Last week I talked about the differences between coaches, editors, and beta readers here, and how each one can help your writing. This week I want to look at what you can expect from each service, what you should look for, and how to make sure you’re getting the service you need at the right stage of your writing journey.
What should I look for and when?
Each of these services is most useful if used at the right time, in the right way. Here are some tips on how to know what might help most at which point of your writing, in the likely order you might use them.
- A writing coach offers guidance on how to improve your writing on an overall craft level, not necessarily for a single project but in general. This might be a good first step if you feel you’d benefit from honing your writing chops or need help overcoming specific challenges–say you struggle with how to show character on the page, or how to weave in themes, or how to infuse your writing with strong voice, or even if you’re having trouble with motivation and developing a strong writing practice or routine. Writing coaches work one-on-one with you, sort of like having a mentor or a personal tutor for your writing.
- A book coach offers motivation, structure, support, and encouragement to help you conceive and complete a specific manuscript. What that actually looks like can vary widely coach to coach and author to author, and often will be based around what works best for each author, but it’s a good idea to hammer out what that is, and expectations on both sides, before you agree to work together (more on that below). If you’re struggling to complete a story or want help in planning it out and executing it, a good coach can be a Sherpa helping you stay on the path, overcome obstacles, work out problems, and make it to the top of the mountain.
Hiring a coach doesn’t obviate the need for editing and revising a story. It’s very rare that any manuscript, regardless of how carefully or deliberately developed, will be in its most effective, publishable shape without objective assessments and judicious revision, whether it’s done by the author herself or with outside input. Which brings us to:
- A beta reader offers general insights on a specific story–what she felt was working well, as well as any areas she felt weren’t as effective as they could be. I’ve written before here about eliciting the most useful feedback by offering a questionnaire to your beta readers; they need not address every question, but it can be an excellent guide to help get actionable feedback you can use, especially when working with beta readers who may not be experienced in offering constructive critique. This is a wonderful tool to help get an objective picture of how effectively your story is coming across on the page so that you can strengthen and tighten–remember, the more you can do before hiring a professional editor, the more bang you’ll get for your buck.
- A developmental editor should offer you an extensive, thorough deep-dive assessment of a specific completed manuscript, along with a concrete and actionable plan for deepening and developing it to a professionally publishable level. The most effective time to work with an editor is after you’ve finished and polished your own manuscript to the best of your abilities, including any outside input you’ve solicited (crit partners, beta readers, coaches)—when you can’t take it any farther on your own.
Ideally a dev edit will consist of both a comprehensive overview editorial letter delineating the editor’s big-picture impressions and suggestions, as well as detailed embedded notes within the manuscript offering specific insights in specific places that build and elaborate on those notes.
This should have far more depth than simply a grammar check (that falls more under the purview of line or copy editing; you can see a breakdown of the differences in types of edit here). A thorough developmental edit should dig deep into essential areas of story–character development and arc, plot, stakes, momentum–as well as essential craft elements that strengthen a story, like momentum, suspense and tension, point of view, etc.
This is the equivalent of a thorough medical workup, offering extensive insight into every aspect of your story’s “health.” A good edit offers not just expert objective feedback on where the story may not be working as well as it could, but clear reasons why, and actionable suggestions for addressing these areas–a road map for revisions.
How do I choose the right person?
Unfortunately there is no official training program or certification for any of these services—which means anyone can hang out their shingle and call themselves a coach or editor or professional beta reader. Just like an inexpert personal trainer can do much more harm than good, or a bad director can ruin a film, it’s essential for an author to be diligent in vetting and selecting whichever professionals you choose to hire to make sure they have the qualifications and experience to offer you knowledgeable, useful, effective input.
- Beta readers can be nearly anyone you feel could give you useful, actionable insights into what is and isn’t working in your story. This is a “first look,” a trial run, the equivalent of opening a play in a smaller market to make sure it’s ready for Broadway. It’s a great idea to pick at the very least an avid reader, preferably in your genre, and as I mentioned above, to guide them in offering feedback with specific questions (in lay terms if your beta reader isn’t an author too–for instance, “did you lose interest anywhere” instead of “did momentum lag in key places”). Other authors can be wonderful resources for this too.
