…that is, of course, assuming I didn’t have a bunch of contacts (or they all retired or died or told me to go away, etc.). If I didn’t know any, but did know what else I know, how would I do this?
I’d cheat is what I’d do.
But first, I’d quantify my project and what I wanted to happen. I’d decide whether it was a vanity or commercial project. If it was a commercial project, I’d have a marketing plan. I’d also decide how much I could afford to spend on editing. And I’d be realistic with what I could afford. A substantive edit on a full ms could run me into the $3000 range or more, whereas a short story would be rather less. A developmental edit would probably also cost less, but still likely to be four figures for a normal-length fiction ms.
Once I knew where I was at with means and goals, I’d go on FacePalm
and join a writers’ group. The reason I would not join a writers’ group is that many of the participants are sure they know (nearly everything, but in particular…) exactly what editors do, and few are fully informed. I don’t fault them for that; I don’t exactly know all that ER nurses do, for example, and I don’t need to become one in order to be grateful for one if I break a wrist late at night or can’t stop ralphing. But there is a a lot of stridency in writers’ groups, and much of what you would read would imply that editors are dream-slaying parasites who move your commas and tell you that you suck. If you spent much time there, you’d come away with such a bad attitude you’d have trouble finding a competent editor who would put up with you. That would leave the desperate ones. Do you want a desperate one? Check it out for yourself if that’s what works for you, but if it were me, I’d let the angstfest proceed without seeping into my mentality. Everyone has to own their own angst.
Now it’s time to cheat. This is not honest. I’d search for the term ‘editor’ on FacePalm and narrow my search to groups, and I’d start joining and observing. If there were public groups I’d observe those; if not, well, I’d have to find my way in. I would not introduce myself with a noob hello post. If the group said it was for editors only, I’d see how strict their vetting process was (usually there isn’t much of one, just answer a few questions). If I had to flex reality a bit to do that–such as liberally interpret questions about what kind of editing I supposedly did–I would probably do that. Whatever it took to worm my way in.
They’ll kill me for this, but it’s a lot better than the writers’ groups. Plus, when you see some of the people in editors’ groups claiming to be editors, posting heartfelt pleas asking people to tell them where to put a goddamn comma (because evidently it’s asking too much for them to just make a decision based on informed understanding and good sense), you’ll realize this:
Anyone can anoint oneself an editor. Anyone. While that might not make them the real thing, there’s no bar to clear.
This is how you locate and experience the large mass of people who don’t know what they’re doing. This is how you see the people you want to avoid. They’re making anguished pleas to “edi-buddies” to help them figure out some petty points of style precision rather than make a damn decision and live with it. You don’t need a degree or a certificate to be an editor, but you do need to know the language well enough to tell other people what’s correct, and to adapt it where necessary to the conventions of a style guide’s letter and intent. You also need to know the conventions well enough to know when to bend them, why you would want to do that, and so on. That’s the basic requirement. As a writer in English, surely you want an editor who isn’t still learning English?
At some point, you’ll learn enough about editors and editing to have some sense of the kind of person you’d like to work with. Identify one of those and search out their professional presentation (blog, webpage, Facepalm page, etc.). Cyber-stalk the hell out of them; see what they are about. If possible, see what sort of work they have done. If you feel that they can help you, get in touch.
Keep doing that until you find someone who is available, fits your budget, and feels like a good partner in the process. The reality of a good writer/editor relationship is that it’s not Lofty Expert bossing around Rank Noob. It’s partner helping partner: brainstorming, discussing, communicating. It’s always okay to ask an editor their rationale for a decision or recommendation. Good ones should be pumped to show off their depth, excited to see clients succeed and grow, and confident enough to be very sharing with knowledge. We are knowledge workers. We should not hoard knowledge; that smacks of a fear that we’re going to run out of it. We should demonstrate its depth and breadth by sharing it generously and thus giving best value.
If you’ve had bad editor relationships, don’t open the discussion with the next candidate by telling all your horror stories. Know what I think when someone does that? I think I am not much interested in the job, because I am not much interested in being the next chapter in the Litany of Editorial Sorrows. What I’m hearing is someone saying: “I am a pain in the ass who doesn’t take their share of responsibility for what goes wrong, and you are being considered as the next casualty of my asspainery.” If you had a contractor come out to bid, and you spent the whole time telling them how much all your past contractors sucked, how competitive a bid you reckon you’re going to get? You might not even get one at all. If you do, you’ll be paying what a lawyer friend of mine calls the “asshole tax.”
You might notice that I didn’t send you to Fiverr, Sixerr, Sevenerr, FourHundredSixty-Twoerr, or some other site where those who purport to be editors often sign up to obtain work. In the first place, that’s doing it in the wrong order. If you have seen editors in groups and learned what we really do, and you simply do not feel drawn to or impressed by any of the people in the groups, then perhaps you’re willing to resort to one of the hire sites. If it were me, I’d keep looking harder in the groups. Surely there’s got to be someone who sounds good to work with. In fact, since I belong to them, I know most have some great editors because I’ve watched what they say to their colleagues.
I’m not saying there aren’t good people on hiring sites. I know of great editors with presences there. I’m saying that it is very hard to tell them one from another without seeing them interact; that any clod can create an appealing EightyTwoerr profile; and that in fact you can get a lot of cheap ‘services’ there because there is a subset of the editing world that is as desperate to edit as most novice writers are to be published. Why are they that desperate? The question could have many answers, though “massive student loans for a degree in Comparative Literature at venerable Piltdown College and really hate working at McDonald’s” is not a terribly rare one. The salient point is that hire sites will probably be die rolls and you might or might not get good value. They are the equivalent of hiring some struggling guy named Ernie off LostCatsDoor to rewire your house. There’s the off chance Ernie can do that as well as a journeyman electrician. There’s a much greater chance that if Ernie could do that, he’d be a journeyman electrician, and he is not.
By finding someone by the way they communicate with their peers, you can find people who are not desperate. That’s because they are established and capable. They will rarely be cheap, but they will offer you far better value for your dollar. That’s what I’d want if it were me. The hell with what the investment costs me; what does it pay me? What’s the benefit? Size up the benefit and see if it’s worth what you pay for it. Oh, and let’s say your target is wonderful but can’t fit you in for six months. In that case, ask them for a recommendation. That would be a much better start than wandering onto Forty-Ninerr and picking people like throwing darts at a board.
If you were hoping this would tell you how to get top-grade services for desperation prices, I am glad to have shattered that hope because it is not realistic, and gives me a chance to share an essential lesson. That’s one thing we do: get paid to give the truth with the bark on. While it is not automatically true that you get what you pay for, it is nearly always true that when you establish a very low willing-to-pay price, you also establish a very low ceiling on the likely benefit you can gain. Anyone who offers to “edit” your full-length fiction ms for $300 is probably just going to run spellcheck and grammar check, then send it back and put their hand out to be paid.
Hell, you could have done that. And should have.