"Just get it down on paper, and then we will see what to do with it," said Maxwell Perkins, the revered editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. If this sage piece of advice worked for them, it can work for you.
Perkins is credited with having convinced the powers that be at Scribner that The Great Gatsby was a masterpiece and with helping Fitzgerald make it that way. If you’d like a little insight into what great editing looks like, check out the correspondence between Perkins and Fitzgerald at Letters of Note.
But, encouraging you to complete your first draft is just the beginning of what a good editor can do for you. In my 30 years as an editor in the traditional book publishing world, I’ve seen skilled editors transform hundreds of manuscripts from ordinary to extraordinary. Maybe it is a question of reorganization, or maybe the bad guy just isn’t convincing enough, or maybe the title is way off the mark. Incidentally, two of the titles Fitzgerald was considering are Trimalchio in West Egg, and The High-Bouncing Lover. See what I mean about editors and titles?
There are four kinds of editors:
1. Developmental editors are the people who work with you right out of the gate, often before you have even put word to paper. They help you refine your concept, figure out who your audience is, arrange your chapters in non-fiction, or work out how you are going to get your protagonist off the dark planet before the cyborgs arrive in your sci-fi novel. They are right there with you every step of the way, helping you make your book the best it can be. Good developmental editors are like good shrinks. They don’t tell you what to do; they get you to tell yourself.
2. Substantive editors start their work once you have completed yours, or at least have a first draft you like. They help you find your voice and nurture it. They may ask you to rewrite a section or delete a character who isn’t bringing much to the party. They will ask all kinds of questions, check your facts for accuracy, your prose for readability, and your plot for plausibility. They suggest where to cut, to expand, to go deeper. They make sure you keep up the momentum, and point out where a character’s behavior doesn’t make much sense, or her dialogue doesn’t ring true. For example, a society matron would never say, “I don’t like the way that went down. I’m outta here.” At the end of the process you will have a tight, professional, compelling manuscript that is almost ready to go to press or to be converted into the file formats you need.
3. Copyeditors come next. They are the techies. After you and your editor have cut and polished the manuscript, they read it carefully, checking for correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. They point out inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and may even rewrite a tangled sentence or two. You can always restore anything you’d like, but in my experience good copyeditors are almost always right.
4. Proofreaders come last. They see the manuscript after the design is completed, and the photos, captions, front matter, and back matter are all in place. They check headings, page numbers, typeface styles, and make sure that corrections suggested by the copyeditor have been inserted properly.
How Do You Find A Good Editor?
Good is the operative word here. A good editor is likely to be a professional editor who has had lots of experience in the traditional book publishing world. Once you have located an editor you feel may be right for your book, find out where she has worked and what published books she has worked on. Make sure she has had experience editing the kind of book you are writing.
But where and how do you find this person?
-- Get a referral—check around, ask other writers, your friends, agents at writers’ conferences.
-- Look online—go to Google and type in “Freelance Editors.” Also check out:
- The Independent Editors Group (full disclosure, I’m a member of this group)
- The Self-Publishers Association (BookWorks)
- Consulting Editors Alliance
- Digital Book World
- Editorial Freelancers Association
- Media Bistro
- Publishers Marketplace
-- Chat with the editor—define your goals. Feel free to ask him for his credentials and for the titles of a few of the published books he has worked on. If he has not worked on any books that have been published by a traditional publisher, be cautious. With so many fine, professional editors available, why settle for one with less than stellar experience? Try to be clear about what you expect from an editor. Do you like him? Is he enthusiastic about your project? Make sure you feel a connection with your editor because your working relationship will become a close one.
-- Be clear about the fee structure—does she work by the project, the page (how much per page), the hour? When and how does she expect to be paid?
-- Ask about the time line—how long does she expect the editing process to take? This depends on how quickly you get the first edit back to her, but make sure you both agree on what is a reasonable amount of time for this project to take.
-- Ask if he has had experience with self-publishing—this is not essential, but sometimes an editor who knows his way around self-publishing, or who can at least refer you to others who do, can be a big help for first time indie publishers.
And, remember, this is your book. You are the creator, the artist, and your name is on the cover. When you disagree with your editor’s suggestions, trust your instincts and go with what you feel is right. You are the boss.
You know what else Maxwell Perkins said? “There could be nothing so important as a book can be.” Now, there’s something to think about.