Choosing the Right Editor For You

This might sound like a shameless plug for Girl Friday, and I can’t deny that it partially is, but a great editor is crucial to your success as a writer. As the Girl Friday responsible for matching clients with the right editor, I spend my days thinking about who is going to be the right fit for a given author. And having spent quite a bit of time myself on both sides of the writer-editor divide, I can tell you that a successful match can feel like gliding across the floor in a precise and soulful tango, while the wrong fit can be as frustrating as a bad marriage. Herewith my top five tips on finding your editorial soul mate:  

1. Start with the basics. Opposites might attract when it comes to romance, but in an editorial relationship, it helps to find someone with some affinity for and basic expertise in your genre. Do they handle fiction? Genre fiction? YA? Once you’ve gathered names of editors from other writer friends, conferences, and workshops, vet each editor’s website and determine whether they’re generalists or specialists. As my lovely colleague Ingrid explained so compellingly in this post, it’s not necessary for your editor to be an expert in birdcalls or brain science for them to do a sensational job with your book—in fact, an editor who is less of an expert can sometimes better identify holes—but it’s wise to work with someone familiar with your genre.

2. Don’t rush it. They may look great on paper (or on screen), but take your time when hiring an editor. It may be tempting to think you’ve found The One right off the bat. We all know the feeling—you’ve got momentum, you feel like your book is done, you’re itching to get it out into the world. But take a deep breath. Once you’ve narrowed down your list to a few appropriate contenders based on general areas of interest and expertise, it’s time to get in touch. Reach out and say hi and tell them a bit about who you are, what your book is about, and where you are in the writing process. Ask what they need to evaluate your book and whether they’re available to set up a time to talk.

3. Ask questions, and be specific. Once you’ve got them on the phone, have your questions ready. The editorial process has some standard elements, but make sure you and your editor have the same understanding of what a developmental edit is. I find that establishing clear expectations is essential to a successful author/editor relationship, so I always go over exactly what our editorial process looks like, what a developmental editor looks for, and what the author can expect to receive once the edit is complete. A few good questions to ask: What sorts of things does this editor look for in a developmental edit? Have they edited similar books? What is the scope of the work? In other words, will the editor be available to answer questions about the edit afterward? Does it include a second review? Some editors will offer to edit a sample chapter. This is fine, but we find that it can be difficult to offer feedback on crucial big-picture issues such as pacing and character development with a sample, so it’s not always an accurate way to assess an editor’s strengths. If you’re working with an individual, ask for references. For more on the editorial process: read here and here.

4. Understand what an editor can’t do for you. Hiring a great developmental editor can bring your work to a whole new level and open the door to all kinds of possibilities, but it’s important to understand the limitations of the editor’s role. For instance, while you will hopefully have a great personal rapport with your editor, writing can be an emotional journey, so it’s important to remember that they’re not your therapist. And while they can guide you to write the best book you’re capable of writing, they can’t do the work for you; it’s a collaborative process, so be prepared to hold up your end of the bargain by staying on task. And while an editor will often offer some amount of guidance about next steps—helping with a query letter or even offering some suggestions on whom to send your work to—they cannot “get” your book published. This is an entirely different process, so be wary of any for-hire editor who promises too much on this front.

5. Trust your instincts. I can’t stress this enough. An editorial relationship is based on trust, respect, and understanding. You’re handing over your beloved work to a stranger. Only do so if that person has made you feel entirely comfortable with their process. Yes, all those questions you ask are important and will provide you with crucial information, but they’re also an opportunity to gauge an editor’s communication style. How does your editor present himself or herself? Are they genuinely enthusiastic about your project? (Don’t underestimate the power of enthusiasm.) Do they put you at ease? Do they ask good questions? In short, it doesn’t have to be love at first sight, but run for the hills if you feel intimidated, condescended to, or otherwise uncomfortable or confused after an initial conversation. Yes, editors are critical and opinionated people—that’s part of the job—but they’re also meant to provide clarity, support, encouragement, and an easy-to-follow road map for getting your book to a more polished state. If you feel like the editor gets you and what you’re trying to accomplish (read: if you feel like going out for a drink with your editor after getting off the phone with them), then congratulations, it sounds like you’ve found your match and are ready to walk off into the editorial sunset together.