Five Things You Can Learn From a Freelance Editor

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every job I’ve had working for publishers big and small, but in all of those instances my main loyalty was to the company, not to the writer. As a hired gun, paid for by the writer and serving at the writer’s mercy, I exist for one purpose: to bring the manuscript as close to the writer’s perfect vision of it as humanly possible and that’s a freeing feeling.

So in the spirit of freedom and independence, I present today, five things you can learn from a freelance editor (or as it’s known in my document file: five reasons my fee is really worth it).

1. WHAT YOUR STORY IS REALLY ABOUT

If I had to pick one common element from all of my editorial letters, this would be it. Whether it’s elevating a minor character to a starring role, suggesting a single novel is actually a trilogy (or vice-versa), or suggesting that maybe your contemporary romance is actually a perfectly structured romantic suspense novel, authors aren’t always the best judge of what type of book they’re writing. They almost always know what they want to say and what they want the reader to feel and why they’re writing the book, but the delivery of those key goals is usually not as defined.

If you have the luxury of putting your manuscript away for months to clear your head and take a fresh view, that’s great. But most writers don’t have that luxury (or that much discipline) so bringing in someone who thinks like an author and respects the vision like an author, but has the fresh eyes and training of an editor is the next best thing.

2. GETTING PERSONAL IN WRITING IS GREAT; GETTING TOO PERSONAL ISN’T

One of the big problems I had with the original version of this piece was finding the balance between making it personal and keeping within the bounds of common decency. For a book to really work well, part of the author’s soul has to be on the page. Even authors who write multiple books a year across multiple formats and multiple worlds find a way to put a piece of themselves in even the silliest or outrageous projects. But finding that balance isn’t easy.

The best fiction, like the best dialogue, presents a hyper-stylized version of reality that keeps all of the good parts and excises the repetitive and boring parts. A good editor will dig deeper with a string of questions to the author to help find the interesting core of personal anecdotes or find ways to combine multiple boring real elements into one fabulous fictional element. They’ll also point out the points where the personal elements you’re incorporating go against the vision you have for the piece.

3. YOU’RE GOING TO GET SOMETHING WRONG

Authors are a really smart lot by and large, but they tend to be specialists and tend to be hyper-focused on individual projects. Editors are able to see the bigger picture because they haven’t spent months or years researching the topic or novel like the author has. They’re coming to it as your readers will, with the same questions and desire to be entertained AND informed, but with the added skill of being able to help you fix the spots where you goof up.

As with personal details, including enough research in a novel to keep the reader informed and educated as well as entertained without bogging them down in footnotes and graduate thesis-level description is a tough balance. Again, a good editor will do this tactfully through a series of questions (do we really need four pages to describe how to turn on the Demon Laser Sword?) to help the author realize the overload on their own. This also includes spelling and grammar. Editors are vigilant with the dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, and other resources at hand to make sure that the prose comes across clear and easy to read without being hampered by silly grammar or spelling errors.

4. THE BEST OPTION FOR PUBLISHING MAY NOT BE THE ONE YOU THINK

Most of the freelance editors I know, myself included, have worked with Big Five publishing houses, smaller publishers, and everything in between and still follow what’s going on in the industry. A good portion of my editorial business is publishing consulting and helping authors find the right publishing fit for their story.

Once you have a great novel polished to a sparkly sheen, a freelance editor with great knowledge of the current publishing scene can help you figure out the best path for your individual story within your publishing life plan. If your goal is only to find an agent and be published by a traditional publisher, an editor will help you find ways to make your unique vision fit within the boundaries of the commercial fiction marketplace. But traditional publishing isn’t the best path for every author or for every book. An experienced and skillful editor can offer suggestions for alternatives to traditional publishing whether that be self-publishing, POD publishing, or dropping the project completely and moving on to something new.

5. NOW YOU KNOW SOMEONE IN THE BUSINESS

For those looking to be traditionally published, contacts and networking can be immensely helpful in cutting through the red tape. Hiring an editor with a wealth of contacts in the industry can help elevate great manuscripts in the slush piles and offer a stamp of validation when competing against the thousands of other unsolicited manuscripts agents and editors receive every day. While no ethical editor will ever guarantee that hiring them and working with them will guarantee representation or publication (one of the best novels I’ve ever worked on in my career still hasn’t sold and it crushes me daily), there’s no denying that a well-placed email or note can help a great manuscript get the best opportunity for success possible.

Even those who want to bypass traditional publishing can still benefit from a freelance editor with great contacts. One of the biggest complaints indie writers have is how hard it is to get their books noticed. In addition to contacts with editors and agents, most top freelance editors have contacts with bloggers, book reviewers, and influential readers who can help spread the word of a book.

So when considering whether to hire a freelance editor and how much you’re willing to pay for the service, think about what you’re looking for. Do you just want someone to make sure the commas are in the correct place and you haven’t used their, they’re, or there wrong, or do you want a skilled and well-connected partner who can help you fully realize the vision of your project and provide access to reach the largest audience possible for that project?