Thursday, June 6, 2013

Finding A Good Editor - What To Look For, What To Avoid

Today's pair of questions come from Josh Hoyt:

How can you tell if you get a good editor?

What are some things to look for when looking for an editor?

It's a good one.

To answer this, first we have to talk about the word "good", because we're going to use it in two different contexts here.

A "good" editor is a talented person with knowledge of mechanics, structure, story building and who is helpful to the author in applying and sharing that knowledge. It's also someone who doesn't make you feel stupid for not being "perfect" or making mistakes.

A "good" editor is also someone you get along with, can have multiple conversations with, and who ultimately brings the best work out of you. It's also someone available for communication in a timely fashion.

There are editors who are nice people, but who don't meet many of the conditions in the above two paragraphs. Some people are really good at their craft but move slower than tree sloths to get back to a writer, or who can comfortably explain what their notes mean about as easily as my dog can explain quantum physics to me.

There are editors who are awful at their craft, who are destructive in their criticism, who condescend and patronize, and because they subscribe to some idea of competition (in short, writing is supposed to be survival of the fittest, and it's up to them to figure out who's fit), they make writing either mysterious or harder than it should be.

There are other editors who are good at what they do, who answer emails promptly, who you can talk to easily and without discomfort, but you never find them because neither of you are looking for each other, or you just travel in different circles.

Not mentioned here is the expense of an editor, because editing is not an inexpensive thing. Yes, if you go traditional publishing, that cost is something you don't really see or experience, but if you're going self-publishing, plan accordingly. When you find an editor, ask their rates. Figuring out your budget in advance is a huge boon here. Let's put the numbers to one side though, because like so many other purchases, you should make them based on more than just cost.

So, a good editor has some combination or all of the following traits (note: I'm not prioritizing these, just listing them):

+ answers your questions, big and small, promptly and with a level of detail that doesn't leave you scratching your head
+ applies in-line edits and comments that actually improve the content on the page, rather than just tell you what they'd do if they were writing
+ is able to explain to you why a thing does or doesn't work and when things don't work, help you stop making the same mistake over and over again
+ knows the rules of grammar and structure and follows them, and when necessary, knows which ones to bend or break
+ makes use of fair contracts and rates without manipulating the client, especially careful not to take advantage of inexperience or nerves
+ is someone who challenges you to work harder and better, without bullying you
+ is someone who doesn't talk down you, as though you're an idiot, a child or completely terrible at writing
+ supports and promotes clients' efforts on social media
+ is someone who can occasionally cheerlead and encourage you, picking you up out of whatever self-doubt hole you've dropped into

So there's a list floating out on the internet of questions you should ask an editor, like if they know what different style terms are, or how they feel about the Oxford comma, or what style guide they use.

And that's great, but understand that if your first interaction with an editor is a blitz of a dozen technical questions, you're going to put people on the defensive, making them have to qualify themselves to be good enough to work with you - and no one likes jumping through hoops.

There's a practice of offering a page or two of sample work "to see if you like their style". This is an occasional trap. Sure, it lets you know whether or not you can work with a person, but sometimes writers use this as a way to score free editing - which is unfair. You can figure out if you want to work with the person through a few email exchanges or a phone call.

Editing is a two-way street. Yes, the writer employs the editor to some technical degree, and pays the editor according to whatever terms are in the contract, but if either party finds the relationship untenable, either party can fire the other, take a kill fee where appropriate and walk away. It's about equality: the editor and writer are partners with the goal of making the manuscript the best it can be. You're in this together, and as an author, I get it, you're risking an investment and trusting this person you just met with this project you've been working on for however long, but you do need to TRUST the editor and let them do their job.

Now let's talk about some red flags, again, not in priority, just a list.

An editor you don't want to deal with:
- bullies you, makes you feel worse about your writing than before you started
- discourages you from continuing
- changes the terms of a contract without notifying you, and offers no explanation why
- doesn't use a contract
- doesn't answer emails or phone calls in a prompt fashion
- makes unreasonable demands of your writing schedule and discipline, bending you to their schedule or expectations
- makes you feel like you don't matter to them, no matter whether you're their first or fiftieth client
- does not explain the root causes behind the mistakes and issues within the manuscript (this is called "8th grade English teacher syndrome")
- provokes, rather than allays, your fears
- doesn't deliver edits or notes according to the schedule within the contract
- trashes clients on social media

Absent here is mention of "catches every mistake the first time, every time" because that's why editors make multiple passes - which is negotiable within the contract - so just because a mistake in Chapter 3 gets through in the first pass, don't expect in that second pass it'll still be there. NOTE: This is not code for "intentionally make mistakes to see if the editor catches them, so if they don't, you can point a finger and complain about their quality"

So how do you find an editor? Look on social media. Google "list of freelance editors". Ask people on social media. Find an editor's blog (like where you're reading this!) and contact them. Expect to have a conversation with them before either of you commit to anything. Don't rush. However, don't dawdle, as an editor's schedule fills quickly, and if you want space on it, make sure you follow through on your emails and promises.

For me, I have a few hard and fast rules:

1. Be as honest as possible. Be transparent as possible as often as possible. - Sugar coating and obfuscation do no one any favors.
2. Support the writer, be encouraging, handle the fears and anxieties - I'm here to help you make the best thing you can. It's okay to be scared. It's okay to be new at this. Let's work together.
3. Answer emails promptly, and with detail - No one likes not-knowing.


Josh, I hope this answers your question. Enjoy writing.

If you have a question, feel free to email me, and I'll do my best to answer it.