- Writing coaches should have a solid, demonstrable background in and knowledge of writing craft, with extensive training and experience in key aspects of the field, for example teaching creative writing at the university level, working in publishing, or even an extensive career as a successful published author.
- Book coaches should have a credible background in and knowledge of story craft, an understanding of your intentions for the story and your style, and a proven system to help you focus your vision and your efforts and complete a working draft of your story. As with writing coaches, the right book coach should be able to offer motivation and accountability in ways that work for you personally.
- Editors should have extensive, expert knowledge of and background in both writing and story craft elements; direct, hands-on experience in your format (i.e., full-length fiction or nonfiction as opposed to journalism, academic writing, etc.) and in your genre, ideally with published works of a professional standard; strong familiarity with the marketplace; a demonstrable and credible track record; and a practical, actionable, constructive approach.
All these professionals should have a verifiable and legitimate track record in their respective fields, including positive feedback from previous clients; offer you a firm price quote and a contract clearly spelling out the terms of your work together; and be a good “fit” for you, your story, and your voice.
As with all these services and terms, there’s no “governing body” or standard definitions for each service, so you may find wide variations. Some book coaches, for instance, can offer you more insight on craft and story elements as you’re drafting; some writing coaches hire out for specific projects like book coaches–and many people use these terms interchangeably. As with anyone whose services you’re hiring, I strongly recommend thoroughly discussing before you work with anyone exactly what services you expect, and what will be provided.
That gives you a chance to see whether you’re a good “fit” with this person as well. All these relationships, perhaps surprisingly, can be pretty personal, even intimate. You need to feel comfortable not only with a coach’s or editor’s skill and experience (you can find more on carefully vetting those in my extensive Get It Edited! guide for newsletter subscribers), but also whether they seem to “get” you and your writing, and whether their approach and personality jell well with yours.
All these services should come with a written contract that spells out what is included in the service, specifically and granularly, including any “deliverables” you can expect, like the editorial letter, as well as details like how much interaction and follow-up is included, if any, what form it can take (e.g., email, phone, etc.), milestones, costs, and deadlines. You can find out more on this in Get It Edited! as well. Making sure to sign a contract that clearly delineates all these things is the best way to guarantee you won’t be disappointed and don’t hire someone to perform a service that isn’t actually what you were looking for.
If you hire a beta-reading service, then as with editors and coaches, you want to vet their experience and track record, and they should offer a contract spelling out clearly exactly what they are offering, including deliverables and deadlines, and the rate.
Can I use the same person for all these services?
I advise against hiring one person to fulfill all these functions. They are different processes requiring differing skill sets, experience, and talents.
Editing has no place in writing a story—which should be free of the critical, analytical left brain that can shut down creativity but is required when it comes time to assess what you have on the page. Coaching skills don’t necessarily translate to the ability to assess the effectiveness and marketability of a completed story. And beta readers who can help pinpoint what’s not working as well as it could may not be expert in how to fix it.
Also, a coach or beta reader who has worked with you in developing your story is likely not a good editor for it, and vice versa, for the same reason that you may want to hire an editor in the first place: objectivity, an unbiased outside perspective.
Only you can determine which service(s) to hire a professional for—based on your personal needs, what the respective services are worth to you, and what you can budget for your writing career.
One basic rule of thumb I always offer: If anyone in any field tries to convince you that you need their services or to talk you into hiring them, I suggest going elsewhere. A reputable and ethical professional will not try to hard-sell you their services—the best ones don’t have to, in fact, as they tend to be in high demand and book up well in advance.
And please remember that your personal budget should not be a barrier to success in your writing career. Just as we all survived before the Internet or cell phones or automatic dishwashers, many writers have succeeded without the luxury of hiring either a coach or an editor, with the help of other resources like self-education, accountability partners, skilled critiquers and beta readers, etc.
Beta readers, coaches and editors are helpful tools to perhaps make these areas of writing easier, just as modern technology makes life a little easier—but if hiring one isn’t feasible for you there are other ways to achieve the same ends. (You can find specific suggestions in the “Frugal Author’s Guide to Feedback” chapter of my book Intuitive Editing, and I’ll create a future post on this I’ll link back to.)