A Field Guide to Novelist Support Professionals
There's a lot of confusion about editors out in the wilds of the internet. There are hundreds of freelance editors offering a thousand different services, not to mention coaches, proofreaders, beta readers, and more. So, to clear up some of the confusion for you, here’s a quick and dirty field guide to the novelist support professionals you need to know about.
How to Use this Guide
Ultimately, you--the writer--are the best person to determine what kind of support you need for your novel. If, and when, you’re ready to take the plunge and hire a writing support professional, I hope you’ll use this guide to determine which type is the right fit for you.
And don’t forget to check out the services I offer right here at Reforge:
The Writing Coach
How to Spot them
Sometimes called a book coach or a story coach, this professional can be identified by the utter avoidance of the E-word. Coaches aren’t editors (except they sometimes are) and editors aren’t coaches (except they sort of have to be). By and large, an editor works with a completed manuscript, while a coach...doesn’t.
You’ll find coaches wherever writers congregate online and in real life. Many coaches frequent writing groups, nanowrimo forums, and conventions, though it wouldn’t be too rare to spot one at a writing retreat like Clarion or even IWW!
Writing Coaches and You
You might think that writing is a naturally solitary pursuit, and you’d be right. But surprise!–you’d also be wrong. Good writing requires other people, and not just readers. You’ll need people to bounce ideas off of, people to provide feedback, people to provide encouragement and support, and people to tell you when you’re on the right track (or off of it, as the case may be). A writing coach is somebody you pay to provide exactly those services, and more.
A writing coach will act as an editor too–while you’re still writing the book! They can help you workshop your plot, tighten character arcs, fix scene problems, and do all the wonderful things that an editor can do, without you even needing to have a finished book. Pretty convenient, right?
Coaches aren’t just for fiction writers. Much like editors, you’ll find coaches working with academic writers, essayists, memoir writers, and more.
Don’t be confused by the name! Writing coaches rarely use whistles or make you run laps.
Generally, a writing coach will be the first of these folks that you’ll consider hiring.
The Beta Reader
How to Spot them
This is surprisingly difficult as beta readers have excellent camouflage. They look just like regular readers, except for two key differences. First, beta readers are willing to read your unpolished manuscript. And second, they’re capable of helping you determine what needs revising. Complicating things further is the fact that there are some beta readers who aren’t professionals and will do the job for free, which is pretty amazing.
Literally anywhere. You probably know some already. Check for writing groups at your local library or lurking in the cozy corners of cafes, or use an online service like meetup.com to find some. Paying for a beta reader (on upwork or similar sites) removes some of the guesswork and can lead to more consistent results.
Beta Readers and You
There’s an old saying that you’re not really a writer until somebody else has read your words. Problem is, once those words are in somebody else’s hands, you’re out of the driver’s seat. This is a scary concept for a lot of writers (myself included!) and rightly so, as giving up control can be very hard.
Beta readers ease your way into editing, which is where things can get a whole lot scarier. Keep the beta read as simple as possible and focus on the big picture: what worked in the story and what didn’t.
Beta readers are called “beta” because they’re the second set of eyes to see your book. Guess that makes you the alpha, big dog.
Beta readers should be few in number (2-5) and time-limited (a week for every 25k words, roughly), and unless you pay them, expect to do some nagging about deadlines.
Beta readers flourish with clear guidance, so give them a list of questions to answer about your book (check out a great list here).
The Developmental Editor
How to Spot them
Sometimes called a book editor or a story editor, this professional can be identified by their eagerness to not be mistaken for copy editors or proofreaders. Developmental editors concern themselves with helping writers address the fundamental elements of a story, like structure, plot, characters, and setting, plus some less tangible things like conflict, pacing, tension, and style. Mostly they make you rewrite...a lot.
Developmental editors used to be found at most publishing houses and some small book presses, but nowadays a lot of them have gone freelance to take advantage of market opportunities and self publishing...just kidding, they got laid off.
Freelance editors cover every possible genre and every possible price point, so the most important thing when looking for one is to have an actual conversation to see if you can start a rewarding professional relationship. You can find them in facebook writing groups, freelancing sites like upwork, and listed at the Editorial Freelancers Association.
Developmental Editors and You
As a writer, you’ll probably have to come to grips with the idea that you need a developmental editor. The facts are that novels are enormously complex and storytelling is a craft at least as much as it’s an art. That is to say, you can have the best ideas in the world, but getting them on the page in a way that makes sense, let alone making them compelling and thrilling and heartbreaking by turns, takes a lot of knowhow that the amateur writer probably doesn’t have. Developmental editors have it, which is why it’s a good idea to hire one, especially if you’re still learning.
Developmental editors don’t care what you call them, as long as you call them.
Look for testimonials from other writers, but don’t be dismayed if you’ve never heard of the writers. Turns out there are a lot of books out there.
For a developmental edit, genre matters, so find an editor who knows your genre backwards and forwards. Quiz them on it, they love that.
The Copy Editor
How to Spot Them
Copy editors are fairly easy to find (compared to some others in this guide). They’re grammar experts and style mavens, and they seek out opportunities to hone their skills. So just look for grammar being abused and nonexistent style, and look around for the folks trying to help. For the purposes of the novelist, you can expect a copy editor to focus on finding mistakes in style, grammar, factuality, and consistency.
A surprising number of copy editors still have real, non-freelance jobs actually editing things. In real life! So look around at publishing houses, print media, and other places that are “dead” in the modern age. Online, you can find them offering their services in facebook groups dedicated to writing, reddit subthreads, and at the Editorial Freelance Association, of course.
Copy Editors and You
Even if you legitimately don’t need any of these other professionals, you definitely need a copy editor. They’re absolutely the one indispensable novel support for any writer. Traditional publishers will most likely provide one for your use, but if you’re self-publishing you owe it to yourself to find one and pay them what they’re worth.
Copy editors usually have great attitudes, but don’t ask them where to find a “paste editor.” It’s never going to be funny.
People think that all it takes to be a copy editor is good spelling and a copy of Strunk & White, but they’re wrong. You also need the Chicago Manual of Style.
How to spot them
Incredibly elusive, proofreaders are difficult to classify by appearance alone. One way to track them down is to find an error in a published book, call the publisher and ask to speak to the person responsible. At any rate, if you do manage to spot one, do not approach them on the street and hand them your manuscript. That goes for pretty much anyone involved in the publishing industry, as a matter of fact.
Proofreaders are often experts in very specific types of documents. You see, in order to proofread, they have to have access to proofs, which are documents that have already been prepared for publishing. The proofreader is the last person to see a document before it goes out into the world. If you’re looking to hire one, freelancers can be found in the usual spots.
Proofreaders and You
When a publisher buys your book, they’ll send it to an editor for a round (or three) of changes, then have an in-house copyeditor go through it with a fine-toothed comb. Then it will be laid out, typeset, provided with cover art and internal art, and given all the other bits and pieces that make up a finished book. Then that mostly-final document will be sent to a proofreader, who will ensure everything is exactly right. So if you’re self-publishing, make very, very sure that you have a proofreader you know and trust, because they’ll be your first, last, and only line of defense.
The guy in your office who points out typos in mass emails is not a proofreader. If you want professional work, use a professional.
There’s a device called a proof-reader that can determine the amount of alcohol present in a liquid. Do NOT use this device to prepare your book for publishing.
Just in case you’re more of a visual-diagram-person than a reading-text-person, here’s a flowchart so you can figure out which novel support professional you need: