Monday, May 13, 2013

Hiring an Editor - Yay or Nay?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Getting published is a hard thing, and it's very competitive. You can have a good book and still not land an agent or an editor, which is incredibly frustrating. The pressure is tectonic plate-quality sometimes, and many a writer has thought about finding outside, professional help.

But should you?

This discussion is purely for writers going the traditional publishing route. If you're self publishing, then hiring an editor and a copy editor are vital for putting out a quality product.

PRO: If the goal is to learn to be a better writer, then hiring an editor could be a good idea for those who have the money to spend. If you don't, then don't stress over it. You can improve and get published without spending money on an editor.

I think the end goal really plays a huge part in making this decision. If your goal is to have someone evaluate your work and give feedback on why you're not taking the next step, then an editor could be very helpful. They might see things you or your critique group can't. No matter how good they are, they aren't editors in the publishing biz, so they evaluate things differently. An editor might be able to shed new light on what's holding you back. If you want to learn what things to look for so you can better edit yourself, a freelance editor can also be helpful. A more personalized writing class so to speak.

CON: If the goal is to get 95% of the way there, and then hire someone to "make you good enough" and get that last 5%, you're most likely setting yourself up for failure.

If the end goal is to make the book publishable, I think hiring an editor might not be the best choice. Every editor will bring their own tastes to the book, and they could very well suggest things that change your voice. You might make changes based on what they say, but not understand why they said it--or worse, not agree but do it anyway because you want to sell your novel so badly. A really horrible possibility--you could indeed get a manuscript accepted by an agent, but be unable to turn in another book good enough to sell (since you never learned those vital last steps). You could be setting yourself up to always need outside help.

Now, I can hear some of you thinking "Well, an agent and an editor make changes after they take on the book, so why is this any different?"

Which is a good question. My answer: Because you were good enough to get there on your own, and now they're going to help make the book better. If you can't get to pro level under your own skill, playing in the big leagues is going to be incredibly difficult and heartbreaking. You will likely end up being asked to do things you're not capable of doing yet. And that's a great way to kill a career before it starts. You probably don't want to be a one-book wonder.

For me, finding a great critique group seems like a much better way to learn, but not everyone has access to that. Or maybe they don't have time to reciprocate, but still want the feedback. I can see reasons where hiring an editor could be a good choice, same as I can see bad reasons for it.

This is a choice every writer has to make for themselves. Some may never even think about it, some may look at it as another step in their writing education. Some may even look at it as a shortcut to publication. I'm a firm believer in doing what's right for you, but also understand why you're doing it. Just like your characters, understand the motivations and make sure you're doing it for the right reasons.

Whether those reasons tell you yay or nay.

Would you hire (or have you hired) an editor?  Why or why not?

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'm debating this issue now, regarding my MFA application.

    Many (most?) full-time residency programs have a one percent admittance rate. I'm wondering whether it's smart to shell out $336 to get a second (or, more likely, fourth/fifth) opinion on my writing sample.

    On the one hand: how could an editor make my sample better, when the programs claim to mostly be looking for *potential*? On the other: what if the editor can? (On the MFA blogs/forums, the debate seems to be that those with professional editing will have an *unfair* advantage... whereas I'm still stuck on the question of whether the editing *is* an advantage).

    Do you think an MFA application is a better candidate for professional editing, since an application is a one shot deal (as opposed to a two book contract)? I truly think I'm ready to flourish in the programs to which I'm applying, but the programs have a plenty deep roster to pull from, and I'm sure many of the other writers are ready to flourish, too.

    You say it's a mistake to use professional editing to push yourself up a (make-it-or-break-it) percent... but what if that's all you need?

    And what do you think paid editors can give you that crit groups, friends, and advisors can't?

  2. Wow, that's a really interesting question, rue721. In your case, I think the rules are different, as you're trying to achieve something very specific. You're actually trying to better your writing skills (so technically that falls into the good category), but you might need a boost to help get you there.

    I obviously don't know you or your financial situation, but $336 for a professional editorial review doesn't sound too bad to me. Quite often they're in the thousands (though I imagine this is for a shorter piece for an application?). If you can afford it, you might consider it just to see what they say. It could ease your mind and then you can decide if you want to do any editing or not. If that would put you in a financial bind, there are other resources to get some feedback on your writing. There's a link to the Absolute Write forums on the right and they have a great Share Your Work section. Lots of good folks there who'd be willing to help you out for free.

    Paid editors have the benefit of experience with what is "publishable," while crit groups don't always have that. Of course, you'd have to be sure the editor you hired had the credentials and skill you want, since anyone can put up a website and claim to be an editor. My crit group is almost always dead on with what my agent and editor tells me, so I know they have a great eye for what works and what doesn't. I've also been in groups where that wasn't the case. Like so many things about writing, you have to be careful, as there are lots of ways writers can be taken advantage out there. And there might even be a difference between what works for a MFA program and what works for publishing. They might be looking for different things. I've read many a blog post that talks about MFA programs being very literary vs the commercial aspects of commercial fiction.

    It's a tricky issue. On one hand, if the program is that competitive, you'd want to give yourself every advantage so you can get in. On the other, is using an outside editor "cheating?" Or worse, could it actually push you away from the goal you're trying to achieve?

