Columns > Published on November 9th, 2016

5 Reasons To Hire A Freelance Editor, and What To Do When You Can't

Freelance editors often get a bum rap from authors in the literary world. They are seen as predators. Critical snobs. The scum of the earth. Hello, I'm a freelance editor. 

Some force their opinions down writers' throats. I've seen this in articles from both professional editors and the successful authors who use them: "YOU NEED AN EDITOR! No way around it!" This is correct information if you are publishing the book yourself. If you are writing a novel-length story and you’re planning to throw it up there on Amazon, slap a price on it, and expect readers to one-click away and not get pissed at you for poor production and editing, you are sadly mistaken. Of course, you could always charge a lower price, get some friends to post positive reviews, and make it appear as though people are enjoying your work, but that’s not really helping the problem of an overcrowded distributor flush with precarious book buys. If you are serious about writing full time and self-publishing for the long hull, an editor is the way to go. 

Still, there are ways you can go about publishing without spending money you don’t have on pricey editing. (And it is pricey, rightfully so, because editing, GOOD editing, is grueling, mentally straining work—word for word, line for line, for 400-plus pages.) Working around hiring an editor mostly pertains to those trying to get picked up by agents and publishers.

BUT! Even those approaching agents can benefit from a good editor. So really, it’s not a matter of someone (like me, an EDITOR), telling you what to do. It's about knowing what's right for you. Every author is a unique individual with different levels of talent and technical writing knowledge. An author might be the best storyteller ever, but suffer terrible comma usage and homophone problems that will stop any agent from enjoying the content. You might have the cleanest manuscript an agent has ever seen with perfect punctuation and not a misused word to be found, but it’s boring as hell. Editors can help in both situations.

If you are serious about writing full time and self-publishing for the long hull, an editor is the way to go.

If you can’t afford editing (I certainly couldn’t when I started out), that doesn’t mean you should give up or quit writing. If you are truly a writer, you do it because you need to. It calls to you, no matter your income. But to figure out what works for, you have to be able to accurately assess your own situation, free of ego. Where are you in the art of writing? What is your level of expertise on grammar, flowing sentence structure, tone, style, storytelling? How does your skill level stand up to bestselling or lesser known cult authors out there? A good critique group and beta readers can help you assess your situation, and you can work the ambiguous, confusing, uncertain system of successfully breaking into publication from there...simple as pie. 

Reasons To Hire A Freelance Editor:

You are able to afford it. That's pretty much the crux of the matter. If you can, do. If you are in the position where you can afford to bring in a pair of fresh eyes, it behooves you to do so. Of course, the eyes can't just be fresh. They have to be experienced eyes, backed by a brain saturated with editorial expertise, education, industry know-how, and knowledge of your genre. This is where the "editor-predator" fear comes in. There are hacks. And there are legit editors who fuck up or take advantage. Finding a good one who will sample edit and provide credible references is the rub. That's a whole other process, and a whole other article (coming soon!). 

You are publishing independently. This one's a pretty solid “YOU NEED AN EDITOR.” Don’t try to profit on a novel that hasn’t gone through the production process. Editing, revision, more editing, and proofreading. Publishers put there contracted authors through round after round of editing and proofreading. Many sets of eyes see the book before it hits the shelves, and even then, you can always find one or two little mistakes in a book put out by a big, reputable publisher, can’t you? The same goes for books published by indie authors. The indie authors I work with who make a very comfortable living writing full-time got there by way of a helpful team, and they will be the first to tell you this. You don't see a whole lot of authors who sell like hotcakes with this in the acknowledgements: "I did it ALL by myself, with the help of no one, go me!" Editing was a critical step.

You lack experience, knowledge of basic grammar, any amount of talent, etc. Much can be said for critique groups. They can be invaluable for learning about the creative writing process. However, even if you are a novice, you can gain so much more from an in-depth one-on-one critique from an editor. I myself not only make corrections, I'll often leave notes as to why the correction is being made if I see it is a repetitive habit. I take the opportunity to teach the author if something is wrong grammatically. I'll write a succinct but helpful comment on the dangers of head hopping. I won't just say something doesn't fit content-wise, I will give a suggestion with one or two (or more) ways you could go about improving it. Even hiring an editor to edit a short section of your novel or a short story can teach you more than a class can--if you are working with a "teaching" type of editor. Some editors simply make the corrections with no explanation, and that works for some authors. It's all relative. Learning from editors improves your writing, and ultimately helps you pay less for editing in the future. 

Your write too much. Or too little. It's possible the only problem an agent or publisher may have is that your 125,000-word epic fantasy is just too damn long and no one wants to read a book that feels like 5 books. If you are emotionally attached to every word, every chapter, a good developmental editor helps you see reason and provides cut suggestions that will only improve the story. The opposite is also true for a book that needs fleshed out. An editor can provide suggestions for added detail and plot points. 

