In the Globe & Mail today, columnist Russell Smith asserts in a piece titled “What real editors really do (and why writers should avoid freelancers)” that writers should not hire freelance editors to help them with their manuscripts, despite the fact that “there are fewer editors on staff at publishing houses, and publishers are less willing to work on troubled manuscripts as a result.”
I’m not an emotional guy. But I have to admit that this piece stirred me up a bit. Rather than succumb to my outrage, though, I will—like a surgeon hopped up on too much caffeine—systemically dissect his weak and (as I’ll later reveal ) dangerous argument.
First, let me try to summarize the crux of the article. After he instructs us on what he thinks “real” editors “really” do, he argues that “editors have quirky and personal tastes,” and therefore, writers should avoid freelancers altogether because they don’t abide by a strict set of standards that define what a salable book is. Freelancers will only offer you their opinions on your work, and they can’t possibly know the preferences of in-house editors who are still miraculously employed by real publishers.
Let’s also take a peek at how he describes this entity known as a freelance editor:
Remember too that there is no professional certification for freelance editors: You become one by losing a job at a magazine and then posting an ad on the Internet.
Yes, Mr. Smith. It’s that simple. Freelance editors are not freelance by choice. They would much prefer a life in a cubicle, spending their days obeying the powers-that-be, while they live in constant fear of losing their jobs.
And because there’s no “certification” for editing, most freelance editors can only offer shallow opinions on what they like and don’t like about a writer’s work. In fact, you, too, can become a professional freelance editor if you figure out how to post an ad on CraigsList!
Please note that the two paragraphs immediately above are slathered in sarcasm. I’d hate for them to be taken out of context. The truth is, though, plenty of freelancers out there became so out of necessity. I could name at least a dozen former colleagues of mine who lost their jobs because of “downsizing.” My former editorial director just lost her job last week from a company she’d served loyally for 14 years. She’s a terrific editor and a great manager, and the publisher she worked for will suffer even more without her. It is precisely for people like her and the writers out there actively seeking help that I created the Editor Coaching feature for Pubmission.
But to suggest that, because she’s not “certified,” she’s not a valuable resource for writers is absurd. Writing is an art form, and like all art forms, it is subject to the tastes and whims of the masses. Outside of a totalitarian regime, there are no definitive standards for what qualifies a piece of writing as publishable.
But that doesn’t mean there are no rules for the craft. Good editors know these rules and can make helpful judgments on when these rules should or shouldn’t be followed:
- They know when a writer could be using her words to show rather than tell.
- They know when the point of view is ineffective or awkward.
- They can recognize if a story starts too early or too late.
- They can spot unrealistic dialogue or a heavy reliance on adverbs.
In short, a freelance editor can give a writer advice and honest feedback when no one else has the time or resources to do so, especially in-house editors and agents.
But Mr. Smith even asserts that getting your work proofread prior to submitting it to publishers is a waste of money. Here’s how he describes what he believes to be the typical acquisitions process:
An editor chooses manuscripts for publication that are brought to her attention by an agent who represents authors. This editor must then run the idea of the book past the marketing department who will tell her if they think they can sell it to Indigo or not. They will approve it as long as it’s not something completely insane like a book of short stories. The number of typographical errors in the manuscript at this point doesn’t affect anyone’s decision. [Boldface added.]
As a former acquisitions editor, I can tell you that this is a complete falsehood. (I’ll dismiss the crack about short stories as a poor attempt at humor.) Reviewing the slush pile takes a lot of time, even if all of your submissions are coming from agents. If I found a number of typos in a writer’s first chapter (or even in her cover letter), that would be an immediate red flag. And it’s especially so for agents. I once spoke to an agent at a trade show who told me that he could make decisions on queries based on the formatting of the letter.
When the odds of getting published traditionally are so poor, why would you want to stack more of them against you? Why wouldn’t you get some proofreading help for your manuscript? No, Mr. Smith, I don’t think you’re helping anyone here.
In fact, as I hinted earlier, I think his advice is dangerous. Writers who are unsuccessful finding a publisher, or even an agent, now have the resources and technology to publish their own books. By discouraging rejection-prone writers from getting some honest feedback from one or two of the countless professional editors out there, these writers might be more likely to fork out the substantial amount of cash it takes to self-publish. I’ve met quite a few of them. Just a brief look at their hot-off-the-press first editions is usually enough to tell me that they’ll never recoup their investments.
Maybe these authors should know better. But their books are their babies. They’ve spent months, even years, locked up in a small room with them. It’s hard to accept rejection when you’ve put so much heart and soul into your work. But unlike, Mr. Smith, I think writers are adults and capable of making their own decisions. I think they’re capable of knowing which opinions to take to heart and which to ignore.
I just hope they don’t take Mr. Smith’s to heart.