Now You’ve Done It: What to expect (and demand) of your Red Pen


I have a professional incentive for pushing you toward hiring an editor, but I am not the only person suggesting it.  Other smart people also think you need an editor, someone else to read your writing.  But not yet.  Just because you need an editor, doesn’t mean you’re ready for one.  Before you go searching for an editor on Elance or Craigslist, you need to prepare your work and yourself.  You also need to know what exactly you should expect to get from the editing process, and what you should demand.


Before you buy:

Once you’ve decided you need an editor, you must prepare.  Here is what you will need to do before you find a Red Pen.

  • Know your audience.  Your editor will need to know what hat to wear, and more than that, you will need to find an editor who can wear that hat. If you are writing a blog, understand that baby boomers do not read blogs. A blog for baby boomers has no audience. If you are writing a Young Adult novel, you’ll need someone familiar with that genre to help you decide if your content or diction is interesting for the age range.
  • Know your elevator pitch.  When you write an essay in school, or you are penning your PhD dissertation, this is called a thesis. It is your purpose in writing. Whether you are writing a blog, or a novel, or an article of journalism, you need a purpose. I’m writing a blog because I’m a professional writer and editor and no one is going to take a writer seriously who doesn’t write. It is my resume, which means every post needs to be written with my business in mind, even if I stroll off into never never land and write about my childhood. In the end, I am writing to showcase my talents.
  • Know the difference between Developmental, Line, and Copy editing.  This comes down to buying the right product. If you would like help rearranging the content of your e-book on dog breeding, you need to know what to ask for. “Editing help” doesn’t cut it. The point is not what the different types of edits are, but your knowing what those differences are. You are much more likely to love what you get from your Red Pen when she knows what to give you.
  • Let go.  This is the last, but also the most important thing you need to do before you hire an editor. You are hiring a Red Pen. You might not be hiring the likes of me, but you are literally hiring someone to tell you what you did wrong. Whether you want simple grammar edits (that’s copy, friends), or to make sure the story makes sense as a whole (and that’s development), you are not hiring someone to tell you it’s perfect. You have to be ready for that.

What to expect:

If you’ve done your homework and you are physically and mentally prepared for the Red Pen, you can begin to look critically at what different editors offer and to understand the process of editing. This is what awaits you.

  • You will get what you pay for.  Editing is not an easy job, and it is not a quick job. If you know an editor who is willing to do the job for free, be very grateful, and also recognize that you will be getting what you pay for. I believe this goes for all things in life, from furniture to cleaning services (and editing). Deals can be found, and there are times when you will be asked to pay for the name, rather than the quality. But these are exceptions, outer limits and outliers. You have to understand that if you decide to cut corners on your editor, you are in danger of needing rework. You will pay someone twice.
  • You will need to make changes.  Remember what you are paying for. You are hiring someone to tell you what is wrong, so that you can fix it before anyone else sees your mistakes. You are not paying someone to tell you it’s perfect. It’s not perfect. Whether you are checking for grammar and punctuation errors or something more, your editor will find ways to help. That’s what you’re paying for.
  • You will not like what you hear.  Sitting through a critique is difficult for anyone, seasoned or no. However, there is a difference between not liking criticism, and not finding the particular critique to be of use. Neil Gaiman puts it perfectly when he says that if people tell you something isn’t working, they’re usually right, and if they tell you exactly what it is and how to fix it, they’re usually wrong.  You need to be ready to sort your feelings of attachment to your work from your feelings that the editor you’ve picked might be wrong for you.


What to demand:

You are paying someone for this.  Even if you’re paying your best friend in hugs and cookies, you are are hiring for a job, and are allowed to make demands.  These are a list of very reasonable demands that you can and should  make of your editor.

