Hand your beloved epic fantasy manuscript to five different epic fantasy editors and you’ll likely get five different edited manuscripts returned to you. This is because, while the fundamental technical aspects of the edit (fixing typos, grammar issues, inconsistencies, etcetera) should be the same or very similar, less exacting aspects of editing (such as identifying strengths or weaknesses, improving for clarity, assisting the flow) may well throw up different responses.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that one editor is wrong and another is right; rather that there are some elements of editing that are subjective, and each editor will approach potential issues in accordance with their own individual understanding of your book and its goals, their experience, their knowledge, and their skills.
So how, then, do you know if you’re hiring a good ‘un?
First, it’s not about the cost. Or rather, sometimes it is; in that, as you’d expect, vastly experienced editors may charge a premium rate, while their more fresh-faced colleagues may charge significantly less in order to earn their editing stripes while gaining experience in the field. All other editors fall somewhere in between – and it’s a big in-between; rates can vary enormously between one editor and another. But a word of advice. Allow cost to guide your search for the right editor, in line with your budget, but not be the deal-maker or deal-breaker.
It doesn’t strictly follow that paying a premium rate will get you the best edit you could ever have imagined, or the best relationship with that editor. Likewise, keeping the cost down doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a subpar, that’ll-have-to-do result from a half-hearted professional. In fact, quite the opposite may very well be possible, in both cases.
So, setting cost aside then, what kind of working relationship should you expect to have with your editor, and what is a big no-no?
What Working With an Editor Is (or should be)
What It Isn’t (or absolutely shouldn’t be)
Firstly, a good editor will bring a fresh eye and a fresh ear to your manuscript, catching any issues that you have unwittingly missed, while also treating your manuscript like a piece of music, ‘listening’ to see if all the right notes are in the right places.
It isn’t always about strict grammar rules and punctuation… No, scrub that. It should never be about strict grammar rules and punctuation when it comes to fiction. It’s about rhythm and readability; making it as easy as possible for your reader to grasp your intended meaning.
For example, if an abundance of punctuation is grammatically correct but it’s going to make a sentence jerky when it would be more effective flowing fast and free, then - providing the intended meaning is retained - the editor will leave the punctuation out.
Forget about grammar police. Your editor is more concerned about ensuring your readers can enjoy your work without disruption. We don’t want readers to see the words and sentences – we want them to see the story and feel the feels!
Secondly, the editor and author are equals. You are a team and it’s a collaboration, as far as you want it to be. Your editor is on your side, with the same end goal in mind for your book as you have. For most authors (though not all), this goal is to produce a well-presented, professional-looking book capable of competing in its genre in the marketplace. While your editor can’t guarantee what success will ultimately look like for your book, owing to all the other factors involved in a book’s publishing journey and life, they will do their utmost to uphold their side of the bargain.
In this regard – and crucially – a good editor will respect that the book belongs to you, and that you have your own particular hopes and goals for it. Through their communications with you, as well as through the book itself and their understanding of the industry, the editor will come to understand what you hope to achieve with it, and so will work to strengthen that. Their goal is to satisfy your book needs, giving it the best possible chance of success as far as their sphere of influence stretches. This includes ensuring they remain invisible, whilst your work and voice shine through.
Where it gets murky…
As we alluded to at the beginning, there are as many types of editors as there are writers, in terms of what they specialise in, their rates, how they edit, how much or how little they edit, and what skills, training, knowledge and experience they have. It doesn’t mean they are either good or bad at their job, just that they work slightly – or a lot – differently, and hence why choosing the right editor for you and your book can take a little time.
So what’s the solution?
Easy. Ask for a sample edit. All good editors will provide one, or will outright advertise the fact they provide them on their websites or social media. Even if you’re new to all this and not sure what to expect, a sample edit gives you the opportunity to learn just about everything you need to know about that editor, and thus a sense of whether they’ll be the right fit.
Note: most editors will offer to do a sample edit for free, others may charge a small fee for their time and efforts. Personally, I’m of the former camp, in that I don’t see time spent on a sample edit as wasted. It’s just as important to me as an editor, as it is to the author, to gauge if I’m the right person for the job and if this is a book and author I’m confident I can work well with and do justice to. Remember, it’s a team effort – both editor and author need to be comfortable with each other.
That doesn’t have to mean making friendship bracelets and braiding hair (though it has been known) - perhaps you only communicate with each other at the start of the project and again at the end - but it does mean ensuring you can have a good working relationship, that your editor gets you and your book, and that the whole process is painless and straightforward.
Not every editor is right for every book and its author, so don’t be disheartened if your search takes you some time. You want to feel confident that you’ll be getting what you pay for, so think about what you hope to get out of the process. For example, you may welcome an abundance of extra advice, feedback and direction; or perhaps you just want someone to get the job done and no more than that. You can make this clear to your editor, but usually an experienced editor will gauge for themselves how much assistance you’d like, based on your initial communications.
Working with your editor should feel like teamwork, not a battle, so take your time to find the one that hits all the right notes for you. Ask for that sample edit. It’ll be a crucial deciding factor.
Remember, it’s not just about whether you are pleased with the work your editor carries out on the page – though this is certainly one priority – but also what your instincts tell you about them. Have they communicated clearly with you? Have they been respectful both towards you and your manuscript? Have they seemed to just grasp what it is you are trying to achieve with the story and the characters? Do you feel they’ve gelled with it? Have they improved it? Is their level of feedback just right for you, and does that feedback make sense to you?
In a nutshell, do you feel comfortable sending them your beloved novel?
There will always be a degree of nervous anticipation when you send your book to an editor, but there shouldn’t be dread or fear. There should instead be a little sliver of excitement in the confidence you have that you’ve done your part to the best of your ability, and now it’s time for your editor to do theirs.
And look at it this way - once you've found an editor that ticks all the boxes, they'll be more than happy to work with you again on your next book, and the next book after that. Because just as there are many kinds of editors, there are also many kinds of authors. I speak from experience when I say, for an editor, finding an author they understand and whose books they enjoy working on and watching come to fruition, is much more than merely a pay cheque - it's immensely satisfying, rewarding and exciting, and nothing short of a dream job.