How To Hire and Afford An Editor

Good afternoon everyone,

I usually don’t write afternoon blogposts, but this post spawned from quite a few comments, emails, and tweets, and I think it’s really important that we’re honest about this stuff.

We’re going to talk money. We’re going to talk realities about writing. We’re going to talk about seriously making a go of being a writer. Let me start off by saying that I am not a definitive expert, I’m not saying my way is the best way in all the universe, I’m just going to tell you how I work, and arm you with knowledge so you can go forward, no matter where your writing life takes you. If that’s cool with you, keep reading. If not, I’ll see you Monday where we’ll talk about … something that I’ll figure out over the weekend.

In order to have this all make sense in an orderly way, you (the reader) and I have to agree on some stuff. What we’re going to talk about will be a hypothetical situation using real-world numbers, so while I may make up things like the name of a book, or a particular schedule, I’m using my actual rates and actual planning strategy. If this paragraph sounds vague, don’t worry, this will all make sense when we get into it. So let’s agree on some things:

1. You’ve written something that needs editing. Let’s say it’s 20,000 words. The genre or title doesn’t matter right now, we can make it up later.

2. You’ve selected to work with me out of all the editors you could have chosen. This is convenient because I’m the one writing this post. It would be super weird if I started writing about someone else.

3. You’re willing and wanting and interested in moving your MS forward. This isn’t some fact-finding mission where you’re dipping your toes in the water as you dilly-dally out of fear, you’ve committed to making this happen for yourself.

All set with those three things? Then let’s get to it.

How To Hire An Editor, and What An Editor Does

Step One: Email the Editor

This is a pretty straightforward step, but it’s a big one. It’s scary to do. Maybe the person won’t answer. Maybe they will. Maybe they’ll be a dick. Maybe they’ll brush you off because you’re new to this (I’m assuming in our example you’re new to this, is that cool?)

What’s the email look like? It’s polite, first off. It mentions your name, it addresses the person by their name (Mr./Mrs./First name/whatever title they like), it describes what you’re interested in doing without sounding like you’re a four-year-old desperately in need of a cookie before dinner. When you talk about your MS, you mention the word count and maybe the title. You thank them for their time, and you leave the door open for them to reach you when it’s convenient for them. There’s no template, but those are the basics.

Then you wait. You wait for the response, and hopefully it’s a positive one that moves things forward. The response usually starts a correspondence, a few emails get tossed back and forth, and during this exchange, that’s where you figure out if you can work with the person. You get a handle on how they treat you, you get to gauge their interest. There’s always going to be some element of uncertainty, there’s always going to be some part of your brain that isn’t wholly sure, but that’s where the next step comes in.

Step Two: Get a Contract, Give Your Manuscript To Them

Here’s the big part. Here’s the nervous part. Once you start to hash out that you want to work with this person, you’ll need to figure out how much it’s going to cost you, and when you want this work done by. Yes, this costs money. No, this isn’t free. Just like calling a repairman or going to a doctor isn’t free, getting your MS professionally worked on isn’t free. This is ideally a definitive step up from the work that a beta reader or a critique group can offer, as you’ll be getting more technical and more intensive advice. We agreed already that you’re serious about doing this, and it’s really a dick move to say you’re serious, get an editor all set up to work with you, then bail on it when the talk turns to money. This is someone’s job here, this is how they pay their bills, feed themselves or their families, and keep themselves going. Just because it has to do with this thing you make in your off-hours, lunch breaks and weekends while the kids are asleep doesn’t reduce it’s importance as a product of your hard work or theirs. They’re taking this seriously, and you should too.

The contract is anywhere from a page to a few pages long (Mine’s 4, if you count the glossary on the back page), and it has some critical elements to it.

a) It has the name of the editor and the name of the writer (this is actually important)

b) It has the name of the project

c) It has the word count of the project

d) It has the amount of money to be spent on this project

e) It has either one due date or a schedule of milestones, where X-amount of progress is made by a certain time (like 5k done every week for 4 weeks)

f) It has the method of payment spelled out (Paypal, actual paper check, money in an envelope to be handed over, whatever) and how that payment will happen (one lump sum, in installments, half up front, half at the end, etc)

g) It has a ‘kill clause’ which is a set of instructions that spells out what to do if this relationship between writer and editor doesn’t work out (this is usually a statement about how much is owed based on the work already completed, or a flat fee to cover time and work done)

h) It has a section on what exactly is being done to the MS (developmental edit, copy edit, changing every character into a poodle, whatever)

i) It has a statement on how the MS will be delivered and when/how comments will be made and given (as a Word *.doc, *.docx, a cunning use of flags, etc).