  • Questions rather than answers.  This goes back to Neil Gaiman. At the end of the day, you’re soliciting an opinion. If your editor tries to claim her opinion is fact, you need to be wary. Answers are allowed for grammatical and spelling changes, obviously, but many editorial concerns are more about style than “good grammar”. Your editor should be able to tell you what questions were left unanswered so that you can answer those questions within the prose.
  • Critique over criticism.  Similar words, very different ideas. A critique addresses the specifics of a piece, their functions and their influence on the reader. Criticism offers no help. I had a teacher in high school who responded to a paper of mine by calling me an enigma. I stopped going to her class. A critical statement is meaningless unless it explains itself and offers alternatives.
  • More communication than you thought you needed.  For so many reasons, communication with your editor is incredibly important. You need to trust your editor to help create the best finished product. You also need to understand the critique. If you want to send a piece of writing off and have it simply returned with a few red marks, you are not ready for an editor.




8 thoughts on “Now You’ve Done It: What to expect (and demand) of your Red Pen

  1. I have a question that I feel fits into this post, but it may be something worthy of a separate discussion entirely. When hiring an editor, how much “homework” is it reasonable to demand, or request, they complete before beginning to make red marks? Between us, you know my particular motivation for asking this already, but I’ll spell it out for the benefit of context. I’m the creator of a vast, varied, but interconnected line of graphic novels. At some point, I will need a Line Editor, a fellow overseer, a Duke or Duchess of Continuity to help keep my head straight. There is a lifetime supply of backmatter already sketched out, so much that I have found it difficult to ask a potential editor to sift through it all so they understand where/when a possible critique has already been covered, and when it’s legitimately a hole I have yet to plug. Is it realistic to give a prospective editor that huge a stack of prep work, or should I just suck it up and expect the constant back-and-forth Q n’ A and hope one or both of us doesn’t collapse in frustration? At that level of involvment, does the role even qualify as Editorial anymore, or is that more Co-creator territory?

  2. P.S. The short answer is a question: What do you want? As in, do you want to see if the writing is clear or if the world is sensical? Do you want a co-creator or do you want something less? The long answer (and of course this is my long answer, my opinion) is, clearly, much longer and more nuanced.

    • I think this would be akin to an Editor In Chief position, while my corresponding role would be Creative Director. My dream EIC is one half of a two-headed beast that makes sure the continuity and internal logic is, as you put it, sensical, and would in an ideal setting have a cadre of copy editors under their direct supervision. The CD is the flipside, handling the visual and tonal consistency with a staff of artists of my own to wrangle. So yes, in a way it’s very much a co-creator situation, and the only thing that places me higher in the infrastructure is my role as Alpha thinker-upper and originator of the IP, unless that hypothetical EIC was able to talk me into an equal partnership but that’s a whole OTHER topic.
      The point is, that’s why it’s so hard to find a good editor for something this massive; it’s asking a LOT of someone, even if the pay is good, to catch up on everything I already “know” in order for them to properly tear it down and build something stronger, which is ultimately what I want.

      • Let me rephrase something I just wrote:
        “…asking a LOT of someone….to get up to speed on where the story is at the point they enter the picture in order for them to……”
        Saying “catch up on what I already “know”…” is condescending and minimizes their contribution right out of the gate, which runs counter to the collaborative spirit I’m talking about.

  3. That doesn’t sound condescending to me at all. It is a world you’ve built, and have spent a long time building, so in a sense your editor will need to catch up. However, the great thing about an editor is that they have the opportunity to also be a “first reader”. In that sense, they don’t need to get caught up, because they will be reading it from the perspective of the reader, who obviously doesn’t know everything going into the comic either.

    • ahhhh-HA you make a very fine point Kendra. Embracing an editor’s role as the uninvested (less invested) “filter” is the right mindset to keep at the forefront; to relish the idea that they will be able to pick out the narrative gaffes as they happen like rocks on a conveyor belt of beans, as opposed to the “creator” who can so easily overlook those things because their focus is split between the subject at hand and, to extend the metaphor, the final bag of beans on the store shelf. See, this is why your input is so valuable to boogers like me, just to put a personal spin on it. *bow* Thank you and keep the posts coming. I’m all ears.

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