As a freelance editor, I receive queries from aspiring authors seeking editing for their book-length fiction manuscript. Getting a book published, particularly with a traditional publisher (as opposed to a hybrid or self-publisher), is even harder now than it was a decade ago. More and more, publishers and agents are seeking polished manuscripts. If you’re an author, working with a professional editor can improve your chances of having your manuscript accepted for publication. However, simply requesting “editing” in your email query without further specification is similar to saying, “I want some renovation work done on my kitchen, but I don’t know what type of renovation I need or what my budget is.” Just as a kitchen can be renovated in many ways, a manuscript can be edited in many ways.
Many authors don’t have a strong sense of what occurs between a manuscript’s acceptance and its appearance on a bookstore’s shelves or website. And why should they? The publication process is not a basic subject of a secondary-school or university education. When I launched my editing career in earnest, I was a published short story writer with three university degrees in English literature. Yet until I began taking editing courses, I didn’t know the difference between a copy edit and a proofread. But having basic knowledge of the steps in the publication process, including the different types of editing and their order in the process, will serve you well if you’re contacting an editor. The more specific you are about what you want for your manuscript, the more an editor will be able to help you and the more likely you’ll be able to choose the right editor for the job.
Let’s look at a typical first email from a budding writer looking to hire a fiction editor: “Hi, I’ve just completed my first novel. It’s 100,000 words, and I’m looking to have it edited. What you do charge?”
Now let’s break down the problems with this email:
I: Who are you? What is your background as a writer? Do you have a degree or certificate in creative writing, or have you taken any courses in that area? Do you have publications or a website? Granted, many writers seeking editing are first-time authors without a lot of credentials or an author website. But providing even a few details about your writing background is a helpful clue to the editor about what type of editing you might need (e.g., “I’m a yet-to-be published author who has just completed the novel writing workshop at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies”).
My first novel: What are the title, subject, and genre? Whom do you envision as the audience? How would you summarize your story in a sentence or paragraph?
100,000 words: This is a good start, but word count is only one chapter in your manuscript’s story. What is your manuscript’s history: How many people have read it? Are they experienced writers or other professionals who regularly assess creative writing and who have no emotional connection to you, or are they your family and friends? How many drafts has it gone through?
Edited: What kind of editing are you seeking? What is your goal for your manuscript? Are you looking to self-publish it or submit it to a traditional publisher or an agent?
Charge: What is your budget? Do you have a deadline for completion of the editing?
As you can see, the initial email is vague. It doesn’t provide an editor with enough details for her to determine whether she’s even the right person for the job, let alone whether she’s interested in undertaking it. When I receive such emails, I respond requesting the missing details, particularly the type of editing that the writer is seeking. Many writers come back with quixotic ideas like “I want the prose to sing” or muddy direction such as “I want the book to be a good read.” But these statements don’t give an editor any sense of what the writer actually needs.
You don’t have to provide an editor with answers to all the questions I asked above, but you should at least be able to talk about your manuscript’s history and your goals for your manuscript. Teasing out such details is time consuming for everyone involved. So in the interests of saving time, frustration, and potentially miscommunication, here are some steps you should take if you’re considering hiring a fiction editor.
1. Determine which type of editing you need.
To return to the kitchen metaphor, let’s say that you’re selling your house and you want to update the kitchen (the manuscript) to entice potential buyers (publishers and agents). Each type of editing represents a different type of renovation. For a fiction manuscript, these are the potential types of editing, in the order in which they need to be completed.
Manuscript evaluation: A manuscript evaluation is a ten-to-fifteen-page critique of a book-length fiction manuscript. The critique focuses on areas such as plot, structure, characters, dialogue, setting, and writing technique and style. In our kitchen metaphor, a manuscript evaluation is the equivalent of a contractor, designer, or realtor looking over your kitchen and making a list of suggested improvements. That person doesn’t make the improvements. Rather, he itemizes what he thinks the kitchen needs and you decide which items to act on.
While not an absolutely necessary stage in the editing process, manuscript evaluation is highly useful for most writers. If you haven’t had your manuscript critiqued by an editor or writing instructor, taken a writing course, or been part of a writing group, I strongly recommend that you begin with a manuscript evaluation. Writing is like any other skill: it’s developed in part by having people critique your efforts. This critique is particularly valuable to those who haven’t studied the craft of writing, either formally or informally. Even if you have had a writing teacher or fellow participant in a workshop read your manuscript, obtaining a second (or third or tenth) opinion from a dispassionate source is wise. If nothing else, an evaluation will show you the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript, which will help you decide whether you want to proceed to the more costly and time-consuming steps that follow in the editing process.
