Jane Friedman is a contributor to Author in Progress: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published, which features essays from the Writer Unboxed community. The following is a selection from her chapter on whether writers should invest in a professional editor before submitting their work to agents or publishers.
Writing and publishing advice can sometimes feel obvious or like common sense: Have a fresh concept. Take out everything that’s boring. Keep the reader turning pages.
But being able to truly see if you’ve been successful in writing a compelling work requires objectivity and distance than can be hard to achieve on your own—and this is where a professional editor comes in.
There are three primary reasons to hire a professional.
1. The learning experience
You’ll grow as a writer by working with an expert who can point out your strengths and weaknesses, and give you specific feedback on how to take your work to the next level. Sometimes, if you have an excellent mentor or critique group, you can learn the same things, but the process takes longer, or there’s more confusion and doubt along the way due to conflicting opinions. When you pay a professional, you’re partly paying for distance and objectivity. But you’re also paying to receive trustworthy and meaningful feedback and learning how to apply that feedback. This is a skill you’ll use again and again. You’ll begin to have an intuitive understanding of what kind of attention your work needs, and at what point in the writing process you need feedback.
2. The industry advantage
The right professional editor typically offers industry insight, experience, or perspective in your genre that critique partners don’t have. Assuming you work with someone with industry experience, you’ll increase your understanding of what a quality editorial process looks and feels like. Once a writer has experienced the work of an editor who can make their work dramatically better, they often stick with that editor for as long as possible—it’s an invaluable career relationship.
3. Submission preparation
The question of whether to hire an editor almost always arises just before or during the submissions process, as a way of increasing the chances of a book’s acceptance. For better or worse, this is the key motivation many writers have in seeking an editor—the learning experience is not acknowledged or becomes a side effect.
In query letters, I see more and more writers claim their manuscript has been professionally edited, and it’s no surprise. People inside the industry are known for emphasizing the importance of submitting a flawless manuscript. However, when evaluating such work, I find that it tends to be of lesser quality. This is quite paradoxical. Shouldn’t professionally edited material be much better?
Unfortunately, writers don’t always understand what type of editor to use, or how an editor is supposed to improve their work. This results in surface-level changes that don’t meaningfully affect the chances at publication. Less experienced writers also tend to be more protective of their work and less likely to revise.
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