Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Guest Blogger: Beyond Self-Editing

By Jade Kerrion

Recently, my ruthlessly self-edited novel, GENESIS, won a Royal Palm Literary Award in the unpublished Science Fiction category. After running back to my hotel room and waking my sleeping husband to show him the trophy, I did the next logical thing: I set out on a search for an independent editor.

All right, some of you might be saying, “You’ve got the cart before the horse. Shouldn’t you have hired the editor before submitting your novel for the competition?” Others might be saying, “But you won an award—obviously, your novel is good, so why do you need an editor?”

For me, personally, I put off hiring an editor because I wanted to be sure my writing could stand alone (which it did). And I decided to hire one because I was finally convinced that my writing would improve tremendously with her input.


Because ‘ruthless self-editing’ is usually an oxymoron…

I studied books on self-editing, including the excellent ‘Self-editing for Fiction Writers’, made notes and kept them beside me as I edited my novel (six times, no less). I even cut out the entire prologue. However, after reviewing my editor’s notes on the first ten pages, I’m convinced that my ‘ruthless self-editing’ was as deep as a paper cut. I caught misspellings and basic grammatical errors, as any self-respecting self-editor should. My editor found far more. At one point, she had me thinking, “Wow, I did really use the word ‘the’ eight times in that short paragraph. Damn.”

Because sometimes, you just can’t wait…

Let’s face the facts: it takes time (sometimes years) to get traditionally published. Meanwhile, you’re writing other novels, right? When you find an agent and a publisher, you will usually receive an editor in the process. However, did you really want to wait till that late stage to catch possible issues with your writing style? After you’ve written tons of other books, all with those same issues? Sending your work through an independent editor can be a tremendous learning experience, especially if you’re just starting out.


Decide what you need: Do you need developmental editing, substantive editing, copy-editing or proofreading? If you don’t know the difference, find out.

Get recommendations: This isn’t the time to limit your search to what Google can spit back out at you. In addition to consulting Google, I asked fellow writers at Backspace and the Florida Writers Association (FWA). Financially, you may catch a break. For example, FWA has an editing service that they’ve negotiated with professional, thoroughly screened editors for discounted rates on a certain number of hours of work.

Get samples: Editors vary in thoroughness and individual style; obtaining edited samples of your work is key. Samples of what they edited in the past isn’t good enough. You will need a consistent basis for comparison, and you will want to know how they’d edit your work. Some editors offer samples for free, others charge a fee. Be willing to pay a fee if the editor comes highly recommended and/or has a long list of accolades to his or her name. The fees I paid ranged from $30-$35 for ten pages of edits.

Check the editor’s credentials: How long have they worked as an editor? Did they spend thirty years as a newspaper editor, or did they also edit full-length novels? How many novels have they edited? How many novels went on to find agents and traditional publishers? Have they worked in your genre? Do they even like your genre? Obtain reviews and recommendations of their work, where possible.

Electronic or paper edits: Electronic, of course. Why are we even having this discussion? Wait, not so fast. Three of the four sample edits I received were electronic. The fourth one was on paper. I learned far more from the paper edit than the electronic edits. Yes, there are nonsensical squiggles on the paper and you’ll have to invest the time to figure out what they mean. You have a busy life—who needs the cognitive overload? But take a step back and allow your eyes to drift over the pages. How many different types of squiggles do you see? Are there more of some types than others? What you’re seeing are trends—persistent issues with your writing. I ran into a brick wall attempting to identify trends through Microsoft Word’s ‘track changes’ functionality. I did bang my head on it several times (I’m the persistent type) before giving it up as a lost cause. Whether you chose electronic or paper edits will depend on what you’re looking to get out of the editing process. If you’re confident that your novel is in excellent shape and the editor is merely fine-tuning, electronic edits may be the way to go. If you’re looking for a profound learning experience, consider paper edits. If you are a control freak (see the next point), stick with paper edits. Less heartburn that way, I promise.

Review the samples: This should go without saying, especially if you paid a fee for the sample edit. However, this step is doubly important if you decide to go with an electronic edit because the editor is making changes directly in the master document, hopefully with the ‘track changes’ functionality turned on. They’re doing more than identifying the problem. They’re correcting it. Do you like what they’re doing? One editor was so enthusiastic about correcting my manuscript that he rewrote entire sentences in a style that felt unnatural for me (and he didn’t even track the changes in Microsoft Word.) I could never have duplicated it in my other novels, nor would I have wanted to. To top it off, he changed a character’s last name; I never understood the point of that particular edit. His work wasn’t a good fit for me.

How are they charging for their services? Most editors charge based on the number of pages or the number of words. The type of service also varies. Are they copy-editing, or doing everything from content to commas? Do they want payment for the full job, or do you only pay for the work done if you decide to stop working with them? Make certain you’re doing an apples-to-apples comparison when getting quotes from editors.

What else are you getting for the money? For their fee, some editors will send an edited document back to you. Others may send you the edited document and a twenty-five page critique of your content and writing style. Once again, it depends on what you want out of the experience.

Note that I didn’t actually discuss how much to pay. That’s because it varies based on your needs and your budget. For my 90,000-word novel, I received quotes ranging from $1,100 to $3,900, though most came in under $2,000.

Is it worth it? Based on the ten pages I received from my editor, the answer is yes. The accompanying partial critique of the sample pages identified stylistic elements that I’m working to eliminate or incorporate (depending on the element) in my second novel, codenamed EXODUS. (Yes, I need a better name; I’m working on that). The first draft of EXODUS feels like a tighter document than the final draft of GENESIS; the editor’s assistance is paying off, and she hasn’t even delivered the edited manuscript yet. By the time I get through all her red squiggles, I’ll be a better writer. I’m absolutely certain of it.

Jade Kerrion


  1. Thank you. I needed this post. How do you all, feel about Whitesmoke or grammarly editing services?

  2. Thank you very much for bringing this topic up and I appreciate the information you provided. Great post.

  3. Glad you found this post useful, Marcus. I'm not familiar with either Whitesmoke or Grammarly. Perhaps someone else will be able to comment on them.