“Is the ms ready for editing?” is the wrong question to ask

Developmental editors frequently talk about how authors can decide when a ms is ready for professional editing. They make good points about fixing obvious errors before paying for an editor’s attention. I mean, if you know your ending is weak, why are you sending your manuscript to me? Fix the ending, then send the manuscript to me.

But the fact is, authors don’t always know that their ending is weak. Or, if they do know, they aren’t sure how to fix it (these are both stages of learning, BTW: unconscious incompetence and conscious incompetence).

So they will often approach a freelance editor at this early stage. And often the editor they approach says, “This manuscript is not ready for editing! Do some work and come back later.” And maybe they’ll share some resources.

That may seem reasonable, but take a step back and consider the author’s experience. They’re stuck, or they wouldn’t have come to the editor. They’re willing to pay for some help, or they wouldn’t have come to the editor. And the editor . . . brushes them off.

I don’t know about you, but when someone doesn’t want my business, I’m not terribly inclined to knock on their door again.

So, I don’t do that. If someone has come to me for help, and they are willing to pay me for that help, then I’m going to do my best to help them. Now it may be that I don’t have room in my schedule or the author is working in a genre that I don’t edit; there may indeed be reasons I decline to work with an author. But “manuscript isn’t ready for editing” isn’t one of them.

That doesn’t mean I edit their story if it’s not ready for editing. It does mean I find a way to work with them, perhaps by doing a manuscript critique or by offering coaching. Sometimes an author just wants an experienced mentor during their process and I can serve in that role. This starts a relationship that can continue for a long time, a kind of bond with a client that is not easily undercut by some other editor offering a cheaper edit or faster work.

I encourage developmental editors not to define themselves strictly as developmental editors; this by nature limits them to only one part of the creative process, a very limited part. Think of yourself as someone who can help writers became better storytellers and you’ll see opportunities all around you.

Instead of asking, “Is this manuscript ready for editing?” ask, “How can I help this author?”

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