Editors are not teachers. They might have been teachers prior to becoming editors. They might even teach on the side. But they will not teach writers English. That’s not what editing is.
That’s one of the biggest misconceptions I’ve encountered since I’ve been an editor. I taught English, sure. But I became an editor after that, and I’m an editor. Not a teacher. However, that doesn’t mean that in my work I don’t attempt to impart any useful information. I’d be a pretty awful editor if I didn’t try to explain why I made a certain change, or why I’m not making THIS one but perhaps the writer would like to because whatever.
At this point I want to say I’ve chosen to write this post (it’s really an essay) in a very informal register. I could be absolutely proper and write in the most formal manner, but seriously—I don’t want to scare people away. It’s bad enough when I get the “Oh, I’ll have to be careful what I say!” or “I can’t spell anything right!” comments from folks when they find out what I do. Editors are people. And I prefer to work with indie fiction authors over any other kinds of writers. I edit fiction, nonfiction, academic, medical, and technical writing, but I prefer fiction over all the rest. And if I’m going to communicate effectively, I need to do so in the most appropriate register (the best grammar and usage for the audience).
Part of that means beginning sentences with a conjunction, as I did at the end of the previous paragraph. (Before that, too, actually.) That’s totally acceptable in informal writing, in dialogue, and in speech. It also means not using ten-dollar words when ten-cent ones will suffice. (Ooooh, “suffice.”) The way I’m communicating here is the way I communicate with the majority of my clients, right down to the asides and gentle snark. The better I know someone, the more casual I am in my interactions. (I’m pretty formal with my ESL client from Norway. I don’t know him well, and we don’t chat on social media. With most of my other clients, I’m quite loose. So to speak. Nothing that will land us in jail, mind you.)
So, with all of that out of the way, I want to talk (okay, I’m not talking, I’m writing—picky, picky) about what you should and should not expect from an editor, if you choose to contract with one for your work.
I’m going to speak of editors as if there were only one kind. That’s patently not true, but trying to account for all the differences would make this mostly unreadable and useless. So. Let’s pretend that all editors work the way I do, shall we? Good. We’re all on the same train for now. The good thing here is, I do just about every kind of editing you might expect. I proofread; I copy edit; I line edit. I also perform substantive (developmental) editing. I’ll explain those as we go along. Not to worry. All shall be revealed.
What do I need to know? That is, what do you need to tell me?
What genre is your project? I don’t care for romance or erotica, so I don’t edit them. That’s a big deal, seriously. If the editor doesn’t like the genre of your project, you’re not likely to be happy with the results. No kidding. They won’t get it. As in, they won’t understand what should or shouldn’t be there, they won’t get the tone or the register, they won’t get the structure . . . they won’t get it. ALWAYS make sure the editor you’re considering is one who knows your genre. They don’t have to love it, but they have to be conversant with it and comfortable editing it.
How big is it? As in, how many words, approximately? I charge by the word, so that’s pretty important. Also, I don’t overbook. I can take two (maybe three) smaller projects in the same month, but only one big one. I need to know an approximate count so I can a) give you an estimated cost, and b) see if it will fit where you want it to fit without jeopardizing another project. Again, the editor you’re considering should ask something along this line. If they don’t . . . I don’t know how they function. Seriously.
If I don’t have a good feel for your writing style, I might ask for a sample. You can ALWAYS ask for a sample edit, at no charge. I’ll edit up to 1,000 words for you for nothing, the same way as I would if you were paying me, with the same attention and commenting. That way you’ll get a feel for how I work, I’ll have a feel for how you write, and we can tell if we might be a good team. Or not. And frankly, I think if an editor refuses to provide a sample edit for a prospective client, that client needs to prospect elsewhere. This is teamwork. It’s like a marriage, not a one-night stand.
What’s the time frame?
You tell me. I slot a month per project. Contacting me on the 1st of the month and wanting me to edit something THIS MONTH RIGHT NOW is not a good idea. I might work on two or three projects in a given month, but I switch off between them if I’ve double-booked; it will still take a month to finish. If I see it’s going to need longer, or something happens and I lose enough work time that I can see I’ll be delayed, I contact the client immediately by email to explain and negotiate a new deadline. (I’ve done that two or three times in the last two years. It’s not common at all.) I also contact people I’ve penciled into my schedule a couple of months before their slot, to verify that they’ll be done and I’ll have the work on time. (And if they haven’t yet made their down payment [see “What about money?”], that’s the time I ask for it.) Sometimes that doesn’t happen, and then we find a new slot. I work with you; you work with me; it all works out.
