Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How Freelance Editors Shoot Themselves in the Foot

This may be my hubris talking, but I always believed that the way academia handles writing is flawed, especially at my high school. Conversation with old comrades turns to the fact that while we were forced to learn and use the Jane Shaffer method for five years, when we got to college, each of us couldn’t figure out how to write an essay. We had someone holding our hand the entire time, making us not actually pay attention the process or having any idea why we did anything we did. We didn’t even understand what we were trying to do.

The school’s greatest failings, however, center around editing and critiques. While I do actually remember many classes that had us practicing criticizing each other, there wasn’t a lot of feedback on the critiques themselves. Most times, the author wasn’t even allowed to speak, which I’ve discussed before why I find that counterproductive to the process. And as for editing, well, sure we got the red marked pages back, but I don’t remember ever having to read them or do another draft. The turned in essay was supposed to be a polished draft already, which makes me convinced my teachers have never met a high school student before.

Critiquing and editing is not a natural skill, and it’s one glossed over in most situations. Not everyone knows how to do it even though we think it should be inherent. There are a lot of fallacies and myths going on about the editing process (I’m still surprised by how shocked some people are when I tell them a second draft isn’t always better than the first, like it never occurred to them that you could screw things up). Editing is just like writing in a lot of ways, where most people think they can do it, if only they’re just given the chance.

Along with self-publishing, the freelance editor has gained popularity. You want to publish your own book, it’s often a good idea to find a professional to give you feedback. But in the same way that you can’t trust a self-published work as much as you can a traditionally published one (we’ve all read that work filled with typos that completely lacks an ending) a freelance editor might not actually be experienced at all or good at what he does.

It’s hard hiring artists. Their skill level isn’t always consistent—by the nature of the beast—and even if they’re good at what they do they may not be what you’re looking for. If they suddenly decide to half ass it, which some are often inclined to do, then you’re helpless.

It’s difficult to tell how good an editor will be until after he’s already edited your book.

But it’s not like taking a chance on a self-published work where, if the author proves lacking, you’re out 99 cents. Ten dollars at max. An editor can cost anywhere from 300 to 3,000 dollars, and just because you’ve paid more doesn’t really mean anything. They often have websites with resume credits on it, but many times their work means little to you (I edited Joe Smith’s Little Red House), unless you’ve actually read it. And it’s not uncommon for them to just make things up. I read articles all the time about freelance editors who just jacked information from someone else’s page thinking they wouldn’t get caught. Which they usually don’t.

The best way for an editor to reveal his skill set is to have a blog. Whenever someone writes a lot about writing—his opinion, tips, what he’s reading, what he likes and doesn’t like—instead of reading their planted testimonies and a list of credits that are meaningless and might be made up, you find out a lot about the person and discover if you’re a good match or not. Knowing that what he likes to read is completely different than what you like to read tells you his issues will be those of taste rather than effectiveness. If he spends all his time ranting about prologues and adverb use and you find that to be the least important aspect of writing well, then you already know you’re going to be ticked when you get the drafts back. If, however, you find yourself agreeing with him and you seem to be on the same page, you might’ve found your literary soul mate and definitely should hire him.

The problem with these blogs, on the other hand, is it seems some people forget it’s their potential customers reading them. Same goes for Facebook statuses and Twitter accounts. While you have many people like me who aren’t in search for a freelance editor as of yet, I might very well be compelled to change my mind if the situation fits. If you are actively shopping around and are doing your research by checking out different avenues of their self-expression, you can easily be turned off by some of the things they have to say.

Truth is, in the same way a potential boss might be turned off by having pictures of you stumbling drunk on Facebook, potential customers are turned off by some of the things the freelances have to say.

If I ever decided to hire an outside editor who I hadn’t met in person, I can tell you a few things that would confirm someone wasn’t a right fit:

I would never hire someone who might mock my work in public.

Many times these editors post complaints about the “shit” they’re editing. Whether it be a vague tweet, “Books like these make me wish I was illiterate,” with no real indication on who or what that book is, or a more in depth, three page analysis on something specific, this sourpuss demeanor does not read as professional to me. It does not say I’m someone who likes to read, and it indicates that I can’t trust them. While I can get behind many negative posts, an editor and author relationship requires respect for each other in order to be its most effective. Ranting posts suggest that the editor, in fact, does not agree with this philosophy.

