Friday, April 15, 2016

How Do You Find a Good Editor--When You're Ready for One?

Kathy, a writer who has attended my Madeline Island retreats and online classes, has almost reached the finish line with her memoir.  

I've watched her work hard over the past few years, creating a strong structure for her book, workshopping her chapters, and fine-tuning.  She wrote me this week about her recent trials, trying to find a good copyeditor who will help her catch errors and get the manuscript ready to submit.



Kathy wrote, "I have been working with a copyeditor and am ready to give up on her.  I did not have good vibes when we first met but because she came highly recommended, I decided to override any doubts I had.  The first thing she wanted me to do was change my prologue from the ambulance ride to another prologue I wrote in 2011.  She was very insistent and it was almost if I didn't agree, she wouldn't work with me.  I haven't made any decision about what I'm going to do but feel we are not a good fit.
"My question is, how do you find a good fit?  This leads me to ask if you have ever written anything on your blog about how to interview an editor.  Other than asking about previous books they have edited, what are some good leading questions and other professional qualities we should look for?  Are you comfortable making any recommendations for a copyeditor in the TC area?  To get this far and not have it work is frustrating."

There are several kinds of editors  who can help with your book, at different stages.   I was trained in all three levels:  structural editing, substantive editing, and copyediting.  They are each important.  Tasks you can train yourself to do, but even us trained editors rely on other eyes at the end of a book project.  Sometimes you can't see your own mistakes.

Structural editors used to only work in publishing houses.  They were the ones who took apart manuscripts to see why they didn't work.  Sometimes called "book doctors," structural editors look at the big picture.  They study the big fight and little fights, find out what's tracking and what's not.  I'm often asked to give this kind of feedback, using storyboards, chapter summaries, and other macro-revision tools, which is why I created my Your Book Starts Here retreats and online classes.  It's way past time for writers to learn this important skill!

Substantive editors are also big-picture workers, but they work in tighter focus:  they move around chapters, pages, paragraphs sentences.  They work on the smaller architecture of the book.  But if the writer hasn't done a good job with structuring, substantive editors may say "I felt like the book fell apart here"--although they may not be trained to see exactly why.

Copyeditors, or line editors, are the fine-tuners.  They are last to help, since they're responsible for wordsmithing--catching typos, grammar mistakes, awkward sentence structure--tasks that only make sense once the book's structure is solid and the chapters have enough (and not too much) content.

Finding a Good Editor
Kathy did her own structural editing via my classes, by building a storyboard.  She hired me to do the substantive editing, to give comments on the chapter structure, which chapters weren't quite solid yet, which needed to be broken into two.  But she needed the third task.

Copyeditors are easiest to find, believe it or not.  They should cost less too.  But make sure you don't need substantive or structural editing, because some copyeditors can slip out of their area of expertise and begin reworking your manuscript.  Ideally, a copyeditor will make margin notes and corrections, perhaps ask questions, but not begin to rearrange your manuscript without consulting with you.  A good copyeditor, if she or he finds the manuscript isn't ready for fine-tuning, will come back to you with the suggestion that you find a substantive editor or go back to your storyboard first.

Editors naturally like to mess around with stuff.   That's why we hire them!  But some can do too much, change your entire vision for the book.  That can make you mad or frustrated, or help you spend money for unusable results.  If you have to go back and rethink the book concept--or even a chapter concept--wordsmithing and the editor's time is pointless.  Why would you want sentence structure, spelling, or grammar corrected when you are going to rewrite half the chapter?

It's your responsibility as the writer to know this, before you agree to anything.  Set up some discussion--by phone or email--about what the editor feels the manuscript needs.  Some editors, with justification, may tell you they don't know until they get into the manuscript.  True, but that leaves so much open-ended for your bank account.  How long does it take them to "know" and what will you pay for it?  These are fair questions to ask in the beginning.

I am often asked for copyediting.  I've worked 18 years as a copyeditor and substantive editor, so I know how to do both.  But I always (now that I've learned better) recommend a close read (also called a "read-through") first.  I don't want to begin copyediting then find out there are major structural problems. 

If your editor doesn't suggest this, ask for a "sample chapter" read-through.  Editors can tell a lot about what's not working by reading one chapter.  There may well be structural problems later on, but if the chapter sings, it's a good possibility that the writer has spent time on the structure.  They know how to craft good sentences, etc. 

Send one chapter (about 10 double-spaced pages) and get a flat rate for a close read of this chapter.  Or, use it as a sample for copyediting.  You'll pay for this, but you will also find out if you and that editor are on the same page. 

Here are two wonderful writing schools to check out for possibly editors.  They both have instructors who offer all kinds of editing. 

The Loft Literary Center (Minneapolis) manuscript critique program
Grub Street (Boston) coaching program

There are lots more out there.  Best way:  ask a friend who's done this.  Personal recommendations are usually the easiest way to find a good fit.