Should I Hire an Editor to Help Cut My Manuscript?

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From Jane Friedman:


I’m a newbie writer, working on a memoir about a trip I took in 1976. It’s a tad long, and I’ve been trying to pare it down from its three million words to its most important story lines. At what point do I call in an editor for help/advice?

—Needing Help in the Pacific NW

Dear Needing Help:

Writing a long memoir draft is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you’ve collected all the material you’ll need to write an interesting book. On the other, you’ve got to figure out what’s important.

Identifying those important moments and revising is a daunting process for all new writers, but it’s trickier for memoirists. Unlike a novelist, you can’t solve your story’s problems by making stuff up. Instead, you must find meaning in the chaotic parts of your life, a process that can feel a lot like describing your face without looking in the mirror.

Many memoirists believe an editor is the mirror they’ve been searching for. While the allure of a trained eye on your manuscript can be difficult to resist, high-quality editorial feedback is expensive. Before shopping for an editor, it’s important to know when to contact one, and how they might be able to assist you—something your Spidey senses have already alerted you to.

To help answer those questions, let’s talk about the three skillsets new writers need to develop:

  • Foresight
  • Storytelling
  • Stamina

Foresight: To revise well, writers need to develop a clear vision of what’s next in both the writing and publishing processes. This will help them create a logical plan of steps to take.

Storytelling: Recording life events and telling a story are not the same thing. Even strong writers, and avid readers, must learn how to do the latter. Cultivating strong storytelling skills makes it easier to hack a million-word draft into the most meaningful chunk, then craft what’s left into a succinct, well-written story.

Stamina: I’ve only met a handful of unicorns who can complete a publishable book in less than twelve months. None were new writers. That means most of us need to figure out how we’ll sustain our enthusiasm throughout what might be a long and bumpy ride.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG knows quite a number of indie authors who write and publish more than one book per year. And, if Amazon sales rank is to be credited, some of these authors earn quite a tidy sum, more than they would likely earn if they wandered down the dusty path of traditional publishing.

PG just checked one of his favorite fantasy/scifi authors, Brandon Sanderson, and discovered, that at the age of about 47, he has published (per his website), 33 novels, 3 graphic novels, 5 illustrated books and 5 short fiction pieces.

Excel says that’s 46 books Sanderson has written or published (Short fiction may be pieces published in periodical form). Sanderson’s first book, Elantris, was published in 2005, when he was about 30 years of age. Per the OP, Sanderson would qualify as an uber-unicorn. Per his website, Sanderson also teaches one university creative writing class each year.

3 thoughts on “Should I Hire an Editor to Help Cut My Manuscript?”

  1. Structure, theme, and pacing. Base cuts around those factors, rather than an arbitrary page count requirement. Three million words is a bit much, though. Put together all five of the Game of Thrones novels and you still have less than 2 million words. Cut, but judiciously.

    Structure will keep your story from being an incoherent slog. It helps to keep in mind the old saw about the king and queen. The king died, and then the queen died is a series of events. The king died, and the queen died of grief is a plot. I watched a movie the other night made by people who failed to grasp this distinction, and it was annoying. Even a story about your own life must be told as more than a series of events, unfortunate or otherwise. Structure, my friend: beginning, middle, end. From X to Y, with turning points along the way.

    Theme: why are you talking about yourself? To inspire? As a cautionary tale? To document the history of an event or an era? Cut whatever doesn’t aid in that goal.

    Pacing ties into structure, and is about where you put the stuff you keep. When do you introduce this detail vs. that detail? How much time should be spent on one detail vs. another? Some details can get trimmed, others should be expanded.

    I agree with the “learn storytelling” advice. Even nonfiction writers can benefit from learning fictional narrative techniques. There is a such thing as creative nonfiction, and the better history books and such use those narrative techniques to engage the reader. The memoirist might feel less stressed if he or she learns more about them.

  2. “I’ve only met a handful of unicorns who can complete a publishable book in less than twelve months. None were new writers.”

    I wrote my first novel in 28 days in October/November 2014. I’m currently writing my 69th novel, and have also written well over 200 short stories. In the first 7 months of 2021 alone, I wrote and published 13 novels. Everything boils down to practice, trusting the characters to tell the story that they, not the writer, are living, and time spent in the chair, writing.

    I would never, ever, invite anyone else to critique my work. How can anyone else possibly know my characters’ story better than they do? That’s the reader’s job, after it’s published.

  3. I’ve written 10 books in 10 years while working a full-time. It takes planning, a fierce adherence to word count goals, and a lot less TV.

    I also coach new authors on writing their memoirs, mostly military-related. I have two clients now at the end stage.
    Writer 1 – Goal was 65,000 words. He wrote 80,000. We cut it to 75,000. It took six months.
    Writer 2 – Goal was 75,000 words. He wrote 118,000 in five months. We’ve cut it to 105,000 words.

    Both will be quite publisher after a couple of rounds of editing.

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