One of the most intimidating steps of the novel writing process is hiring an editor. The mere idea of sending those many, treasured pages of hard work to face the judgement of a red pen-wielding grammar-nazi has certainly given me some gray hairs.
It’s a big commitment, but partnering up with a professional editor is never as scary as it seems. In fact, one of the biggest, scariest mistakes a writer can make is diving straight into the beginning stages of revision without any outside feedback.
As writers, we have this idea in our heads that absolutely no one should lay eyes on a first draft but the person who wrote it. While this protects us from receiving that notoriously soul-crushing, first draft criticism, it does little to actually improve our writing.
By the time most of us get our manuscripts to any kind of editor, we’ve done a world of revisions based on nothing but our own thoughts and criticisms. We’re pressured into thinking that everything must be nearly perfect before anyone else takes a look, building the misconception that editors are exclusively for “almost there” manuscripts.
In reality, the best time to submit a project for editing is when it’s an early draft. This way, you’ll have outside feedback to base your revisions off of, and you’ll be able to catch plot holes and inconsistencies early on.
I like to compare the process of exclusively self-editing to setting sail across treacherous, unfamiliar waters with absolutely nothing to help guide you. A naive, amateur sailor will sail off blindly into a storm with nothing but soon-to-be-sapped confidence, destined for a slow, disorganized failure. A good sailor will know to use a map.
Instead of going straight to a detailed developmental revision or a copyeditor for a draft that’s going to dramatically change, it’s best to start your editing off with someone who’ll take a big picture look at your manuscript. One of the best ways to get that big picture feedback on your novel is through a manuscript critique (i.e. a “map”).
What exactly is a manuscript critique?
In short, a manuscript critique is a blanket assessment of your manuscript that your editor writes in the form of an extensive report or letter. A professional critique partner will give you an overall developmental analysis of plot, characters, themes, and any other element of your writing that they feel could benefit from workshopping. It is, hands down, the best way I know of to set a proper TBD list and start your revisions off on the right foot
Isn’t that basically what a beta reader does?
Yes and no. Critiquers are essentially highly skilled beta readers. There are many similarities between beta readers and critiquers, but the two main qualities you won’t find in the average beta are thoroughness and honesty. Friends, family members, and beta readers found on Twitter are the easiest option for writers seeking help with revisions, but nearly every review from someone with a personal connection is biased in some way. Even if the reader thinks they’re going in blind, the fear of offending or disappointing someone they know tends to push them towards sugar coating their true opinions.
Betas are a great option, but you have to take what they say with a grain of salt or else you could end up doing some serious damage to your manuscript. Not to mention, they’re often unreliable.
From my experience, betas who know you well (friends and family) give thorough reports that are heavily biased and sugar-coated, whereas betas who don’t know you so well (the ones who occasionally subtweet you or like your Instagram posts) are more honest, but they half-ass their reviews because they just don’t care as much.
Working with a professional critique partner who can prioritize your manuscript and devote their time to assisting you in the revision process is something plenty of writers aren’t even aware of.
Professional critiquers also have specific editorial expertise that the average beta lacks. Some of the best partners to work with are those with actual industry experience and knowledge about how your book will compare to others like it in the real world of publishing. Most of the editors I know who specialize in manuscript critiques (myself included) started off working for a publisher or an agency.
And now, the part about me…
January of my senior year, I began a long term internship with Curtis Brown Ltd., one of the world’s oldest literary agencies. At the start of my time with them, I had virtually no interest in becoming any sort of editor.
I’m a writer. I wanted to write, not edit someone else’s work. But somewhere along the line, knee deep in a slush pile, I found a real passion for the critiquing process.
The irony is that I grew to love editing because I’m a writer. I sympathized with the writers whose work I reviewed. I could relate to them because I was them. I know what it’s like to live as a creative writer: bags under the eyes, frantic sticky notes plastered to every surface of the house, and the casual mental breakdown constantly lurking around the corner. All for a stack of paper that may or may not turn into a real, published book.
Plenty of the manuscripts I read at Curtis Brown were good, others were laughable, but every single one showed the author’s passion and drive to write. Unfortunately, most of them were not nearly ready for agency representation. The authors had only taken the advice of betas or friends, confident that they’d done enough revision on their own and that all they needed was a copyeditor and a few proofreads before publication.
Without reliable feedback in the early stages of revision, their manuscripts were messy, inconsistent, and full of errors that drove agents (and interns) towards immediate rejection. What the authors really needed was someone to give them an in-depth analysis of their entire manuscript before querying agents and publishers. They needed a critiquer.
After leaving Curtis Brown, I began to market myself as a freelance editor offering single chapter and full manuscript critiques. Of course I wanted to make a profit off of reading fiction (otherwise, I’d do it for free), but my main motivation was to continue doing manuscript critiques to help authors with the same passion as me. I wanted to connect with those people, give them the honest, informed feedback they need, and encourage them to push their manuscripts through the process of revision and towards their writing goals.
