The Editing Transaction

I want to talk about the transaction behind editing a manuscript. In almost twenty years as an editor, I have rarely taken much of a break because running a business is more than a full-time job. It’s normal to have at least two round-the-clock hamster wheels spinning in my mind:

(1) How can I help make [current project] better? and

(2) Is the business okay?

Most entrepreneurs can relate, even if they do something totally different–say, installing roofing. But as I’ve stepped back to part-time work this year, I’ve been thinking about a quirk of the editing business. Understanding it can help both the editor and writer get more out of the exchange.

Time, Labor, Money

A colleague whimsically said, “I’m a coin-operated editor.” She meant, I think, “I do what’s in the contract for the amount we agreed upon, and if you want me to do more, it will cost you more.” I agree with this, and I enforce it.

No one gets rich in this profession. Nor is the dollar amount on the contract a flat admission fee that grants a client unlimited access to the full breadth of the editor’s schedule, skill set, and personal generosity. Even a little scope-creep becomes palpable during the final crunch of writing a critique letter and discussing solutions with a client. The problem with giving out freebies is they are a “zero-sum” kind of free: each one takes a direct, observable bite out of the individual freelancer’s time, money, and/or mental resources.

Most of us expect a certain quantity of these costs every week. It’s just part of the low-grade exhaustion of running a business, offset by the joy of running a business. But we watch that needle carefully to avoid burnout. Getting paid for our work is an integral part of our job satisfaction. I say all this to offer some context because, if you’re a writer, you rarely see our day-to-day work lives.

So: I’m a coin-operated editor. But that obscures what’s different about developmental fiction editing (the type of editing I most often do). Some writers intuitively understand what I’m about to say. For the rest, I’d like to spell it out:

An editor IS a person who helps you become a better writer.

An editor IS NOT a person who picks up the manuscript before it’s done carries it across the finish line singlehandedly.


What’s the Difference?

Paying an editor isn’t like paying a roofer. A writer’s money isn’t buying a service that they’ve chosen to outsource. Philosophically speaking, that kind of capitalism supports our economy, but wherever art and commerce mingle, there is some squidginess to how we value skills and how we define creative labor. In other words, if you really want to nail down the cost of having someone finish writing a novel that belongs to someone else, what is the “right price?” A ghostwriter will tell you $20,000, at the low end.

I charge about a tenth of that for an editing project because I am only willing to edit–not ghostwrite. There is no dollar amount in the world that will induce me to set aside my own creative work and do someone else’s for them. Lack of skill is no excuse. We writers all lacked the craft when we started. That’s why we are spending our lives practicing it. Paying for a shortcut, for its own sake, seems to undermine the point of doing creative work.

(Yeah, I get heated about this topic because I’m passionate about it.)

Pragmatically speaking, if a writer plans to query agents and pursue a traditional publishing contract, hiring an editor to finish their novel for them doesn’t make sense. How would that even work? The agent revises a manuscript several times, so if the writer is incapable of understanding and implementing high-level feedback, is that work that the editor will do instead? The same goes for the publisher’s in-house editor: Will s/he be corresponding with the freelance editor the whole time? If a writer can’t execute a competitive manuscript on their own, then the manuscript is not ready for prime-time. 

Transactions or Exchanges?

I realize that I’m speaking narrowly. In truth, I’ve done ghostwriterly revisions on (for instance) a manuscript whose author was deceased; the family hired me to prepare the book for circulation among loved ones. I’ve also agreed to edit with a very heavy hand in books that were intended for self-publication. I’m perhaps not as rigid as I’m coming across otherwise.

But here’s the difference: in those cases, the clients didn’t approach me with a purely transactional mindset, and we were both engaged in the work. Beyond the transaction of editing, we each had an appreciation for the other’s investment in the book. It wasn’t a money-for-labor swap–it was a transfer of knowledge, a common participation in the novel’s emotional and intellectual content, and a sharing of love and respect for the power of storytelling.

I don’t want to be just a coin-operated editor. Maybe what I’m talking about is a more feminist approach to projects, where the producer and the consumer are engaged in an exchange rather than a mere transaction. Yes, I edit to pay the bills, but the reason I edit books instead of nailing shingles to roofs is that I love books and writers and because I have skills to share with my clients. Those skills are learnable, and I want to help my clients apply them to brilliant creative effect, both now and in future projects. Any person who stubbornly regards that skillset and enthusiasm as mere items for purchase is, really simply, not a client for me. A novel and a shingle aren’t interchangeable commodities. 


Are Editors Interchangeable?

Fortunately, no! I wrote a whole thing a while ago about how to choose an editor. The bottom line was that if all else is equal, work with the person who jibes with you.

And the bottom line here is that if you jibe with this post, get in touch with me about your manuscript! If you don’t, the EFA Member Directory and Job List accesses thousands of editors and ghostwriters whose many approaches to the work are as diverse as the EFA’s membership.

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