If you are reworking and resubmitting your manuscript and it continues to be rejected, but you aren’t getting reasons for the rejection, a good developmental editor can provide an effective critique.

What you've got going just isn't working. You’ve decided to try for traditional publishing without hiring an editor. Maybe your manuscript doesn't get any response past the query process. Maybe agents like the query, ask for more pages, but ultimately reject it upon further consideration. If you are reworking and resubmitting your manuscript and it continues to be rejected, but you aren’t getting reasons for the rejection, a good developmental editor can provide an effective critique. Sometimes an objective opinion is necessary to see where improvements can be made.

When You Can’t Or Won’t Go Freelancer:

Buy editing software. Well this feels like a stupid thing for me, a full-time editor who depends on clients who want editing, to say. But honestly, there are a few good software programs that are extremely helpful to writers (and editors!). But BE WARNED! These are helpful aides, not replacements for human editing. There are good (and also pricey) programs out there that can perform detailed and subtle tasks, like adding a closing quotation mark where you missed one in your dialogue. But the trick is, after running the program, a real live human still has to go through and make sure the content, sentence structure, and any other details the program wasn’t able to perform gets the necessary editing. A good editing program will help you save time and provide even more additional editing, but it has to be accompanied with self-editing.

Enter contests. Whether short story or novel contests, find good ones that are competitive and that pay. This is the route I took starting off as a writer / single mother with no disposable income. I preferred honing my craft on short fiction first. It was easier to focus on and self-edit a 6,000-word short story rather than a bulky novel. And it’s much easier to get readers and fellow writers to volunteer their time to critique when it’s a shorter work. Plus, there are so many amazing opportunities for short fiction contests. (Another money-saving hint, I like to submit to the ones without reading fees if I can help it.) I won a hundred bucks in a Writer’s Digest competition with a short horror story. This was my first publication. This took a lot of effort and many, many rewrites before I got it in good enough shape to win. This did not take a professional editor. Not one bit. But I did work my ass off.

Submit to magazines. Not all of them pay, though pay is certainly a critical issue when you want to do this full-time. However, if you are just starting out with writing, or, you are just starting out in trying to get published, sometimes non-pay can be worth your time too. It depends on the magazine. I was accepted to a great non-paying online mag once. I loved it because it got a lot of traffic, and those who ran the magazine actually edited the piece, and I learned from it. The Oddville Press does this. I used to edit for them voluntarily, and I learned that they only publish high-quality fiction. One notable author happened to be Richard Thomas, of LitReactor. Because the whole shebang is a non-profit labor of love, there is no pay for writers. Or anyone busting their asses for it. But it's free to download, so it gets hordes of readers, and editors actually edit your work with track changes and send it back to you for approval. This is a terrific and free learning experience that will help you improve your writing craft, as well as give you publishing credit on your resume. Don’t say no to all non-paying mags. They may be valuable in other ways.

Submit to agents and publishers. If this one seems obvious, it is. If you can get picked up by an agent and crack into a publishing contract without hiring an editor, I am impressed, shocked, and amazed. It’s not that it can’t happen. It does happen. It’s just one of those rare things. You have to know your shit and be good at polishing your own work. Do that thing where you set the novel aside for two weeks and then go over it again. This will help you avoid being so close to your work that you don’t see errors anymore. Traditional publishing will put your book through extensive editing and proofreading, but it does have to be polished to the point where it will hook that agent. And even if it’s a great read, some publishers won’t be able to pay for editing that is so extensive it will eat into PROFIT, so it does need to be just about there as far as polishing goes. Perhaps the one thing you might need an editor for is the query letter. Some editors specialize in this, so it might be the key to getting a foot in the door, and it's far less pricey, because a query letter needs to be short and to the point. 

In case you haven't arrived at this conclusion already, if you do make the decision to hire a freelance editor, that's a whole new ballgame of fuckery you have to learn. This column is a two-parter simply because there is a lot to discuss when looking for an editor (and making sure you get a good one). Part II will discuss the interview process, sample edits, and how not to get scammed by a predator-editor, or just a lazy-ass editor who knows how to make you think he or she is doing a good job. In the meantime, check out this helpful article I found by Lisa Gail Green: “Should You Hire An Editor Before Querying? Agents Weigh In.”

About the author

Holly Slater is a freelance editor and writer. She slowly built her business at until that glorious day she was able to quit her regular job and venture into the world of full-time freelancing. She loves to tell you everything that’s wrong with your book, but she’s super-duper nice about it. Holly holds a B.A. in English and creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University and has been editing and writing for ten years. Her short story collection, Sweet Violent Femmes, is a display of bizarre erotic horror with a feminist bent. Holly lives in Cincinnati with her filmmaker fiancé and her talented theater-performing son.

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