscript. At what point in the writing process can I approach an editor for help?

At whatever stage you like! But my personal recommendation is not to try hiring an editor until you have done as much work as you can on your own. That means going back over the first draft to self-edit it - and, if possible, maybe even getting some friendly/critical feedback from friends or family.

You’ll get the best value out of an editor if you’re not paying them to spend time picking up things you could have caught yourself. The more accessible you can make your work to the editor – that is, clear of obvious errors and mistakes – the more time and effort they can spend digging deeper.

Of course, “as much work as you can do on your own” is different for everyone. It depends on what sort of editing you’re after, and whether you want the editor to act as a kind of teacher and/or mentor as well. It also depends how you feel about your own writing – not everyone is comfortable showing their writing to people they know, and they might not have a writers’ group they trust either. Some writers really struggle with confidence and need an editor who can step in at a fairly early stage to give them some kind of guidance and support. Other writers just don’t realise how much of a difference it can make to let the work rest for a bit and then go back and self-edit. It’s amazing how many obvious typos and silly plot errors you can find doing this.

The most important thing is not to rush. It’s tempting to think that once the first draft is finished, that’s the writer’s job done: the words are on the page and now someone else can be paid to do the clean-up. The reality is that editing is a collaborative process and you don’t save any time by giving an editor very raw text.

I've known writers who've lost money to people masquerading as professional editors. What’s the best way to find reputable editors you can trust?

The best way to find an editor you can trust is through recommendations from other writers. This can be a personal recommendation if you know people who have been happy with their editors or, if you don’t know any authors yourself, it can be helpful to check the acknowledgements pages of books you enjoy – specifically those in the same genre you are writing. Most countries will have a national organisation of editors which also includes a directory of members. Depending on the country, there may be separate branches for each state/territory/county, etc. There may not be any guarantee there, depending on the organisation’s requirements, but it’s a good start.

Similarly, your state or country’s Author Guild is likely to have a list of recommended service suppliers. Writers’ centres, either your local or national branch, or one of the online versions, can also often recommend editors and may even have their own on-hand.

When you find an editor, make sure you ask them questions – you should soon get a good feel for whether they have any idea what they’re talking about. Most will be willing to give you an idea of who or what they’ve worked with before. They may have an online portfolio or list of people you can check, too. Just as all writers have different styles, so do all editors. How can any writer be sure a particular editor is a good fit for their manuscript?

This follows on from the above. Editors all have their own style and approach to edits, and while I think we all try to adapt to the preferences or requirements of the writers we’re working with, some approaches will be a better fit than others. For example, some writers are happy to let the editor make all the changes they think are necessary, and they will just read over a clean version of the edited document and only check things that they have a problem with. Others prefer a more hands-off edit, where the editor makes queries and suggestions but doesn’t change too much of the text themselves. Still others prefer every edit to come with a full explanation.

Some writers need to be edited softly because their feelings are easily bruised, others have thick skin and want you to be as blunt as possible with them.

A lot of writers aren’t sure what sort of edit they even need. The best approach is to discuss expectations, requirements and process with the editor, to find out what they do and how, and decide whether that fits with what you hope to get from the process. Most editors will also be willing to do a sample edit for you if you ask – just be aware that this may or may not be free, depending on the editor, the edit required, and the sample size. A few pages should be enough to see whether the editor is on the same wavelength as you. A writer contacts you but isn't sure what kind of service they need. What would your suggested plan of attack be?

First of all – don’t worry that you’re not sure. Your editor should be able to guide you. Contact more than one editor, and if they’re amenable, ask questions. You want to know what services they provide and what they personally include in each one. Some editors will do most of the work on the manuscript, others will include a detailed letter or report as well. Some will be willing to meet or phone afterwards to answer any questions, others will set limits on additional time or may charge for extra consultation.

In order to help you, an editor will need to know what you’ve written and how much work you’ve done on it. Is this your first draft or have you already worked with some other writers to develop and polish this seventh draft? Is it a book of poetry or the third novel in a fantasy epic?

The editor will also need to know what you want. What are you hoping to achieve from the edit? Are you trying to get the manuscript to a publishable standard with one editing pass or are you using the editing process as a way to learn and develop more slowly?

Your editor will also benefit from knowing your future plans – are you hoping to self-publish or will you be submitting your manuscript to agents and publishers?

Once the editor has all that information they should be able to give you an idea of your options. The editor might ask you for a sample of your work so they can provide you a quote. This is also an opportunity for them to see what stage they think your writing is at. If you have already told them what you hope to achieve and how much work has already been done on the manuscript, they should be able to advise you as to what sort of edit would best suit your work as it is now. Okay, I've hired you! What should I expect to receive in return?

This depends on the type of edit you signed up for and your editor’s particular approach! Editing services differ in title and approach in each country, and individual editors sometimes tailor their own process to suit either their working style or a particular author’s needs. Again, make sure you clarify what your editor means by each editing term.

Generally speaking, structural, substantive, or developmental edits will probably be supplied as a letter or report, rather than as a marked-up manuscript. These edits focus on the big picture; they give a general overview and may cover things such as plot inconsistencies, character flaws, or structural problems. This is the stage where you might discuss whether the story starts or stops in the wrong spot, or that the middle lags, or that a character doesn’t work. Suggested changes may result in major rewriting or moving around of text, so any mark-up on the manuscript is likely to be minimal. However, sometimes a structural edit or content edit may delve a bit deeper and then you could expect a lot more mark-up, but you’d probably get a letter/report as well.

A manuscript assessment or appraisal will usually take the form of a report. This is essentially a readers’ report but also includes considerations of style, structure, publishability, audience, etc. It is unlikely to involve any manuscript mark-up, but more detailed appraisals may use sample text from the manuscript to highlight and illustrate specific areas of interest.

Copyediting and line editing are more micro edits. They will focus on word choice and sentence construction, as well as, possibly, small plot details. These edits are completed as mark-up on the manuscript – usually using track changes in Word but sometimes in hard copy on the manuscript. You may also receive a letter or report detailing some of the changes made, particularly if there are repeated errors, or plot and style considerations that require more space to explain than is available in the comment function.

Proofreading is the final stage. This is always carried out on the manuscript, often in hard copy, but often on-screen. Ideally this is a check of the final layout, so it may be completed as mark-up on a PDF or in Word. Because this is a final check, you may only receive an email or letter confirming the tasks undertaken. Ideally there are no major changes at this point, so a report or proper letter should not be necessary.

Of course, this question specifies you have paid and received the edit! Some edits will be completed in stages, so you may have a back and forth with the editor – the edit may take several passes with each of you accepting, rejecting or querying changes before the edit is “final”. As mentioned above, once you have paid for the edit, your editor may be open to answering queries and giving advice about the manuscript as part of their service. Alternatively they may consider further advice and assistance to be additional work, so check whether you need to pay them by the hour or whether it’s an included cost.

[First published Tuesday 21 April 2015]


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