I've been nosing around on the internet looking for information about freelance fiction editors. As I was reading through various fora it became clear to me that people usually have two critical questions about having their fiction edited. I'd like to take a stab at answering them here.
Why Do I Need an Editor?
A lot of new writers who have put their work out into the ebook market love the freedom of just putting it out there. No strings. No publishers or agents blocking their path to fame and fortune. They've had friends look at their books. They personally believe in their own work. (Well, they do on Tuesday, but then on Thursday they get a bad review and self-doubt sets in.)
Do you actually need an editor? Probably. People who've been writing and getting published for years still have an editor look at their work. When I was in graduate school the first time, I sat in the cafeteria at lunch and listened to my writing faculty praising or complaining about their editors. One semester in particular, a respected editor passed away. Several of the faculty had used her services. They were bemoaning how their new editors hardly wrote anything on their pages.
Friends and critique groups are helpful. And it's fun to have people cooing over your work. I was in a writers' group for several years that met weekly. I got some good feedback there. But it was never in-depth enough for me. Trying to divide a two hour meeting into time to read aloud and critique seven or eight people's work, even if limited to five pages, means no one really has time to give a thorough critique.
Asking people to read your book and give you feedback comes with its own set of problems. If they're friends, most likely they'll only give you positive feedback. They like you. And also, they don't really have enough experience to point out the kinds of problems that a publisher or an agent is going to notice. Also, unless the person is a very close friend, they probably don't have time to devote to your book.
You do need positive feedback. I'm a big believer in positive feedback. Especially for new writers. But it won't make your writing better.
A person who is trained and experienced in reading fiction, who knows what kinds of things on the sentence, paragraph, scene and story level publishers and agents will be looking for, is going to be able to give you much better feedback than a friend. Someone that you're paying to tell you the truth about your book and to help you make it better is not just going to say 'good job' and give it back to you untouched. At least that's what you hope.
How Do I Find a Good Editor?
The more important question might be, how do I find the right editor for me and this book right here?
In working with a colleague to get several novels ready for print, we subcontracted out some editing. I edited one book, someone we knew edited another, and three people who were recommended to us took on the other books. The three unknown people wrote almost nothing on the pages, in spite of edits being needed. We essentially paid them for nothing.
What I learned from that experience was that just because someone is recommended, doesn't mean they'll be suitable for the job. But then, what's a writer to do?
I recommend these steps.
1) Ask for a sample edit. Many editors will offer to edit a few pages for you free of charge once they've decided that they'd like to work on your book. It will probably be somewhere between two and eight pages. This is the best way to know whether the editor's notes will make any sort of sense to you, whether the editor 'gets' your book, and what, exactly, the editor plans to do to your pages.
2) Find out about your editor's experience and education. Before I got my MFA, I was told that if I wanted to be an editor, I'd need a degree. I'm sure some people are editing without degrees, and having a degree doesn't guarantee that an editor will be good. But if I were looking for an editor, I'd look for one with some sort of education specifically in fiction writing. (That said, my editor doesn't have a graduate degree, but he does have twenty years of publishing industry experience. And yes, I have an editor for my writing. Because a novel is hard to hold in your head and you do lose perspective when you've been working on it for a long time. It's difficult not to.)
3) Find someone who edits in the genre you're writing in. This can be a bit of a double edged sword, so use it as a guide more than a strict rule. Ideally, your editor will know something about the tropes of the genre you're writing in. This will probably be helpful to you in the sense that they'll know what publishers, and readers, expect to see in that sort of book. They won't advise you to take out something that's crucial to your book because they've never seen a book of that type before.
That said, and this is the edge that can cut you, you don't want your book to be just like every other book in the world in your genre. (Well... maybe you do. I don't. See Chuck Wendig's rant about niche and market. ) You want an editor who can adapt, who can think along new lines. You want someone who can look at your book and see what you were trying to accomplish with it. So someone who only edits in your genre may have their limits.
4) In my opinion, the most important quality in an editor apart from being knowledgeable is the ability to grok your book. An editor should not have his or her own agenda when editing your book. An editor is there to make your book your best book. Whether this will happen depends on the editor's skill, the editor's adaptability, and your comfort with and trust of the editor. So talk to them before you place your book with them. See if you can get them to edit a larger chunk of your book for part of the fee if you don't feel certain after the free sample. Try to have a voice conversation if email doesn't provide enough info. Ask for references or whether there's a previous client who would be willing to talk to you.
You may not need all of these things, but they should be options for you. Just recognize that good editors are often in great demand and they may have to squeeze in time to talk to you. Don't take advantage of their willingness to help you make a decision.
A Plea on Behalf of Editors Everywhere
If you've found a good editor, you will want to keep him or her. Toward that end, try to be aware that someone who edits for a living is going to have other clients. Editing is in many ways as demanding as writing itself. In fact, I'll say that editing done by a good editor can be more time consuming than writing. Especially if the author hasn't spent much time revising the piece him or herself.
Don't ask your editor to work for free. Don't ask him to do more work for you without offering to pay. You really will get what you pay for from a good editor. You're developing a relationship as much as anything - one in which you can trust the editor to be honest without brutalizing you, and one in which the editor can trust you to respect the fact that editing is her job.