Hiring an editor

Dear Miss Snark,

Do you think it's a good idea for new writers to work with freelance editors? I spoke to a very established editor who charges over $7,000. It seems the average price is 4k. Most of his clients already have agents. I do not.

Is this normal? I know you get what you pay for, but this is completely out of my price range. Am I reducing my changes of getting an agent if I don't have an editor look at my manuscript first? I want my book to be as strong as possible. I have had several very talented writers and readers look at it and give me notes.

You don't need to hire an editor.
I'm pretty sure (I haven't asked) that none of my novelists hired an editor. They worked at their craft, and wrote attention grabbing novels.

Freelance editors are valuable if you are not a writer. Several of my non-fiction clients have used editors. The clients had great ideas, great stories, great platform, but knew they were not writers and so brought in someeone to do the writing or editing.

And even if you DO have an editor on board, you don't mention in it in your query letter.

Before you start spending wads of cash join a critique group.


soaraway said...

But surely $7,000 would be as much (or more) than any advance you might hope to get for your first novel!

katiesandwich said...

I went to a conference where there were two freelance editors on a panel of editors. An attendee asked a question about hiring freelancers, and an editor from a very large house said that no, you didn't need to hire one. It really pissed off the freelance editors on the panel with her. I mean, they got really nasty with her. Certainly didn't make me want to give them my money!

Dick Margulis said...

I'm a freelance editor. Miss Snark makes a valid distinction that I try to impress upon people all the time. An author is someone with content to share but is not necessarily someone who crafts language well. This is the usual situation with nonfiction, but it happens with fiction as well, especially with people whose imaginations have been stimulated by television dramas and B movies. Sometimes they've got a great story but they're not wordsmiths.

Mostly I recommend that such people either join a critique group or recast their story as a script and work that angle. But sometimes I'm approached by a real writer who just wants a once-over of the partial they're going to use when an agent responds. That kind of editing is affordable and, I think, worthwhile. It's really just the sort of polishing the publisher will eventually apply to the rest of the book, but it eliminates the little annoyances that might push the pages onto the wrong pile.

Of course, for someone who insists on self-publishing the great American novel, I'll gladly charge for a thorough edit of the whole manuscript. And that can, indeed, run to a few thousand dollars. But I make sure they understand how unlikely they are to earn it back and I make sure it's disposable income. Remodeling the kitchen comes first.

Anonymous said...

A critique group is the way to go. Just make sure you find the RIGHT one. One that offers CONSTRUCTIVE critism. One that won't try to change your voice.

Kara Lennox said...

Way back when, I joined a critique group. None of us were published at the time. Within five years, all of us were published. That may seem like a long time, but it's not.

You may have to shop around for a critiquer (or a couple or three) who meets your needs. With the Internet there are lots of opportunities to form online critique groups, so geography is not a problem anymore.

One thing to be careful about, though, is editing by committee. If you let too many people comment on your book, and follow all of the advice you get, your book will lose its edge, it's uniqueness. Listen to all comments, look at all editing, and follow only the advice that resonates with you.

Anonymous said...

I'm a published writer and I (slightly) disagree with the flat no about freelance editors.

It depends on the freelance editor and it depends on the writer. I think you CAN be a real writer and still find a freelance editor useful. I would rather pay an editor who has a strong track record to read and edit my work before my agent sends it out than spend hours and hours in a critique group--unless the other members are at the same level or more talented, that is. I have limited time to write and I learn more from reading great published fiction! As for the money--I see it as an investment in myself. No different from the loans I took out in graduate school. The relationships I've had with editors who have published my work have been wonderful and I think that can happen with a freelance editor. That said, I think $7,000 is way too high and if you don't already possess the discipline and talent, then no amount of money will buy that for you.

But, you only have one chance with each editor, so why not get an outside opinion/feedback before your baby goes out!

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark is, to no one's surprise, correct again. You don't need a freelance editor.

But a good one will cut your learning time immeasurably.

