17 July 2018

Find Your Perfect Editor

Introducing Mary Feliz…
When I invited Mary Feliz to blog at SleuthSayers today I gave her wide latitude. I didn't ask her to focus on why she chose to write a cozy mystery series involving a professional organizer in Silicon Valley. I didn't want her to feel obligated to talk about why she made a golden retriever her main character's sidekick or how a wildfire factors into her newest book, Disorderly Conduct, which was published last week. All I asked was she blog about something related to writing. Anything. Little did I know she'd send me a column about how to find a great editor. Let me assure you that Mary is not my client, and this is not a subtle push to sell my services. But Mary does give some good advice here, so get ready to take notes. And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present Mary Feliz!

— Barb Goffman

Find your perfect editor

by Mary Feliz

To start a rumble among writers, try asking “Would you pay an editor?”

Personally, I think great editors are priceless gems. Lousy editors are a waste of time and money. But how do you tell the difference, especially when the perfect editor for your best pal could be the worst one for you?

Make sure you’re ready

Writing advice abounds in low-cost classes, seminars, critique groups and manuscript swaps. Exhaust these options and hone your skills before considering an editor. Jumping the gun means shooting yourself in the foot.

But how do you know you’re ready? Have you polished and submitted at least one manuscript to agents and small publishers, received several requests for full manuscripts, but weren’t offered a contract? An editor might help boost you over the last barrier. Have critique partners given you conflicting advice, but you can’t think of a third solution that will take your baby to the next level? Objective professional editorial advice could help.

If the price tag seems like a good use of your money, you’re either ready or stinking rich. Great editors are pricey ($1,000-$2,000). If you’re prepared to take a second job to pay for the extra help, go for it.

Ask for the right thing

Editorial services have a specialized vocabulary. Make sure you’re asking for (and paying for) only what you need.

  • Developmental editing is what most writers need when they consider hiring an editor. Are your characters strong and individualized? Is your dialogue crisp? Is your plot tedious or full of holes? Developmental editors won’t touch grammar, spelling, or punctuation, but can point to places your submission lags. They won’t make changes for you. Developmental editors are teachers, coaches, and guides. Working with one can be like taking a master class in literature with your own work as the topic. My favorite editor typically nails me on elements of the manuscript I knew were problematic, but that I somehow thought I could get away with. She frequently has to remind me that I'm writing a mystery, not a dog book.

  • Line editors and copy editors scour text for typos and other problems. Line editing may include fact-checking and searching for problems like echo words, clich├ęs, and expressions you use too often or don’t need. I think of them as employing a fine mesh filter to weed out small problems I might not notice on my own, but that are easy to fix. For example, in my latest book, (Disorderly Conduct, which released from Kensington Lyrical on July 10th), a copy editor suggested that I take another look at a segment in which Maggie, who is fiercely protective of her teenaged boys, calmly allows them to climb on a helicopter with a guy who, up to that point, she has suspected was a drug lord. It was a quick fix to have someone point out to her that the boys were well protected, it was an emergency, and well, the dogs weren't afraid of the guy, so maybe there was more to his story. That story is laid out as soon as Maggie has a chance to learn more about the mysterious stranger.

  • Proofreaders come on the scene after all the editing is done to make sure you didn’t install new errors while taking out the old ones. They’ll look at formatting, too. I think of them as quality-control technicians. In Disorderly Conduct, a final proofing after several rounds of edits revealed the presence of a "rattle snack." A quick change of a few letters changed something that sounds like a cat treat back into the dangerous creature the tense scene required.
The 4th book in the
Maggie McDonald series.
Book 1, Address to Die For,
was named a Best Book of
2017 by Kirkus Reviews.

Define your search

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to know when you’ve found it. I outlined my parameters by saying I wanted an experienced developmental editor, preferably one with publishing experience who had worked in my genre with authors I enjoyed reading and respected.

Shop carefully

I asked every writer I knew to suggest editors. Some of them asked agents or publishers. I measured each suggestion against my pre-established criteria, starting with the editors’ websites. If I a website seemed unkept, out-of-date, or sported spelling or punctuation errors, I put a line through their names. I also nixed anyone whose website just didn’t sit right with me, even if I couldn’t put my finger on why. Editing is as personal a professional relationship as you’ll ever have. Trust your gut.

Ask questions

You need be sure that you and the editor are literally on the same page, so you’ll need to ask questions. So will they. Ask how long the process will take, how fees are calculated, when the editor can start, and how they like to communicate. I recommend working with someone who includes follow-up questions in their fees, and who will provide an editorial letter along with any line edits they may also do.

Some editors became prickly when I asked for client names. I crossed them off my list. I needed to feel free to ask any question of my editor, without worrying that it would offend them or make them think less of me.


