Commercial/Professional Critiques & Editing
On a more commercial and semi-formal critique level, hiring a professional to give a critique (or to do copy editing or proofreading) is very common these days. At one time, when it came to books, this was the type of relationship one often had with publishers and editors where the books were published, and the writers didn’t pay. After the advent of computers and a proliferation of self-publishing options, many of which include no editing services or are very expensive, book doctors and other editorial services became available. Today, a writer is often expected to submit a manuscript that is ready for printing, especially if the writer is new.
As with formal workshops (and schools), not all available critique services are equal. Services and fees vary, as do personalities (compatibility is very important between a work and an editor; it’s not as important between the author and editor). It’s often best to try out a short work with someone before leaping into a major expense for a full critique and/or edit on a book.
Perhaps it’s best to describe first, from my perspective, what the services are that you might expect from a professional service. A number of different definitions for these terms appear on the Web and in books.
Issues of writing technique are of primary consideration. These include but are not limited to plot, characterization and character development, voice consistency, point of view, story, and even aspects of genre. When I do critiques, I read carefully (sometimes twice), making notes both on the pages of the manuscript and on separate pages. When finished, I compile the notes into a detailed written analysis in which I try to note how all the elements of literary technique are working (or not). Major and/or consistent errors in grammar and punctuation are noted while reading, but they are not all caught nor are they sought. This analysis is usually several pages long. This is not the only approach. Some professionals use forms and fill out basic information about technique; some make no notes on the manuscript; some make only notes on the manuscript (provide no written analysis). As I say, no one approach works for either authors or those who do professional critiques. This is less formal than the personal relationship between a teacher or mentor and a student in a classroom situation. Your fee buys a critique but rarely personal access to the person doing the critique.
2. Copy editing
Copy editing, as I practice it, is the examination of the overall consistency and flow of the manuscript, from formatting to writing style. This can be as simple as noting that in one place, a person’s name is spelled Alice and in another it’s spelled Alyse. On the other hand, it can involve rewriting passages to improve syntax or create voice consistency. This can be done poorly (I once had a young editor revise all my images in an essay on the 1960s practice of “dragging” in automobiles to military metaphors, such as “search and destroy” – a perfect example of bad copy editing because the tone of the essay shifted). It’s a good idea to make sure you have a clear understanding with a copy editor about what you intend and what the copy editor intends. Another item a copy editor watches for involves issues of libel, accuracy, and correct use of registered trademark names, etc. Although copy editing can, and should, include some proof reading for basic grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, that is not the primary focus, and some may be missed. For any errors or consistency issues, a style sheet should be returned to you with the manuscript (something my bad editor example did not do). A style sheet generally lists, alphabetically, issues (such as Alice/Alyse above) and the page numbers on which the problem appears. Major issues of technique are usually not addressed.
This is the last step before publication. Do not hire a proofreader before doing a final revision because the proofing will have to be done all over again. Sometimes proofing is done on a Proofreader’s Copy; this means that more than two or three changes per page can result in an additional charge from the printer. It’s best to do careful proofing before this stage. Unfortunately, judging by the published work I’ve been reading, no one does this on a regular basis. The problem is that most publishers fired proofreaders when computers came on the scene; writers are expected to submit manuscripts that have been proofread. Writers often attempt to do this themselves; consequently, many published works have many tiny errors (if I read myriad of … one more time, I’ll be in danger of injuring myself by banging my head against the wall). Warning: Spell checkers will cause as many, if not more problems than they resolve. Although I don’t like redundancy, again, be aware that not all proofreading is equal; choose carefully. Do your research. Also, buy a good manual of style, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, and begin learning consistent grammar and punctuation use.
In my opinion, no writer should hire someone to revise a manuscript. This is part of the creative process, not the nuts-and-bolts process. You might want to get a critique of a manuscript before revising to help you formulate your ideas. If you want someone to professionally write/rewrite the book you have in mind, then perhaps you should hire a ghostwriter in the first place. Many are available for everything from writing the book from interviews to writing a book from an event in someone’s life. Again, techniques and results vary considerably, as do fees. Also, the issues of credit for the work also vary: who is listed as author? who gets royalties? Good contracts can prevent controversies.
Again, most of these services do not include one-on-one meetings or discussions. That comes under the heading of mentor more than editorial service. Many authors want to “have coffee” with me after we’ve worked together. They usually want to argue with me over comments or explain what their work or ideas really mean; remember, any editor looking at your book will not have you along to provide voice over explanations – it must be on the page.
Where can you find these services? Of course, people usually turn to online sources first. This can be risky, of course. By doing one quick search for “book doctors,” unfiltered, I received 211,000,000 responses immediately. When I first started Blue & Ude Writers’ Services with my partner, Wayne Ude, in the late 1990s, the need for book doctors was new and few were available. At the time, the editorial service was an outgrowth of my individual work as editor for various publications and individuals, mostly in an academic setting, and through Writers Digest University, which offers critiques and classes. Because both Wayne and I were writing teachers in various academic settings, as well as published writers, we offer everything from critiques to proofreading.
Today, the only requirement for starting an editorial business is a Web address; it’s a little difficult to vet such services.
Some trade publications offer access to businesses that have been vetted. One source for such services is Literary Marketplace, which lists agents, publishers, printers, and literary services; other such vetted sources are available, and doing your research can be beneficial (check with your research librarian, in person or online). Such sources tend to be a little more reliable (vetted) than what you find by the millions online. Word-of-mouth also can be very effective (even if old-fashioned).
Cost varies, of course, considerably. Consider how you expect to publish your book. If you’re shipping it to an agent or traditional publisher, you need to have it in as excellent condition as possible. If, on the other hand, you expect to work with one of the organizations that offer self-publication opportunities, you’ll find that many offer these services. Their previously published books provide a good look at their work. You could even try contacting authors who have books through them and find out about their experiences. Some of these offer marketing as well as editing and publishing; some are co-published (author and publisher cooperatives).
Whatever route you choose, take your time, consider all your options, and research the various businesses carefully; when it comes to contract time, read carefully and, if you don’t understand everything, ask for help.