Reader Questions: Editing Help

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Mar 26 2007

A lot of writers seeking publication have asked me what to do about editing their finished manuscripts. Sure, they’ve handed it over to good friends who tell them it’s the best thing since pepperoni pizza, but where can they turn for real editing? Could you give some advice on where aspiring writers can turn for editing help, so that when they do approach an agent, their work is the dazzling and polished piece of prose that it was destined to become.

I think rather than turning to friends and family, you are better off passing your manuscript off to other writers. A good, honest critique group can offer a lot more than friends or family will ever give you. A critique group will and should be brutally honest.

As for making sure your work is dazzling, I know a lot of authors will seek out freelance editors they can hire to make sure their work is polished, and while that’s not necessarily a bad idea, I don’t think it’s required. If you know that you can’t tell the difference between “your” and “you’re,” you need an editor. If you misplace a comma here and there (and only here and there) or have a typo here and there, you’re fine. Don’t stress about it. We don’t expect perfection, we only expect solid, clean writing, a font we can read, and double-spaced pages (with page numbers). That’s not too much to ask.

If, however, you do feel that you’re the type who needs to hire an editor, there are a lot of terrific people out there, former publishing professionals and published authors who can not only help shape and copyedit your book, but can also give honest feedback on the plotting and characterization. Just keep in mind that if you really use an editor to shape your manuscript, you might need to be prepared to call that person in on your next book.

I’m sure a number of you have used editors, or considered it, and might be able to share your experiences or even recommend a few.


12 responses to “Reader Questions: Editing Help”

  1. Avatar elysabeth says:

    I used an editor for a short story because I wanted to (and still do) turn it into a series. The story was for a contest and we were given a list of eight words with the requirement being that we use at least four in the story (the list of words: a headless Barbie, a soiled ballet slipper, a wig, the sound of a train whistle, footprints in the snow, a tattoo, scent of Obsession, and a page from the dictionary). I was told to check the SCBWI to find an editor. I did and contacted a really wonderful one, Chris Eboch. She sent me comments and help for making the story longer and turning it into a series (I want to do clue type stories for all 50 states and have the ground work done – it’s just creating individual stories with my group of kids that I’ve not worked out yet) –

    I also have taken a job editing for the Magazine of Unbelievable Stories and having been involved in a writing group and edited two friends’ novels, it has been a tremendous help. There are many freelance editors out there (I am one but am just getting started) and many writing groups to help.

    I think the best thing anyone can do is research and be prepared. Know what you jumping into before you take that leap. Hope this helps – E 🙂

  2. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I’ve never hired an editor, but I have an amazing critique group of professionals–both editors and authors–who don’t hesitate to tell me where I’ve screwed up. They are brutally honest, but even more important is that I trust them implicitly to help me make my stories better.

  3. Avatar mbg says:

    I use, in addition to other writers, members of my book club. Knowing what they have said about many other books, I can filter what criticism they give me through what I know they like and dislike. Several of them I have found to be excellent, objective critics who will not give me a “friend pass” but instead understand how important honest criticism is to the writing process.

  4. Avatar Demon Hunter says:

    I have beta readers who are friends and writers. Writers are going to be able to point out more but my betas read in the category I write, and will tell me if my plot and characters stink. I have never used an editor. Hopefully everyone knows basic grammar if they decide to write a book. Don’t pay anyone unless you absolutely have to.

  5. Avatar Dwight The Troubled Teen says:

    The difference between a friend beta reading your manuscript and a fellow writer editing your manuscript can best be described in a car analogy.

    If you thought something might be wrong with your car, you wouldn’t take the car to a driving enthusiast; you’d take it to a mechanic.

    The enthusiast would say, “Yeah, something in the driveshaft clatters during left turns, you are right.”

    The mechanic would say, “Yeah, the mounting grommet where the gigglin pin meets the laffinshaft is worn through.”

    A reading enthusiast would say, “Uhm. It’s really good. I got some of the characters confused in the early chapters, but I figured it out.”

    A writer would say, “You are dumping phone books worth of characters into the first four chapter. Each major character should reveal in their own separate chapter if possible.”

  6. Avatar EGP says:

    I’m in the polishing phase of a first novel and I lean towards what demon hunter said, although I am aware that I don’t have experience enough to be sure. I know I don’t have a lot of grammatical problems and I know that my writing is clear. What I don’t know for sure is whether it is captivating enough to sell.

    For that, I think I need people who read something close to my genre. I can tell you that if I read romance, chick lit, memoir, or fantasy in a critique group, I would not be able to give good criticism. I find so little of it captivating that I would not be able to judge. And I would not expect someone who didn’t like political thrillers – regardless of how good a writer he/she was – to tell me what I need to know about my book.

    That’s not to say I wouldn’t get anything useful, I just wouldn’t get what I need the most from a critique group unless the members like my genre. I’m continuing to try to find a place online to find such people. I can post a chapter on one of the big writing boards and get scattered and usually contradictory comments, but I haven’t found exactly what I need. Ideally, I’ll find two or three fellow writers in my genre and swap critiques on an individual basis.

  7. Avatar chisem says:

    I’ve done both and find the honest critique by a fellow writer to be the best.

    What is your genre EGP?

  8. I’d be wary of paying an editor unless I know she is an expert in my genre and has had experience at the type of publishing house I’m targeting–a tall order! You can get advice that’s right for mainstream novels that isn’t right for your genre, or vice versa.

    I have a marvelous critique partner who is brutally honest but very supportive–exactly the right combination–and I have another friend who is published in Regency historicals (my genre) who will read the full manuscript for me and point out problems with structure or query historical detail. It’s another reason I advocate romance writers entering contests. Both my critiquers read my work, one as a judge, one as a co-ordinator, before we got together.

    But when you need an ego boost, you can always keep your mother in reserve!

  9. Avatar Katharine says:

    If you do want to hire a freelance editor, read this about how to find one who’s a good fit for you.

    Full disclosure: I am a freelance copyeditor who’s been in the publishing industry for 23 years.

  10. Avatar Michele Lee says:

    Sometimes, though, other writers are a thing to be wary of. It’s important to find a group that is serious about the publishing side so you don’t get people who crash on genre or who are always “aspiring”. I’ve also had the misfortune to be part of a writing group where everyone was civil and encouraging… until I started writing stories in their “specialty” (one was erotica, one was vampires). Once I tread onto their territory (but really, how can you demand that no one else write these things? It’s not like I was ONLY writing said things.) all their crits of my stories became nasty and nitpicky. Being a writer is often hardwired into ego, either and inflated one, a savaged one, or both. Tread lightly.

    Oh, and just because someone makes a suggestion does not mean you have to take it. If your critters can’t understand that you haven’t taken their advice that’s usually a sign that they’re not out to help you after all.

  11. Avatar jolinn says:

    after years of “nice” I finally found an honest person, and I’ve grown more in this one year than in all the years before. People are sweet, people are nice, and nice sweet people can’t help you. Then again, nasty people are just nasty. But–an honest, constructive crit from a person you respect is worth a lot. It’s just that we’re all so wrapped up in our work that when you do find a person, you’re more likely to scare them off than to listen.

  12. Avatar EGP says:

    chisem –

    I’m coming back to the thread after several days, so you may not see this, but my unpublished novel is a political thriller – conspiracy in the tradition of Robert Ludlum. I have works in progress for another novel in that genre and for a humorous mystery.