After fearing that hypothetical, red pen-wielding grammar nazi for the entirety of my early life as a writer, I became an editor and learned that the hypothetical, fearsome editor is just that: hypothetical. Editors aren’t scary. Believe it or not, we actually want to help you.
What does a critiquer actually do?
An editor who specializes in critiques like me will read your manuscript and take note of their reactions to various elements of the story in order to give you an idea of how your eventual readers will react. In my critiques, I gravitate towards identifying plot, characters, setting, conflict, resolution, theme, and whatever specific aspects the client/author has asked me to focus on.
Many professional critiquers will read your manuscript two or three times in order to fully grasp the depth of the story and obtain all the information they can before making any strong comments. A good editor makes it their job to know your manuscript almost as well as you do, so you know their feedback is legitimate.
After reading however many times, they’ll write up the actual critique: a full evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. Generally, they range between 1500-2000 words, but can be shorter or longer depending on the length of your novel. Critiques are priced per word of the novel, not per word of the report letter, so editors will write as much as they need to in order to thoroughly cover the necessary areas of focus.
Some editors will even offer a free phone consultation or a complete over-the-phone critique, which I highly recommend both as an editor and writer. Being able to actually converse with each other helps writers overcome the confrontational fear of hiring an editor and builds trust between the editor and the client.
How do you know which critiquer to hire?
When you’re choosing a critiquer for your manuscript, there are (in most cases) two different kinds: independent freelancers and conventional professionals. There are obviously pros and cons to both, but it really comes down to your specific manuscript, budget, and schedule. The “conventional professional” typically boasts years of employment at a major publishing house or editorial group and can provide excellent, experienced feedback on your manuscript.
Because of their status and demand, their critiques tend to come at a high price (upwards of $600 for a 60k word manuscript). These kinds of editors also tend to have a much longer queue of projects, meaning they might not get around to your manuscript for several months after you’ve submitted it. So, if you’re in a hurry to hit a fast-approaching deadline, you might want to consider a different editor.
Freelancers are as easy to come by as pennies in a parking lot. They’re almost always cheaper, faster, and more capable of giving individualized attention to your manuscript. The tradeoff here is that most independent freelancers have far less experience in the publishing world than others.
However, because they’re a bit more pressed for business, I find that freelancers are more willing to compromise and adjust their services to fit each individual client. You’re more likely to get one-on-one attention and a critique that’s tailored to your specific needs if you choose a less experienced editor.
Another plus is that editors with less clients will get to your manuscript far sooner than those with heavier workloads. Not to mention, freelancers are definitely the budget-friendly way to go. While you should be cautious and keep in mind that cheaper is not always better, there are plenty of editors who can deliver a good-quality critique for half the price of a more experienced professional.
Luckily, almost every editor out there offers a free sample edit, or a chapter-by-chapter option for those who aren’t sure if they’re ready to submit their entire manuscript for critique. If they don’t advertise this on their Hire Me page, don’t be afraid to shoot them a quick email and ask. This is a great way of figuring out the type and quality of work an editor does before making a full commitment.
What about genre?
Genre-specific critiquers have their benefits, but they aren’t necessarily the best choice for everyone. Choosing a critiquer who works with a specific genre can definitely result in some excellent, equally-specific feedback. Editors familiar with your genre will be quicker to recognize traditional themes, stereotypes, and literary devices that might slow down someone who is less familiar with the genre. But, these critiques are also vastly more subjective critiques done by a jack-of-all-genres editor.
I’ll say it just to say it: all critiques are subjective. But, a general critiquer will provide you with more rounded feedback than one who is specific to a certain genre. Most of this decision depends on who your target readers are. General editors will give you the feedback of a general reader, and genre-specific editors will give you the feedback of a genre-specific reader.
If you want to market your book to a vast, general group of readers, you’ll be better off working with an “all purpose” editor. But, if you want to market specifically to–let’s say–historical fantasy readers, go with a critiquer who specializes in historical fantasy.
For writers planning on going the traditional route with a literary agent, choosing a genre-specific editor fits hand in hand with querying genre-specific agents. For those planning on self-publishing or choosing a non-genre-specific agent, an all-purpose editor won’t confine you to the same boundaries generally set by those who work in specific genres.
In the end, your perfect critique partner isn’t necessarily the one with the most experience, the cheapest rates, or the most specialized skills. It’s the one who gets you. You want someone who can understand your ambitions as a writer, push towards the goals you want to reach with your manuscript, and give your writing the care and prioritization that it deserves. Most importantly, you should feel comfortable trusting them with your manuscript.
With that perfect critique partner, you can draw out a detailed map to guide you through the dark and stormy sea of revisions and towards whatever it is that marks the finishing point, be it self-publication, a book deal, or the single greatest reward of novel writing: being able to say to yourself, “I did it.”