Finding the perfect editor

“With the aid you’ve given me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Maxwell Perkins in December of 1924, “I can make Gatsby perfect.”


Maxwell Perkins

Perkins, the noted editor who also worked with Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, is probably best known for helping Fitzgerald craft his American masterpiece. Not only did he help Fitzgerald with the characters and language in The Great Gatsby, but he even helped him with the book’s title – the classic might have otherwise been named Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires (for more on the working relationship between Perkins and Fitzgerald, read The Artful Edit by Susan Bell).


F. Scott Fitgerald

F. Scott Fitgerald

Not every editor gets such lavish praise from their authors, but most editors I’ve come across strive for the type of relationship Fitzgerald and Perkins had. In fact, a funny thing often happens to an editor—she becomes so involved in the process that she becomes attached to the book. As an editor, I know it’s not my book, but I feel a certain pride toward it, especially if an author has taken my suggestion to add tension here, beef up a character there, or just tweak the dialogue. I share the author’s excitement when he finds an agent, or when she gets those first reviews on Goodreads and Amazon.

So how do you find your perfect editor, your own Max Perkins?

Here are a few tips:

* Start by asking other writers. If you don’t find someone through a referral, check out established organizations such as the Editorial Freelancers Association or the Bay Area Editors’ Forum.

* Ask the editor to do a free sample edit (for developmental editing, perhaps a short chapter; for copy-editing, at least 5-7 pages). This should give you an idea of what to expect from them, as well as give you an idea of how long they take to edit something.

* Preferably, you want an editor who has experience in your genre. Ask them what other books they’ve edited, or for references. Check out their websites: are there client testimonials or lists of books they’ve edited?

* Some editors are loathe to meet in person or even talk on the phone (time is money), but hopefully they’ll agree to an initial phone conversation. Just promise to keep it short.

* When you are ready to proceed, make sure you get a contract or letter of agreement. This should state how long it will take (some people find themselves waiting months for an edit that should have taken only weeks) and the price. If the editor doesn’t give you a flat rate, there should at the very least be an estimated rate, capped at a certain amount. Many editors will ask for a deposit, then ask for the rest to be paid in installments. Get it all in writing.

* If you are at all unsure about the working relationship, ask to have an escape clause written into the contract. Sometimes, it’s better to move on to another editor.

* Finally, if you do find your perfect editor, shower her with praise. Editors, just like writers, enjoy good reviews!





3 thoughts on “Finding the perfect editor

  1. Thank you for the information. I’ve already made one mistake by not getting a letter of agreement, but did get the same elements you suggested in an email. Is that good enough?


  2. Thanks for the pointers on what to expect in a contract with an editor. It’s all very common-sense, but when you’re first looking you’re unsure as to what is customary. Having some information makes one feel less like, in the words of my college-age niece, a total noob.

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