Most good editors will ask for a sample of your work. This step is their way of evaluating your writing. If an editor suggests you take more classes before trying again, soothe your hurt feelings with the knowledge that she’s saved you money, time, and frustration. Even the priciest class is less expensive than editorial services.

The perfect match

Ultimately, I found a great editor who fit my genre, writing style, and me. Her suggestions helped catapult my work forward. Her experience as an acquisitions editor for a top New York publisher meant she had contacts among agents to whom she willingly referred me. (Not all editors will offer this surface to all writers.) With her help, I nabbed my initial three-book deal with Kensington. It has expanded into a six-book series with audiobooks.

The not-so-perfect

Why do some writers curse editors? Maybe they had a bad experience. Or maybe they hold the outdated belief that publishers nurture newbie writers, taking a spark of imperfect creativity and fanning it into a conflagration of book tours, movie deals, and celebrity status. It’s a nice fantasy, but if it ever existed, it no longer does. Possibly, these writers believe their non-fiction expertise is sufficient for them to professionally publish their novel without help. I’ll bet my breakfast that they’re wrong. Self-publishing is a misnomer. No one succeeds alone.

Golden retrievers give unconditional
love. Editors, not so much.

Whether you’re hoping to nab a traditional publishing contract or produce a polished project under your own imprint, development editors can help. But only if you do your homework. A bad developmental editor, or one that you chose badly, is worse than no editor at all.

Under what circumstances would you pay an editor? What criteria would you look for?


  1. Lots of good info here, Mary and Barb. I think a story really comes together in the editing, so a good editor is worth their weight in gold and once you find one don't let go.

  2. Great post. I think many writers approach editors too soon, and maybe without knowing the different types of editing. I do developmental edits and pick up some clients when I conduct writing workshops, but I frequently turn people down when they make it clear that they want a proof-reader instead.

    But, as you point out, Mary, a good editor can help a reader polish his or her strengths and overcome weaknesses. It's hard, but it's rewarding for everyone involved in the process...when it goes right.

    Good writers swear by good editors. Poor writers probably swear AT them.

  3. Mary Ann Copple17 July, 2018 12:11

    What, pray tell, is the difference between a line editor and copy editor? Thanks.

  4. Thanks, Barb, for hosting me today! I actually didn't know you were an editor when I submitted this blog post! Can we think of it as serendipity?

  5. Mary Ann, good question! Maybe someone else can answer, but I think the difference between a line editor and a copy editor ias decidedly fuzzy. A good question to ask either one is whether they do fact-checking. And it's always wise to verify, up front, that you and your editor define their role and their job in the same way.

  6. Steve and Paul, I absolutely agree with you both. Great minds, eh? :-)

  7. I make my living as a freelance editor and proofreader, Mary. Apparently I need to do more to advertise that fact. :)

    Mary Ann, I think different editors probably define the jobs differently. Here's how I approach them: Line editing is actually reviewing each sentence for issues including word choice, passive voice, tense, confusion, and tightening. When I copy edit, I look for issues involving grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style.

  8. Great info here.

    I think of developmental editing as the sort of thing we did in my MFA workshops.
    All we did was critique, both out loud and in writing, each other's work every week. Sometimes helpful, sometimes just downright frustrating. And It spawned more rewrites than actual writes, which now I wonder about. Seems like I wasted an awful lot of time trying to appease my cohorts and profs concerns every week instead of moving forward and actually finishing the story/novel first, and then getting it developmentally critiqued.

    Too many cooks in the kitchen, not always a good thing!

    But, it's not like I could afford an editor either, then or now. Eventually, I'll have to bite the bullet and pay for one. One who can actually help get my novel published too would be a win-win, if they exist!

  9. Excellent advice, Mary. Very helpful.

  10. Let me just say i did not have extra cash lying around for an editor. But I’d gotten a fair amount of agents requesting my full ms and an equal amount of rejections with critiques. After a while, I felt I was just making changes for the sake of it, not necessarily making the ms better. I was at a crossroads. An editor was my last shot at seeing if I could make a go of this. Like you, Mary, I asked around, got a few suggestions from published authors, and based my decision on her reputation, knowledge of the genre, and the fact that she’s an award winning writer herself. I was still hesitating to pull the trigger when she announced on FB that she had an opening in her schedule. That was fate giving me a shove. She was invaluable, and not just for this ms. I learned so much about writing in my genre, got a ton of support from her, and finally felt fully confident in my writing abilities. Four months after I revised my ms based on her developmental editing, I received 3 offers of representation. And that editor was, in fact, Barb Goffman.

    1. Awww. Korina, I am delighted you are about to soar into this new career, and that I've been able to help you on your journey. You are a perfect example of why I love working as an editor. I can't wait to see what comes next for you.

  11. Thanks, Mary. As always, you are very generous with your experience and advice!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>