The right question: How to make sure you get the editing you need

Wow, I didn't expect quite that much red ink ...Not long ago, a first-time author listed a job on an editorial freelancing site that I frequent. His manuscript had already been edited, he said, so all he needed was for someone to catch the leftover errors in spelling and punctuation. He asked bidders to go to his website and read the chapters he’d posted there.

A few days later, the author did something unusual. He sent e-mail to the editors he didn’t pick and offered detailed feedback on how he’d gone about choosing one person out of many qualified candidates.

He said he was pleased with the responses he received … mostly. The exception was a woman who provided “discouraging” comments and told him the story needed more work than he thought it did. At first this distressed him quite a bit. Then he shook it off. The majority of other bidders had said the manuscript was in pretty good shape—that, in fact, it looked better than most. Why believe the lone naysayer?

His logic was sound. Just one problem: the naysayer was right.

* * *

It’s not uncommon for writers to tell prospective editors that their manuscript needs “just a light edit.” It’s not uncommon for them to be overly optimistic. When that happens, we as editors have a couple of options.

  1. Point out the flaws.
  2. Say nothing.

#1 is the more ethical response. Authors expect publishable work out of the editing process. If the level of editing they’re asking for won’t get them there, they need to know that. They need us to tell them.*

Unfortunately, there’s a sort of natural selection at play that favors option #2. Writers are more likely to hire us when we don’t hurt their feelings, and option #1 will hurt their feelings no matter how diplomatic we try to be. Furthermore, option #1 may lead them to suspect that we’re being mercenary, pushing more expensive services than (they think) they need. This is why I won’t outright condemn those who don’t press the issue. After enough authors refuse to hire us because we’re honest, it’s understandable for some of us to conclude that we shouldn’t bother.

It probably sounds as though I’m blaming writers for this state of affairs. I’m not. In the example above, the author had good reason to believe his manuscript didn’t need substantive revisions. He’d done his due diligence by getting it edited once. He likely had a group of first readers, friends and family, who were more eager to focus on the genuinely praiseworthy aspects of his book than have an awkward conversation about things that could be improved.

Sometimes the people who seek our services really are egomaniacs who believe they can do no wrong, but that’s rare. Most overconfident authors simply aren’t getting enough accurate feedback early in the process.

* * *

What does all of this mean for you, the writer? How can you ensure that you’ll get an honest assessment from potentially gun-shy editors?

Ask for it.

Instead of “I only need proofreading” or “How much do you charge for a light edit,” say, “What kind of editing do you think this manuscript needs?”

Do this even if it’s been professionally edited seven times.

You may not always be happy with the answer, but I promise you, you’ll be happier with the results.


* Though I didn’t inform this author that he needed more than proofreading, I did offer him a free three-page sample edit. If he’d taken me up on it, I would have shown him what a higher level of editing could do for his book. Telling him before he requested a sample edit, I predicted, would end badly—as it did for the other editor.

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3 Responses to The right question: How to make sure you get the editing you need

  1. I agree one hundred percent. I would never tell an editor how much editing a piece needs. If you choose an editor who only tells you what you want to hear, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

  2. karen Gargiulo says:

    This is well said. As an editor, I struggle with this often. I appreciate the perspective!

  3. D. Marie says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Writers willing to embrace an objective, impartial and stringent editorial process, are more likely to publish admirable works than those who don’t.