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Why I Hired an Editor to Help Me Polish My Personal Essay

by | Oct 22, 2015

You know all those times you pitch a publication and never hear back? After spending weeks or months on what you thought was a pretty awesome story?

We’ve all been there.

It’s part of the job, but it’s frustrating nonetheless. It’s hard to know what you did “wrong.” The blank void doesn’t help you fix what needs fixing so you can grow and improve.

But what if, for every essay you wrote and article you pitched, you received line edits, notes and suggestions for improvements?

We know hiring an editor is an important investment if you’re working on a book, but what about smaller pieces: the novellas and short stories and personal essays and articles?

Why I hired an editor to polish my personal essays

I worked on an essay for New York Times’ popular feature Modern Love for six months. That essay went through a memoir class, an amateur editor, a re-write, a hiatus and finally a few trusted friends. One of those friends was Dara Kaye, a developmental editor at a literary agency.

I’d never experienced anything like Kaye’s edits. It was my story, but better. They were my words, but tighter.

I found the magical unicorn: An editor who understood my style while bringing her own talents to the table.

After half a year tweaking and reworking, my essay was finally perfect. I finally felt confident sending it out into the void. Modern Love didn’t take it, but xoJane immediately accepted my essay. As someone who had never published a personal essay before, I was proud.

Kaye volunteered her time to review my essay, but I knew I needed to invest in her ongoing editing services.

If you’re just starting to pitch publications or are branching out into new territory, hiring an editor for ongoing projects could be one of the best career investments you’ve ever made.

Why hiring an ongoing editor is important

“Trying to edit your own writing is like trying to lick your own elbow,” says Kaye.

“You’re just too darn close to the thing. When you read something you’ve written, your mind fills in plot holes and glosses over misspellings, inconsistencies, and awkward sentences. You can’t see them, but they distract agents, publishers, and readers.”

After realizing Kaye had helped me bring forth the strongest incarnation of my work, I hired her to help with all my essays. I’m balancing client work with personal projects, with a goal of slowly transitioning out my client work and focusing solely on personal essays and fiction.

It’s going to be a long process, but the quicker I can get into publications I admire, the quicker I’ll create a portfolio to build that platform.

Running every essay and story past an editor helps me accomplish three things:

  1. Increase my chances of getting published
  2. Give new editors the best first impression of my work
  3. Learn a ton about writing

Carin Siegfried, owner of CS Editorial (and my first-ever publishing mentor) told me a major benefit of hiring an editor for ongoing work is that “over time, your editor learns both your style of writing and how you best respond to editing, and can tailor their suggestions to work better towards your writing strengths and weaknesses.”

They can also morph into more of a writing guide as well as an editor. “If you have multiple projects,” added Siegfried, “Your editor might be able to point out that a minor project you were putting on the back burner actually is more marketable or has a better shot at getting published than the front-burner idea you’re really excited about.”

How to find an editor

Okay, you’re convinced. Now, where to find this magical unicorn?

Referrals are a great place to start. Ask published friends for a recommendation or take to social media. Publisher’s Marketplace also has editor listings, but their website can be difficult to navigate.

How to choose the right editor

Obviously, you need to find an editor who you not only like, but can also learn from.

Editors should: Know your audience

Many editors work in a variety of genres, but your editor should have at least some experience in yours. So if your big dream is to be a war correspondent, don’t hire an editor who specializes in self-published erotica.

The first editor I hired to help polish my Modern Love piece had never published a personal essay before. Although the price was right, her lack of experience with personal essays meant I wasted my money.

“You want someone who’s familiar with your genre and dialect,” says Kaye. “If you hire a U.K. editor to work on a U.S. book, don’t be surprised if you end up with a more ‘colourful’ manuscript than you want.”

You also want to stay consistent once you do hire an editor. “With one editor,” Siegfried told me, “your voice will have more consistency across multiple projects and you will be able to better stay on message. You don’t want some pieces to have a lesser quality than others, making your writing look uneven.”

You should: Request a sample edit

Unfortunately, there’s no universal, industry-wide standard for copyediting, developmental editing and proofreading. This is why sample edits are so important.

Most editors will offer a complimentary sample page edit so you can better understand their style. If they don’t, ask for a sample from a previous project to help align your expectations.  

Kaye asked me an important question about my expectations: “Do you want someone who will leave everything intact save outright errors? [Or] someone who will dig a bit deeper to suggest alternative wording for unwieldy or repetitive sections?”

Everyone will approach editing with a different tack, but a sample can catch any red flags about whether your potential editor’s style will match yours.

You both should: Agree on a communication style

Have a conversation with your editor about preferred communication style. Kaye was kind enough to share examples of three different editing styles from real manuscripts she’s worked on:

  • Option A “Love this sentence! It’ll read more smoothly if you delete this comma.”
  • Option B: “Comma deleted; these are cumulative adjectives, not coordinate adjectives. (See CMOS 5.90, CMOS 6.33)”
  • Option C: no margin comment, just silent corrections

It’s entirely up to you. Do you want an editor who’s expressive about their love for your writing? Or someone who just does the work without coddling you?

I’m in the former camp. If you’re going to criticize, I need a buffer. It’s been great to have an editor who reminds me why I do what I do.

“Knowing and setting expectations for communication will make the work flow smoothly,” says Kaye. “My favorite clients are the ones always seeking to become better writers. They’re the ones who trust my judgment but are also comfortable asking ‘Hey, can you explain that rule?’”

Kaye and I have worked together on two pieces so far. By the end of the 2015, I’d love to have a list of bylines or a competition win. But I’m also super happy to have a growing collection of near-perfect personal essays I can pitch until they’re published.