So, if you have a book you want to publish in September, get hold of me no later than June (because that means I’ll slot you for July, and you’ll have the file back by August, allowing that month for formatting). Earlier would be better. Be sure you’ve allowed time for your own process which I hope includes beta readers, at the very least, in addition to your drafts. That’s pretty important. I don’t work with first drafts. I’m not teaching English, remember?
What about money?
I charge per word, as I said, so there are no surprises. I ask for a down payment of one-third of the total to secure your slot. The second third is due when I return the edited project to you. The final payment is due when you tell me you accept the work as finished. That last one is under your control, entirely. More details about my pay structure are provided in a shared Google Document, with a hyperlink on my online CV at GRAMMARGEDDON!. If you want a letter of agreement, I’ll provide one for you. If you want to shake on it, we can do that, too. Most of my clients shake on it. I have yet to have anyone renege. So far, so good. Don’t be afraid to ask this of whoever you’re considering as your editor. They should have ready answers, and if they hem and haw, say thanks and walk away.
I accept PayPal and personal checks. So do most editors I know. Don’t assume. Ask. Always ask.
What about software and file types and stuff like that?
I prefer to work in Word (I am a dinosaur), but I can work in Google Docs or Open Office, too. I always use the Track Changes option so you can see exactly what I’ve done to your baby. I comment liberally, often to explain my arcane editorial changes or to tell you I really loved a turn of phrase or to point out that you did that thing AGAIN.
I DO NOT FORMAT. AT ALL. You get to do that, or hire someone who does it. I don’t. I’m an editor, period. I can ensure compliance with a given style (e.g. APA reference lists use hanging indents, and I can certainly make that happen if it hasn’t), but I will not go through your file(s) and fix heading hierarchies and paragraph formatting and all that happy hoo-ha. Not happening. I don’t charge enough for that kind of hassle. ASK THE EDITOR IF FORMATTING IS INCLUDED. Some do this as part of the editing process, or as a separate service. Don’t assume the one you’re talking to is one of them. Always ask.
Once you’ve paid for your slot and sent me your file, then what happens?
I edit your stuff.
I read it the first time and try very hard NOT to edit anything. It’s easy to start making marks and getting bogged down. That first pass is for me to read the story, get a feel for it and your style, and make notes about Big Things (like characters changing names, or scenes that don’t make sense because they’re out of sequence, or any number of other things I might see, all of which falls under “substantive/developmental”). I also run the spelling and grammar checks at this point, adding any oddball words (usually proper nouns) to the dictionary so the thing won’t go nuts on me when I’m working. The grammar checker is mostly useless EXCEPT for finding duplicate words. For that, it’s nice to have.
The second pass is the real meat of the process. I’ll be looking at structure, grammar, usage, mechanics, syntax, dialogue, all of it. I’ll rewrite if needed, but when I do I’ll make it sound like you but better. That’s the real trick of editing. We make you sound like you, but better. Preserving the author’s voice is paramount. It can’t sound like me. It must sound like you. That means paying attention to word choice and sentence structures. Furthermore, the characters have to sound like themselves. Dialogue is tricky stuff. I don’t do much with it in terms of grammar, unless I think a character is speaking wrongly based on the rest of their speeches. (“Why did he say ‘ain’t’ here when he’s never used it before?”)
I might rewrite entire sentences or paragraphs if I think it’s necessary. Varied sentence structure is a BIG DEAL, and some writers fall into ruts. I can pull the prose out of those ruts, and still have the end product sound like the author. (Here’s where a little bit of teaching might happen. With one client, I pointed out her overuse of a certain phrase structure and showed her other ways to communicate the same information. At one point I said, “These things are like wildebeests. One or two are cool to see, but in a herd they can do a lot of damage.” After that, all I had to do was leave a comment with the word “wildebeest” and she knew exactly what to look for.)
Let’s pause for a moment and look at those things along with proofreading. It’s important to know what they are, so you know what to ask for (or what your editor tells you you need).
Proofreading: This is literally crossing t’s and dotting i’s, minding p’s and q’s, and all the other little details you might not think anyone will notice. It’s a final check of a file looking only for minor errors in spelling, punctuation, line spacing/letter spacing, and so on. It’s not editing. It’s not meant to be a substitute for a copy edit. It’s the last polish on something that’s already been edited. I use a program called PerfectIt to help me with the really picky bits like “this is hyphenated three times and not hyphenated four times, so check to be sure every instance is correct.”
