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Maybe freelance editors suck…because they’re freelance?

(Another post meant mainly for writers…)

I know, it’s a ridiculous title. And hey, freelance folk: I don’t think you suck as people, or even necessarily as editors. It’s more of an impersonal thing…as if you were appliances.

Okay, I couldn’t resist it but that was rude and also not to the point. Sorry. What I actually think: there are probably bunches of well-intentioned and competent freelance editors. But even if an author knows for certain that both of these things are true of a particular editor…it still may be a mistake to hire that editor. Especially for a beginning author or one with a fragile ego. The more emotionally fragile you allow yourself to be, the more damage the wrong editor can do.

Okay, enough bold-face for now. I posted some stuff yesterday about my experiences with editors. Then I got involved in a discussion over at The Passive Voice, and it led to an epiphany (or a clarification of my own thoughts, anyway) that I don’t think is well-expressed in yesterday’s post.

I’ll try to do this clearly, in bullet points:

  • Working to strengthen a story for people who enjoyed it is probably a lot more useful than following suggestions from someone who didn’t like it. (Not a new thought for me.)
  • Editors who are purchasing stories don’t give a lot of feedback when they don’t like what they read.
  • The same editors, if working freelance and paid to give feedback, give it for stories they dislike. Every time.

To steal from my argument yesterday:

I actually brought this idea over from software development. I worked with several focus groups, and the pros in that game worked pretty hard to avoid inadvertently asking open-ended questions. People tend to pick low-hanging fruit, and since many changes are always possible (and the less important the changes actually are, the more comfortable people are in suggesting them) it often turns into a waste of time and effort. It gets much worse when multiple people are working together on a project and trying to determine “next steps,” especially if not everybody in the group understands this issue (or finds it advantageous to admit it).

When working with these groups we got better results by watching people attempt to achieve a goal via software than by letting them tell us about button color. So…in fiction I also want to focus on “users” rather than “viewers” as far as is practical. Thus, my focus on readers who enjoy a story.

Thing is, people are a lot messier inside their heads than they generally prefer to let on. If a reader doesn’t like a story, he or she may have no idea what the real reasons are. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t get a list of things to “fix” anyway if you pay for it.

And then there’s the problem that revising a story for a reader who didn’t like it (at the end of the day, we probably ought to remember that all editors are also individual readers) may spoil the thing for people who would have loved it. So…I propose a very dangerous screening mechanism:

  1. Deal only with individual editors who offer a free sample of their work.
  2. If you don’t get the sense that an editor actually enjoyed the sample, or felt it to be near-professional in quality, stop dealing with that editor.
  3. If the editor seems generally positive about your story, and you also got some useful tips or ideas…consider going further with the editor.

There are a couple of problems here. First: I have no idea how well this will work in practice. Second: if your stuff sucks you’ll reliably find sucky editors this way.

So…I still think learning to self-edit is necessary. You need it to cut down on the expense of editing services, to help you evaluate editors, and…well, for fuck’s sake, because you’re a writer and it’s your job.

And frankly I’m not sure I’ll do this myself. I’ve had really good results with beta readers. They bug me, asking when I’ll have more stuff ready, so I doubt they feel exploited. But! Next time I’m looking for an editor I’ll probably try something like the above.

Dealing only with individuals also ought to help avoid predatory editing services & cut down on the scams somewhat. Not perfect…but it’s an idea.

I’m glad I blogged about this yesterday.

Have fun out there.

Published inPublishingRandom Rants


  1. Becki

    Self-editing is really important, whether or not you hire others. However, I’ve found that it’s really, really easy for my brain to put words where they aren’t: I know what’s supposed to be there, because I’ve heard my husband talk about the story so often, so my brain doesn’t notice when it isn’t. Having at least one other set of eyes read through a text is vital, someone who isn’t involved with the day-to-day writing. Beta readers rock!

    • David

      Yeah, without my beta readers I’d feel pretty stranded. Though I do have a whole bag of tricks I use. I’m going to lift the following from another comment I answered today:

      I’ve said this before somewhere or other, but I don’t find typos to be much of a challenge. I start at the end of the book/story and go backwards one word at a time, then look at each sentence when I reach its initial word. I make a little mark for each sentence just to slow myself down. I also read the whole thing aloud & record it, then sit with the manuscript in front of me and listen. Plus, there’s this stage where I shuffle all the pages (fun!) and look for a way to increase tension or improve something else on every page. I find stuff.

  2. ABE

    Followed you from PV.

    I used to crave the IDEA of editors (from reading Sol Stein’s books on editing, and how he was an editor).

    The cost kept me from trying one, and the idea that you got what you paid for, and the editors who might actually be good enough to say something useful were completely out of my price range (not the amount I could have paid, but the amount I was WILLING to pay).

    All those fancy websites and testimonials – all they are is well-written ADVERTISING copy.

    For the cost of an hour of an editor’s services, you can usually buy twenty GOOD books on how to learn to self-edit – and the money is better spent.

    And there is the little kicker: pay for editing – and you STILL have to make the fixes, only you now have to argue with yourself over whether to pay attention to advice you paid lots of good money for.

    I think it was, as many things are, just the attraction of celebrity. Wanting someone else’s gold to gild your lily.

    I think I’m over it. All I need is to increase my contingent of beta readers (a problem when you’re VERY slow) – and listen to them – feedback on how the story hits them is purer gold.

    Really liked your idea, though, of only working with an editor who loves your work – even if I’m less and less inclined to work with one at all, I’ll keep that idea firmly in mind.

    And your example (another post) of what an editor did to your voice – priceless. If you need checking, a subscription to Autocrit is far more help – it catches a lot of the stupid mistakes I make, such as repeating words and phrases – cheap by comparison to any editor I’ve seen.

    • David

      I liked Sol Stein’s books too. Haven’t tried Autocrit…I will, though.

      What if the whole notion that an arbitrary editor can “shape” an arbitrary novel and improve it in some objective fashion is just…wrong? It’s not the kind of thing that would’ve ever been learned from traditional publishing. Maybe editors are just readers, with their own set of preferences, and (aside from basic writing mechanics) they’ve been less than helpful all along? Or what if they’ve been precisely as helpful as any other beta reader with a strong interest in a story?

      I’m not sure my notion is correct. Or even useful. But I’m thinking about it.

      Thanks for stopping by! And I’ve subscribed to your blog. Very interesting.

      • ABE

        “What if the whole notion that an arbitrary editor can “shape” an arbitrary novel and improve it in some objective fashion is just…wrong?”

        Depending on what kind of a plotter/pantser you are, the recommendation to get other eyes on what you’re writing/have written is a good one.

        But now that I’m more educated as to the kinds of things editors such as Sol Stein and Albert Zuckerman (Writing the Blockbuster Novel), and, for me, especially Donald Maass (The Fire in Fiction) have written, I prefer to do it myself.

        I can LEARN.

        It feels GOOD to learn.

        I’m revising a novel I’ve been working on for over 12 years, and can easily see huge improvement in understanding the craft in myself: I know exactly what and how to change things, because of all the work I’ve done in finding the right books to learn from.

        That may sound like arrogance, but it is really more of the DIY attitude: learn – the information is out there.

        I’m forced to be slow by physical limitations – but I don’t mind having taken the time.

        And I seriously doubt an editor could have helped speed the process.

        BTW, if you followed my blog, it didn’t show up – I get an email from WordPress when someone signs up. Minor point – I like your blog.

        Only problem: I keep finding people whose blog writing adds enormously to my skills – but not other people writing mainstream fiction.

        But I think that’s a common problem with writing blogs.

        • David

          “Depending on what kind of a plotter/pantser you are, the recommendation to get other eyes on what you’re writing/have written is a good one.”

          Yes, but it’s a separate question. Or at least separable. {8’>

          I subscribed to your blog via RSS. I don’t like leaving these things up to WordPress, as I follow lots of blogs on other platforms (or blogs using WordPress software that aren’t connected to in any way) & I like to keep all that stuff in the same place.

          And thanks!

          • ABE

            Thanks for the clarification – I didn’t even know you could subscribe that way. How do you do it? Where is the RSS subscription mechanism – and how do you invoke it? If you have a quick answer, or can point me to where I can learn, I’d like to manage my own reading that way – right now it’s a random collection of things from WordPress, etc., that I get by following the instructions on other people’s blogs.

            If it is too complicated, that’s okay: now that I know it exists, I can track it down. When I get annoyed enough at my hodgepodge system.

            I always enjoy learning something from my reading – and you’ve given me writing content AND technology. Like!

            Why is it there seems to be an expanding infinity of things to learn?

            I understand why many people of my generation and older just give up; but don’t allow myself that luxury. Yet.

            • David

              Boy, is that a can of worms! To start with, one of your feeds is available here:

              Once upon a time (before the beginning of this month) I’d have suggested you try out Google Reader as a place to aggregate the RSS feeds you subscribe to. But they retired it. Now I think Feedly is probably the most popular. I’m managing this stuff for myself now–as a semi-reformed software guy, it’s actually fun for me–but most people won’t be following my example.

              Generally the feed aggregators give you an easy way to add new feeds, and organize them into folders, and so forth.

              As far as getting on top of the RSS subscribers to your own blog goes, that’s sort of up in the air at the moment. You can look for a theme for your site that offers a more obvious link to your feed (your links are under “Login” in your current theme) or try a plugin to make the link more obvious. There’s also a service called Feedburner that you can use. If you get yet another plugin, it’ll redirect RSS subscribers to their servers, and they’ll provide you stats on things like the number of subscribers & the number of actual posts viewed. For some reason standard WordPress doesn’t do this. My guess is that they know it’d discourage people from using their own version of “following” & they like to lock you in to using their system where they can.

              But I don’t trust the numbers I get from Feedburner. They fluctuate too wildly. And since Google owns Feedburner…and they shut down Google Reader already…I think they may shut down Feedburner too in the near future. Plus, migrating away can be problematic, as not all RSS reader software is well-behaved.

              So…I semi-recommend Feedly to subscribe to other people’s blogs, but I think you should probably steer away from Feedburner for the time being. This stuff will settle down again in a little while. Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader posts about all sorts of related topics. Plus, he’s often funny.


  3. ABE

    I apologize for taking you away from your work!

    But thanks for the information – I am taking a copy of it (swallowed whole, like the boa an elephant) back to my den to digest.

    I may then find out that the free blogs don’t allow it – which is fine: eventually I’ll do my own thing.

    When there is some energy – it HAS to go to the novel right now. Or rather, I WANT it to go to the novel now – by the time I’m ready to publish (9/10/2014), everything will have changed.

    Write first – and ignore the ‘advice’ to create your author platform a year before. Don’t they know how much publishing has changed in just the past 12 months?

    Thanks again – now both of us: back to work.


    PS I really am grateful – and this has been fun.

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