Jeanne: What Do You Look for in an Editor?

EditingMy journey toward publication has been loaded with new learning opportunities. One of the biggest was choosing a content, or developmental, editor. This is both because this selection has the most impact on the quality of the book(s) I will put out, and because it’s the single biggest expense in the self-publishing journey.

The problem was, I didn’t really understand what a content editor would do. I knew they weren’t the same as a copy editor, who would look for problems with grammar and wording. Content editors work at a more macro level—they’re concerned with characters and plot.

But I still didn’t understand exactly what that meant.

Were they just a glorified (and paid) version of the critique group I’d had for so long? Or something more? What should I expect? How would I even begin to tell a good one from mediocre one or even a bad one?

A.E. Jones, who won the 2014 Golden Heart® for her paranormal romance, Mind Sweeper, did a series of blog posts on choosing a developmental editor. The posts are smart and incisive and will take you through a well-defined and repeatable process to make a smart hire. The first post is here.

I read A.E.’s posts, and I’d like to tell you that I followed her well laid out process, but I didn’t. I still felt unqualified to make a wise selection. Once I got the sample edits back, they’d probably disagree with each other. How would I know which editor was right?

Meanwhile, one of the 2015 Golden Heart® finalists, Arlene McFarlane, self-published her novel, Murder, Curlers and Cream. It’s a comedy/murder mystery/slow-burn romance. Arlene had problems finding a home for it in traditional publishing because it straddled sub-genres. Since this is also true of The Demon Always Wins, it occurred to me that maybe Arlene’s editor might work for my book, too.

So, I read Murder, Curlers and Cream. It’s a fun read and I recommend it, but for purposes of this discussion, what I was looking for was plot holes and inconsistent or poorly-motivated characters. I didn’t find that. The book was solid. And Arlene had nothing but praise for her editor, Karen Dale Harris.

So, without getting so much as a sample edit, I hired Karen. I got a little frustrated that it took longer to get the edit back than I expected (more on that next week when I talk about the perils of scheduling a release in the self-pub world), but when it arrived I was completely satisfied.

Also, a little overwhelmed.

Karen’s edit came in two pieces: a thirty (30!) page edit report and a markup of my 400 page manuscript. The markup included some copy editing as well as Karen pointing out plot holes and inconsistencies.

The edit report, though, was what finally helped me understand what a really good editor can do for you. Karen went through and summarized all the plot holes, all the weak (or non-existent) motivations and all the inconsistencies she found while combing through the manuscript. She also offered suggestions for addressing them.

She also spent some time explaining some really basic things about what romance readers look for—like, a book that’s primarily about a couple falling in love, rather than the nuts and bolts of how one might run a free clinic. (Setting is important, but it can’t  be allowed to overwhelm the story.)

In particular, I knew that the book wasn’t as sexy as I wanted it to be. Karen offered very practical (and mostly subtle) suggestions to correct that.

I’m sure that once the book is out in the world, my readers will tell me a thousand things that could be better about it, but I’m thrilled with where I wound up, with the help of my editor.

I just got the second book in the series, The Demon’s in the Details, back from Karen. The edit report is only half as long, in part because I took a lot of what I learned from working with her on the first book and built it into the second one from the start.

So, what would I recommend for a first-time author who is going the self-publishing route and needs to hire a content editor?

  1. Don’t skip the developmental edit. Neither you nor your critique partners know enough to create a strong book that is worthy of asking someone to spend money to buy it.
  2. Follow A.E. Jones process. You may be able to shoot from the hip and get lucky, but there’s a better chance you won’t.
  3. Recognize that there’s a learning curve to this, just like there has been with every other step along your writing path. You may not get lucky and get a great editor right out of the box, as I did, but even if you don’t, you’ll learn something from the experience.
  4. As far as the sample edits, since the first pages of the book are the most important in terms of hooking your reader, see what your prospective editors have to say about those. Ideally, at least one of them will say something that will give you an ah-ha! moment. If she does, grab her!




6 thoughts on “Jeanne: What Do You Look for in an Editor?

  1. That’s a great checklist, Jeanne. Like you, I knew the advice to pick three editors and get sample edits from each, and I even communicated with three, but ended up just getting a sample edit on my first 30 pages from one. She was a high-level editor at Harlequin for decades and had edited some of my friends’ books when they wrote for that publisher, and after all these years she still really loves historical romance. It seems to be a great fit.

    For me, the non-romancy thing I did was keep the h/h apart for much of the third act. While these are historical romances, the heroines are strong, smart women bucking against the strictures of their time (and paying a price for it, yet triumphing in the end). Seems I went a bit too far in making sure my damsel in distress wasn’t waiting around to be rescued by keeping the hero away from her. Not great when readers are looking for a love story ;-).

    • I love my editor. She gets me and my stories. She’s great at pointing out plot holes and incomplete or inconsistent world-building, along with opportunities to deepen my characters.

      I have a Contemporary that’s almost finished. I planned to try to go traditional with it, but I want her to edit it. Argh!

  2. So I didn’t actually interview 3 editors, only one (after doing a shit-ton of research on them, though). I had her give me a sample edit on a not-so-clean chapter (she asked for something that wasn’t as spit-shined as my first chapters, which I’d submitted to contests). So I gave her the chapter that’s my story’s midpoint, including a major reveal, and she provided some excellent suggestions and a huge whopping dose of clarity that I had in fact written the scene in the WRONG POV! Her way of making the suggestion, though, was really delicate and…well…suggestive. And it made perfect sense. It was after the sample edit that I hired her.

    I will tag up with her in a few weeks. She’s actually reviewing a storyboard of my book (even though it’s already halfway written) because I was having some plot problems and she asked some really good questions plot-wise when she did the sample edit.

    A bonus — she loves historicals and writes Victorian-era stories (however, her editing work has kept her busy lately). I like that she gets the anachronisms that I have to work around and can think outside the box that way.

    But I’m with you, Jeanne. There’s no way I’d self-pub without hiring a developmental editor.

  3. Pingback: First draft editing: rewriting, revising, and polishing - The Romance MFA

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