Monday, October 3, 2011

Finding an Editor Part 2: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In my last post, I talked about the importance of being edited. Here’s a nice post by David Gaughran that backs that assertion up.  I also identified the two hurdles that self-publishers (or really any aspiring author) will run into in the quest to be well-edited: the cost and the difficulty of finding a good editor. Today I want to tackle what makes a good editor and how you can find one to match your needs.

All Editors Are Not Created Equal

There are three flavors of “bad” editors. The Editor Who Only Thinks He’s An Editor, The Editor Who Thinks This Is a Seventh Grade English Class, and the Editor Who Thinks He Should Write Your Book.

If you look around the Net, you can see a plethora of sites suggesting that “You, too, can be an editor!” According to them, all you need is a passing acquaintance with English and a website. I cannot count the number of people I came across who thought they knew how to edit. Some of them have touted their experience as getting good grades in high school English. I’ve gotten into knock-down virtual fights with people who were not fighting about the relevance of the Oxford comma, but who didn’t even know what an Oxford comma was. Or an em-dash. Or passive voice.  People who, when asked if they used the AP Style Guide or the Chicago Manual Style, replied that, “Hey, those are expensive. I just use common sense and what I remember from my college composition class.” Make no mistake, editing is hard. It takes skill, practice, continuing education, experience, and a shelf full of reference books. Fortunately, these are the easiest bad editors to pick out. Their samples (we’ll get to that later) are terrible. They have no track record or references. Their correspondence is riddled with mistakes. Steer clear.

Editors in the second category know proper grammar, usage, and punctuation, but they know it too well. They are trapped by rules that kill good writing, and can’t see beyond the bars of their self-made prison. They want everything to turn out like a freshman English paper. Usually they’re not up on the fluidity of style, because they’re still traumatized by the time Sister Mary Ignatius smacked their knuckles with a ruler and told them to never start a sentence with “but” or to never, ever to use a contraction. Again, these are pretty easy to pick out once you have a sample of their editing style.

The third type of bad editor is harder to recognize at first blush, because it’s a very small space to navigate, especially for writers who are also editors. You see, a good editor will help you to see your mistakes and will also point out where you can improve your voice, characters, plot, style, etcetera. Occasionally, you’ll find a good editor that goes too far, and starts to step all over YOUR style and insert their own. Sometimes this is a passing aberration, and you and your editor will be able to work through a back-and-forth and find the happy medium. If you can’t find that happy medium, then you’ve either got a good editor who just isn’t right for you, you’ve got an editor that really should just stick to writing their own books, or – gasp -- YOU are the problem. Which brings us to….

Don’t Be THAT Writer

We are creative, driven people, gripped by vision, in the thrall of our art, pounding out a masterpiece that….well, you get the picture. Despite the fact that we are sometimes racked by our insecurities, we still like to think that we know what we’re doing and if people would just give themselves over to our genius, why, they would see our tremendous talent. Whatever.

There’s a point where you’re too close to see your work. In fact, you’re almost always too close to see your work, at least in the way it needs to be seen. I’ll say it again, you need outside advice. And you need to be able to discern when it’s good advice and when it’s bad advice. This is brutally hard. This might hurt you and make you curl up in a ball and weep uncontrollably. But every sentence you write is not a special little snowflake. Some things you write are, shall we say, less good than they could be. Some things you write are crap. Some things you write might be an abomination that will blind someone. (Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole, but you get the idea.)

If you’re going to hold on to every adverb, every lovingly written flashback that interrupts the forward flow of the narrative and delivers nothing, every flowery description of the grocery clerk’s honeyed locks, well, there are going to be problems. If you’ve found a good editor, for dog’s sake, LISTEN TO WHAT THEY’RE SAYING. This in no way means that you should roll over and accept every suggestion. But make sure the things that you’re fighting for are worth fighting for. And if you determine something is worth fighting for, fight hard. But you will often find, even after a long-drawn out campaign to save the word “stealthily,” it really was telling and not showing and not worth the millisecond it took to type it out.

There are writers who can’t be edited. Not because they’re brilliant, but because they won’t listen. And in truth, even if they’re brilliant, they most likely won’t get very far and they’ll end up insane in a basement somewhere, scribbling out would-be masterpieces that’ll never be read.

So, Where is This Good Editor You Speak of?

Aye, there’s the rub. The best way to find a good editor is through word-of-mouth. Find out who edited writers you admire or self-pubbed books you fell in love with. There’s one giant problem with this. These editors are often backlogged well into the future. Still, ask around, you might get lucky. Networking is a great way to find editors, proofers, formatters, cover artists that you can trust are professional.

No, luck? Search the Web. Steer clear of obvious noobs and charlatans. Look for professionals who have experience, a track record, a good presentation. Now comes the important part. Never hire an editor without a sample. Even if an editor comes highly recommended, you need to see how they’re going to edit you. Conversely, they need to see how you’re going to take to being edited. Different editors will offer different sample lengths, but you want something representative. A full chapter, 10 pages, a decent part of a short story. You’re entering into an important partnership, and you need to know you’re going to get what you need out of it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for references.

And this is equally important: not every editor, no matter how skillful, is right for every writer. You need someone you can work with. You need someone who understands your genre, if  you’re a genre writer. You need someone who is a personality match. You need someone who is willing to tell you the hard truths, but who is also willing to listen to your side and admit when they are wrong and you are right. (Which does happen, more often than you would think.)

You also need to have clear goals, on both sides of the equation. You need to work out payment, deadlines, expectations, level of service. Work these details out beforehand, and it will save a lot of grief later on. Most editors I know work in Word with Tracking Changes. This allows an easy back and forth where you can accept and reject changes effortlessly and easily read and make comments. Inquire if you have other expectations or methods you would care to use.

Lastly, don’t despair. You may have to kiss some frogs, dance with some uncoordinated llamas, whatever  analogy you want to use. But once you do find an editor that works for you, magic can be made.

(Standard Disclaimer: I am an editor. I am also a writer. I think of myself as a writer first and foremost, but have worked for many years as an editor to pay the bills. I take on new clients sparingly, and I do know some other editors whom I trust. Please feel free to email me with questions or comments at jacypods(at)gmail(dot)com.)  

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