Advice for Authors from Editor Erin Brown

Erin Brown is a professional freelance editor offering manuscript evaluation and feedback, copyediting, content editing, and proofreading services. Before transitioning to a career working directly with authors, Erin spent nearly a decade editing books for William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, and Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin's Press.

In the interview below, Erin elaborates on the value editors provide, determining an editor's trustworthiness, the difference between content and copy editing, and common mistakes authors often make, as well as common elements of successful novels and freelance editors.

Many fledgling authors neglect to get help from editors, thinking their work is fine as it is and that it can be edited later (perhaps after it gets picked up by a publisher). Why is it important to work with an editor even before one's book gains traction and interest from readers, agents, and publishers?

Erin BrownA writer only gets one shot to make an impression, so you should make sure that your manuscript is in the best shape possible when an agent reads it. Editors don’t buy manuscripts because they have potential. They buy manuscripts that are already solid and don’t need major overhauls in terms of plot, characters, storytelling, pacing, etc.

As for copyediting, if there are a few errors here and there, that shouldn’t be a problem. But an agent or editor is not going to read very far into a manuscript riddled with errors (their/they’re/there, anyone?), formatting issues, bad grammar, etc. If you’re a writer, you should know proper English.

Many authors are low on cash as it is. What insights can you provide that might help a cash-strapped author justify the expense of working with an editor?

Well, if it comes down to paying your electric bill and hiring an editor, keep the lights on! It also depends on how serious you are about getting published. It’s an investment, to be sure, and that’s a personal decision that a writer must make. If you’ve submitted to twenty agents and haven’t gotten any positive feedback or anything beyond a stock rejection letter, it’s probably worth it to hire an editor if you want to take your manuscript to the next level. You can also try the local university and see if an English major is willing to help you out.

But I always tell everyone to be realistic. Publishing is a tough business and going the traditional route is not for everyone. Even if you’re signed by an agent, your advance is probably (realistically) going to be just enough to pay that electric bill, at least on the first book. Don’t go into it thinking that if you invest a few thousand for an editor, you’re guaranteed a six-figure advance. It simply doesn’t work that way.

How can one be sure that one is working with a truly skilled and trustworthy editor?

Never, ever, ever pay for agent contact information. That is free and available to everyone. Be very wary of someone who promises you an agent or publication or anything more than a manuscript that’s the best it can be. Check out what authors they’ve worked with and if they were in the publishing industry. You can also ask for a sample of their work.

What might an editor do beyond catching grammatical mistakes? Is it best to work with one editor for everything from proofreading to critiques on characters and plots, or to work with different editors on different aspects of one's work?

Content editing is totally different than copyediting, and is much more important (I feel). Content editing involves crafting characters, reworking plot, improving the pacing, strengthening dialogue, structure, and theme—anything that enhances the story and writing itself.

It’s best to work with the same editor for content and copyediting, because they’re familiar with your work and style, but it’s not necessary. Copyediting is done once your content is in good shape and you’re ready to submit to an agent or self-publish.

What is your typical client like? At what stage do you usually become involved with an author's work?

Most of my clients are unpublished authors who are seeking agents or self-publication. I review completed manuscripts 90 percent of the time. Sometimes I review partials so that the client can get on the right track before writing the rest of the manuscript.

What are the most common mistakes your clients make? Are the most serious issues many authors face related to grammar, plot, character development, or something else entirely?

Erin BrownGetting a handle on proper grammar is essential for a writer. You want to be taken seriously. However, the most important points that I address involve content. Common issues concern point of view (don’t head jump within scenes!), character voices (how do your characters sound? What are their personalities that are reflected in their voices?), dialogue (it’s not what your characters say, it’s how they say it), pacing, descriptions, and setting.

Do you follow your clients' work to see if it gets picked up by agents and publishers? If so, have you noticed any common characteristics amongst the successful writers with whom you have worked?

Definitely! Clients always let me know when they get signed by an agent or find success through self-publishing. The common characteristics are tenacity, the ability to tell a good story and the ability to craft a strong sentence (you’d be amazed at how many people can do one but not the other!), and an original idea. It’s essential to have some sort of hook—why would an agent or reader be interested in your novel instead of the tens of thousands of others out there? What makes yours different and compelling?

What advice would you give to those who are interested in becoming freelance editors?

How does one know when one's command of the English language is good enough for the pursuit? Study the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s my lifeline. There are also some good copyediting and proofreading tests online that employers use to test potential new hires. Those are good gauges for whether you have what it takes to copyedit or proofread. As for editing for content, that requires years of experience, plain and simple.