Recently, I invited some new writers to submit 2000 words of their writing for a sample copy edit so that they could see what’s involved.
For each piece, I focused on the 5 C’s of Copyediting, but I also offered some general feedback on the opening of the writers’ stories, as I would for any sample. In return, I asked them to tell me how they found the experience.
(For info: While some editors request an excerpt from the middle of the manuscript, I prefer the opening 2000 words because it reveals a lot about a writer’s skills and the project. A weak opening will strongly imply that more self-editing is needed before the manuscript is ready for a copy edit.)
"Lorna gave me a huge amount to think about. Over the years I’ve asked various writer friends to critique the book and they’ve all provided me with excellent feedback. However, Lorna gave me a completely new insight into the work and what I need to do to strengthen it. One of the most surprising and useful observations she made was that my protagonist comes across as the most ordinary character in the excerpt. This was difficult feedback to hear but Lorna was absolutely right, and I’m hugely grateful to her for highlighting it.
Lorna’s attention to detail was impressive. She gave my writing some very tough love and now I have my work cut out, tightening my dialogue, strengthening my opening chapters, giving my protagonist greater heft and generally tinkering with the tone of the book. I’m very glad to have had her help, she gave me what my friends probably never dared: a truly detailed, honest appraisal."
"Your edit made a huge improvement to a text I thought I’d polished. All your suggestions were kindly and thoughtfully made. After going through your changes, the sentences sparkled. But most important of all, you opened my eyes to a problem with my main character.
I'd been feeling that something in the manuscript wasn’t working for a long time. Re-drafting it felt like a chore. And the more changes I made, the less I felt happy with it. I’d put it to one side when your offer to copy edit came through, so I jumped at the chance. I thought you'd be looking more at sentence structure than wider problems, but you pointed out that my main character didn't jump off the page. And although I'd worked and worked on her, your comments made me have a complete re-think, but I've regained the love I had for the story and can't wait to start revising."
"I can definitely say that it was helpful for me, very helpful indeed. It was the first time getting professional editor feedback (the experiences I had made before with a semi-professional looking at a text of mine were not the best). Your feedback helped me to trust an editor with my texts and trusting that the feedback will be helpful and in honour of what I want to write. Also, you stating that I write well is something I take as a great compliment, as you would have seen lots of texts and stories.
One point you noted is that I am jumping POVs. In general, I admit that I had some issues with the POV, and I am constantly working on focusing on only one character when writing a scene. Hence, this is still an ongoing learning process, where I oftentimes think, Yes, now I got it right, only to later see that there still is some visible or subtle mixture of POVs. The three points in your comments were helpful for me as I started to put more focus on exactly those questions.
Your feedback was mostly helpful for me. For most of your comments, you wrote why you made that comment, and where that wasn't explicitly included, I could find good reasons on my own. For some suggestions you made, I did not find the reason, but I took them as what you said them to be: suggestions. For me, your feedback was a kind and detailed one at the same time, especially with your final comment underneath my text."
There are many ways to find a copy editor, such as online searching, professional associations, recommendations from other writers, and crowd-sourcing websites. But how do you know if a particular editor is going to be a worthy recipient of your editing budget?
I recommend that writers find two or three potential editors and carry out a three-stage vetting process for each:
1. Online Research
If you’ve found an editor online, or someone has recommended one, the editor’s website is the first port of call. (I think it’s a bad sign if the editor does not have an online shopfront.) The website should tell you if the editor has experience/interest in your kind of writing and appears to have the kind of personality you might gel with.
Don’t just look at the editor’s testimonials, though, which are obviously going to be glowing. Rather, assess for yourself how well the site is presented and how clearly the content is written. A single typo, however, is no reason to blacklist them, because even the most professional publications are rarely error-free!
2. Initial Consultation
Once you’ve decided an editor looks promising, arrange a phone or video call. On this first call, you’re simply sharing information and giving the editor a chance to ask pertinent questions about the project and the kind of editing you need. If they show little curiosity or interest in your project, they're unlikely to be a good fit.
Go into the consultation with a list of questions of your own to find out (at minimum) about the editor’s availability, what their process is, what they charge/how they’re paid … and if they’re willing to do a sample edit (see next step).
3. Editing Sample
I believe the best way for a writer to evaluate an editor is via an editing sample. Some editors will do this for free. If the editor is a highly sought-after professional, they may charge a fee for an amount that is later subtracted from the overall cost of the edit if you decide to hire them. In addition to seeing how many errors they spot, you’re looking for how astute and tactful their queries are, and how well their editing respects your material and authorial voice. Essentially, you’re assessing whether the editing enhances your writing.
However, this sample assessment is not a one-way street. The principle reason I provide free samples is that doing so is as much for my benefit as the writers’. In providing a sample edit, I’m asking the following questions:
When you have samples from two or three potential editors (samples of the same excerpt!) to compare, you might find that the editor whom you favoured after steps one and two did not hit all the right notes in the sample stage. In this case, you can either talk to them about how they can adjust their approach, or you can go with the editor who did the best sample, but may not have had the best website or the best phone manner. Or, of course, you can continue your search!
Once you’re satisfied with the editor, you can move ahead with project. In a future post, I’ll outline how a writer and editor can proceed professionally and productively through the project so that it goes without a glitch. And in the next post, I’ll share what three writers said about being on the receiving end of a professional edit for the first time.
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith