No Snake Oil* For Sale Here

Not long ago a friend in the book biz referred a writer to me. She’d written a YA novel, this writer; when she emailed me, I told her I really enjoy YA, but that I require a synopsis and sample chapters before I decide to put a project on my production schedule. This is stated on my website—though, interestingly, many people don’t actually investigate my website before they contact me about work. You heard me correctly: I don’t accept every editing job I’m offered. I require a synopsis and sample chapters for evaluation first.

Why? I’ve learned the hard way.

When I was much newer to this business, less experienced, I would excitedly say yes to everyone. Yes! Yes! I had so much confidence. I was sure I could edit—improve—any manuscript. Yes!

But now I know I can’t. Many manuscripts can’t be “fixed” by editing. (I’ve tried, but attempting to discuss an inexperienced writer into writing a better book can be soul-destroying work. What’s that old saw about teaching a pig to sing? It wastes your time and annoys the pig.)

Some writers need to learn more about writing itself—about creating sentences and paragraphs and stringing ideas together coherently—before they’re ready. Some writers need to learn about narrative, about story structure, about pacing, before they can actually compose a story (fiction or not) with a beginning, middle, and end. These writers need a teacher, not an editor.

So I ask for a writing sample and a synopsis. I usually spend an hour reviewing the materials. And then I make a decision. Can I bring something to the writer’s project? That’s what I ask myself. In the case of last week’s referral, I said no. Not just no, though.

Dear Claire:
I’ve reviewed your chapters and synopsis and I fear that your manuscript isn’t really ready for editing yet. Part of the problem is that it seems written more to propound an agenda than it is about making the story irresistible. It’s not a bad agenda :) but story is much more important than message, always. Right now, even the synopsis is a little contrived to make the agenda work, and there are holes where things don’t seem logical.

I went on to tell her some very specific things she should look at, and I provided links to six articles I’ve written that addressed those precise craft issues. For example:

Take a look at this formula and see if you can write your story into it. I’d be interested in seeing that.’s-talk-about-plot/
Or answer these questions. Same thing.
Note here that the story-worthy problem in your case isn’t the message/theme you’re trying to support—it’s in the actual story. It’s your main character’s problem. It’s that she wants to not have to live a lie anymore.

I also addressed some red flags I noticed in her synopsis.

“Helena, age 17, doesn’t feel brave or particularly hopeful when she wakes up in a strange place.” You’re telling me this in the synopsis but I didn’t sense it in the opening scene of chapter 1 at all. Instead, Helena was astonished but seemed to expect to be there, given that she said, “Joanie didn’t tell me about this.” Also, she immediately decided what to do and went to explore. So the motives and what the character feels are sort of at odds with the synopsis already. To be frank, I’m much more curious about Joanie and her role in the story.

There were four other points in the first three paragraphs of Claire’s synopsis that concerned me, and I enumerated those. It’s important to me that I am both frank and kind, while maintaining good boundaries about how much free critique I can provide. I don’t want to crush anyone; I want to offer options for next steps, even if they are not taken with me.

I’ve spent as much time on this as I can afford to, but I would recommend you rethink and rework your synopsis until your story is irresistible and airtight. Fantastical elements are fine, a message is fine, but story and plot are the most important things. If, somewhere down the line, you’d like to talk again, I offer critiques of synopses, of first three chapters, and even of the entire MS. I just think you need to tweak this before we start that kind of work.

Thank you again, Claire, for your confidence in me. I wish I had better news for you but editing is not inexpensive, and I think you could profit from another pass at the manuscript before you begin that process. Let me know if you have any questions.

Editing is absolutely not cheap. It would be easy to take advantage of the hunger some folks have to write, edit, and publish a book—and there are at least two well-known people I know right here in Middle Tennessee who are doing it (another blog post for another time)—but I don’t have it in me to do that. Editing is not a miracle cure, and no editor can guarantee you a best seller.

Everyone who sends me the writing sample and synopsis hears back from me. Every once in a while I strike out: a couple years ago, a man was so offended by my mini-critique that he—well, let’s just say I’ve never had anyone speak to me like that, ever. Oh, and he critiqued the blog post I referred him to (my grade: F). This man was in the minority, though; I don’t hear back at all from most folks. (What’s up with that, anyway?)

But Claire (not her real name, of course) is the sort of person I’d like to work with one day. “That was the most helpful rejection letter I’ve ever received,” she wrote. “Thank you so much for taking the time to explain why my manuscript isn’t ready and for providing direction so that, in time, it will be ready.” She made my day with that email.

Every so often, I feel I need to remind you that I genuinely enjoy what I do for a living. However, editing is not something I can do by myself. I can’t wave a magic wand and turn a manuscript into something publishable. The author has to be ready too. It’s a team effort, a partnership.

* Snake-oil salesman was one of my father’s favorite phrases.


Tweet: Some writers need to learn more about writing itself before they’re ready for editing.
Tweet: Editing is not something I can do by myself. The author has to be ready too.

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. Excellent post on a great topic. There are those in any business who are all too eager to take advantage of the enthusiastic beginner. I can personally attest and thoroughly appreciate that you are not one of those. I, for one, am grateful for a business partner who is realistic about what they can bring to the table and when and is willing to give their unvarnished, but tactful, opinion on the probable success or failure of the venture. Thanks, Jamie.

  2. Great, informative and heartfelt essay, Jamie.

    I suspect that the reason most of those you choose not to work with don’t write back when you send a critique is that they don’t want to look like they are trying to become ‘pen pals’; the critique is gift enough, and as a group they exeunt omnes to avoid giving the massage that they are fawning/

    I would hire you if I could (an if I were worthy, which is a big question), but my writing will not change the world, and I have 23 reasons to place higher priorities over my dreams of writing success…we have a sanctuary for abandoned and abused dogs, and they come first.

  3. giffmacshane says:

    Very nice article, Jamie. I admire the feedback you’ve given your potential clients. I had one “editor” return my sample (10 pages) with 3 of the tiniest corrections imaginable (one of which was absolutely wrong!). Included in her email was a contract I could sign for 150% of the going rate, along with encouragement to have her review the rest of my MS.

    I didn’t take her up on it. An editor who can’t find my mistakes or improve my MS beyond the minutiae was not going to be of any help to me. Fortunately, I’ve found just the right person to work with (and at the going rate as well).

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      I am always tempted to “mark up” the manuscript, but that would involve more time. I speak about it in general terms with some specific examples because I want the author to know I READ it, for real. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. John Lambert says:

    Jamie, though I don’t edit the stories of others, I do something very similar.
    I help entrepreneurs and businesses bring their designs and ideas into production worthy status.
    Same issues:
    – How much editor vs educator role can I afford to play?
    – When is it a waste of everyone’s time? (Not always easy to recognize a “pig”)
    – When to be a “hired gun” (just do as asked) vs a partner in making them successful?
    Does everyone involved have the same understanding of your role?

    Like many authors, this customer base often has a hard time accepting any critique of their creation or direction.

    The “boxer” lyrics come to mind …
    “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest”

    • Jamie Chavez says:

      Oh yes, you hit the nail on the head. And as you note, my offering a small critique has the added benefit of seeing whether or not the author is approaching the project with what we call a “teachable spirit.” :)

      • John says:

        yes… a “teachable spirit”…
        aka “not a pig” (not wasting everyone’s time)

        Affirmations of your efforts to give everyone a chance to prove their character and hope for the future.