This post, from Editorial Ass, originally appeared on Editorial Ass on 6/29/09.
I got this note the other day:
I am a first time writer and I just finished my first novel. In your opinion, should I try and get an editor before I query an agent? I haven’t been able to find any advice on that and I read your blog all the time so I figured I would ask. If you have time to respond, please let me know whenever you can!
Dearest XXX, thank you for asking. I’ve been wanting to write about this for a long time. I’m afraid I have a TON of thoughts about it.
Let me start with an anecdote.
About six months ago, I got to meet an editor hero of mine, who is a big important head of an imprint at a big important company. We got to chatting, and she asked me about some of my favorite projects.
Being my humble modest self (ahem), I started bragging about all my most splendid projects (all of them, naturally). I took some special time on a book I was particularly proud of–one you’ve heard a bit about here–which I’d acquired after every other house in basically the entire world had passed. I’d seen potential there, and after working carefully with the author on editorial back-and-forth and thoughtful development, we published to mind-blowing awesome reviews. In my prideful, sinning mind, this was an ultimate victory, because I felt like I could see my own personal hand in the book’s success in a special way.
My esteemed interlocutor, however, did not *realize* I was bragging! Instead, she said something that shook me from buttons to boots: "Oh wow, you guys edit over there? That’s nice–I always used to enjoy editing. We don’t have time, so we can only really buy books that are pretty much ready for production."
I was, as I said, pretty shaken. My very smart, wise, and experienced new friend had opened my eyes to an industry trend I’d kinda been ignoring–houses are increasingly not insentivizing their editors to EDIT. Instead, they are supposed to focus on ACQUIRING. I love editing, and realizing that it may not be a crucial or celebrated skill for an acquisition editor to have made me wonder what the future holds for me.
Enough about me and my ego. How does this tie into YOUR life as a writer?
I am not saying the system doesn’t suck. I’m just trying to address this very specific question of whether or not you should hire a freelance editor.
Basically, you want your submission to be as clean as possible, at every stage.
"Clean" means both in terms of copy issues (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure) and in terms of content–your structure, composition, ideas, and for fiction plot, characters, and pacing should all be tight as a drum–it’s not enough to want to sell your manuscript anymore. You have to imagine that, in a worst case scenario, you might get published without another hand tinkering with anything you’ve written. (Hopefully this won’t be the case–but you should treat your manuscript as if it is.)
Don’t let yourself cut any corners at any stage. You should be as clean as possible before submitting to agents, because while some agents are fantastic editors, some of the best agents are very poor editors (different although frequently overlapping skill sets–but don’t count on an agent to edit your manuscript). You should also talk seriously to your agent about how clean the manuscript is before the agent submits to editors.
Some pros and cons (all mixed together) of hiring a freelance editor to work on cleaning up your project:
*The expense–they charge a ton. We’re looking at hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the person and what kind of editing your book requires. And I know a lot of us aren’t exactly rolling in it. You have to figure out on your own the risk/reward scenario fiscally–it’s important to remember that working with an outside editor doesn’t mean that your project will sell.