We’re pleased to welcome Kate O’Shaughnessy to the blog! Kate, a member of our in-person Lunch Break, has completed two middle grade manuscripts and has work with a freelance editor on both. She was kind enough to answer our questions about the why, the what, and the how of working with a freelance editor.

Kate worked with Mary Kole (see our Q&A with Mary here), but her advice is relevant for anyone looking into working with a freelance editor.

Why did you decide to hire an editor?

Like many writers, I’m a terrible judge of my own work. I had been writing for about two years, and I had no idea if the material I was putting out was bad, good, or somewhere in between. I had just finished the second draft of my first ever MG manuscript, and I knew there was *something* wrong with it, but I didn’t know what it was or how to fix it. Most critique groups I had flirted with only did chapter-by-chapter edits, and I knew I needed a big picture, professional diagnosis. That’s where Mary Kole came in.

What kind of feedback were you looking for?

I wanted professional, honest, in-depth feedback. It’s nice if you have a lovely aunt or husband or neighbor who is willing to read and markup your whole draft, but is that really helpful if they have absolutely no experience with the category or genre? A professional opinion gives you feedback from a position of experience in the industry, which I think is invaluable.

I also wanted an in-depth, critical assessment of my skill level as a writer. As I said, I’m a terrible judge of my own work. I wanted a sense of how far I’d come since I started writing and how far I had left to go before producing a publishable manuscript.

What research did you do before hiring a freelance editor? Were there things you wish you had looked into more? What were the keys to making your decision of who to hire?

It was a pretty straight forward process for me. When I first started writing a few years ago, I took an online class and Mary Kole’s book, “Writing Irresistible Kidlit” was one of our assigned texts. I read it and loved it—I found it funny, irreverent, honest, and very spot-on (which, I would find out later, is exactly like Mary is as an editor). I started reading her blog and following her on Twitter, where she shares great pieces of advice on craft, querying, and everything in between.

When I got my first manuscript as far as I could get it, I reached out to her. Her rates seemed fair (in comparison to other highly experienced editors on the market), and I already knew I liked her style.

So while I obviously recommend working with Mary (she’s the best!), I also recommend doing your homework before you hire anyone. If they’re a freelance editor, hopefully they’ve had a career in the publishing world in the past. If they were previously an agent or an editor, did they rep or publish any books you love? Have they written a craft book themselves? Read it. Read anything they’ve touched. If the work resonates with you, you’ll probably be a good fit.

A few other freelance editors that seem great to me are Naomi Hughes (who writes excellent advice on her Twitter account) and Heather Alexander, who has worked both as an agent and in editorial. I’m sure there are so many more excellent freelance editors out there, which is why you have to do your homework.

Explain the process from your perspective as the writer.

I have done two services with Mary Kole: a full manuscript edit, which includes page-by-page line editing, as well as her reader report option, which results in a 10-12 page editorial letter. For the first service, I sent her an email, telling her about my project, and the first chapter. To ensure we’d be a good fit, Mary did a complimentary edit on my first two pages.

Once I decided to work with her, I sent her the entire manuscript. She was flexible with timing; I had to push my “getting the book to her” date back a number of times because of slippery revision problems. But then once I got it to her, her turnaround is quick! Two weeks, I think, and often less.

When I got back the full edit, there was clearly much work to be done. We both identified that there was a huge problem with the plot, tension, and stakes. Mary and I emailed back and forth (and back and forth), until I had completely overhauled the outline. We both agreed it would result in a much better book. It meant I had another mountain to climb with this particular project, but now (unlike before) I had a map. A really good one.

It was the same process for the second manuscript I sent her. I preferred the reader report, because it was more big picture, and that’s the type of writer I am. I don’t want to think about sentence level structure until I am absolutely certain the chapter is going to stay in the book. I do keep the edited manuscripts of both projects on my desk, because I learned so, so much from both services.

What was most valuable for you about the process?

This question makes me think about the advice to only be in critique groups with people who don’t like you. Getting edits from a freelance editor means feedback from someone who has no skin in the game, no reason to lie to you, and is extremely well-read in your category/genre. It’s one thing to get friends and family to read it (the more eyes, the better), but it’s another thing entirely to get someone who has the right language and understanding to tell you, specifically, what you need to work on as a writer.  

When do you think a writer should think about hiring a freelance editor?

  1. When you can’t get your manuscript any further on your own
  2. When you feel like you’re circling around the same problems/issues
  3. When you feel like “something isn’t right” but you can’t put your finger on what it is
  4. When you are ready for an honest, critical assessment of your skill level

Did you feel like you got value out of the process (especially considering the cost)?

YES! Absolutely. Obviously.  I am so much more aware of areas I need to work on as a writer (mine will be different than yours). I go to conferences now with a keener ear and a more focused understanding of which craft intensives to do. It took me to the next level.

What advice do you have for writers looking for a freelance editor?

I’ve covered most of this in the previous questions, but to condense it: do your homework. Make sure the editor you hire has a history in the industry (and has worked with projects/authors you admire). Make sure the timing is right: have you gotten your manuscript as far as you can get it alone? Are you sure or do you just feel lazy? Are you ready to put the pieces back together if you have to completely rewrite the book? If the answer is yes, then go for it!

Thanks for sharing your experience, Kate!


Kate O’Shaughnessy writes middle grade fiction and lives in Berkeley, California with her husband. She’s an active member of SCBWI, former line cook, and lover of every single funny animal video the internet has to offer. You can find Kate on Twitter at @kloshaughnessy.