Whether a fiction writer elects to publish in a traditional or indie form, that writer should ideally search first for a skilled independent editor to ready the manuscript for submission. If that writer chooses the legacy route and must inevitably go under the knife of that publishing house’s editor, the help provided by an independent editor can pay off in dividends. This aid can come in the form of developmental editing, line editing, or ideally a combination of the two. Excellent editors are hard to come by, but they are out there, and working with one can be one of the best decisions a writer can make.
In the first half of the twentieth century, an American fiction writer was lucky enough to enjoy a very different relationship with his or her editor than a writer usually will today. The world-renowned Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins comes to mind. Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe would have become great writers without Perkins’ services. But they became so much better as writers because of Perkins. He was deeply involved with Papa and with the King of the Jazz Age. Most notably, Perkins kept Wolfe from running off at the Underwood typewriter for thousands of unnecessary pages. He was able to rein Wolfe in and mold his writing into something much more concise and powerful.
Perkins gave these three writers his heart and soul when it came to the depth and attention of his editing. These days, at least in the few remaining major traditional publishing houses, a writer will be hard pressed to find an editor that will give such patience, attention, and care to the work at hand. Still, for a writer hoping for publication, and for that publication’s success, it is essential for that writer to work with a strong developmental editor (and possibly a line editor and proofreader) even before the query process. What the literary agent first sees should be a tight, well-edited draft. This opens up the writer to representation by a larger pool of premium agents, and a larger number of select publishers.
Such services do not come cheap. A full developmental editing job can cost anywhere from 30 to 55 cents a word, resulting in a cost of a few thousand dollars for a novel’s manuscript. But this pays off handsomely for indie writers, and for a writer seeking partnership with a traditional publisher, initial developmental editing by an outside source (and at times line editing and proofreading) is well worth the expense. If the route is to be with a traditional publisher, that publisher will often employ in-house editors that will work on the draft even more.
Great developmental editors (and line editors and proofreaders) are available, if the writer searches hard enough. Reviewing the list of an editor’s past clients is necessary. Ideally, a writer will search for editors that worked with recent publications similar to the manuscript and/or genre in question. In addition to the expense, this search is worthwhile. The editor might even reside in the writer’s own community. My hope is that writers seeking publication are lucky enough to find their own Max Perkins, whether afar or in their very midst.