How I found a great freelance editor

by AA on 1 February 2012

I’ve been asked by several writers whether and how I obtained editorial help for my manuscript. Here’s the story.

Beta readers rocked my world

My first line of defense against writing a horrible book was the help of friends, family, and strangers who, when they heard I was writing a book, enthusiastically offered to read the manuscript. I took many of them at their word, and, when I felt my first draft was ready, asked one or two of them at a time if they would do me the extraordinary honor of reading the draft and providing feedback

All of my beta readers were fantastically generous with their time, and many of them provided extensive editorial notes. Every single beta reader brought useful feedback and suggestions to the table, and all of them can take credit for how far the book came from first draft to final draft. I acknowledge them all in the book, because their help was invaluable, and I continue to thank them profusely pretty much every time I interact with them. I may be embarrassing them, in fact, at this point. That doesn’t stop me from thanking them.

But at last it came time to seek Professional Help ;-)

As an amateur writer with no publishing experience and aspirations of self-publishing and self-promotion, I knew my manuscript needed the guidance of an editor familiar with the challenges of writing, the needs of readers, and the concerns of agents. I also expected that having a professional opinion would give me a sense of validation and the confidence I needed to proceed along the path to self-publishing. This turned out to be true. After a couple of promising but ultimately fruitless interactions with agents, I decided to follow my original instinct, which was that I wanted to self-publish and self-promote. Having worked with professionals on the manuscript gave me the confidence that my work was good enough that I wouldn’t be making a fool of myself.

I was fortunate to have a family connection who could provide assistance when I started my search for a freelance editor: my godfather is a traditionally-published poet and non-fiction writer. Luckily for me, as it turned out, he also moderates the Princeton Alumni Writers forum, and he posted my “want ad” for a freelance editor there. I received a slew of great responses from Princeton alums eager to take freelancing editorial work. At a baseline, all of them had degrees in English from Princeton, a credential you can take as you will (I was an electrical engineer myself, but I’m envious of anyone with the inclination and finances to afford a liberal arts degree). The majority of them also had significant experience in publishing — as editors, as agents, as writers, and sometimes all three.

How I found “the one”

I exchanged emails with all of the respondents to my “want ad”, and I had phone calls with several to get a sense of whether we had good work chemistry. I wasn’t in a position to meet any of these editors face-to-face, since they were all over the country, but I feel you can get a pretty good sense of someone’s personality from a phone call. On each call, I discussed what my goals were for the project, then asked them why they were interested in editing my particular manuscript and what process they would use to do an in-depth line edit of it, how they would price the work, what deliverables they would send me during and at the end of the project, and the timeline for the work. (That’s all project management 101 stuff. Always make sure you’re clear on scope, price, and timeline before you hire someone to do anything.)

At the time I made my decision, good chemistry with the editor and price were my number one and number two most important considerations. I wasn’t so concerned about timeline. Because of the pricing concern, I wanted to give a test run to each of my prospective candidates before hiring them for the most time-intensive task: an in-depth line editing with substantive notes. Since all of the people I interviewed had more publishing and editing experience than I did, I took their feedback and suggestions as to what might be a good initial scope of a project to try out our work dynamic. In the end, I synthesized their suggestions into my initial request. From each of my top three choices, I solicited a full manuscript read and a substantive editorial report, basically five to seven pages outlining their high-level feedback on the manuscript and the approach they’d propose for an in-depth line editing engagement.

* A note on pricing

The price I paid for the substantive editorial letter varied from editor to editor. The lowest-priced was $250, and the highest-priced was $400. I felt that this was a reasonable price range, considering the length of the manuscript and the number of hours I know it takes to read 93,000+ words for the first time. To get an idea of industry standards for editing pricing, take a look at this resource from the Editorial Freelancers Association.

Pay attention to the fact that different types of editing command different rates. Although not everyone categorizes the different types of editing in the same way, you’re likely to hear the phrases “substantive editing”, “line editing”, “copyediting”, and “proofreading”, among others. Google any of these terms, or the phrase “different types of editing“, to read up on various interpretations of what each means. I wanted to save up my pennies to spend on substantive editing — the high-level feedback — because I am detail-oriented and have a good enough command of the language to do my own proofreading. But if proofreading isn’t your strength, you should make sure to get that, too. It’s the least-expensive form of editing, usually, and it makes a world of difference to your readers.

How I found “the one”, continued …

After I received my letter back from each editor, I considered which editor seemed to offer the most valuable feedback — feedback that addressed my questions and concerns about the manuscript, feedback phrased in a way that it was actionable for me. In the end, it was easy for me to decide who was the right fit for me to proceed with for the in-depth editing of the manuscript, but all of the letters I received were incredibly useful, and I took suggestions from each one of them to heart as I embarked upon my subsequent revisions. Every letter was worth the price I paid, in my opinion. But I don’t think I would have solicited more than three opinions. Three editors’ feedback is quite enough to juggle, and more than that would probably start to muddy the waters. In the end, you’re never going to please everyone. You have to be decisive about the editorial approach you’re taking and choose an editor who supports those decisions.

I’ve enclosed a list of editors I spoke with, as well as my final choice, at the end of this post.

Communication is key in all good relationships. Communicate with your editor.

One of the perks of self-publishing is that you’re the boss. You get to tell your editor what feedback is most important to you, and you get to decide what feedback to keep.