The price you were quoted seems pretty much outrageous to me. My editor charges a few hundred dollars compared to a few thousand. She's worth every cent. She's taught me so much about the craft of writing. I've joined crit groups, (still belong to two) and will always use my wonderful crit partner, but in some cases, a crit group can be the blind leading the blind. And if your crit partner is at at the same writing level you are, as good as her intentions may be, that person won't be able to help you further your craft to the extent that a more developed writer (and teacher) could.

I didn't put into my query that I'd hired an editor, but when my newly contracted agent asked me if I had, I told him yes, and that I'd learned so much from her. His response: "You certainly have. Congratulations on a wonderful manuscript."

Crit groups, freelance editors, crit partners and first readers aren't for everyone. My advice, writer, is to investigate them all--without paying out the nose, of course. You might be surprised which choice turns out to be the most valuable resource.

ORION said...

I did not use a professional editor but I know several writers who felt they needed one. If I had a choice of spending that kind of cash-- I would spend it on a writers retreat at Maui and work with Jackie Mitchard. She is fabulous for grammar -- story structure-- etc.
Once you learn it then you can use it on your other work.
I had so many reads by my beta readers that by the time my editor at Putnam got my book she said my prose was really clean.
Dick is right on and makes a great point.
Those who do not plan to be writers may not be concerned. If you plan to be a writer you need to learn the mechanics.

Anonymous said...

But surely $7,000 would be as much (or more) than any advance you might hope to get for your first novel

I hope you were making a joke! Otherwise, think again:

The advance I got for my first novel, half on signing, half on delivery, was 1,833.33.

Get yourself educated on the realities of this business.

The huge advances you hear of on first novel sales are made (one would hope) by really GOOD writers who have, in terms of the publishing world, also won the lottery.

Learn to be a good editor for yourself. Get in a good feedback group, read "Elements of Style" and apply it, study your craft.

Editing is tricky, but it ain't rocket science. If I figured it out, you can, too.

Anonymous said...

I am a freelance editor also. And I agree with Miss Snark. There is a time and place for a freelance editor and most people are better off to join a critique group.

I am currently working with someone who has an incredibly compelling and marketable story. Oprah's waiting in the wings for this book but the author has never written before and she needed someone to help her organize and get a first draft together before she feels comfortable putting together a proposal. Her choice. That's how she wants/needs to do it and she hired me to help her.

That's the kind of person who needs an indy editor. Most fiction writers would do well to find other writers to help them.

Don said...

Ya, I have a critique group which was wonderful except for one member who had sold her first book and seemed to believe that she was God's gift to writers. Frankly it made me ready to find another group. Throw in the fact that she was in 3 or 4 groups (where the punctuation did she find time to write with that?) and that she seemed to forget that we weren't writing the books she thought she would write and I was ready to leave the group.

But, to quote Robert Fripp, Sometimes God Smiles. Her editor sent her back extensive rewrites and asked her to not take her rewrite work to critique groups. Our writing group is much better now.

(And on the off-chance that she's reading this and recognized me and her in it, and finds it endlessly offensive, clearly I'm talking about someone else in a different critique group.)

Anonymous said...

Actually, if one reviews the crapometer examples it quickly becomes clear that changing your voice might not be a bad idea. You'd be lucky to find a group that could help your voice become more clear and engaging. Unfortunately some groups will just muddy it.

A year ago I joined a group with some MFA types who always encouraged more explanation, backstory, hair description, and sad emoting. Plus they wanted more and more and more words. But they had a rule against saying anything like "the premise sucks". I was the contrary voice who kept suggesting ways to simplify, cut the word count, make challenging material more palatable. After six months, I thought -- no wonder these people never get published -- quit the group and promptly got three stories accepted.

Mark said...

Right Dick, scripts are "much easier" to sell by amateurs than novels. For an expert on this "angle" see:

The Unsung Critic

Freelance editors are the Remoras of the vanity press.

Anonymous said...

anonymous: One that won't try to change your voice.

IME, it's the writers who are most vehement about not changing their voice who really, really need to improve their writing style. Lots of new, inexperienced writers think certain techniques are totally hot stuff, when they are really cliched crap.

These writers are easy prey for author mills and vanity presses who trumpet, "We don't change your voice!" True. They publish you as-is, thereby ensuring that if you ever improve your craft, you have a totally cringe-worthy book to look back on and blush at.