In Canada, manuscript evaluation has standard rates. The Writer’s Union of Canada, which offers a manuscript evaluation service performed by anonymous reviewers, charges C$125 for the first ten pages of a manuscript (in publishing, a manuscript page is usually defined as 250 words) and then $2 for each subsequent page.
Structural or substantive editing: Structural editing refers to big-picture editing of both content and form. Structural editing is the equivalent of adding or removing walls, building an extension, and reinforcing floors. Unlike manuscript evaluation, structural editing addresses all structural problems, rather than merely pointing to the biggest ones. Once your manuscript has been evaluated, it will most likely need at least some structural editing. Alternatively, you may decide to skip the evaluation and instead hire someone to help you with the structural editing. This editing could comprise a total tear-down or just a few well-placed tweaks. Depending on your arrangement with the editor, she might suggest the changes or make the changes herself.
Stylistic or line editing: This type of editing involves combing through a manuscript line by line and smoothing paragraph and sentence order and construction, clarifying unclear wording, and eliminating wordiness. The kitchen renovation equivalent is adding or removing cabinets, replacing appliances, and retiling the kitchen floor.
Copy editing: Copy editing is what many people think of when they hear the word “editing”: checking and correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and word usage. For the kitchen renovator, this equates to updating the wallpaper or paint, installing a Lazy Susan in a cabinet to ensure that pots and pans are easily accessible, and recycling that rickety chair that you’ve never gotten around to fixing.
Proofreading: The final step in the editing process is proofreading, which involves reading text after it has been placed in its final format. A proofreader double checks page numbers, ensures that design specifications have been followed, and fixes typographical and formatting errors and any flagrant mechanical booboos missed by the copy editor. In our kitchen metaphor, this amounts to buying matching cushions for your chairs, ensuring that cabinet handles are not loose, and replacing your rustic cutting board with a sleeker model to complement the kitchen’s contemporary look. Proofreading is frequently confused or conflated with copy editing. Unless you’ve already found a publisher and your manuscript has been put through page-layout software such as InDesign and a PDF file generated, you’re not looking for proofreading.
For all types of editing other than manuscript evaluation, keep two points in mind. First, there are different levels of edit: heavy, medium, and light. The heavier the edit, the longer the task will take. For example, in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Second Edition, Amy Einsohn estimates that a copy editor typically works at a rate of four to nine pages per hour for a light copy edit, two to seven for a medium edit, and one to three for a heavy edit. (These are generalizations. Many factors, including the number of words per page and the complexity of the material, influence an editor’s pace.) Second, the rates for editing services vary, depending on the type of editing and the amount of time the edit takes. I’ll talk more about rates in part two.
The biggest error that most writers make when contacting an editor is assuming that their manuscript is at a later stage than it is. Most writers need manuscript evaluation or substantive editing; their manuscripts simply aren’t ready for copy editing. You wouldn’t update the wallpaper on a wall that you might end up removing. So too is it illogical to copy edit a manuscript that needs substantive editing. Your manuscript could be edited to have sterling spelling, gorgeous grammar, and perfect punctuation. But if the manuscript contains chapters or paragraphs that are confusing, repetitive, or tangential, they will need to be reworked or even cut from the story before publication. Then the sterling spelling, gorgeous grammar, and perfect punctuation—and the expense of paying for them—will have been for nought.
If you’re uncertain about what your manuscript needs, don’t fret. You can still approach an editor, giving him some sense of what you might need (e.g., “I think I need substantive editing”). Editors will appreciate the fact that you’ve tried to understand the terminology.
Regardless of the type of editing you’re seeking, you should have a complete manuscript, at least a first draft, if you’re approaching an editor. You can’t renovate a kitchen that exists only in theory. If you’re seeking help with a first draft that is still in progress, you’re looking for a cowriter, ghostwriter, or writing coach, someone to help you write the book, which involves a different skill set than editing. While some editors may offer these services, they are not editing services.
For more details about the various types of editing, visit the Editors Canada website: https://www.editors.ca/hire/definitions-editorial-skills.
© Marnie Lamb
Marnie Lamb is a Gemini incarnate: half writer and half editor. She earned a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Windsor. Her short stories have appeared in Journey Prize Stories 25 and various Canadian literary journals, including filling Station, The Nashwaak Review, and The Dalhousie Review. Her first novel, a YA book named The History of Hilary Hambrushina, was published by Iguana Books in the spring of 2017. She pursues her other love, editing, as the owner of Ewe Editorial Services, which offers copy editing, manuscript evaluation, indexing, permissions and photo research, and proofreading services. When she is not writing or editing, she can be found cooking recipes with eggplant or scouting out fashions—preferably ones with polka dots—at Toronto’s One of a Kind Show.