ASK THE EDITOR By Susan Malone


January 1999

In the past decade, the face of publishing has drastically changed. And most evident among these changes is the relationship between editor and author.

Editors no longer spend much time editing. Where once an editor would take an author ‘under his wing’, help with the fleshing-out of characters, the nuances of plot, and the basic elements of fiction (or non-fiction), now these duties must be accomplished WAY before the submissions stage. In today’s inundated market, not even agents can afford the time to guide one through the nuts and bolts of revisions.

So what’s a writer to do? Options include classes, workshops, seminars–all of which prove effective if time-consuming. Another choice is to utilize the services of an experienced freelance editor. Someone who will break down your book into its essential elements, dissect its strengths and weaknesses, and help you put it all back together. Whether novice or pro, all writers need a good editor.

Okay, so let’s say you decide to go this route. A plethora of these agencies abounds. The prices range widely, as do the services rendered. What, EXACTLY, can you expect for the dollars spent?

First, find out specifically what the editor will provide. Speak directly with whomever you’ll be working–either via phone or letter–and make sure you’re clear on the process, and what form the result will take. Some services provide a critique. Some, a line edit. And others, a combination. Be sure to ask these questions:

1). How in-depth will the edit be? Will the editor provide a long critique of:

A. Characterization. To include all the major and minor characters; whether these are three-dimensional, real people, or flat-sided cut-outs. Will methods for improving the specific characters be given, along with examples and pitfalls? Or will the editor provide only a grading system?

B. Plot. Will the editor go deeply into plotting problems, suggesting ways of improving YOUR specific plot, noting where the truth gets stretched, where the pacing is off, where a reorganization is in order? Or merely point out that the plotting fails?

C. Style. Will your use of the language, literary devices, voice and tone by thoroughly dissected, with emphasis on YOUR writing, examples from YOUR book? Will what you’ve done be correctly highlighted as well?

D. Overall. Is the manuscript ready to market? Does it need to be tossed and begun anew? Or is some salvageable, some not? In other words, will the editor give you the hard, cold facts?

2). Will your manuscript be line-edited? Many services begin with a line edit as an example, and then leave the rest to you. Make sure you pin down EXACTLY what your editor proposes to do–either a full edit, a partial, or just a critique.

3). Will the editor show you what he/she has told you? In other words, explain the whys of the changes on the pages?

4). Is he/she going to rewrite the book for you? Or show YOU how to revise it, thus leaving the finished manuscript in your own voice?

5). Follow up. What happens when the manuscript is returned to you? Will the editor be available for discussion? Is that part of the initial “deal”, or does it require further expenditure? Does the editor offer a second-reading service? Are the fees the same?

Once these questions get answered, decide what YOU want from the service, i.e., how far you want the editing process to go, how in-depth you want it to be. All writers are unique, as different as the stories they write (no matter what the publishing world says). All need different combinations of the above services.

Which leads to the last and most important point to clarify: Can you work with this person? When you have communicated with him/her do you speak the same language? Are you on the same page? The author/editor relationship has retained one aspect from the days of old–it is still a partnership, still two people working together towards a common goal. Be CERTAIN that the rapport established will propel you towards that goal. Because after all, this is YOUR work on the line.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to, Associate Editor for THE LITERARY MAGAZINE, multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial and manuscript assessment service. You may email questions to her at:

Editors, agents and authors interested in submitting articles for Insights are invited to send queries to: