Stacking the Deck in Your Favor

A while back I was approached by a writer who was looking for editorial help with a novel he’d written. I took the project and we went through several drafts until it was good. And it was good, kids. This writer was young and unsigned, but he knew what he was doing; I just helped him grow his craft.

During this process, he asked me an interesting question: When I pitch my project, should I say it’s been through a developmental edit?

Good question.

I have seen two schools of thought on this issue. One school says you’re expected to do everything you can to make the book the best it can be, and publishers will appreciate your investment in your work. The other school (and this comes from a friend of mine who works at a respected literary agency) says “we want to know what the author can do, not what her professional editor can do.”

See the conundrum here?

It’s a very competitive climate for authors right now. There’s always been many more manuscripts on offer than available openings in a publisher’s list, but that ratio is even more strained at the moment. (As former publisher Michael Hyatt says: “The supply of hopeful authors is infinite while the supply of publishing resources is finite. Publishers can only publish a fraction of the proposals they receive.”) Between prevailing economic conditions and changes in the industry that have unsettled all the players in it, traditional publishers have scaled back on what they’re willing to risk and how many times a year they’re willing to risk it.

This competitive climate means you need to create the best possible product to have any shot at all at traditional publishing. So should you hire your own editor? When should you hire your own editor?

There’s no question that many unsigned authors are engaging professional editors to help them polish their manuscripts so they can land an agent. And I’ve worked on more than one manuscript that ultimately was picked up by an agent. One of those authors told me,

Everything I have read said to submit your very best work to agents/publishers. In my case, I had gotten as far as my experience would take me when I sent my manuscript to you. I needed a professional eye to tell me “yes, this can work” or “why don’t you try again with a different project?” I looked at the editorial process with you as a kind of writing course. I would have the benefit of an experienced professional telling me exactly where to strengthen the work or, as mentioned above, to stop wasting time on that project. (Emphasis mine.)

It’s also no secret that agents work with their clients to improve the product before they shop it—many agents are former editors—either with hands-on editorial work or by suggesting the author seek editorial help on his or her own. I’ve also been hired in scenarios like this. Furthermore I have frequently been hired to critique manuscripts publishers are considering signing; I’ve also been hired to critique manuscripts for authors before they turn them in to their publishers.

Do you see where I’m headed with this line of thinking? As an editor, I’ve been involved with manuscripts at every conceivable stage of the process between an author’s desktop and a publisher’s press.

But the question was about disclosure. Should you tell a prospective agent? Personally, I believe that honesty is unquestionably always the best policy. Still, the author I mentioned above worried that the agent would wonder how much … editing … had actually been done. In other words, the agent might think the manuscript was completely ghostwritten, rather than assuming it was good work that simply got better after a few editorial suggestions.

Writers who’ve worked with me know I require the author to do his or her own rewrites. Oh, I can write. And I’ll make suggestions (“Maybe Little Johnny says it like this: —”). But I just feel like it’s up to you to write your own book.

Bottom line? Everyone from the author to the agent to the publisher is interested in one thing: selling books. The way to do that is to make sure they’re good books. That generally results from the concentrated efforts of author and editor. Who cares when it happens! Should you tell? I say yes.

UPDATE: This post has spurred lots of interesting commentary on Facebook and Twitter—and there are some interesting comments with alternate viewpoints below. Be sure to check them out!


Tweet: Should you hire your own editor? When should you hire your own editor?
Tweet: “I looked at the process with an editor as a kind of writing course.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. Ramona says:

    Jamie, you write this from the POV of a skilled content editor who knows what she’s doing. From this editor’s POV, I don’t see this as a point of honesty but one of irrelevance. As in, it’s irrelevant to me if a manuscript has had a professional edit before I get it. In fact, that line is a red flag for me, but not for the reason you might presume. It’s a red flag because

    1) not all professional editors are created equal. Most of the “professionally edited” manuscripts I receive are still crap.

    2) It implies that the author expects that his manuscript will not be edited further. This is an assumption on my part borne of experience of dealing with stunned authors who thought they were done with the editorial process because their cousin the copyeditor at the local paper had proofed it.

    I’d rather NOT be told if it’s been through a professional edit. It puts me on guard because I don’t know what they mean by that. And most authors worth their salt LEARN from a good edit – so I’m not worried about a excellent professional edit being deceptive about the author’s craft.

    • Jamie says:

      Well, of course it’s from my POV—hee—but authors who’ve worked with me will tell you I always remind them they should expect to go through an edit with (if) their publisher too. :)

      This is a fantastic response! Just the sort of thing I’m looking for. I’ll add an UPDATE so that folks read the comments for your input.

  2. Michelle Ule says:

    It’s an interesting point, Ramona, and it makes me wonder what people think “edit” means. As Jamie has pointed out in earlier posts, there are different sorts of edits for different purposes. So, if someone tells me their manuscript has been professionally edited, I assume the plot problems have been addressed along with the grammar.

    Also, based on my children’s experience, I’m not sure most people get a substantive edit in school. My children brought me one paper their freshman year of high school and I tore it apart, showing them the how and whys to write essays. It was bloody, but taught all four how to write and they never came back.

    (Of course they refused to play Scrabble with me, too, so that may be a personal problem).

    They’re good writers and they learned how to accept the edits.

    I know the first time I got an edit back when I wrote for the UCLA Daily Bruin, I was in shock myself. I came to embrace editing as a collaborative work, not a disciplinary action, and I love it now. I suspect some see a complex edit as punishment, when that’s exactly what it isn’t.

    • Jamie says:

      When someone tells ME his/her manuscript has been professionally edited, I assume what is meant is the typos have been corrected—for the very reason you point out about your children never having had a substantive edit.

      Most people have no idea what that kind of editing is, in my humble experience. And because they don’t know what it is, they don’t see the use of it. (Take, for example, the person who commented on Wendy’s post a couple days ago. It’s a “myth propagated by editors” this person said, then went on to equate editing with proofreading. This is an opinion I run into often.)

      But I’m not perpetuating any myths, I’m just trying to educate folks. :)

  3. […] Chavez, is my editor.  See Jamie’s blog from last week  “Stacking the Deck in Your Favor.”  Cynthia Ruchti also mentioned that it was an eight year process to produce When the  Morning […]

  4. Fiona Pearse says:

    Hi Jamie, thanks for post, an interesting point of view. My MS was rejected a few times until I got a professional copy edit. Then I got a contract. I think that publishers really want something ready to go these days and when a polished MS turns up they’re interested. You have to be careful though who does your edit. Getting a recommendation is the way to go.

  5. […] an example of that. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about revealing (or not) that you’ve hired editorial help. Now look at it again; I’ve removed all but the first sentence of every […]

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    […] Chavez, is my editor.  See Jamie’s blog from last week  “Stacking the Deck in Your Favor.”  Cynthia Ruchti also mentioned that it was an eight year process to produce When the  Morning […]

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