Previously Published on Blogetary 1.0 March 2013.
Many times I am contacted by people who are working on their novel and looking more for an editor than they are a proofread or copyeditor. They have finished their baby and are tired and want to give it to someone who will make it “publishable” and “better.” Like going to a super star’s salon, they want the manuscript to go in and come out with a whole new look.
But that isn’t how it works.
Writing is a commitment. Writing a novel – or even a short story or poem – means that a writer will come back to the same piece over and over again trying to make it better. It’s a lot of work and it’s up to the writer to be responsible for that work. However, sometimes writers employ helpers – people outside the usual friends, family and critique partners/groups who offer to help a writer with their work.
I have worked with and learned from editors when it comes to research papers and articles, but I haven’t worked with and learned from editors who edit fiction on a regular basis, so I try to steer those seeking editors elsewhere to people more experienced with editing fiction. Or, I tell them what exactly I can do and about how much it will cost. A proofreader and copyeditor will do their best to find most of the spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. mistakes in a manuscript. And he or she will point out awkward sentences and maybe come back with notes of things they noticed while going through the work. Think of us (proofreaders and copyeditors) as those people who make the small adjustments to your clothes at the dry cleaners. We take up or let out the hems, take in or let out the waists, fix buttons and buttonholes, brush it, press it, and all those other little things to make your existing clothes a little bit better.
An editor – a trained and experienced editor – looks at continuity, pacing, logic and readability based on their experience with a known audience (academics, newspaper/magazine readers, YA readers, etc.), as well as the grammar, syntax and all that. They’ll take their red pen and advise you to cut paragraphs or pages, move chapters or ditch one of the characters or subplots and possibly rewrite a few things (subject to the author’s approval, of course). They are, like the proofreader and copyeditor (and unlike your friends and family), an objective reader. Unlike the proofreader/copyeditor, however, it is the editor’s job to be more like a very talented tailor/seamstress who can take your clothes and totally make them over for you into something even better. The knowledgeable editor can take your manuscript, take it apart and put it back together, all while maintaining the integrity of the story and your writing style. Yet, a good editor is not to be mistaken for a ghostwriter, because the editor will come back to the writer to make the changes, to rework, revise and rewrite things. The editor does not do that work. Oh no, the writer does the work that the editor has suggested (sometimes very strongly) with all those red pen marks. Being a fiction editor is a specific skill set and costs a whole bunch more than $25-30 an hour.
And none of the above is to be mistaken for a ghostwriter. The ghostwriter takes the subject (say a celebrity’s autobiography) and does a bulk of the work, such as research, interviews, writing, revising, etc., signing all sorts of non-disclosure agreements, as well as contracts with advances attached (they get paid up front and no you can’t just promise them a “cut”). This is another specific skill set. And again, costs way above and beyond the proofreader/copyeditor’s typical fee.
If you have a manuscript you are working on and would like an objective eye, then sit down and consider what you want that objective eye to do first. Do you want it to find errors you missed? Do you want critical feedback? Or do you want to just take the facts and give it to someone else to do? Each consideration comes with a different price tag and a different system. And each one also requires you to be prepared. For the two former needs, you need to make sure your manuscript is not only finished, but also is in at least it’s third or fourth draft. For the latter, the ghostwriting, you need to make sure you have a specific topic proposal in hand. With all three of them, you need to be willing and able to pay for the services upfront.