j) It has the dated signatures of everyone involved

If a contract is missing any of those things, don’t sign it. Ask for them to be put in. You can do that. You can also ask for anything in the contract to be clarified. You’re the client, you can have things explained to you, that’s not unreasonable or stupid, especially when you’re new to this whole process. Ask your questions. If the person balks at you for asking, don’t sign the contract.

If you’re looking at the above breakdown and saying “John, what about rights? Who owns the MS while it’s getting worked on?” I’m going to very patiently offer you a cup of tea and ask you who scared you about rights being lost. I know we can all find horror stories about people stealing work, and it can be scary to deal with legalities when you’re just a person who wrote a thing in Starbucks and while the laundry was on its rinse cycle, but please PLEASE promise me you’re not going into your writer-editor relationship with some notion that everyone is out to get you and steal your work. The vast majority of people don’t do that. If you ever ask me for a recommendation for someone to work with, anyone I send you to will never do that. I don’t do it. It’s bad practice. It’s awful living. If you do have that experience, I’m sorry. It’s not the norm. Don’t hold everyone to the bad example.  To the technical point, the work is yours and remains yours. I just looked at the contract I use, and while there’s a section about how it’s not my fault as an editor if you get a rejection letter, there’s no section that says I assume ownership of your MS while I’m working on it. Note: I’m not a lawyer, I know some though, and this can get discussed later if the need arises.

When you sign, you’re committing. And the editor is committing. If the situation changes, say more work needs to be done, get a new contract. If you need to change dates, get a new contract. If you’re going to change the arrangement in any way, get a new contract. It shouldn’t be a problem to have a new printed. If it is, if for some reason there’s any weird hinky sense that something’s amiss, feel free to exercise that kill clause and extract yourself from the situation.

That kill clause though is a two-way street. Yes, you’re hiring a person to do work for you, but they’re not your slave or story-puppet. You as a client can get fired too. Make too many unrealistic demands, fail to live up to your end of the deal, jump on social media and start trashing the person you’ve just hired to work for you, and you can very easily find yourself holding an unfinished manuscript, an invoice, and a curt letter telling you to suck some eggs. Both you and the editor are in this together, so it does neither of you any good to treat the other poorly.

If you’re cool with all that, sign the contract, send your MS over, and commence more waiting.

Step Three: Getting feedback

I think this is the part where people start drinking. I don’t drink, but I have heard from people that when you’re waiting for and when you receive feedback is when you crack open your preferred adult beverages and start heavy pours into large glasses.

Most feedback, at least when I do it, is in Comments and Track Changes, two functions of Microsoft Word. I like Word. It’s pretty universal, and while it has some flaws and hiccups, it does a better than decent job at highlighting things. Here’s are two examples of things I edited recently:



(no, those examples were not written by the same person, and no they’re not part of the same MS)

So, this is what the editor does. They go through the document, a line at a time, a word at a time, and flag things. They chop sentences that need help. They leave comments as to why things get chopped, or why things need to be changed. Yes, your work is going to get all marked up. No, that’s not the end of the world.

Because you still have the ability to ignore the change(s). These are suggestions. Yes, they’re influenced by the editor’s experience and knowledge. Yes, they’re informed based on the context of the MS, but they’re still optional until you click Accept Change (this is an okay but not great picture of one way to do that, I tried to get a shot of the right-click menu, but couldn’t figure it out)


You retain an enormous amount of power in this relationship because you don’t have to accept every change suggested. Because the editor isn’t always right. You may have a context where you don’t want to change a particular word or phrase, you may have a good reason to use the word you did where you did when you did, and frankly, your ability to stand up for yourself and say “I’m good with what you’re doing except that one thing over there” is critical. Personally speaking, I’d make a face at you if you blindly accepted all my suggestions without at least reading them.

