Don’t Try This at Home, Kids (Or: How to Recognize a Professional)

I laughed out loud when I read this post from literary agent Janet Grant about a guy who got an agent for his first book and was suddenly an expert on the subject. “So who appointed this guy to write about finding an agent,” she writes, “when he was pretty much guessing about how to do such a thing?”

You might well ask. Honestly, you can’t swing a dead cat* without hitting someone with a blog or a website that touts publishing expertise.

Or an opinion on an email loop. I quit reading the loop that goes out to members of a writers’ group to which I belong because there was so much stupidity passing for authority. (There, I’ve said it.) I was shocked and dismayed when I read this one: “Don’t hire an editor unless she’s also been published, because how could she know anything about publishing?” I can’t even dignify that with a response.

But the question remains. How can you tell if someone really is a professional? Janet Grant has some excellent suggestions about choosing an agent. I** can only tell you about editors.

1. Know what you need.
There are several types of editors and there are different terms for those editors. (Check here for an even more detailed definition.) If you’ve just finished your self-editing—and honestly, friends, when you tweet #amediting I wish you’d say #amrevising, because it always throws me for a loop—you need a developmental editor. Regardless of how many people have read and loved it, you need a dev editor. Also included in the editorial process are proofreaders, but a proof is not an edit. You can’t get by with just a proof.

2. Have a look at credentials.
What’s this editor’s background? How long has he been editing? Has he edited books? (As opposed to newspapers or magazines—different animal, you know.) What are his specific skills or specialties? Who are his clients? (Publishers? Authors whose names your recognize? Authors you don’t recognize? Or, worse, authors who apparently only have first names?) What books has he worked on? (Ask what task he performed on those books, and check them out from the library or on Google Preview.) Can he provide testimonials (again, from people with first and last names)? What was his most recent project? What style guide does he use? (Does he know what a style guide is?)

3. An English degree is not an “editorial degree.”
A degree in English (or journalism) alone does not qualify anyone to be an editor. It’s a great background, but without hands-on editorial experience, he’s still just a guy with an English degree. If you ask around in the industry, you may hear that editing is a “gift”; Thomas McCormack calls it “editorial sensibility.” Whatever you call it, it’s something outside a degree, and it’s derived from experience.

4. Try to get a referral from an industry professional.
I sometimes get inquiries from people who’ve attended a writers’ conference and spoken with an agent or publisher who gave them my name. You may have a friend with a friend in the business. Do a little networking! As a last resort, check the acknowledgements in a book you liked; the editor’s name might be mentioned there.

5. Check out the website.
Or the Twitter feed, in a pinch. But most professional freelance editors have websites these days, so have a look. What type of content is on the site? Does it look … professional? (You know what I mean, I know you do.) Does it instill confidence or does it make you want to keep looking?

6. Inquire. Correspond.
What type of correspondence are you having with the potential editor? Is he prompt? Well-spoken? Professional? (Your correspondence should adhere to these guidelines too. Be clear about what services you’re looking for. Articulate the questions you’d like answered. Expect to pay for a sample, if you think you need one. And for pete’s sake, stop with the lists of questions about “why you think you would be the right editor for my book.” This is not an essay contest.)

7. Be prepared to wait.
Professional editors are in demand, and they’re booked well in advance. If you find an editor who can start immediately, you might wonder why. (There may be a perfectly reasonable answer. Or not.)

8. Beware of too-good-to-be-true.
If someone advertising himself as an editor says he can dev edit your 80,000-word novel for $500 (or even $1000), he’s not a professional editor. And $500 or $1000 is not a deal. When you read (as I did in the aforementioned email loop), “Oh, my daughter does editing and she’ll give you a great price,” just say no, thanks. Do your research, and be willing to pay for quality work. Not only is there a good chunk of money at stake; more importantly the end result will have your name on it long after the money is spent.

Bottom line, a professional editor will be just that: someone who makes a living editing. A good editor will have years of experience with testimonials and/or a client list to back it up. Janet Graham says one lesson she took from the newbie expert was this:

I need to not take a blog as being authoritative unless it’s written by an authority. Online everyone has an opinion—and a right to express it—but not everyone is an authority. Check out what credentials bloggers are bringing to the party.

I couldn’t agree more. Don’t just take the word of an excited author with a new contract … look closer. Read between the lines, give the website the sniff test. :)

* You know I love my cats but I couldn’t resist using this phrase. It may or may not have to do with an actual feline, but I’m not going to research it.

** Actually, author Amy Parker provided an outline of this list to me after a conversation we had over lunch one day. Thanks, Amy. :)

 

Tweet: Suddenly everyone’s an expert! But are they really? Here’s how to tell.
Tweet: How to recognize a professional editor when you see one.

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.”

Posted in The Book Biz | Tagged as: , , , , | Bookmark the permalink | Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

3 Comments

  1. April Line says:

    So, I can’t resist saying that a self-published author (or really anyone who is only a writer–I mention self-pubbers b/c I suspect, though I have no empirical evidence, that there’s some overlap between the populations of self-pubbers + self-credentialed shingle hangers) may also not be a great bet for editorial.

    *Some* writers are also excellent editors, but many, many more of us would prefer to keep our hands out of all of that (I am not one of these, but I’ve heard writers say that they don’t have time or interest, there are people for that).

    Though it pains me to confess it, I know a goodly number of writers who wouldn’t be able to unravel a relatively simple grammar/style knot. Plus many who are horrible spellers.

    Editing (NOT, as you point out so beautifully, revising) and writing are two different skill sets demanding different understandings, different methods, different approaches, and different knowledge bases. In fact, I don’t necessarily want an editor who’s published. I want an editor who’s obsessed with editing.

    • Jamie says:

      Exactly. The reason I’m making a distinction is I’ve actually been hired to come along behind more than one “published author” who had “edited” the MS I was now supposed to fix.

  2. Dennis says:

    Hi Jamie, Long time. Worked with April a touch and learned alot. Questions I know you can field; What are some reasons an agent will sign you/take you on? Will an Agent take you on for any reason other than they know your MS could get published?What do they know that you don’t? How can one learn of these workings of an Agent without calling them thinking your the one their waiting to hear from?

  3. […] = editor. (Editor’s sentence: Anyone who writes anything needs an editor. No buts about […]

  4. […] Choose your experts wisely, kids. […]

  5. […] can get that information anywhere. (Again, the Interest exists.) I’ll hasten to add, of course, you should use discernment: there are plenty of self-proclaimed experts out there. You can hear those self-hung shingles […]

  6. […] written before about how you can recognize a professional editor, but it bears repeating for the reasons Duran has noted: anyone at all can hang out a shingle—er, […]

  7. […] importantly, the things that make a good editor are innate, in my opinion. You can study and study and practice and practice and read and read and […]

5 Trackbacks

  1. By The Editor’s Alphabet on 7 April, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    […] = editor. (Editor’s sentence: Anyone who writes anything needs an editor. No buts about […]

  2. By Nothing Matters But the Words on 29 September, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    […] Choose your experts wisely, kids. […]

  3. By If You Stop Learning, You Die on 19 January, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    […] can get that information anywhere. (Again, the Interest exists.) I’ll hasten to add, of course, you should use discernment: there are plenty of self-proclaimed experts out there. You can hear those self-hung shingles […]

  4. […] written before about how you can recognize a professional editor, but it bears repeating for the reasons Duran has noted: anyone at all can hang out a shingle—er, […]

  5. […] importantly, the things that make a good editor are innate, in my opinion. You can study and study and practice and practice and read and read and […]