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10 tips for working with an independent editor

What every author needs to know before signing a contract.

A woman works on a computer at her desk, lit only by the light of her monitor.
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Once you’ve put “The End” on your manuscript and you’ve decided to hire an editor before self-publishing or seeking agent representation, you might feel like you’re entering into the Twilight Zone. Many authors have no idea what to expect. Will the editor want to change everything? Will they try to steal my story?

As an independent editor, I encounter recurring concerns from prospective clients, so I am going to help allay your fears about entering into a relationship with the person who holds the scary red pen. The ideal relationship between a writer and editor should be productive, trusting, and satisfactory on both sides. Here are the things you should know in order to make that happen.

1. Your editor wants your book to be the best it can be.

The reason we become editors is because we have a talent for this work and a deep desire to see authors succeed. Your editor is not your enemy; she is your greatest ally.

2. Your editor is not going to steal your manuscript.

As an editorial professional, I have a reputation to uphold. If I were caught stealing your book, or even copying its plot, I’d be shunned and out of work.

3. Your editor is not interested in making tremendous changes simply for the sake of showing off his skills.

If he suggests major tweaking, it is because he feels it will benefit the book. Depending on the editor’s evaluation, he might propose that you remove sections, add text, or simply tweak a few things. Knowing whether or not to listen to your editor’s suggestions comes down to my next topic: trust.

4. It is important that you trust your editor.

You need to know that the person you’ve hired has the knowledge and skill to edit your manuscript properly. Ideally, you’d like the editor to enjoy your story’s subject matter and have experience in your genre, whether fiction or nonfiction. You’d also like to trust that she will be sensitive to your needs. The best way to determine these things is to look at the editor’s website. If she has a testimonials page, read what others have said about her. If the site has an FAQ page, read that as well to determine how that editor conducts business. If you want to know more, drop the editor an email. Ask questions but be respectful of the editor’s time. Some editors offer a short sample edit of your work. You can look up their name or company on the internet to see if anyone else has written about them. You can also see if they’re listed with the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) in the U.S. or the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) in the UK, both highly respected organizations.

5. Once you’ve hired the editor, expect to sign some kind of written agreement.

This protects both you and the editor. The contract will usually state the nature of the project (e.g., a copy edit of My Bestseller), the rate, the terms of payment, and the expected delivery date of the final product. The contract might be more detailed, but it ensures that you are guaranteed a particular service, and the editor is guaranteed payment.

6. Educate yourself by doing online research.

I receive many questions about the publishing business, and while I’m happy to share relevant information to the author’s particular situation, the editor’s job is to focus on making your work the best it can be – not to answer questions about how to work with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing or how to write a query letter. There is a wealth of information about these things online. If you want to know where to find another publishing professional, such as a book designer, PR expert, or indexer, I suggest searching those previously mentioned organizations.

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7. Editors need to pay bills just like everyone else.

I am sometimes asked if I can “just take a quick look at something.” Whether or not your editor is willing to do this at no cost is at the editor’s discretion. If I allow a freebie, it’s usually because it’s something very short, and I’ve already worked with the client on a paying job.

8. Don’t expect an editor to secure you a publishing contract.

I am often asked if I have connections to agents and/or publishers. In this industry, everyone has a specific job. Your editor gets your manuscript ready for either self-publishing or to be seen by an agent. An agent’s job is to seek the right publisher for you. Most editors will not introduce you to an agent or publisher, if they even know any. I worked for an agent for a couple of years, and this helps me have a better understanding of how to improve your manuscript, but I do not make introductions.

9. Make sure what you’re sending is your best and final copy.

Once you’ve chosen the editor you want to work with and you’ve submitted your work to that editor, avoid the temptation to email changes and updates unless absolutely necessary. Editors base rates on the final draft you hand in. Submitting changes will likely increase the cost, move the due date back, and frustrate the editor, especially if editing work has already begun.

10. If you receive your work back and you have questions about something the editor did, feel free to email your editor, but be brief and specific about your concerns.

Granted, if it’s a technical issue and you are not a professional copy editor, chances are you’re going to receive an explanation designed for a grammarian (e.g., compound adverbial phrases ending in “ly” do not get hyphenated). But if you have a question about a comment the editor left or why she suggested a certain change and it’s important that you gain clarity, ask.

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The editor-writer relationship can be a beautiful thing. I get a thrill when one of my authors tells me he’s landed an agent or his self-published book is gaining traction. And my authors let me know when I’ve helped take their manuscript to a level they hadn’t imagined. This is what fuels my passion for the work I do. Understanding your editor’s role and mindset can lead to a highly successful collaboration.

—Valerie Brooks is an independent editor and former book reviewer for Kirkus. She runs a spa and wellness site at ValTheSpaGal.com. Her editing services can be found at TheWriteEdit.com.

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