When I first started teaching writing more than 20 years ago, I was excited to have my college students participate in what was then a newfangled idea: a writing workshop.
What a wonderful concept, I thought. Have new writers share their works in progress with each other, in order to improve and learn from each other! Everyone benefits from a second set of eyes, right?
It was — and still is — a good idea to have other writers critique your work. Writing workshops are more popular than ever, whether they are classroom exercises or informal groups of friends who meet once a month to share drafts in progress.
But after a while, I stopped having my students workshop each other’s drafts without me leading the discussion.
Why? Because not all second sets of eyes are created equal.
Not everyone is gifted with the ability to provide pertinent, accurate and clear feedback. Some writers might be very talented at essay-writing themselves, but offer terrible advice to other writers about how to improve their essays. Writing workshops without an expert leader often become a case of the blind leading the blind.
Too often we confuse feedback from a friend for authoritative editing.
I’ve learned this by teaching writing workshops, but I’ve also learned through my own experience writing books.
Good intent doesn’t always equal good editing
When I was working on my first book manuscript, I asked friends to read drafts. They provided lots of interesting feedback, but they did not help me navigate the difficult terrain of book writing. Eventually, I stopped asking friends to read my work and started hiring editors.
At first it seemed odd: I was a teacher of writers, a prolific freelancer, and even a book editor myself! Surely I did not need to hire an editor? But then I remembered my own lessons: 1) everybody needs a second set of eyes, and 2) not all feedback is created equal.
The first book editor I hired was someone with experience editing narrative nonfiction magazine features. I needed her help to transform my book from eight separate chapters into one book-length story. I couldn’t see how to restructure the chapters on my own, although I’m an astute editor of narrative nonfiction.
I was too close the material, and needed that second set of eyes for one particular revision my publisher wanted from me. No writers’ group would have been able to offer me that assistance.
Every writer — even me — needs an experienced editor to be their second set of eyes. [bctt tweet=”The right editor can be invaluable, the wrong one disastrous.”]
Poor feedback can do real harm, turning a promising manuscript into a muddy mess, even if (and especially if) it is from a well-intentioned friend in your writing group.
Why even experienced writers need editors
As a professor, writer and editor, I have decided that a good editor should be as essential an aspect of the writing process as writing daily or revising often. But not any editor will do. Finding the right editor for your project is key: the right match is important.
For instance, a developmental editor can help a writer restructure a manuscript, turning a mediocre draft into a stellar one.
A copy editor, who focuses on sentences, can take a brilliant, dense manuscript and make it a brilliant, compulsively readable one.
Book authors who are also experienced book editors can help a writer navigate the process of submitting a proposal to an agent.
I have hired all three kinds of editors in my writing career, depending on my needs at the time.
How to know if you’ve found the right editor for you
If you’re worried about how you and a potential editor will work together, think about asking a few of these questions before you sign a contract.
1. Will you focus on developmental editing, line editing or proofreading?
These are three different types of services. A developmental editor will assess the overall project and suggest ways to revise and restructure. A line editor will improve your sentences and transitions between paragraphs. A proofreader will ensure the project is grammatically correct and free of errors.
2. What do you specialize in?
There as many genres for an editor to specialize in as there are genres to write. You want an editor with experience in your genre. Specialties include fiction, non-fiction, memoir, essay, scholarly writing, history and journalism.
3. How do you charge?
It’s not enough to know what an editor charges — you also need to know whether she works by the hour or the project. If you receive a flat project quote, divide the total by the number of pages to figure out the hourly rate.
A project rate with a cap (“no more than x amount”) is easiest when budgeting.
4. What won’t you do for me?
Do not assume your editor will help you get your project published. It’s one thing to improve a manuscript, but another to sell it.
Make sure you and the editor agree on the scope of services so you are not left disappointed at the end of the process.
5. Who are some of your previous clients?
Asking this question will help you gauge how experienced the editor is, as well as how similar your project will be to ones she has recently completed.
Still not sure you’ve found the right person? Here are a few more questions to ask an editor before you sign a contract.
Have you ever hired an editor to review your writing? What did you learn from the experience?