Path to Publishing: Hiring a Content Editor

November 17, 2012

Indie Pen Tribe

Why You Hire

So you have completed your first draft, hurray! Celebrate! Boast! Savor the Champagne! It’s quite an accomplishment…really it is.

If you’re like most writers, you’ve squirreled yourself away while making this masterpiece of yours…all by yourself except for your dog and perhaps a goldfish. You emerge with your manuscript in hand. You think it’s good, in fact you know it’s good but…what will everyone else think?

What a terrifying question.

This is where you panic and race back to your small, dark cubby to shove your manuscript into a bottom drawer. “It needs some time to gel,” you say when people ask, as if your book was a type of Jell-O salad. Or you muse, “I need to get away from it for awhile to develop perspective,” while looking off into the distance in what you hope is an authorly manner.

But after a bit of this, something niggles at the back of your mind–will you ever gain perspective? How will you know when you have? The question is, can any writer evaluate his/her work objectively?

Truth be told, writers often find it impossible. “Oh well,” you think, “when I land my big-publisher contract, they will handle all of this for me.” Sadly, for most first time authors, this is no longer true. Most publishing houses expect your work to be finished and polished at submission.

What’s a poor writer to do?

The tried and true course of action is to wail at the injustices of the universe, go out and have too many drinks with your friends and then hire a content editor.

What a Content Editor Actually Does

A content editor knows what  a good story well told  looks like and will tell you exactly what you need to do to make your story look that way too.

Specifically, a content editor will:

  • Evaluate the plot, tell you where you went off the rails and how to clamber back  on.
  • Assess how well you have developed your characters, if they resonate with the reader and how well they contribute to your story.
  • Let you know if you have any loose ends such as characters blithely leaving the story never to be seen again, or sub plots you’ve served up half cooked and without the sauce.
  • Tell you point blank if your story grabbed them at the beginning and if you have a chance in hell of impressing anyone other than your mother.

In other words, they are worth their weight in gold.

Finding a content editor is easy, but finding a good one is tough. There are many on-line editing services which offer a sliding scale of content editing. They have dissected the process and are prepared to document everything for you. This approach makes me uncomfortable so I shy away from it. Because content editing is really a high-level creative process, it requires conceptualizing in a way that generally defies all manner of dissection. Also, I believe it’s best to communicate such high level stuff in person, preferably with someone you are comfortable with. Handling everything via email or on paper makes it difficult to communicate changes on a conceptual level, which inevitably leads to miscommunication.

How to Hire a Content Editor

To locate a content editor, start with your friends and associates who are writers. Who do they recommend and why? Then check his/her references. You can also check with a local, non-profit writers organization (California Writers Club comes to mind) or ask around at a nearby college. Using Social Media is a also great way to ferret out a good content editor. Try LinkedIn or post a request for information on Facebook or Goodreads. Look for someone who edits, or at least writes, in your genre or category. If you think about it, someone experienced in editing literary works may not be the best choice for your sci-fi novel.

Working with a Content Editor

Keep in mind that you are in the driver’s seat. Once you have hired a content editor, make a list of things about your story that worry you. Does this scene work? Is it necessary to the plot? Does this character come across as funny or too cheesy? Create a hierarchy of tasks for your editor. I’m most concerned about: (1), (2), (3), etc..  Use this list as the basis of all your discussions.

You may not like everything your content editor tells you. But do try to refrain from arguing with him/her. Listen to their suggestions. You didn’t hire him/her to rubber stamp your work, right? Also, ask for a written outline of their recommendations as it is difficult to remember everything  that was discussed, especially when your mind is already doing rewrites half way through the meeting.

After meeting with your content editor, review what was discussed and make notes on the revisions that come immediately to mind. You can start making the less taxing revisions right away but I recommend walking away from it for a little while to let your mind work through some of the stickier issues on its own. My own experience has been that when I sit down to write after a few days away, revisions write themselves.

If your editor did not fully answer your questions, be sure to ask for more information, but only if the editor clearly omitted responding to one of your questions or didn’t honor one of the tasks he/she set. Do not ask for feedback on your rewrite unless you are willing to pay them again.

When the process is complete, thank the editor, pay them promptly and honor them with an acknowledgement when you publish. Always be polite and courteous. Good will in this business is almost as important as good reviews.

An Alternative, Writing Group or Partner

Content Editing isn’t easy, which means it isn’t cheap either. What do you do if you don’t have the money? You can join a critique group or find a writing partner. A critique group meets regularly to assess each other’s work.  Generally, there is a limit to the amount of work per submission, but first drafts are often the exception. My critique group graciously read my entire first draft and gave me invaluable feedback. In return, I’ve had the pleasure of reading their first drafts. If a group critique doesn’t quite do it for you, seek out a writing partner who has a first draft in need of review.  The premise is the same, you review each other’s work. But often, the process is more in-depth as there are only two in the equasion.

Both of the above suggestions are dependent on the skill set of your writing partner or group, however. It is often difficult to find a perfect match of skills and need. But even if you end up hiring a content editor anyway, joining a critique group or finding a writing partner will help you along your way. The point is to get the opinion and advice of a writer who is capable of assessing your work at the conceptual level. If you manage to gather advice from more than one, that’s even better.

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