InboxWednesday – When Do I Talk To An Editor?

Good morning everyone, I hope you’re doing well, and that your Wednesday is a delightful one. While you’re reading this, I’m at a doctor’s appointment, so spare a good thought that I’m doing alright and the muzak or the bill hasn’t sent me into a murderous rage.

Today’s topic for #InboxWednesday comes to us from five different people, all asking the same question.

When do I need an editor, and when should I bring in an editor into what I’m writing?

I love this question, so this answer is going to be somewhat meaty, but it needs to be.

Here we go …

There’s no wrong time to bring in an editor. It’s just the role the editor plays will change relative to when they get involved with your manuscript. I’m going to break the writing process down into 3 periods to illustrate this.

Early Stages of Writing
I’m categorizing this as “the period of time when the majority of a draft isn’t written, the ideas are maybe just bullet points, or maybe they aren’t even written down yet.” Yes, I know that’s nebulous, but there’s no way I’m going accurately ballpark a percentage as to how much is on paper versus how much isn’t. And even if I could, there’s no percentage required so you “unlock” editor access.

You can bring the editor in at this point to help you work through those decisions yet to be made (what’s the conflict, what’s this character’s arc look like, what’s the action beat between this moment and that one, etc) as well as to hone the decisions you have made (if you do X when you’ve already got Y, they’ll feed together; why are you starting the book at that spot, when the spot two paragraphs later seems way more in line with what you’re doing; etc)

This is developmental work, where the manuscript’s foundation is laid through decisions and conversation. It’s a fertile land where there’s so much potential and so much story ore to mine.

The hard part, at least editorially, is knowing when to steer and when to be along for the ride. It’s easy to turn someone else’s work into something the editor would create themselves, just by passing a few comments and closing a few options. That’s the danger in “I don’t think you should” coming up in the developmental process. An editor isn’t there to steer this process completely, their presence is as stabilizer and lookout, keeping the craft afloat as the writer navigates MS shoals and other nautical metaphors that I wish I was better at making up.

It’s a very “do it by feel” issue, since some writers are going to be more receptive to the presence of someone else while they’re making the story, and some are going to see it as more an intrusion of something personal, closing ranks as they protect the fragile idea. Neither side is wrong, though it can be a frustrating experience to be consulted and then shut out while making suggestions based on the limited information you get from conversations.

Middle Stages of Writing
Let’s categorize the middle stages as the time when the manuscript is being written, lie by line, chapter by chapter. This is the production stage, when there’s already a road map and the decisions of development have led the writer to put their ass in the chair and make the words happen.

Bringing in the editor here takes away the developmental element, and instead brings in the editorial process. The chapters, paragraphs, sentences, beats and concepts now exist beyond the idea stage, so the way they’re broadcast to the reader (the words chosen for them) become the focus. Here an editor can ask what the writer meant in a particular line, or that they’re unclear with naming something consistently. It’s the editorial process you’d expect, happening still when the body of the MS is still being crafted.

It’s sometimes tough for people to see this as anything other than meddling, like a backseat driver asking if you’re ever going to get to the destination. I’ve heard it described as the person who hovers over dinner being cooked to the point where you doubt whether you’ve boiled the water correctly.

At this stage, it’s not about sowing doubt. At least, doubt isn’t supposed to be spread here. This is a chance to purge it, by finding the elements that are working along with the elements that don’t. Yes, this one sentence kind of rambles and doesn’t work in this investigative beat, but this character dialogue over here is just fantastic. It’s worth pointing out the good as well.

Many writers make the mistake of running a credit/debit T-chart sort of thing when they get feedback, thinking that all the comments are to be weighted equally and that every comma splice or vague pronoun undoes the part where a joke works or the action is well made. No, it doesn’t. When something in the MS works, it works, and that’s independent of the fact that six pages prior, there are too many “she” in a sentence. Calls for revision do not undo the praise. At least, it shouldn’t. But that might be an issue to address outside of the writing process for some people.

An editor here shifts also to motivation, to keep the writer going, stoking the fire so that the creativity behind the MS doesn’t go out, replaced by some new hot idea, shiny thing, or distraction. The writing process is about endurance and discipline, and there are so many people, places, things, blogs, words, comments, ideas, and fears that eat discipline and leave doubt and disappointment as a lovely pile of scat for the writer to step in and then drag around on all the rugs.

The Later Stages of Writing
The manuscript is complete or nearly so, let’s say it’s the last few chapters or maybe it’s just been read by a spouse or a close friend as a beta reader. Here the editor takes on the role that most people think of when they think editor – with the tools laid out to work through the manuscript’s ideas and presentation so that it’s in the best shape possible to do with whatever the writer wants.

In addition to flagging grammar, plot holes, unclear motivations, craptastic dialogue, the editor can also keep an eye out for what comes next. Want to query? See if the editor can help you frame them. Want to self-pub? Maybe the editor has some advice. You won’t know until you ask, and asking’s free, so ask all the questions you have.

There isn’t a “wrong” time to bring an editor into your work. Yes, there’s a budget to consider, because you have to pay the person you’ve hired to do a job, but there’s no rule you’re breaking by doing it at some time other than when you’re absolutely finished.

It’s worth pointing out my own experience, that if you hire me in the early or middle stages, I’m going to want to work with you in the later stages as well, so we both walk the manuscript towards completion and through editing without additional surcharges or doubling down on the expense. But that’s just me, and I don’t speak for everyone doing this.

Bias as aside as I can get it (I like being hired, it helps me afford lunch), an editor is an asset to your writing, both specific to the manuscript as well as a resource for later work as well. People I’ve worked with months ago still get answers to their questions, and still get counseled on whatever issues they’re facing. There’s no walk of shame for a client. Once you’re in the rolodex, and neither of us have fired the other, you’re in the rolodex.

So make use of editors. Their job is to help you get the MS to wherever you want it to be. Don’t let some arbitrary convention and some absolutist sentence that editors can only show up at a certain point stop you from getting your MS out of your head, onto the page, and out to readers.

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Happy writing. Have a great Wednesday.

Posted by johnadamus


Laura J. Quinn

As far as help with the developmental (early) stages of the manuscript process, budget is this nebulous thing that’s hard to pin down, at least in my limited experience.

What I mean by that is: There isn’t a set number of pages to be reviewed for X dollars. If I’m still in the idea stage, how would I budget for the help an editor provides? Hourly? Fixed amount for the expected length and depth of the manuscript?

So it starts with whether or not words are on the page. If there are words (and I mean more than a few bullet points or phrases, I mean paragraphs and draftable material), then its per-word, in addition to a few emails tossed back and forth to help suss out story navigation.

With few to no words (or just ideas), then I’d say it’s a flat hourly rate for a single hour of coaching where the story gets a rough roadmap put together.

Granted, that’s if you’re talking to me. I can’t say everyone would do the same thing.

Laura J. Quinn

Thank you, that’s very helpful.

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