Dear Track Changes,
I’ve been working on a novel off and on for a few years, and I finally have a finished draft. I am more or less happy with the draft I have, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it has room to improve. I just feel like I can’t see the forest for the trees after working on it for so long, and I need some more readers. I’ve had some amazingly supportive friends and family read pieces of the work, and while their comments are helpful, I know they’re all biased. Same with the members of my writing group. I know this all makes me a good candidate for a professional edit, but as I’ve been exploring my options, I keep coming up against a simple barrier: edits are really expensive! I don’t want to tell you what you should charge, but I guess I’m just wondering…why do you charge so much?
Dear Penny Pincher,
I hear you. Editing is definitely expensive. As the son of two college professors who never much liked to talk about money, it took me a while get to the point where I didn’t feel a little sheepish when sending an author a quote. But the more I’ve worked as a freelancer, the more I’ve become comfortable with the realities of how jobs need to be priced in order for the whole system to work.
First I’ll try to give you an idea of how much time I spend on an ms. Other editors may vary, but I’m pretty methodical. I like to break down a book and put it on a schedule, doing the same amount of pages per day, and leaving about a week at the end to put together the editorial letter. If I’m doing a full markup, my goal is 25 pages of editing per day per project (ideally I have two going at once, to keep things from feeling stale). So for a standard 350 manuscript page novel, that’s somewhere in the vicinity of 3 weeks of work for the markup, plus another week for the letter. That’s a full month’s work for one book! For a shorter project or a Manuscript Critique where I’m just putting notes in the ms rather than line editing, I might subtract a week from the schedule, or for a longer book I might have to add a week to the schedule. Any way you slice it, that’s just a lot of hours.
Trust me, I wish I were faster as much as you do. I sometimes dream about figuring out a way to become an efficient editing machine that can churn out 100 pages of thoughtfully marked up prose per hour and then spit a 5,000 word editorial letter out of a dot matrix printer located somewhere in my midsection. When I get frustrated with myself for going slow, spending half an hour on a single page, picking apart every sentence, I have to remind myself that the slowness is a feature, not a bug. It’s just what it takes to really engage with the work in front of me, and to do justice to the job I agreed to.
Speaking of doing justice, that’s also where the expertise comes in. Story time: When I was I college, I was a creative writing minor. I wrote lots of stereotypical college-y creative writing workshop stories about, I don’t know, cool guys who were unlucky in love or whatever. Even then, I could tell that my strength wasn’t in inspiration, but I enjoyed editing stories by other writers in the workshops. I would mark them up mercilessly, smug that I was doing my classmates such a favor, even though they were probably rolling their eyes. After all, I was an editorial intern at Algonquin books at the time, so my credentials were unassailable—an editorial intern, see? Basically an expert. One day, though, I badgered one of the editors at Algonquin to read one of my stories, probably thinking it would end up in New Stories from the South. She generously read it and gave it back marked up. With a few strokes of the pen on each line, she made it one million percent better. I couldn’t believe that such tight, measured prose was lurking inside my overwrought sentences, and frankly I had no idea how in the hell she did it. That was a good editor. I was not a good editor.
I’ve spent the past decade or so trying to fix that. That same Algonquin editor helped me get a job in New York and over the years I got to learn the trade under a bunch of amazing people, all of whom edited very differently, but still managed to improve prose to a mind-blowing degree.
I totally understand the skittishness about making a big investment in your work, and if you decide you can’t justify it, I respect that 100%. But if you do decide to take the plunge, I can promise you that the editing will not be done by an editorial robot. It’ll just be me, fiddling with your sentences for a month, trying to dream up ways to make your book better. I think that’s a good thing!
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