Finding The Perfect Editor For Your Baby (Book)

I feel that as a professional freelance editor I should have worlds of wisdom on this topic: finding the right editor for your book. But I don’t. It is something I am trying to navigate myself as we speak. The reason is because this is not just about finding a good editor, or even a great editor. It isn’t even about finding an editor that YOU will work well with. While these things are all necessary, the big question is who is the right editor for your baby/book? They are interchangeable to me, because my book is my baby. I went through a long and painful birthing process. And now I need to find that special ONE person who will take what I have and shape it into something I can sell (I have obviously moved away from the baby analogy, sorry for the lack of transition).

A person can be an amazing editor, an even better writer and someone you know and respect or someone you instantly gel with on a personal level, but it doesn’t make them the right editor for your book. I have found this out the hard way, both as a writer and an editor. For anyone who has ever looked through agent directories, they will find that most helpful ones include what an agent likes, dislikes and won’t touch. Freelance editors (not those who work for publishing houses) are not officially like this, in my experience. This is our job – we’re professionals and unless my colleagues are independently wealthy, you don’t turn down work simply because of the subject matter (hate-propaganda and other extreme examples are not to be considered in this, but in general, this is the rule). We need to put food in our mouths, have a mortgage or rent and some of us have families to provide for. I have my favorites (mystery; thriller; LGBT themed books; women’s lit; self-help books, particularly those that have a humorous tone or are about achieving happiness or interpersonal relationships; EXCELLENT coming-of-age and contemporary fiction; and memoirs, particularly those that inspire, and are medical memoirs, memoirs of love and loss or about overcoming overwhelming obstacles). And I have my least favorites including stream-of-consciousness (I have tried to love this, I want to, but I don’t like reading it, so why would I want to work on it), books that are all tell and no show, and super religious fiction as well as super conservative or narrow nonfiction with an agenda. (I once had to work on a stream-of-consciousness memoir that really just a woman on a soapbox bashing men, blacks, Jews and the gays. I suffered through 127 single-spaced pages and I promised myself, never again.)

This brings me to my first set criteria. Thou shall love the type of book my book is going to be. I know this seems basic, but as an editor who has worked on hundreds of books, not one of my clients has ever asked me what kind of books I enjoy. I am asked what kind of books I have worked on or if I have ever worked on (insert whatever type of book they have) before. But never what kind of books I like or more importantly what kind of books I love. Every book gets the same treatment from me, I spend the same amount of time and TLC on each one, go through the same process and steps, but the books that I connect with are the ones I really get to sing.

One of my good friends has been the only person to help me with my book thus far. She is bloody brilliant (I don’t go around using British slang, but brilliant didn’t quite cover it). While she has a Master’s degree it has nothing to do with writing (though it is related, Library Sciences). She loves to read, but nothing about her previous professional experience would indicate that she would be a kick-ass editor. But OMG she is! Now, I am sure she is brilliant at whatever she does, but the place she has elevated my book to, I credit to her love of the genre. When I asked my friends about having someone look my manuscript over, give me my first feedback, she came forward and said “I love memoirs.” She does. She reads tons of them. They get the majority of her book love and this is what made her perfect to work on my book. I would take passion over experience any day.

Don’t get me wrong when it comes to an editor you are paying, who in theory will be the last eyes, besides your own, who watch over your budding bundle of pain, err I mean joy, then experience is also necessary. If we were shooting for the most idealized candidate I would say it is most helpful if she or he has published a book that is in the same genre as the book you have written. If you are self-publishing then you want someone who has experience with self-publishing and if you are going the agent and publisher route you want someone who has not only been there, but successfully done that.

Once you have found someone who fits in with everything so far, then you want to look at their personality. How do you work together? Unless you have previous experience with the editor (as an editor, not a friend), then you really can’t know until you work with them. But there are ways to make an educated guess. If you gel well as people there is a greater possibility you’ll gel as a writer an editor, at least when you compare these people to those who are perfectly nice, but you just can’t find that connect. I have clients who I know a great deal about. They tell me what is going on in their lives casually and I know things like how old their child is, when they are graduating college, likes and dislikes etc. because I am invested. I have other clients I know next to nothing about, not even how they operate or like to work. This is because I feel compelled as a professional to keep it professional. So, I let my clients draw the lines they feel the most comfortable with.

I had one client who I actually became very good friends with after the fact. She is still, to this day, my favorite client and I secretly compare all of my other clients to her, in terms of how she was to work with, who she is as a person, and how stellar her book was (if editors drooled, well…). While I have become close to some clients there is still a professional distance, but it was hard to keep up that barrier up with this dream client, until it inevitably crumbled. I was all “professional versus personal” and liked to keep them separate, but we just clicked. I always let her initiate our terms, but soon we were sending each other cards and notes just to catch up. She lives in Florida and I was married in Florida in 2012. I wanted to invite her to my wedding, and asked me then-fiancé (he has been upgraded to my husband now, or downgraded depending on who you ask 🙂 ) if it was inappropriate for me to invite her. He said no, and I didn’t need any further convincing. She was there on our special day and it meant the world to me, plus we got to kick up our heels on the dance floor. (I did not take off my shoes until after the reception was over, even though I was in so much pain. My husband could not understand why until I finally did and his mother chimed in, “see, feet swell”. I knew once I took those babies off, there was no way I would be able to put them back on. There is a special place in hell for those shoes, but they were perfect for the occasion.)

Even though I have become friends with clients and close to others, I have never had a client try to get to know me on a personal level until after I have worked on their book. They see the feedback, love it (many have later said, “I was laughing, my husband totally has called me on this before” when I call them to the carpet on some of their bad habits) and see their book evolve through our collaboration. When I work on a book that is how I see myself, a collaborator. If a book I have worked on fails, I have a part in that failure, and anyone who knows me, knows I hate to lose! The author is the parent, but I am the godparent.

But I think you need to know how someone thinks, what makes them tick, what they like, hate, love and loathe in order to figure out, “How am I going to work with this person?” I am not talking about anything too deep mind you, but how else are you going to know that someone isn’t just good on metaphorical paper (I say metaphorical because most freelances are online, no paper necessary). Ideally, it is someone who will stick with you (or who you want to stick with) project to project, but because of my first point, people will have their limits. My next book touches on child abuse, and I know many colleagues who won’t touch abuse memoirs. It is an upsetting subject, even for those who love memoirs in general. So, in a perfect world you’ll find the one and your relationship will be one of continued collaborations: a true partnership. But there may be that one project that you just have to go elsewhere for. (Of course, if this is the case and you already have a good relationship with your editor, they will likely be able to send you to someone who you will work well with. This is how I get a lot of my referrals from colleagues.)

The last thing, note how it is last, but that does not mean it is not of the utmost importance, is the editor’s skill set. If they fit the bill on everything else, but have no concept or rhetoric, sentence construction, etc. you are pretty screwed. (Of course, since one of the things I have mentioned is someone who is already published, this is unlikely – hopefully.)

This is everything I have learned as an editor, not what I have learned as a writer. As a writer looking for THE editor, I feel like I am floundering at times. Even though I feel I know what to do, how to do it and what not to do, when it comes to actually finding someone there is always something in the way. For those with experience and who love ‘my kind’ of book, they may not have the time, be taking on new clients or be at the place in their lives to give decent constructive feedback. Others may have the experience and be wonderful people, but lack the passion for memoirs (which is the bundle I am delivering at the moment). Some may have everything and yet be out of my price range, even though I know how ‘worth it’ quality editing is. There is this extreme anxiety when I think about handing it off to someone I don’t know, even if I can see the advantages to it being someone I don’t know beyond the ‘would we work well together’ thing I talked about earlier.

For now, I will keep looking, working on my manuscript to get it as ‘editor ready’ as it can possibly be and work with my three most amazing supporters: my husband (though he may not be able to help with the manuscript itself, he gives me what I need to be able to do what I need to do, without him this book would not exist in the first place), Mama T (who kicked my butt into gear after I lost my manuscript due to consecutive hardware and backup crashes, and I swore I could never ‘do it’ again) and Holly who is my amazing librarian friend with a passion for memoirs and who could seriously consider book editing full-time if she wanted to (she rocks my socks off). Until I find the one, I feel like I am the annoying child in the backseat, who is on repeat. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” I want my book to be ready to submit, to query agents, to peddle to publishers and to push my baby out of my cramped nest and (hopefully) soar to greater heights than I could have ever imagined…

-DMW

*Have any input or thoughts on this blog please leave a comment below. I would love to hear about any additional things people look for in an editor or experiences in using the guidelines that I discussed.

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