As an editor, what are the types of editing a freelance editor might offer, and what are the differences (like developmental editing, etc.)?
The two main services you’ll see offered are developmental, or line, editing, and proofreading or copyediting. In broad strokes, these terms are interchangeable. I do developmental editing, which means feedback on the content rather than simple corrections of grammar or punctuation. This entails commenting on small and large issues of character, plot, voice and writing style. Most writers need this kind of feedback to move their work to the next level, because everyone has blind spots when it comes to their own work. Almost anyone can proofread, that’s not where the art of editing comes into play. Developmental editing is so much more involved than knowing how to use a semi-colon. The editor’s ideas about the writing craft, their experience with the publishing marketplace—these are the things that will differentiate those editors working today. Try to find someone who you really resonate with, and whose outlook on writing you trust.
What have been the benefits/drawbacks of switching from the position of agent to editing?
I love every moment of my career as a freelance editor. Agents wear a lot of hats. We work with clients on their manuscripts, we network with publishing house editors, we negotiate contracts, we liaise between clients and various checkpoints along the road to publication, we pitch to editors and subrights agents, we comb endlessly through the slush... I would find myself always wanting to just work with writers on their projects. To wear one hat and wear it well. That had always been the most rewarding and exciting part for me. Once I left NYC, I decided I couldn’t be an asset to my agenting clients without having “boots on the ground”. So I dove fully into my favorite part of agenting—working with writers one on one to transform their project. I would say that I miss New York and I miss the high of fielding calls from Hollywood or organizing a multi-publisher auction. There was a time in my life for that, and I’m so grateful to have had those experiences. They make me an asset to my editorial clients. Now I wear my one hat, and I love it!
What questions should someone ask an editor they're considering working with?
Feeling out an editor can be tricky. After all, if an editor doesn’t have the vision to contribute to your project, their impressive resume and glossy website won’t matter. But the editor isn’t likely to give out their editorial feedback for free. They are, after all, in the business of commenting on your work, so their comments are their service. Most editors will give free samples, at least for their upper tier services. Some will get on the phone for an introductory call. Find out your potential editor’s policies and get as much information up front as you can. Be wary of editors who don’t ask to see your work ahead of agreeing to work with you. Even if they don’t offer a ton of free advice up front, they should at least review your material to see if it’s a good fit for them. Anyone can hang out a shingle and call themselves an editor. Don’t hesitate to ask for their experience, if it’s not obvious from their self-promotion efforts. Good starting points are an English degree, MFA, or relevant publishing experience. If you’re on the fence, don’t hesitate to ask for referrals to past clients. Editors often can’t show you examples of work they’ve edited because it’s the creative product of another client and it may not be published yet. But a good and trustworthy editor should have no problem providing some names of previous customers.
What makes one piece of writing stand out more than another?
I’d say that confidence is a very important quality that is obvious on the page. If a writer is over-explaining what they’re doing or trying too hard to write in a “literary” way to make sure everyone knows their skill level, this is transparent and a huge turn-off. Take for example:
“I don’t know what to do,” he said, shrugging in ambivalence and confusion. Then he glanced off into the undulating waves and the gloaming of oncoming night that mirrored the turbulence in his heart.
Yuck! If he’s saying “I don’t know what to do”, we don’t need him shrugging, and we certainly don’t need both “ambivalence” AND “confusion”. It’s completely redundant. This example hits the reader over the head. “Undulating” and “the gloaming of oncoming night” try way too hard to sound “writer-y”. And “mirrored the turbulence in his heart” is just melodramatic. Not to mention that it’s telling, again, because the reader already knows the character is confused.
I see many passages like this one. If your biggest objective when you come to the page is to prove that you’re a good writer, it will show. Relax, trust yourself, trust your reader, and focus on telling a good story instead.
What are the five biggest mistakes writers make?
Telling is by far the biggest issue that I encounter in aspiring manuscripts. I talk about what telling means and why it’s toxic here: What Show Don't Tell Really Means.
As I mentioned above, overwriting really gets in the way of a genuine story that you’re trying to tell. It’s very hard to have confidence, especially if you’re unproven, but try to dial your efforts back if you’ve ever been accused of “purple prose” or similar.
Passive protagonists are a novel-killer. If your character isn’t driving the story with their wants and needs, and is instead simply reacting to things thrown their way by the plot, readers will find it very difficult to become invested in their story. Even if the story is about a character facing drastic outside forces, let them take control of what they can, even in small ways. Otherwise, they’re just a crash test dummy.
In the same vein, a lack of emotional connection to the character nips many promising stories in the bud. I discuss my concept of “interiority” and why it’s so important here: What Interiority is and Why it Matters.
Finally, and this isn’t just a craft issue: Most writers hammer away at one story for many years. While I admire this level of dedication, it can sometimes stall a writer’s progress. They get in the rut of working with what’s on the page, so they become afraid to make big changes or take big risks. The best thing, really, if you’re suffering rejection or feel stuck in a writing rut, is to work on something new. That’s not to say your existing project is hopeless, but a new idea is always good for your craft. Plus, most agents and publishers will want to see multiple projects, or at least the potential for more ideas. If you hit a wall with one manuscript, start another. Keep learning and growing, and you will go far!
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