Friday, April 3, 2009

Your Questions: When should you seek an editor's help?

As promised, I'm going to use today's blog post to answer reader questions.
When is the right time to stop editing for the new writer and seek professional help? For the beginning writer, when should they seek an editor's help?
 - Writer Cynthia Hernandez (
First of all, thanks for the question, Cynthia! So much for starting with softballs, huh?
Second of all, for all of my readers, I know this question seems a little too perfect - the kind you'd have a friend ask just so you can launch into your sales pitch. Full disclosure: Cynthia and I belong to the same writing and editing Yahoo! group, but there was NO question coaching.
Now, there's the long-winded easy (and sales-pitchy) answer - everybody can use an editor, you need one if you think you do, etc. You can get all of that on my company website.
I decided the best way to answer this question was to chat with some of my former and current clients to find out how they knew it was time. They had some great answers, and I'm happy to share them with you.
It might be time to seek an editor's help if:
You've edited and edited and edited. Then rewrote. Then edited some more. Then queried. Then read a book on making your first pages snazzier. Then queried. Sent in a few partials. And nothing is happening.
Turns out this is one of the most common reasons my writers get in touch, and I think it's my favorite. When an author has this much dedication to their work, but starts to feel like they are spinning their wheels, handing that manuscript over to a publishing professional WHO WILL ACTUALLY READ AND ANALYZE THE WHOLE THING can be an enormous relief - and unbelievably useful. These tend to be the authors who get their manuscript evaluation reports and send me an e-mail within 24-hours to say something along the lines of "I can't believe I didn't notice that before!" or "Did I really use the word 'bodacious' 678 times???" If and when I get to read the next draft, I almost always get to do my Happy-Editor-Jig, because they've nailed it.
You're getting back suggestions and comments on your partials (or fulls) in your agent-rejection letters, which is great. Except none of them seem to agree on what is actually wrong with the manuscript, you disagree with half of them, and some of them don't even sound like they're about your book. And you have no idea what to do about any of them.
This was actually more common than I expected, and yes, I think this is a great sign that you may want to bring on an editor. One paragraph of vague suggestions can be hard to implement - a fully-marked manuscript is a little easier to attack.
You ARE a writer. You know it in your soul. And you've finally finished your first manuscript. But you're also a mom, a wife, a lawyer, a friend, a student, a family-chauffeur, a cook, a dog-walker, and about a million other things. You know your manuscript isn't perfect or ready, but you also don't know where to begin when it comes to editing or rewriting (or, if it's a second or third draft, what to next). You need someone to take that stack of paper (and you) and act as editor, writing coach, motivator, teacher, friend, and, to some extent, task-master.
We ALL know editing our own work can be absolutely overwhelming, especially if you don't have a ton of confidence in your writing chops just yet. Writing groups work for some people. Reading books on writing works for others. And for some, working with an editor who wears just as many hats as you do can be just the guided kick-in-the-pants you need to achieve your goals and Make it Happen.
You ARE NOT a writer. You know THAT in your soul. But you've got something very important to say, and you want to say it in book form.
Yes, you need an editor. This answer came mostly from my non-fiction self-help writers and one of my memoirists. Unless you're Britney Spears' mom or the inventor of Twitter (yeah, I still don't get it), you need a clean and well-written manuscript, no matter much the world needs to hear your story or big idea. Some published authors aren't "writers"- they're experts. And experts often need developmental editors who know how to take the Big Idea and translate it into something that works for readers.
There were plenty of other answers, but those were the big four. Feel free to add your own reasons in the comments section. If you have any questions for me that you'd like to see featured in next week's blog post, please e-mail me at editor at murdockediting dot com. (Maybe something softer? Like about how many cats I have?)
Thanks again to writer Cynthia Hernandez. Go read her blog at!


  1. Hey Lindsay--

    As a fellow editor, I'll add one more thing: When you've decided to self-publish. If you can't afford a line-edit, then at least pony up for a copy-edit. You'll save yourself some embarassment.

    That is something I've heard from clients, who are self-publishing their second or third book. They can't even stand to look at their first book anymore! In fact, I have one client now who is sending me her first book, to edit, and she is going to republish it, corrected. So the money she saved by not hiring an editor the first time around is costing her more, in the end.

  2. Thank you so much Lindsay for using my question and the great advice. I have to say I have learned so much from your blog. Keep up the good work. I plan to visit often!

    Cindy Hernandez

  3. Plume [Penguin imprint] is my publisher, but I still use a freelance editor. My rule is that NOBODY sees my first draft, which is just to write the story down. My freelance gets the 2nd or 3rd draft, and my editor at Plume sees the 4th or 5th.

    Maggie Anton
    Coming in August 2009: Rashi's Daughters: Book III - RACHEL
    Now Available! Rashi's Daughters: Book Two - MIRIAM
    (Novels of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France)