I was recently honoured to be a part of a guest panel of three editors for the writing podcast The Stranger Side of Crazy, along with host (and author) Prometheus Silver, editor Darcy Werkman from The Bearded Book Editor, and developmental editor Sydney Hawthorn. I had great fun recording the episode, even though my one-year-old son insisted on ‘helping’ me the entire time by alternately shrieking and whacking me with a wooden sword – such are the joys of working from home…! It was really enlightening to chat with other professional editors, but also to hear real questions from writers. As you’ve probably figured out from my previous blog posts, one of my aims is to be as accessible and open as possible. I don’t want to be part of a big, faceless company that just sees clients as income – I want to engage with and help authors as much as I can in my role as editor. As such, it’s great to be able to answer questions about my work.
However, one of the drawbacks of recording live is that you don’t get to rehearse, and you also don’t remember to say everything! I’m therefore writing this up partly as a (very loose) transcript of the episode, in case you weren’t able to listen, and partly in order to expand on and clarify some of the points we made.
What is the purpose of a developmental editor?
You may or may not be aware that editors can focus on developmental editing, copy-editing, or both. Sydney defined a developmental editor as someone who focuses on how characters develop through the story, on a book’s setting and history, on worldbuilding, pacing and order. They look at the broad overview of the world: they consider how everything connects and flows. Darcy added that another way of looking at it is to say that developmental editing is analysis-based, while copy-editing is rule-based.
As with many aspects of writing/editing, there are grey areas – some editors may provide a mixture of the two, while others completely separate them. However, a good way to differentiate is the aim of the process. With copy-editing, you’ve reached the end of the editing process, other than proofreading – at this stage, you should have a more or less finished product. The last thing you want is to take the book apart right now; you just want it to be polished and perfected. In developmental editing, on the other hand, the whole point is to take the book apart! Developmental editing is the time to work out major plot-holes, to reorder chapters or add/remove large chunks of text – these will all be far more complicated in the copy-editing process. For this reason, an editor might suggest a round of developmental editing before accepting your manuscript for copy-editing.
At what point of the process does the developmental editor come in?
There’s no perfect time to look into developmental editing; it depends on what you’re like as a writer. Some people like to create multiple drafts before they can even think of sharing their work with anyone else. If you know you are like this, the best thing to do would be to ensure you’re fairly happy overall with the manuscript, so that you don’t end up taking the editor’s advice on board only to then completely change your mind about a major aspect of the plot. On the other hand, if you feel confident and happy with your first draft immediately, by all means go straight into developmental editing.
How much should a writer expect to pay for editing? It’s hard to know what a reasonable range is.
It’s not easy to give an answer to this – rates do indeed vary pretty significantly! As Darcy pointed out, one thing to keep in mind is that you get what you pay for. If an editor is offering incredibly low prices, you should probably consider that a red flag. Editing takes time and effort; if someone is offering to edit your novel for $100, they’re not going to spend enough time to do a good job. Darcy’s rates are based on no lower than one cent per word, and he says that the average in North America tends to be around two cents per word for a copy-edit. Sydney, meanwhile, mentioned her own personal experience of paying for an edit that wasn’t helpful at all, and ended up being a waste of money and time; she recommends asking for a sample edit, which will give you a good sense of what the editor’s style is and whether what they’re charging is worth it. It also helps you to decide whether you actually like them and feel comfortable enough with them to trust your work to them.
I personally feel very passionately about companies that are not honest with their clients. Two separate authors have come to me in the past, having edited and published with a certain company, asking for a proofread. Both times, although I should have been able to charge them for just a light proofread, I ended up recommending them a full edit – the text had not been professionally edited at all, and far too many errors were left. This kind of situation makes me furious. I know that authors scrimp and save for editing; it’s important to me that their money isn’t wasted. This is why I charge on a sliding scale, so that none of my clients end up overpaying – I will only charge you for the work I feel your book will benefit from, rather than basing my quotes off a flat rate. (For more information on this, see my pricing page.) As for a UK average price, the SfEP suggests a minimum of £29.10 per hour for copy-editing, which is slightly higher than what I currently base my prices on.
What do editors look for when deciding to work with an author? What should we bring to the table?
This is such a great question! It’s usually the other way round, so it’s quite nice to consider a different perspective! My favourite kind of author to work with is someone who is engaging and replies to my comments – I love to build a dialogue and a relationship with my clients, so that the editing process (which is pretty personal, all things considered) becomes a positive and enjoyable experience. I am always in awe at writers who are able to not only take constructive criticism, but respond to it positively and even thank me for it – that’s a skill I struggle with myself, so I value it highly in others!
We all agreed that in general, constructive criticism is a good thing, as long as the editor isn’t nasty about it! Sydney pointed out that there’s a big difference between constructive criticism and just being a jerk and pointing out someone’s flaws; there’s no need to make rude comments. We also agreed that we all like to hear more about the ‘story behind the story’ – learning more about the author is a great way to engage with the story, and it allows us as editors to focus on aspects of the plot/characters that the writer is concerned about.
What’s your personal definition of an editor?
As Sydney said, an editor is a mix of a lot of things! Yes, it’s someone who makes corrections to a manuscript, but it’s also a partnership – it should be flexible, allowing for back-and-forth. Darcy added that it’s always important to ensure that the author’s voice is heard and their vision is maintained. An editor doesn’t just chop up the manuscript and rewrite it; they must consider the style and tone, allowing for artistic licence while correcting errors.
