"Let's just say that out of all the edits I've done, I've only had two that I recall as negative experiences ... The problem for both arose out of poor communication. The takeaway? Whether you're the writer or the editor, communicate clearly and be mindful of assumptions." —Beth Hill, fiction editor
The plight of the independent author
A first-time independent author—let's call her Susie—has finished the final draft of her manuscript and has read that the next step is copyediting. So she contacts a freelance editor, one who does a lot of work for traditional publishers and seems surprisingly affordable, and requests a copyedit. And a copyedit is what she receives. A light one. The mechanical errors and typos are corrected and her manuscript is stylistically and logically consistent, which is great. But ... Susie can't help feeling disappointed that her writing still lacks the professional polish she was hoping for. She concludes that the fault lies with her, that she just doesn't measure up to traditionally published authors.
Having read that a final set of eyes is important, Susie then sends a sample to a proofreader—who also happens to copyedit a lot of independent authors----and is told that her manuscript isn't really ready for proofreading, that she should consider a line edit instead. Dismayed, Susie starts to wonder if she's being taken advantage of.
What happened here?
By the time a manuscript makes it to the copyediting stage in the big publishing houses, it's almost ready for launch. It's made it past an agent and then an acquisitions editor; it may have been sent back to the author for revisions; it's probably been gone through line by line. For this reason, copyeditors who work with publishers are usually expected to focus on applying the publisher's style and correcting errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Their role is clearly defined. So Susie's editor gave her what he was used to doing and what he believed she wanted: a light copyedit.
A failure of communication
Yes, writers should educate themselves about the levels of editing so they can determine what kind they want, but editors shouldn't assume that a prospective client has the same understanding of the levels that a professional editor does. Especially since the definitions of editing terms can vary widely. Editors need to be upfront with clients about what their manuscript requires and be clear about what a particular level of service does and does not entail. And if a manuscript needs something more than was contracted for (or something outside that editor's expertise), they need to let the author know. Yes, this can come across as upselling to some clients, but as professionals, editors have an ethical obligation to inform. The client may ultimately decide to go with a service that doesn't address all the needs of the manuscript, but at least it will be an informed choice.
Scope creep: the plight of the freelance editor
An author calls Jane the Editor and says they want a copyedit, that they're happy with their manuscript overall and just want to catch any errors or typos, anything that could cause them embarrassment. Jane requests a sample and the prospective client sends the first few pages of their novel, the part in every manuscript that's been revised and rewritten to near perfection. Jane does the sample edit, agrees that a light copyedit is appropriate, and gives a quote based on the amount of time she believes the project will take.
Fast forward to the middle of the editing process, and Jane has discovered that not only is the writing deeper into the book a lot less polished, but there are confusing point of view shifts and timeline inconsistencies that need unraveling, slowing down the editing significantly. She has other projects scheduled right after this one and she knows her client doesn't have more in their budget, so she ends up working overtime to meet the deadline—all the while worrying that the client, instead of appreciating getting a heavy edit for a light edit price, will see all the markup as overstepping and trying to change their voice.
Samples aren't always enough
The moral of both of these tales is that communication between independent authors and freelance editors is crucial for a successful working relationship and a mutually satisfying outcome.
Authors, send a sample that's representative of the work, not just the best part, and don't balk if an editor wants to see the entire manuscript before quoting a price. And instead of worrying about what the levels are called, focus on what the levels accomplish. (For help with this, check out this blog post: "What level of editing do I need?"). And once you've determined what kind of editing you want, make sure to ask prospective editors if that's included in their service.
And editors, be clear with authors about what you think their manuscript needs and what a particular service includes. Prospective clients often have different ideas about what editing terms mean and will ask for proofreading when they want a copyedit and copyediting when what they want is a line or developmental edit. And to make things even more confusing for writers, editors themselves include different levels of service under these terms.
Editor's have different approaches—here's a little about mine
I personally find it distressing to ignore problems in a manuscript in order to stick with the level requested by a client. I know there are editors that can do this—and I have respect for their professionalism and firm boundaries—but I've learned that for me, it's better to turn down a job than struggle through an edit. This doesn't mean I can only work on manuscripts that are structurally flawless, just that I have a strong drive to do what's needed, and restraining that drive can be frustrating.
Some editors prefer to stay in a defined lane, but I usually do comprehensive combined copy/line edits, which frees me to address issues as they arise, including minor developmental issues. And if a manuscript needs more than a thorough line edit provides, I'll refer the writer to a developmental editor or suggest they use beta readers or join a critique group.
There's no right or wrong approach, but one editor's working style might not be the best fit for every writer. So ask lots of questions, communicate your needs and concerns, and get a sample edit; these things will increase the odds of finding editing professionals that are a great fit for you and your book.
And if you'd like to request a sample edit from me, or have any questions, drop me a line on my contacts page.