I would never hire someone who cuts corners.

My blog, for those skimmers out there, is called, “What’s Worse than Was: A website on how the word ‘was’ isn’t the worst thing a writer can do.”

In response to this, a freelance editor told me that when editing a book, he could tell “how good it was,” by using finder to see how many times the word “was” was used. After a certain number, he knew that it was terrible.

I’m not going to critique the method itself—hey, it might work. I haven’t tried it—but I will say that, while he didn’t realize that I might be a future customer, he did make it so that I’m certainly not now.

Editors love to brag about how they cut corners when editing or simply judging a book. “I just turn straight to page 17, and if there’s not an inciting incident, then I know it’s not any good.”

See, what I’m hiring you to do is not to tell me how I’m not fitting into a formula, but rather tell me how the book made you react (or didn’t), why you probably reacted that way, and to give me a couple of solutions to solve the problem. Truth is, I know a lot of the writing rules already. I could make a formulaic book with ease. Anyone could. But no book like that will ever be considered great, which is why when to follow the rules and why you should follow them now, is important.

Announcing to me that you don’t consider context when editing suggests that you can be replaced by a computer. And if you can be, believe me, you will be.

I would never hire someone whose focus was on archaic grammar rules.

Grammar Nazism can be useful, yet, again, context is extremely important.

I’ve had authors and editors complain about speaking in the vernacular in Facebook statuses. The one person I’ve blocked was someone who told me not to end a sentence in a preposition. I repeat, in a Facebook status.

When I want feedback from someone, I’m looking for their opinion. What do they see that I can’t? I hate getting back a manuscript that just fixates on grammar and typos with no abstract, big picture issues. What’s worse is when they focus on doing things technically correct, not emotionally effectively.

While the zoomed in focus on grammar and typos is irritating, it’s useless when the editor brings in technically correct but long forgotten rules, especially when he doesn’t understand why those rules existed in the first place.

What’s the consequence of ending a sentence in a preposition? Does it jar the reader? Corrupt understanding? Make anyone who’s not trying to prove their literary superiority cry? No, it’s because it makes English less like Latin. Yep. Back in the 1700’s a literary critic wanted to make English grammar conform to the dead language, and his propaganda was pretty popular and well repeated, but he was never successful in making it actually incorrect, which is why your computer doesn’t bitch at you when you do it.

Being technically correct can be far more jarring than being incorrect. It can also change the tone and cadence of your writing. It sometimes has no point other than to prove superiority. Mostly though, if that’s the most important thing someone wants to talk about, it indicates to me a lack of more interesting thoughts.

I would never hire someone who doesn’t think for himself.

Personally I interpret an obsession with grammar as insecurity. Not that I mind when people point out typos, spelling errors, and the like, nor do I really believe that people who are good at grammar are all self-doubting, but when that’s all they will talk there’s a reason.

When someone doesn’t consider the effect of the grammar rule, he’s limiting my palate. If he doesn’t consider why I have a sentence fragment here, or used “me” instead of “I” in my dialogue, then why wouldn’t I just use a computer program? It doesn’t judge me, can’t post complaints about me in Facebook, and gets the job done quickly.

An editor needs to be more than just some formula pushing junkie. He needs to be a creative sort who is willing to stand back and consider someone else’s tastes to maximize the books potential. He cannot be some closed-minded parrot.

If an editor has a list of blogs complaining about grammar rules that no one cares about, or if his articles are all things we’ve heard before without any semblance of original opinion, it is an indication he’s not a critical thinker.

When looking for an editor, I’m trying to find someone who can do what I can’t; the opinion of someone who didn’t make the book, a different level of experience, simply ideas and inspiration that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. If the editor acts like a computer where he uses simple formulas instead of his brain, or if he behaves like an amateur with a light grasp of concepts I am fully informed of, then he’s not any use to me. Why would I pay him so much?


If I’m looking for an editor, I’m looking for his mind. If I’m looking for common writing techniques and tricks, I’m looking for Google.