The next stage of the editing process for me was writing the list of questions that I wanted my editor to help answer during the line-editing project. Here’s my final list:

Dear Maya [spoiler alert: Maya was my final choice of editor],

[...]

For my first chapter:

  • Do the opening pages hold your interest? Are there any points where I lose you, or where you think other agent-type readers might lose interest? [My editor was a former agent, and this was at a time that I was still considering shopping the manuscript around, so I just wanted a basic opinion about the agent-appropriateness of the opening chapter. Writing for agents and writing for real readers are slightly different art forms, it turns out.]
  • Does the world-building, plot, or dialog seem unnecessarily confusing or too vague? I had a lot of readers who got lost with all the mysteriousness in the first few scenes of earlier drafts. I’m trying to err on the side of being pretty straightforward about what’s going on while still trying to keep the reader curious about what happens next. Any suggestions about how to balance those two things is welcome.
  • Is Dom’s character sympathetic/interesting enough that you want to follow him?
  • Does the somewhat abrupt transition from Dulai’s fantasy-reality to Earth’s techie-reality work for you? Or is it off-putting?

For the manuscript overall, my main concerns are:

  • Plot and pacing. Do subplots and overarching plot unfold at a pleasing rate? Do subplots seem disjointing/unconnected or distracting from stuff you’re more interested in?
  • Do Dom and Emmie’s characters become/remain interesting? Where do they fall flat?
  • Are supporting characters sufficiently fleshed out to seem real, or are they just feeling like props?
  • Is anything (dialog, jargon, made-up words, environment descriptions) preventing you from suspending your disbelief in the fantasy and tech worlds where the story takes place?
  • Do you feel confused about POV as we switch scenes?

The editors I spoke to and the editors I hired

Here’s what I’ve got as far as freelance editor recommendations. Except for Jason Black, all of these came via my godfather from the Princeton Alumni Writers Forum.

Maya Rock (http://maya-rock.com/) — Maya was the complete package. From the first day we spoke until the day I released my novel to readers, I knew I was in good hands. Maya listened to my goals and tailored her editing approach to provide the substantive feedback I needed to deepen the reader’s emotional connection to my characters, keep up the pace, and paint a clear picture of the world where my story unfolds. Maya offered just the right mix of sympathy, skepticism, and humor in her notes to help me recognize the strengths and the weaknesses of my storytelling, and she provided actionable suggestions to address the latter. She was great about setting deadlines and keeping them. I highly recommend Maya to any writer seeking substantive editing and in-depth line editing. [As of February 1, 2012, Maya's actively looking for new freelance projects, but be aware that she's also writing a YA novel on contract, so her availability for freelance work changes from month to month depending on where she's at in the writing process.]

Sarah Zaslow — A recent Princeton graduate who was eager to take freelancing editing work on the side as she works in a startup unrelated to publishing. Sarah’s editorial feedback was very thorough and very helpful. Email me using my contact link if you’d like Sarah’s email address.

Andrew Robinton — An attractive choice because he had worked personally with two of my favorite authors and was until last fall an editor at a well-respected publishing house in NYC. He’s since gone off to business school, so he may not be taking freelance editing work at the moment, but the last time we talked he sounded like he was considering continuing to do freelance editing while in school. His editorial feedback was concise and helpful, though I did encounter some difficulty with him keeping deadlines. Email me using my contact link if you’d like Andrew’s email address.

Jason Black (http://plottopunctuation.com/)  A Twitter recommendation to me via a friend via someone at MacWorld, I think. Anyway, I had some great email exchanges with Jason and would have gladly worked with him except that he had a long lead time to get a new manuscript on his schedule. He was booked out 3+ months in advance when I sent him an inquiry. If you’ve got that kind of a lead time, though, you might want to check out his process. Very reasonably priced, in my opinion.

I exchanged emails with many other editors. The three whose names I’ve listed below all have industry experience and, at the time I spoke to them in May-ish 2012, they were all accepting new clients. I can’t remember the details on all of them without digging through my email, but I had positive impressions of all of them. I just decided that Maya, Sarah, and Andrew were my top three choices based on what I was looking for with my book. But the people below are all professionals with strong recommendations. Maybe one of them will be “the one” for you.

Robin Bellinger (email me for her contact info)

Lisa Stone Hardt (http://lsheditorialservices.com/)

Ellen Sussman (http://www.ellensussman.com/)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda February 5, 2012 at 6:08 am

Could you clarify the pricing? Did you pay $250-400 for each of the three editorial letters? And did you pay Maya again for her line edit? If so, how much was that, and what did you end up paying in total?

AA February 6, 2012 at 7:43 pm

One of the editorial letters I solicited was $250, one was $300, and one was $400.

Yes, I did pay Maya separately for her line editing. I had a two-phase line edit with her, with one phase focused on very intensive line editing of the first 5,000 words and one phase focused on the remaining 90,000-ish words. In total, I paid $760 total for line editing, on top of the original $400 editorial letter. Since Maya had already read the entire manuscript before beginning the line edit, she was able to give me a price based on her knowledge of the manuscript quality — it was in a fairly polished form from a copyediting standpoint by the time she got to line editing it, so she could focus on higher-level substantive issues without having to give nitty-gritty feedback related to language, grammar, spelling, etc. For other manuscripts, more work may be required on that level and result in a proportionately high price.

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