Copy editing: This is checking GUM (grammar, usage, and mechanics, which includes spelling and punctuation), syntax, word choice, and so on. It’s nitty-gritty. If I’m ensuring conformance to a certain style manual, let’s say Chicago, I’ll be looking for things like which numbers are written out and which are presented as numerals, or which foreign words need to be italicized and which don’t, whether titles need to be in quotation marks or italicized . . . Yeah. That’s copy editing. This is sitting with the file open and the style manual and a dictionary on hand, checking and cross-checking to ensure it’s all copacetic. It also means ensuring that the register is appropriate for the work. The register of a YA novel is entirely different from that of a chapter in an academic book on comparisons of international educational systems. Sometimes, especially with new writers, the register is all over the place. I work to bring it all into alignment as a unified voice (the author’s).
Line editing (Substantive, if it’s heavy enough): This is the fun part. Line editing is the process of looking at the work’s structure sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. It’s taking things apart and putting them back together if that’s what’s called for. Rewording. Reordering. Maintaining the author’s voice throughout. Keeping characters in character. If every sentence in a paragraph starts with the same word, I’ll change things up. If every sentence in a paragraph starts with the same phrase, I’ll look to see if whether it was done for effect. Maybe it was, and if I agree it’s working, that’s that. If I don’t think it’s working as well as it could, I’ll highlight and comment and suggest. If I think it’s just plain poorly written, I’ll rewrite it. And when I’m done, it’ll sound like the author. But better.
I don’t use jargon. I don’t talk to you (because it would be talking AT you) about participial phrases and subordinate clauses and phrasal verbs. I use plain words with lots of examples, often of “before/after” types. I might highlight a problem area and in a comment say “You’ve done X here. If you did Y or Z instead, here’s what will happen.”
Whoever you contract with should be willing to communicate openly and often with you, either by emails, phone calls, text messages (it’s happened, believe me), or even Skype or a video Hangout on G+. If either you or the editor doesn’t respond in an appropriate time frame (say, 24 hours unless the message says “please answer ASAP” or something similar), it’s absolutely appropriate for the other party to wonder what’s wrong. I often email or make private posts to my clients several times a day, unless we’ve arranged for something else. I’m not fond of phone calls, but I will do that if I’m asked. (I’ve been asked. I did it.) If I don’t need to ask questions, I don’t pester a client, but I will still drop a note every couple of days if only to say “Everything’s going well, no need to worry.” It’s courtesy. You have every right to expect it (and your editor has the right to expect it from you, too).
My third (usually final) pass is when I proofread, and I generally run the spelling and grammar checkers again just for good measure. Here’s when I run PerfectIt, too. If I’ve edited heavily, I won’t see things like double words or missing quotation marks very easily. The programs will. That’s what they’re best for, in my not-at-all humble opinion.
When do you get your file back?
When I’m done. Seriously. You’ll get it when I’m done. If it’s going to take me longer than a month, I’ll have let you know well ahead of time.
What happens when you get it back from me?
First, I send you the invoice for the second payment (the one that’s due “on delivery”) along with your file. Then?
Well, I expect you to look at the document. Not just open it and scan it. I expect you to read everything, look at every change or suggestion, every comment. I don’t expect you to respond to them all by email or phone or whatever. I do expect you to address them in the way you see fit. Accept the changes, reject the changes, whatever. Some clients like to have some back-and-forth at this point, asking me for clarifications on my suggestions or changes. That’s good. I want that to happen, if it needs to happen. But I can’t know if it needs to. Only the client can know. And I want the client to feel okay about contacting me and asking those questions.
Some clients want to make changes and then have me look at it all again. That’s fine. It’s part of the process, if that’s what they want. Some take the file back, look at it, and ask for the final invoice. That’s fine too. That final payment is not made until the client is happy with the work. If that means another pass and some emails, I’m happy to do it. It’s also why I charge by the word and not by the hour.
If I charged by the hour, no one could afford me. I am not kidding.
It’s also why I keep my per-word charge so low. According to the Editorial Freelancers Association, I should be asking three to five times what I charge for the level of service I provide. I know better. Indie authors aren’t made of money. I like working with indie authors. I need to keep the costs low for my preferred clientele.
I hope this proves useful to you writers who are looking for an editor but aren’t sure of what to expect or how to go about finding one. I certainly don’t expect you all to come to me. If you do, that’s lovely—but there are only 12 months in the year, y’know?
What do you do if you want to hire me?
First, you’ll probably see me posting on G+ or tweeting about my editing services. Click on the link (http://grammargeddon.com) and then on my name, and you’ll see my online CV. (If you’re reading this on the blog, just click on my name.) Everything you could possibly need to know in order to contact me is right there, either in front of you already or by clicking one of the hyperlinks. So, see if I sound like someone you want to work with. Read some of my blog posts. Check out the list of edited titles, most of which have Amazon links so you can use the “Look inside!” feature, which lets you see my work in the wild (as it were). If you think we can work well as a team, contact me. Share a post with me at G+. Tweet at me. Email me. Whatever. Send up a flare. I’ll answer.