Your Writing Team: Freelance Editors

Hand writing in a modern office on a clipboard

You’ve heard the old saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees”? In other words, you can see each tree, take note of the beautiful leaves and strong branches, but because you’re focused on them you don’t see the whole forest. The big picture. And that, my friends, is where it helps to have freelance editors on your team.

Yes, for some, the editor role is filled by an in-house editor. But if that’s not the case for you, then I encourage you to consider bringing a freelance editor onto your team. You’ll be amazed at the benefits.

Good editors are a mix of coach and cheerleader. They look at your work front to back with an eye not only to the details you see, but to the big picture we often can’t see in our own work. I’m constantly amazed, and grateful, for the insights my editor brings to me as a writer. The way she can cut through the story that I’m so immersed in and pinpoint exactly what I’m doing wrong (coach mode)—and right (cheerleader mode).

In cheerleader mode, good editors celebrate the things you’ve done well. They let you know when you’ve connected with your readers, when your voice works, when your characters live and breathe and come right off the page. They affirm your strengths as a writer, which we all need in this critical, often humbling (or humiliating) endeavor.

In coach mode, editors take their vast knowledge of the craft and use it to help you perfect your skills. They come alongside you, helping you refine your skills. Most of all, they respect you as a writer. They respect your voice and story and recognize that their job is to serve you. If you get a hint of arrogance or disdain from a freelance editor, turn and run. There are plenty of editors out there who love and respect authors, and whose goal is to partner with an author to refine that author’s craft.

Editors can accomplish this help in a number of ways. (One caveat here: if I’ve learned nothing else of the past few years, it’s that there are not standard terms for what editors do. What some call a line edit others call a substantive or sub edit. What some call a macro, others call a substantive edit. So in an effort to minimize confusion, I’ll define my terms as I use them.)

First, there’s the overview edit, or the macro edit. In this edit, the editor reads your manuscript and puts together a revision letter, letting you know the things you need to work on. They’ll focus on big picture issues and some smaller issues. But the goal with the macro edit is to let you know where the book doesn’t work and give ideas for fixing whatever the problems are. For example, when I do a macro edit, I pinpoint things like:

  • authors tending to tell where they should show
  • dialogue issues
  • character issues, such as a character’s voice doesn’t fit, or character motivations don’t ring true, or too many characters use the same pet phrases
  • sections that are redundant or not necessary to the story
  • plot issues…and so on.

Editors will shoot the author a revision letter with all of this in it. These letters can range from a few pages to over twenty pages or more.

A second type of edit is the substantive edit (or line edit, as some call it). In this edit, editors dig in and edit your manuscript line by line. They mark places that need to be reworked. When I do this edit, I also highlight sections that work well. This is an in-depth edit and will provide you a blow-by-blow look at what you’re doing well and what you need to work on. It’s kind of like football players sitting with the coach and watching film of the game they just played. The coach can stop the playback, point out where there was an issue, and they can talk together about how to fix it.

As a writer, I’ve found that both kinds of edits are invaluable. And they’ve helped me overcome my less-than-effective tendencies as a writer. I’ve come away from every edit with the strong sense that my craft is improved and refined, and that’s a real gift.

One other way a freelance editor can help writers is to serve them as a writing coach or mentor. I’ve done this intensive work with a number of clients, and it’s been terrific. We’ve spent a number of months working closely, using email and video calls, to tackle the issues in their writing. The teaching and give and take is a great deal of fun, and the writers have come away far stronger in their craft because they came to the table ready to learn and improve.

Now, I realize utilizing freelance editors costs money. But folks, writing is no different than any other profession. You need to invest in your career and craft, to learn from those who are good and strong teachers. Where do you find these team members? Well, you can start by checking out the list of freelancers on our agency site. And you can talk with other writers, find out who they recommend. I encourage you to talk with the freelancers out there to find out what their strengths are.

One last note: Be clear about what you want from your editor. The more information you share up front the more effective that editor can be in coaching you and cheering you on.

Next week, we’ll talk about the last category of team members, your accountability partners. Until then, happy writing!

6 Responses to Your Writing Team: Freelance Editors

  1. Anne Love November 6, 2013 at 5:54 am #

    Thank you for such an informative view of the editing process from your perspective Karen. This question came up at the agent panel discussion at ACFW this year. There seemed to be a varied reaction to hiring an editor. From what I gleaned, it’s frowned upon to hire an editor with the only intent to reduce your personal work load, but is perfectly acceptable if you are willing to gain a set of craft tools you are willing to dig in and do the hard work of application. This a question I’ve seriously entrained. I will have to prayerfully consider it further.

  2. James Flerlage November 6, 2013 at 6:40 am #

    This is an excellent thread. My writing team consists of four editors. I can’t stress enough the importance of a quality product and editors help you get there. If I may so humbly add my own advice:

    1. Decide in advance which editorial service meets your needs: content, agent-ready, line-edit, etc., and then conduct informational interviews to find an editor that matches your personality , genre and price point.

    2. Look for editors who have worked for publishing houses; many still contract for the Big 5. They are a wealth of information and contacts.

    3. Don’t haggle; pay the full price. Most editors realize that writers live hand-to-mouth and in most cases, their prices are already rock bottom.

    4. If you’re lucky enough to find an editor that will take your project on in installments, never be late with your payment. Pre-pay as much as you can up front. Tell the editor when you have sent payment and when to expect it. Follow up the day they should have received it.

    5. When you send your payment, send it in a thank you note. Remind the editor that you are appreciative of their service and the relationship.

    6. Editors are professionals and they’re time is valuable. Be respectful of their time. Do not abuse the relationship.

    7. Listen to their advice; they want your book to do well and most want you to find success in your career overall. Embrace their feedback, incorporate their critique and criticisms, and be grateful that you’ve found a professional who can help take your writing to the next level.

  3. marci seither November 6, 2013 at 8:44 am #

    I totally agree with the importance of editors on your team! I have both content and line editors that I work with on my traditionally published and self published book.

    Even on traditionally published book I hired a freelance editor to make sure it was a clean as I could get it prior to my deadline. As a first time author I wanted to give the publisher something to work with…not clean up. When the publisher sent back my rewrite list for the manuscript…it was 1 sentence.

    For the self published book the editorial team is vital to the finished project. At one scene my editor and I had a difference of opinion. We talked it through and ultimately sought the input of a group of my target readers. The result was better than I could have hoped for. Even though my scene was used, it is always good to look for ways to make it better before it goes to print.

    I do have to say it is important to trust your editor. I AM thankful that my editor and I HAVE worked together long enough so that she knows my voice during her editing process.

  4. Linda Rodante November 6, 2013 at 10:55 am #

    This was excellent. Just what I needed. Thank you so much for the post.

  5. Leslie G Nelson November 6, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    Great post. I particularly liked what you said about an editor being both coach and cheerleader. I have hired an editor twice and that has been my experience. It can be expensive, but it is well-worth it.

  6. Robin Patchen November 6, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    I’ve just begun working as a freelance editor, so this article was particularly interesting to me. I am very good at the coaching side, but I tend to neglect the cheerleading side. Thanks for the reminder that everyone needs to hear what they’re doing right, too,

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