I am a first time writer and I just finished my first novel. In your opinion, should I try and get an editor before I query an agent? I haven't been able to find any advice on that and I read your blog all the time so I figured I would ask. If you have time to respond, please let me know whenever you can!
Dearest XXX, thank you for asking. I've been wanting to write about this for a long time. I'm afraid I have a TON of thoughts about it.
Let me start with an anecdote.
About six months ago, I got to meet an editor hero of mine, who is a big important head of an imprint at a big important company. We got to chatting, and she asked me about some of my favorite projects.
Being my humble modest self (ahem), I started bragging about all my most splendid projects (all of them, naturally). I took some special time on a book I was particularly proud of--one you've heard a bit about here--which I'd acquired after every other house in basically the entire world had passed. I'd seen potential there, and after working carefully with the author on editorial back-and-forth and thoughtful development, we published to mind-blowing awesome reviews. In my prideful, sinning mind, this was an ultimate victory, because I felt like I could see my own personal hand in the book's success in a special way.
My esteemed interlocutor, however, did not *realize* I was bragging! Instead, she said something that shook me from buttons to boots: "Oh wow, you guys edit over there? That's nice--I always used to enjoy editing. We don't have time, so we can only really buy books that are pretty much ready for production."
I was, as I said, pretty shaken. My very smart, wise, and experienced new friend had opened my eyes to an industry trend I'd kinda been ignoring--houses are increasingly not insentivizing their editors to EDIT. Instead, they are supposed to focus on ACQUIRING. I love editing, and realizing that it may not be a crucial or celebrated skill for an acquisition editor to have made me wonder what the future holds for me.
Enough about me and my ego. How does this tie into YOUR life as a writer?
I am not saying the system doesn't suck. I'm just trying to address this very specific question of whether or not you should hire a freelance editor.
Basically, you want your submission to be as clean as possible, at every stage.
"Clean" means both in terms of copy issues (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure) and in terms of content--your structure, composition, ideas, and for fiction plot, characters, and pacing should all be tight as a drum--it's not enough to want to sell your manuscript anymore. You have to imagine that, in a worst case scenario, you might get published without another hand tinkering with anything you've written. (Hopefully this won't be the case--but you should treat your manuscript as if it is.)
Don't let yourself cut any corners at any stage. You should be as clean as possible before submitting to agents, because while some agents are fantastic editors, some of the best agents are very poor editors (different although frequently overlapping skill sets--but don't count on an agent to edit your manuscript). You should also talk seriously to your agent about how clean the manuscript is before the agent submits to editors.
Some pros and cons (all mixed together) of hiring a freelance editor to work on cleaning up your project:
*The expense--they charge a ton. We're looking at hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the person and what kind of editing your book requires. And I know a lot of us aren't exactly rolling in it. You have to figure out on your own the risk/reward scenario fiscally--it's important to remember that working with an outside editor doesn't mean that your project will sell.
*You gotta have the right person working with you, and that's often hard to ascertain in advance. While you, personally, may not be an expert at grammar, or may feel you need a second opinion about pacing or the commercial viability of elements in your story, it's important to remember that you ARE the author, and that ultimately your idea and presence are sacred to what makes your book your book. I mean, I'm NOT one to tell anyone to ignore editorial suggestions (of course I'm not going to tell you that!). But I will tell you that it's important that you work with editors--whether in houses or on a freelance basis--who understand you and who agree with what is fundamental about your book. Yes, you want a clean and commercially viable book--but working with someone who loves to read (and ONLY loves to read) Sophia Kinsella may not be a perfect idea when your writing is designed to appeal to readers of Maeve Binchy.
*An outside set of eyes never, ever hurts. Every person who reads your manuscript will offer you a different kind of reaction, and those reactions (good, bad, ugly) should be both important and interesting to you as an author. Plus, a paid freelance editor will (hopefully) have a lot more to bring to the table in terms of concise, helpful advice than your neighbor Sue Ellen might have.
*The level of cleanliness required in a manuscript these days might be higher than what you're humanly capable of achieving on your own (as I discussed above). Are you up to it on your own? Be honest with yourself about your own abilities. But also don't be scared of your abilities--you may need less help than other people.
*Then again, don't trust yourself at all. Writers are notoriously bad about judging themselves--bad writers tend to think they're awesome, and terrific writers tend to think they're terrible. So get a second opinion about whether your manuscript needs outside help from someone who will give it to you straight.
*Now, a great way to get around an expensive professional edit is to work with a crit group. Not every crit group works out perfectly, but in the best case scenarios, writers can find another very kindred soul or two with whom to slap the silly out of their respective works before things go to an agent for submission. Just because someone isn't a publishing professional doesn't mean they can't help you awesomely. Just remember they need reciprocal incentive--you have to offer to take their project as seriously as they do yours.
*Don't be ashamed of hiring an outside editor. This is no longer a pride issue--it's not about your fitness as an author. It's more about the woefully understaffed and underfunded state of the union as it is at this moment in time. So if you are considering hiring an outside set of eyes, don't get hung up on all that.
*Remember that in most cases, you can't submit to the same editor (or, before that, agent) twice. That means that, again, you MUST be honest with yourself. If you are the kind of author who needs outside professional help, try to figure that out BEFORE your agent submits your manuscript to every editor in history. Many agents start out with small, exclusive submissions so that if the general editorial feeling is that the manuscript needs more work, the author and agent can go back and try again before using up all their submissions options. So in many cases, you'll have time to consider and reconsider.
You probably want a more concrete answer--yes or no? Honestly, I want to say that it depends on you. Some people are simply more able to self-edit, or have more friends who are able to give more (free) incisive criticism. Some people have more time for self-development. If you have some cash to burn, are in a rush, and are pretty sure you need outside help, a professional editor may be the easiest way to go.
I hope this helped--let me know if there's anything I can flesh out for you.
I come back to one point--I am not claiming the system doesn't suck. It sucks in lots of ways. But together let's try to pass around proactive advice/strategies.