This process of comments and in-line changes is called “a pass”, and usually a number of passes happen while the editor is working on the document. The number varies on a few factors like how much work the MS needs (if you bring something that’s early in development, assume it’ll take more time), the timeline, the word count, and the type of editing that’s happening (there are more factors, this isn’t a comprehensive list). Every editor is different, so mileage varies. I usually do 2 to 3 passes, looking at a different aspect each time. The first pass is almost always big ticket items like plot and description and structure, but later passes zero in on things like characters and word choice and plot pacing.

Passes happen, lines of communication stay open between editor and writer (no, neither of you get to fall off the face of the earth, sorry), until everyone involved is satisfied with the MS. Then it goes back to the writer who does with it as they planned to do. I cannot stress enough how important it is that everyone involved with an MS answer their damned email in a timely fashion. People who are unreachable are seldom worked with a second time, and since lots of editors and writers fraternize often, it’s tough to shake a label of “slow to respond” once it gets stuck on you. Answer your emails. Promptly. Fully. Honestly.

That’s the process. The whole process. Unmasked.

How To Afford An Editor

So, we’re going to say that our example MS is a 20,000 word part of a serial about a farmpunk syndicate of chicken and dairy farmers. Sure, that sounds pretty badass, let’s go with that.

You email the editor, and the math shakes out to this:

20,000 words X .03 cents per word = $600

Now you have your contract, and it says (I’m making it up here) you’ll pay $100 a week for 6 weeks. (Me personally? I usually do half up front, half at the end). How you get that $100, that’s up to you. Yes, it might mean you go a week without a rug shampoo’ed, or little Billy only gets to buy thirty things from Amazon not forty – sorry Billy.

I know $100 a week for 6 weeks is a lot of money. It’s money that comes maybe out of the fund that pays for mortgages or tuition or medical bills or rainy day savings. I know that it’s money earned through hard work, and you may have a lot of things in this world that take enough money from you already. I get it.

That doesn’t change the fact that this is what you want to do, and it’s the editor’s job to help make that happen. Because on the other side of the coin, it’s their job too, and this is how their mortgages, medical bills and whatever else get paid.

As a writer, you’re more than just the storyteller who types or writes. If you’re going an indie route of publishing, you’re also the publisher and marketer. Having your work edited is part of those publishing and production costs. It’s easier to market and encourage sales when what people are buying is less fraught with errors and is presented effectively. Editing helps turn your story into a book (margins also do, but that’s a different topic), and you want this to be a book, which is why you sought out the editor and signed that contract.

When you were working out the math on cost and payment, figure out a strategy that works for both of you. Yes, sure, you could pay a dollar a week for 600 weeks (that’s eleven and a half years, give or take), but while that’s super fair to you, how is that fair to the editor? And what does that say about how much you care about getting this work done?

Be willing to cut out that sixth latte a week. Question if you need to buy that third box of Cheez-Its, or that artisanal tissue dispenser. When you were serious about writing the MS, you made time in your schedule for it. Now that you’re serious about getting out into people’s hands, make room in your budget. It’s a sacrifice, but look at the rewards. Is the satisfaction of having a finished MS turned into a book that people can buy and say nice things about worth the spending of our example $600? That’s the choice you need to make.

Over time, I’ve stopped challenging everyone who balks at the cost of an editor. Some people just aren’t going to come around, because they’ll point to a college degree or a day job or kids or cats or a stamp collection as reasons they can’t afford an editor. Other people will just point blindly at any old reason, because some part of moving forward scares the snot out of them, and it’s easier to be upset at how expensive something is than it is to admit they might be scared about what happens next, and there’s a comfort in playing the familiar roles of “not good enough” or “victim” or “it’ll never work out for me”. I think it’s all a bucket of horsefeathers and applesauce, but people gonna people.

It’s my hope that this information helps you, it’s my hope that the 2700-something words here has de-mystified some elements of what happens post words-going-on-page. I don’t think publishing should be a scary hidden process behind curtains and in ivory towers. I think knowledge is for anyone interested and anyone who pretends like this is destroying “how things should be”  isn’t someone I want to have a root beer with. You there, reading this, you’re good enough to keep writing and keep getting closer to your dream. Whatever the hell it is. I want to see you succeed, and if I can help you get there, awesome. If I can’t, then it’s still awesome, because I bet there’s someone out there who can help.

If you have questions or comments, speak up. If you want to chat in 140-character bites at a time, find me on Twitter. For longer stuff, email me.

I’ll be back on Monday and we’ll talk … something. I don’t know yet. I’m open to suggestions.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus