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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Advice for Clients

Four Things to Consider Before Hiring an Editor

It is a good idea to hire a freelance editor for your manuscript, even if you are not hiring me! However, there are a few things that are worth considering first. I have ambivalent thoughts on the listicle (a wretched portmanteau of ‘list’ and ‘article’), but sometimes a numbered set of points makes sense, so here is a set of four things to take into account prior to paying a professional to look at your novel, essay collection, memoir, etc.

1. The Synopsis / Outline

Many writers do not enjoy writing synopses; they believe it takes their rich account and boils it down to a set of comparably dead and tedious plot points. However, they are invaluable to editors. Likewise, for nonfiction work, the outline is a singularly important editing tool. A synopsis for an editor should be a complete account of the story (twists, ending and all) and an outline should summarise the main arguments, claims and conclusions of your book.

These texts serve as a road map. They should include character names, give a sense of the emotional high points, convey the shape of the story, or they should communicate why a book’s argument takes place in a certain sequence, what relevance each section or chapter has to the point being made.

Do not worry about anything other than lucidity. This is not a book blurb (it might serve as the basis for one, but that is not its current purpose). This synopsis merely exists to guide the editor, especially if they are doing development or structural edits. It’s a map of your book, which means the editor can encounter the actual text with a sense of how the different elements will feed into the work as a whole. When writing such a document, you don’t need to be precious about it, just try to be clear.

2. Complete the First Draft

Although rare, it has happened that I have done work on what is sometimes called a zero draft. That is, an incomplete book. This might be a book that has a synopsis even, but for which whole sections (often but not always the finale) are unwritten. These books are still in the process of being finished and the client wants an editor to start work ahead. If this is asked of me, I will take the work; and indeed, it is not always clearly the case until after a job has been accepted.

There is also a level of ambiguity here. I would not necessarily consider a book in a zero draft stage if, for example, it were a collection of short stories to which another story was added during the process of editing. But that could be an example of a zero draft—say, if that story was always planned or served a significant structural role in the collection.

The zero draft is far from ideal. At such a developmental stage, it is hard to distinguish what is a digression, what is a plot hole, what characters are (or are not) serving the wider book, because a digression might feed into a lacunae in such a way that it will not be digressive, because a plot hole might be filled out, because a redundant character might be revealed to have a poignant connection to the final, finished story and so on.

It is not the editor that suffers here; the task of correcting a manuscript can proceed irrespective. However, the client will receive less serious assistance. The advice they will be given will be hampered compared to the advice they could have received had they submitted the finished piece.

Sometimes the zero draft might need an editor’s eye. Sometimes an author might feel that to complete the story an outsider perspective is required. But on this a writer should be cautious. Mixing up editing and writing is something I would generally discourage—the writing process is about passion, it is about following the line of a narrative or argument to its conclusion, which will often become clearer and clearer during the writing process. Editing is deliberative, it is dispassionate, and it can kill an author's motive-force.

3. Complete the Second Draft

This point might be more controversial, but it follows naturally from point 2. A professional editor is not hired to replace the work of editing your own manuscript. Rather, we are best used to complement and surpass that undertaking.

Overfamiliarity with your work means that it can sometimes get to a point where self-editing loses its value, while even rudimentary errors persist—invisible to you. It is not just about having experience correcting and honing manuscripts, it is about not being the person who wrote it; the person overinvested in every word; the person who will often have reread and reread that same paragraph so that they are not so much even reading it anymore, but merely skimming, remembering what they read, not seeing the typo or hearing the clumsy sentence construction.

However, in the same vain, you should make your manuscript as robust as you can by yourself before paying for outside help. At the very least, that means a complete second draft. This way, the editor will not be focussing on errors that you yourself could have corrected, and therefore they are likelier to focus more on increasingly fine-grained, nuanced issues with the text. This is about getting the most from a professional, which means seeing their task as supplementary to yours—not as a shortcut—to the overall end of crafting the strongest possible piece of writing.

4. Ask Questions

Finally, do not make assumptions. If you have requirements, doubts, uncertainties about the editing process, ask the editor. If they cannot answer your reasonable questions, then in all likelihood they are not a good fit for your needs. And by being clear, especially through email, the editor will get a stronger sense of your needs.

Moreover, this opens up a healthy dialogue that allows you to assume agency over your work. An editor should support a writer without becoming a crutch for them; this means that a writer must be open to constructive criticism, but it also means that they should be prepared to own the choices they make, having reflected on that criticism. An editor is not a ghostwriter; their job is to augment the voice and vision of another, to bring to the fore what is struggling to be heard. This can only be helped along by conversation.


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