Choose your critique group carefully, of course. But if people with more experience and success in your field are giving you advice you interpret as "trying to change my voice," consider that you have Golden Word Syndrome and do what you need to in order to get over it.


Anonymous said...

An author is someone with content to share but is not necessarily someone who crafts language well.

Wow. This is a definition of "author" I have never heard before.

Perhaps you didn't mean this the way it came out.

Christine said...

Yeah, I see this disturbing trend on a number of small press websites - at least two I've looked at in the last couple of days - saying they want to know if you've had your manuscript "professionally edited".

Huh? Yeah, by me. I mean, of course it's been critiqued by fellow writers, rewritten and polished, (I have 'Self-editing for Fiction Writers', of course) but now you wanna know if I forked over cash before you got it? I'm a writer, I'm poor!

Uh. No. 'Cause that's YOUR job.

Any thoughts, Oh Wise One? It's wiggin' me out.

Anonymous said...

Yes. I do not charge for editing, but I have read/critiqued and/or edited several books for friends. The work involved is prodigious, most authors don't want to change one scintillating line of their masterpiece, and most unpublished writing is really, really, really dreadful. If you think the stuff that ends up in print is bad, baby you ain't read the slush.

I am not hot on critique groups, but Miss Snark is right. They are free, and that is a bit more than you should pay to get most MSS critiqued.

Anonymous said...

I've used (and continue to use) an editor. Using an editor in many ways is the equivalent of taking courses - I learn as I'm edited and my editor knows that the education that comes with it is important to me and so teaches as she edits. Like anything else, find the right editor. As for the cost, $7K is way too high. My edits come in under 2K. Not this book, but perhaps the next one will allow me to graduate from using an editor, but she's pointed out a lot of repetitive errors that I'd prefer to learn about up front rather than trial, error and rejection.

Minnie Bittertiddof said...

Try to justify it any way you like, but it sounds to me like there are people who are too willing to pay over seven grand for a bag of magic beans.

pooks said...

I know published authors that used editors for a quick run through on their manuscripts before turning them in. Their book editors LOVED them and thought they were phenomenal writers because their manuscripts were so clean. But they did not spend thousands of dollars to do it, and they were terrific and innovative writers to begin with, and just wanted their material to "sing" when it hit the editors' desks.

Which doesn't mean I think it's necessary. It just means I know published writers who did it, for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

$7,000? Yikes. I got $350 for the last book I edited and was grateful to get that much. I guess that's the difference between a "very established" freelance editor and a "poor college student" freelance editor.

Anonymous said...

Thank Miss Snark and everyone. I am the one who posted the question.

Working with someone who would do a quick polish (checking for typos. etc.) makes more sense than paying 7k, which I can't afford.

waylander said...

OK - so I'm going to go against the flow.
I hired a very highly respected editor to go through my novel thoroughly. It did not cost me the sort of money that has been discussed here.
I am also a member of a highly respected critique group (though with no published novelists in it) and the novel had been critiqued by them before I went to the editor.
I was very pleased with the outcome. The editor picked up on stuff that my group had missed and the novel is better for his work on it.

Fuchsia Groan said...

If you really think you need an editor, I'd suggest shopping around, 'cause it can come a lot cheaper. I got a gig like this when I was a grad student trying to make money on the side. A woman hired me to edit her nonfiction ms. for submission to university presses, and she offered $1000, or roughly $20/hour. That may be way below the national rate, but it wasn't bad in our local job market, and she also got me for cheap because I wasn't a seasoned pro. (I did have the basic skills-- and I recommend that you ask for samples or references from potential editors to make sure they do.) Just recently I saw her book on the shelf. It took a while, but I hope I helped!

overdog said...

A good writer is also a good editor, but it helps to have an objective outsider look at your work. You weigh the pros and cons--if you have professionals in your critique group, great. If you can afford a professional to give your work the once-over, great.

If you're not a good editor and you want to be a good writer, it might be time to study the craft.

Anonymous said...