An editor should feel like a contributor to your book. You should be able to ask their opinion on specific word choices, discuss the merit of various punctuation, and make decisions collaboratively with them. You shouldn’t feel boxed into a corner or as though your individual voice is being lost, but rather as though it’s being refined and polished. As Prometheus Silver pointed out, you don’t have to listen to the editor – you should, perhaps, but you don’t have to! You’re in the driver’s seat; if you don’t feel in control of the process, something might be wrong. If you are unsure about anything, be prepared to ask questions. A good editor will always be open and willing to discuss/explain the editorial decisions they have made.
What do editors think when they read the manuscript of a beginner writer?
Darcy talked about how he’s come across very few manuscripts that he didn’t think had potential. Yes, beginner writers may have more errors (though this isn’t always the case!), but rather than thinking ‘This isn’t good’, an editor will have the reaction of ‘We can work with this’.
If you tell me you’re a first-time writer and have never shown your work to anyone, I won’t think you’re an amateur – I’ll honestly just be honoured that you picked me to show your work to! Many of us editors, as Sydney pointed out, are writers as well – we know how hard it is to share work with anyone, let alone a complete stranger. You should take pride in having finished a book, which is more than many people have ever achieved, and most of all, by coming to an editor, you’ve shown how dedicated you are to your work and to ensuring that your book is as good as it can be.
Prometheus Silver, as a writer himself, pointed out the very important fact that, well, editors make you better! He discussed how a good editor will help writers learn to spot their common mistakes or areas they need to work on; in this way, you can improve your writing in future.
Are your chances of finding a traditional publisher better if you work with an editor?
I can’t guarantee that if your book is edited, you will instantly land a lucrative book deal with a well-known publishing house. However, I do believe that having your manuscript edited before you query it will make a huge difference. As Darcy mentioned, agents receive hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts a day – you don’t want your work to be tossed out because it’s full of errors, or because you used a really obvious cliché as your opening line, or even just because it’s double-spaced rather than single! When I read a manuscript sample, I will always make a quick judgement – if it’s full of errors I will swiftly conclude that it needs work. That’s my job, but it’s not the job of a literary agent: they want to see a finished product.
Can you get away with just one edit before querying? should your manuscript be as perfect as if you were about to self-publish?
If you do land a book deal, the publishing house will have their own in-house editors. However, it’s useful to view your book as a product you’re selling. If you were showcasing handmade jewellery, you wouldn’t show clients the raw materials or unfinished items – you’d want to show what you were capable of. In the same way, you want your literary agent to see the very best writing that you can produce, not just a manuscript that your sister-in-law looked over because she’s a secretary and really good at picking out typos!
What are some common mistakes you see in writing?
Punctuation in dialogue seems to be a really murky area for a lot of writers. I often see people leaving out the punctuation at the end (e.g. “That’s not what I meant” she said), using a full stop and a dialogue tag (“That’s not what I meant.” She said), or starting a new sentence when the dialogue isn’t completed so that it looks like an action is a dialogue tag (“That’s not what I meant,” she started walking away). These are mistakes that risk immediately making your work look sloppy and amateurish, even if they’re simple fixes, and the rules are relatively simple to learn and keep in mind.
In fact, dialogue in general is quite tricky! We discussed how sometimes writers can fall into the trap of making speech sound too correct for fear of making mistakes, which can end up with stilted, unnatural dialogue (e.g. avoiding contractions). Then we started ranting about dialogue tags, which apparently is a topic you should never get an editor started on! Darcy commented that often writers make the mistake of using non-speaking verbs, such as ‘smiled’ or ‘glared’, as a dialogue tag, which is incorrect, since you can’t smile or glare a sentence. A similar problem I often encounter in writing is that an author may have heard somewhere that ‘said’ is a boring word or can be overused (which I do actually agree with, but only to a certain point; if in doubt, using ‘said’ or no dialogue tag at all is preferred!). Trying to avoid this, they then go to the other extreme, so none of their characters ever ‘say’ anything: they only ever whisper, or sigh, or breathe, or explain things! Often the writer will use the same set of dialogue tags as well, so they become repetitive and therefore noticeable. ‘Said’ tends to be invisible; it blends in. It’s worth keeping an eye on your dialogue tags, and doing a ctrl+F to check whether you’re repeating one too much.
When is the writing process DONE and ready for editing?
Prometheus said he often goes over his work what feels like hundreds of times, and eventually ends up at the point where he’s just changing one or two words and then changing them back. Darcy identified this as ‘the perfectionist mindset’, and said how easy it is for authors to get stuck in it and start overthinking everything. Sometimes you just need to step away and give the work to someone else to help critique and polish it up. It’s unlikely that you will ever think your work is 100% perfect, so you shouldn’t expect to reach that point; rather, it’s important to identify the line between self-editing and simply nitpicking aimlessly. Sydney’s advice is to write a first draft and then take a break: do something else and then come back to the manuscript with fresh eyes, rather than going over it a million times and going off the memory of previous reads.
Taking a break is important because if you then realise that the book needs more work, you have time to do it, whereas if you have already sent it to an editor, you won’t necessarily have the opportunity to change it. If you do make that change post-edit, you either then need to pay for that section to be re-edited, or accept that a specific portion or aspect of your book hasn’t been looked at by an editor. As Prometheus pointed out, not all writers are grammar Nazis! On the other hand, some authors find that taking a break can lead to diminished motivation, so it’s important that you find a process that works for you.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief overview of ‘everything authors don’t know, but should know, about the editing process’! Do listen to the podcast if you have a few minutes to spare, and if you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.