    Do any of the programs themselves say anything on the subject? You certainly don't want to do anything that goes against their rules, but if they don't care one way or the other, it gives you more freedom to decide. (And if they do care, that solves your problem)

    I wish I had a better answer for you, but this one is out of my realm. I'd trust my instincts and do what feels right for you. I think there are pros and cons on both sides, and you're smart to look at all your options.

    I hoped I helped a little, and good luck on that application! (and deciding what to do)

  3. Thank so much for your answer, Janice!

    The company I'm considering is made up of (upstanding) recent MFA graduates, and is specifically geared toward fine-tuning MFA applications-- so I do trust the members' authority, integrity, and academic savvy.

    The professional edit would be a fairly big financial investment for me, and would only be in addition to peer/mentor critiques-- still, I'd be happy to spend the money if it would give my sample extra sparkle. I'm mostly worried about the (writing-centric) issue you brought up-- will the editing kill my "specialness"?

    Thinking about that more, I wonder if that's only the same old MFA-cookie cutter worry. Do you think it's possible to kill voice or "specialness"? Or only polish it? Is it ridiculous that someone applying to MFA programs is even worried about an outside edit killing their writing sample? :P

    Thanks again for your thoughtful answer :)

  4. Most welcome. I do think you can edit out your specialness, and I've both done it and seen it done many a time. And it's not ridiculous to worry about that :) Our voice is our strongest writing tool. It's what makes us unique and is the only thing that can't be learned, only developed. But since you ARE worrying about that, you can prevent that from happening.

    What I do with any editing suggestion, is see how it sounds with and without the edit. If my voice hasn't changed, or the tone and feeling of the line hasn't changed, and it does sound better and fits the story better, then I make the change. If it sounds grammatically better, but the polish takes away from the tone or rhythm I was trying to achieve, I don't make it. Or I compromise and see if there's a way to fix the problem while still maintaining the original intent of the line. Understanding why a suggestion was made goes a long way to knowing how to fix it, and if there's a way to satisfy both your voice and the issue. Of course, sometimes you just do have to do what the suggestion said, but that's not too often. (And probably comes into play more when someone is paying you for the book!)

    So much of writing is just trusting you ear and your instincts as going with what sounds right. Trust yours, be true to your voice and your work, be open to growth and learning, and you'll do fine :) The fact that you're asking the questions means you're headed in the right direction already.

  5. If you're self publishing a book, then hiring a freelance editor is essential. I've read a number of books that have screamed, "Please don't buy any more of my books because I don't care enough about my readers to given them the best quality book possible." They could have at least used a copy editor, if nothing else.

    With so many books available, if your book screams the above, then I won't be buying your next one.

  6. Stina, you just gave me a "Doh!" moment, lol. I totally should have added that to this re-run. I'll add that now, as self pub is a whole different situation. Thanks! :)

  7. Great post!
    I am always pro-editor, but I have an analogy: the first thing our realtor did to sell our house was to send a stager over. Sold in four days.

  8. Excellent post, Janice!

    The other question that one should consider when pondering the "editor or not" issue is making sure that the person you're thinking about matches the kind of writing you're wanting to do.

    For example, a couple of the other commenters mentioned an MFA application -- MFA programs typically focus on, and promote, "literary" writing but not commercial / genre fiction. But if the editor you're considering is experienced in genre fiction, they may not be as "good an investment" as an editor who's been through an MFA program and/or published or edited literary fiction.

    Just a thought ...

  9. I always advise my clients to let me edit a sample chapter to get an idea of how my editing works with their writing. I also encourage them to look at their original and the final version of the chapter side by side, so they can judge for themselves if they feel my suggestions make for improvements and if their voice remains intact. I don't think a good editor ever edits out the author's voice; I think it's our job to preserve what makes their writing unique while pointing out what they might do differently to achieve what they were going for.

  10. Such a timely post! I attended a writers' conference on Saturday where we were able to submit a sample chapter ahead of time to an editor. The editor who read mine really "got" the type of humor I write so I was wondering if I should hire her.

    The thing is, I'm looking to be traditionally published and since my book went through a critique group, she didn't find major errors, so maybe it's not worth it unless I decide to stop trying to find an agent.

    I guess it helps to know your weaknesses and I am definitely comma impaired!

  11. LOL Can you tell I'm a little frustrated, Janet? I just figure if I'm paying for a freelance editor before self publishing my novel, then so should everyone. Or maybe they could at least have a warning: This book has not been edited by a professional. Please proceed with caution. :D

  12. SanWrites, good analogy. :)

    Chuck, very good point. Thanks!

    Bridget, smart to do that. I think the key here is "good" editor. I've heard too many horror stories of folks who've paid not-so-good editors with terrible results. So doing your homework is a good idea when hiring an editor.

    Cindy, nice! If you have a crit group and feel the book is solid, you're probably fine. But only you can decide if you want an editor to look at it or not. Go with your gut. Maybe do a partial if you're not sure. Or just sent away and see what happens :)

    Stine, lol, honestly, nope. It was sound advice. Editors are a must for self pub. Though I do like your warning label idea :)

  13. I've actually debated myself about this. For sure, if I ever self publish I'll hire an editor.