Should I Hire an Editor to Help Cut My Manuscript?

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Ask the Editor is a column for your questions about the editing process and editors themselves. It’s a place to bring your conundrums and dilemmas and mixed feelings, no matter how big or small. Want to be considered? Learn more and submit your question.

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Legacy Launch Pad’s Bestselling Book Bulletin. Sign up to receive a bulletin every Thursday morning that includes one answer to a publishing question, one publishing tip, one publishing resource and one bit of publishing advice.

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I’m a newbie writer, working on a memoir about a trip I took in 1976. It’s a tad long, and I’ve been trying to pare it down from its three million words to its most important story lines. At what point do I call in an editor for help/advice?

—Needing Help in the Pacific NW

Dear Needing Help:

Writing a long memoir draft is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’ve collected all the material you’ll need to write an interesting book. On the other, you’ve got to figure out what’s important.

Identifying those important moments and revising is a daunting process for all new writers, but it’s trickier for memoirists. Unlike a novelist, you can’t solve your story’s problems by making stuff up. Instead, you must find meaning in the chaotic parts of your life, a process that can feel a lot like describing your face without looking in the mirror.

Many memoirists believe an editor is the mirror they’ve been searching for. While the allure of a trained eye on your manuscript can be difficult to resist, high-quality editorial feedback is expensive. Before shopping for an editor, it’s important to know when to contact one, and how they might be able to assist you—something your Spidey senses have already alerted you to.

To help answer those questions, let’s talk about the three skillsets new writers need to develop:

  • Foresight
  • Storytelling
  • Stamina

Foresight: To revise well, writers need to develop a clear vision of what’s next in both the writing and publishing processes. This will help them create a logical plan of steps to take.

Storytelling: Recording life events and telling a story are not the same thing. Even strong writers, and avid readers, must learn how to do the latter. Cultivating strong storytelling skills makes it easier to hack a million-word draft into the most meaningful chunk, then craft what’s left into a succinct, well-written story.

Stamina: I’ve only met a handful of unicorns who can complete a publishable book in less than twelve months. None were new writers. That means most of us need to figure out how we’ll sustain our enthusiasm throughout what might be a long and bumpy ride.

The best way to develop foresight is to attend workshops and conferences and engage with other writers. Most writers cultivate and hone their storytelling skills by taking classes, reading craft books and articles, and then applying what they learn to their drafts. Mission accomplished, they submit their new-and-improved manuscripts to beta readers, writing groups, and workshop-style classes for feedback. This is generally followed by more practice. Classes and writing groups are also great for building accountability, which will help with your stamina.

It’s best to take your manuscript as far as you can on your own before hiring an editor. One of the most economical strategies you can employ is letting your manuscript rest for between one to three months. While your book is in its fallow period, develop your skills and work on other projects. You’ll be surprised by what your fresh eyes see when you crack open your manuscript. Once you’ve made those cuts, you can revise even further with the help of a few beta readers.

If your manuscript is beyond 100,000 words, I encourage you to pare it down to 90,000 words or less before requesting a full manuscript evaluation. It will save you money and the disappointment of hearing that the problems discovered in early chapters are repeated throughout your book. If that word count sounds unattainable, two economical ways editors can help you include a chapter outline review or a 10-, 25-, or 50-page review of your book’s opening chapters.

Writing a chapter outline will help you see what parts of your story have the most energy and rise to the level of importance. An analysis of this outline, along with a few additional exercises, can help you shape what you’ve written into a map that looks and feels like a story. Then, you can use that map to write a slimmer, more focused draft that incorporates the storytelling skills you’ve been working on.

Short reviews are a cost-effective way to find out what’s working, what skills you already have, and which ones you need to work on. They can also help you identify pacing problems, repetition, or sentence-level issues that are bloating your word count. If you’re a new writer, most editors will be able to tell what you need from as little as ten pages. If you’ve got some experience, you can bump that up to twenty-five. If you’re experiencing word count woes, anything longer than fifty will likely lead to feedback on later pages that reads like a broken record.

To make the most of these reviews, polish what you send to the best of your ability. That doesn’t mean your work has to be perfect, but it shouldn’t read like a hot mess of pages you expect the editor to decipher.

Once you’ve received your feedback, which hopefully includes a to-do list, get back to work. If you like this editor, you can always request a longer review once you’ve strengthened, and shortened, your manuscript.

The best time for a full manuscript review is when you’re pretty sure your book is ready for publication. By this point, you will have done everything you can on your own, and you’ll have the skills needed to make the most of your editor’s feedback.

While you’re doing what you can, trust that every skill you learn, and every revision pass you make, is helping you become a better writer.

Lisa Cooper Ellison

This month’s Ask the Editor is sponsored by Legacy Launch Pad’s Bestselling Book Bulletin. Sign up to receive a bulletin every Thursday morning that includes one answer to a publishing question, one publishing tip, one publishing resource and one bit of publishing advice.

Legacy Launch Pad: Bestselling Book Bulletin
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