If you know you suck at spelling and grammar and want to present a fine manuscript to mister or miss agent, an editor could possibly be a good idea.

But please, oh please, don't spend $7000 on them. You're lucky if you get that when your novel sells. There's plenty of cheaper editors who are just as good or even better.

Oh, and if you want a good editor, ask them for a sample of their work so you know what you will be getting. If they don't want to provide one, move on.

judy said...

Editing, copy editing, and proofreading are not the same thing. They do not all fall under "editing". They are completely different skills and professionals who do that work get paid different amounts to do it.

A good substantive editor may not be a good copy editor or proofreader. A good copy editor may not know how to do developmental editing. And proofreading for typos and errors is nothing like editing. Whole other game.

People are using the terms interchangeably here and they are very different skills.

Anonymous said...

And if your crit partner is at at the same writing level you are, as good as her intentions may be, that person won't be able to help you further your craft to the extent that a more developed writer (and teacher) could.

Writing is not unidimensional. Different people have strengths in different areas. If another writer is strong where I am weak, I can learn from her. And if I am strong where she is weak, she can also learn from me.

Sometimes, too, it's not about having a better writer read your work--it's about having a different set of eyes read your work.

Dick Margulis said...

Just fending off a couple of brickbats here...

1. Mark says, "Right Dick, scripts are 'much easier' to sell by amateurs than novels."

Sorry, Mark. I don't know where you quoted "much easier" from, but it wasn't anything I said. Telling someone that a story isn't worthy of a book but might be reworked into a script (with appropriate help) is not suggesting it would be any easier to sell.

2. Anonymous takes offense at my saying, "An author is someone with content to share but is not necessarily someone who crafts language well." I'm not sure what's offensive about that. There are a great many nonfiction books that are written by people with subject matter expertise who nonetheless can't write their way out of a paper bag. This includes memoirs and autobiographies as well as all manner of practical and scholarly books. The smart ones partner with writers or use an editor to turn their ideas into English.

There are also plenty of authors who are fine writers. That's a bonus, but it's not essential to authorship.

Fiction, on the other hand, is written mostly by people who care about language and understand the writing craft. They need a light touch from an editor, usually. (There are exceptions.)

I think it's valid to distinguish the two activities—authoring and writing—and I don't see how it insults anyone.

Ron said...

I know of two online critique groups:

Critique Circle, http://critiquecircle.com
and Urbis, http://urbis.com

So far I’ve found the former to be better than the latter in terms of the quality of critiques given. Can anyone add to this list?

Katharine said...

What some writers may not be aware of is that traditional publishers contract with freelance copyeditors (like me) and sometimes freelance developmental editors (like me) once they've accepted a manuscript for publication. Your work will be edited one way or another. If you hire a freelance editor before you submit your ms., you have more control over what gets changed than you do when the publisher is the one paying the freelancer. And no good freelance editor is going to change your voice unless you're paying him or her to do so. If you do hire a freelance editor, it's very likely you'll pay much less than $7,000. I've been an editor for 23 years, and I've yet to have a single project on which I billed that high a total. With that much experience, I do command higher-than-beginner rates, but a $7,000 invoice would have to be for a ms. the size of War and Peace.

overdog said...

Dick Margulis, I think some folks might have taken offense (I know I did) at this wording in your first post:

"Sometimes they've got a great story but they're not wordsmiths.
Mostly I recommend that such people...recast their story as a script and work that angle."

Sounds like you're saying that non-wordsmiths, stimulated by TV and B movies, are incapable of writing fiction so they can write "scripts" instead. Scripts for stage or screen, presumably. Anyone who has worked in these media knows they're as tough to craft as a novel. Then there's the business of selling them, and the slush piles in Hollywood lit agencies are as deep as they are in New York.

The script is a blueprint for what you see on the stage or screen. It is not the performance itself.

LampLighter said...

The danger of staying with critique groups too long is that you begin to write for the group. You hear what the various members will say and write accordingly.

A professional editor can be invaluable in helping to strengthen story arcs and develop characters so that the reader really cares. A pro editor worth their salt will line edit as they go along. The downside of spending money to hire an editor is that most writers simply aren't ready for that step but have no way of knowing. Once edited--and taught the whys of the comments--they grow as writers. At least that's how it should be.

Christine said...

Yes, I've heard of some published authors who get themselves a freelance editor during the process, just to make sure they have a pair of fresh eyes. Mostly already accepted or contracted material that they are polishing.(Jennifer Weiner just talked about this on her blog - about what a book goes through to be published)

Me, now I get paid to rewrite translated material, which is different. (look for my name under "English Adaptation" credits in the manga/light novels section come May)I take material and make it read like a book instead of a kung fu movie. It's tricky because you have to keep the author's intent and characterization but make it smooth for American audiences. I enjoy that work.

I've also been paid to copy edit, make sure all the words are spelled correctly and all the commas and periods are in the right place. Some people just don't have an eye for it. That's ok.

And I've critiqued other people's work, but I do that for free, because I know I need that kind of stuff myself and want to trade later.

Nothing wrong with any of that, IMO.

And I've run across authors who have paid big bucks to a freelance editor before submitting (which is where my problem lies). These authors then expect NO editorial process from the publisher once it IS accepted, because they paid. They expect it to go to print at is.

That's a dangerous expectation. I agree with the poster that said money for an editor is probably better spent on a writer's conference or books on editing. (Although I hear that in Europe, hiring freelance editors is par for the course when submitting work. That discussion was had at AW at some point)

Katharine said...

Judy wrote: Editing, copy editing, and proofreading are not the same thing. ... They are completely different skills and professionals who do that work get paid different amounts to do it.

She's right. Go here to read definitions of the type of work done by various editorial professionals. See especially the Copyediting link; note that there is more than one level of copyediting. Note: All definitions at the links provided are guidelines, not cast in stone, because each publisher and each editorial profressional may define each task a bit differently.

When you hire a copyeditor, for example, you should sign a contract with that professional specifying the level of editing you'll be getting. Communication throughout the entire editing process is key, and the copyeditor is not the only one responsible for communicating. You are too. It's your book, not the copyeditor's, so speak up for it; get everything that will be done with your manuscript spelled out.

Twill said...

Another online critique group - focused on SciFi, Fantasy and Horror - is critters.org.

Mark said...

"is not suggesting it would be any easier to sell."

Anyone slightly familiar with screenwriting knows scripts are much more difficult for a new writer to sell than a novel. You seem to think if they can't write a novel they could write a screenplay. The fact of the matter is it's unlikely even if they could write one or had a salable story, and you aren't the authority who would know. That's what I'm telling you, from Hollywood, not New Haven, CT.

Just Me said...

As for the $7,000 editing fee you were quoted, I suspect that number may have been a tactful way for the editor to say 'Go away. I don't really want to do your %$#@* book unless you pay me much more than it could ever be worth..."

Judy said...


Thanks for those links.

I do developmental editing for a small publisher and as a freelancer and I would never agree to do copy editing because that's not my strength. I worked as a newspaper copy editor in another life, but that's a long time ago and I'm no good at it now. When I write a contract with someone, I always put in it that I am NOT doing copy editing or proofing, and that the author is responsible to get a copy writer to do that. Or a proofreader. And that those folks are responsible for the quality of that work, not me.

It sound like what a lot of people do is get someone to either copy edit or proofread before they send to an agent or editor.

Dick Margulis said...

Overdog and Mark,

You're both reading some nefarious meaning into what I wrote that just isn't there.

My point is that some people are better with words and some equally imaginative people are better with visuals. I don't think it's easy for a writer to make a living in any case, and it's always hard to sell original work. I'm certainly not denigrating screen writers or suggesting that screen writing is easier than novel writing. I'm just saying different people have different kinds of talent and sometimes they need to be nudged in a direction they hadn't considered before.

If someone came to me and asked me to edit a screenplay, I'd point them elsewhere, because that's not something I do. If someone comes to me with a draft of a "novel" that is clearly not a novel but that might work as a screenplay, I point them in that direction. I still don't know what you guys are getting so defensive about.

Yes, there have been novelists who have done their own screen adaptations, but they're the exceptions, aren't they?

Mark said...

"If someone comes to me with a draft of a "novel" that is clearly not a novel but that might work as a screenplay, I point them in that direction."

Here's the deal: why would you know this? Based on what? Hollywood experience? It's likely it wouldn't work as anything. Sending a greenhorn on a screenplay quest out here in La La Land is like sending them off a higher cliff blindfolded and gagged.

Katrina Stonoff said...

I think a lot of commenters here are missing the point about critique groups. I've been involved in a number of them, and I learn from them whether I'm the best writer in the group or the worst.

Because...and mark this...the best education from a critique group comes not from receiving critiques but from writing them.

I cannot stress that enough. We are all blind to our own faults, but we can see them in other people's writing. If you write critiques week after week, you begin to recognize those same problems in your own writing. Then you can edit your own material effectively.

Southern Writer said...

If you paid attention during Miss Snark's latest Crapometer, you can clearly see the slush pile is not only huge, it's endless. When you realize agents reject 99% of all the manuscripts they see (and publishers are going to weed out a few more), wouldn't you do everything possible to make sure your baby can compete?

I won't even start with publishers since we first need an agent. When an agent reads your beginning chapter and it's full of mistakes, she won't waste her time. She will simply reach for the SASE. It's a signal to her that the entire manuscript will be just as bad, if not worse. Why would she bother when the next manuscript in her pile is polished to perfection?

I don't care for critique groups. They're slow, they can be very cliquish, and in most cases, it's the blind leading the blind. You can spend a year or two letting your peers read your work (and get a differing opinion from almost every one of them until you're so confused you don't know what to do), or you can have your baby back in a week, critiqued and line-edited.

Writers are very bad at being objective about their own work. I admit, it's very difficult for me, but I can easily spot the flaws in someone else's work. I'm as tough as Miss Snark, and I'm sure I've made more than one grown man cry, but in the end, my clients say I saved their novels, and they learned to be better writers. At least one has moved on to help edit other's work.

Of course a writer should learn to edit his own work, but how will he learn to do so unless someone teaches him? Do you know why you should eliminate as many "was," "that," "suddenly," and "then's" from your manuscript as you can? Do you know which physical gestures by your characters are trite and over-used? Do you know what makes your manuscript scream "amateur?"

I'm a starving writer, and I know what it's like to be in that situation, so my fees are probably as low as you will find anywhere. I have no problem giving you an example of what I can do for your manuscript. There's also a lot of free information on my blog, and you're welcome to it. Check the sidebar for an index to help you get where you want to go.

Anonymous said...

Mark, anon and the other, I have to side with you about Dick's comments.

It is naive and misguided to tell anyone not living in NY or LA (or perhaps London or Mumbai) to rethink their novel and turn it into a screenplay.

Zen of Writing said...

Time enough to think about hiring editors once an agent thinks you have something worth spending the time/effort/money on.

I thought $7,000 was more in the "book doctor" range.

Anonymous said...

I did a bit of freelance editing to support myself when I was writing a novel that subsequently sold. Writers would send books, I'd read them, and give a detailed report on how I thought they could improve it, on the understanding that nothing would guarantee publication but that I could give them an early opinion.

I charged about $400 per book.

$7000 is a scam. A freelance edit doesn't guarantee publication, and even if it improves your chances, it almost certainly won't raise the advance price enough to make your money back. The service simply isn't worth that price.

Termagant 2 said...

Either editor pricing is going up, or advances are going down. Sheesh. We author already get the lowest percentage of anybody who makes money off a given book anyway. Who knew?


Amanda Brice said...


Even though you'd likely earn more than that in your first advance, who has that type of cash just laying around?

Freelance editors can be valuable, but are definitely not necessary. A good critique group should be your first start. It sounds as though you've already run your story by published authors, so evidently you can find a critique group as well.

Anonymous said...

For my part, I'm not paying any editor more than it would cost me to take a vacation to England. Or for that matter, a vacation to Denver. And if I save my pennies, I can afford the trip to Denver.

Though I guess I'm lucky I have a private, non-formal crit group whom I trust, and who aren't afraid to tell me when I suck. ;-)