September 21, 2017

5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring Help: Part Two — Guest: Jeff Lyons

Two women looking at a map and pointing with text: Need Editing Help? 5 Questions to Ask First

As I mentioned last week, I’ve written several posts here over the years about how to research and evaluate editors to help us with our writing and storytelling craft:

However, it’s always good to get different perspectives on finding the right match for us. Just as we all have different writing processes, we might do best with different approaches to finding an editor we can trust.

To that end, last week, I shared Part One of Jeff Lyons’ guest post, which focused on the questions we should ask a potential editor or story consultant before hiring them. This week, I’m sharing Part Two of Jeff’s post, where he discusses the questions we should ask ourselves before hiring story help.

Please welcome Jeff Lyons! *smile*


Ten Questions Every Writer Needs to Ask Before They Hire an Editor or Script Consultant: Part 2

by Jeff Lyons

In Part 1, I examined the five essential questions every writer must ask any third-party consultant before they hire him/her for a freelance position, be that:

  • book line editing
  • developmental editing
  • story structure help
  • screenplay writing help
  • or any generic service related to publishing or the entertainment business.

But, as I said in Part 1, those five questions are just one side of the equation of freelance hiring. The following five questions are designed to balance the equation and set you on a solid path for building professional and productive consulting relationships.

Are we ready to hire an editor? These 5 questions might help... Click To TweetThese five questions are fairly intuitive and obvious in some ways, but they also represent issues that many writers tend to avoid, because they are outside their comfort zones.

Most of us are not used to engaging professional services as writers, and the consulting and editorial zoo out there is fraught with snake oil and hucksterism. All the more reason to master the first five questions from Part 1, and the questions below.

What 5 Questions Should You Ask Yourself?

#1: Can You Afford Them?

Pricing is always a difficult topic when hiring a third-party. Usually consultants will have their fee schedules posted on their websites, so you know going in what to expect. With Script consultants there are no best practices for charging fees; it’s pretty much “make it up as you go along.”

Things that can affect pricing might be:

  • their years in the business,
  • big client lists,
  • professional credits, etc.

The bottom line here is you will have to gauge for yourself if you think their fees are agreeable or not. But, how can you know? Are there any standards you can use to compare and contrast? Or are you just stuck going with their first quote and ending up with “you get what you pay for”?

The smartest approach is to do your research; check out as many other consultants as you can and compare pricing and services. You will quickly get a feel for the market and then you can determine if that outrageous fee they’re asking for is value-added and justified or not.

Can you afford an editor? Check your budget and do your research. Click To TweetScript consulting pricing is the wild west and there’s not much you can do about it, so do your homework and then draw your own lines in the sand based on your budget and your research.

Everything I just said about script consultants also applies to book editors, except that there are some best practices in place for freelance book editor’s fees.

As mentioned earlier, the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) has posted standard rates for all categories of editorial work. These are just starting points for negotiating a deal, but at least you can know what is considered fair and right within the profession. So, buyer beware, do your homework.

(Note from Jami: As Jeff and regular commenter Carradee discussed in the comments of Part One, the EFA rates haven’t been updated in a while, and other sources might be more recent.)

#2: Are You Comfortable with Their Clients’ Publishing/Producing Records?

When you hire an editor or script consultant, you are hiring an editor first, and a writer second. I say this because people incorrectly ascribe competence as an editor or story consultant based on how many books they’ve written or screenplays they’ve sold. This is irrelevant.

Editorial talent is different than writing talent. The greatest editor in the history of publishing, Maxwell Perkins, never so much as published a recipe in his fifty-plus years with Charles Scribner’s & Sons, and yet he was singlehandedly responsible for helping two of his clients win Nobel Prizes in literature (Hemmingway and Fitzgerald).

Can your editor actually edit? Check their clients' track records. Click To TweetThe measure of a consultant’s value should not be based on their personal publishing or sales record. It should, however, be based on the publishing or sales records of their client’s books and screenplays.

So, ask book editors what publishing successes their clients have had; ask script consultant how many of their clients got script sales, awards, or producing deals. You will have to weigh how comfortable you are hiring an “expert” with a client list filled with low-sale, self-published books with terrible Amazon category rankings; or a script consultant with few or no clients with produced IMDB (Internet Movie Database) credits or festival awards.

Again, having a weak client list doesn’t mean they can’t do the job, but know going in so you can be fully informed in your decision-making process.

#3: Are You Willing to Fire the Consultant If You Are Dissatisfied?

Are you comfortable managing them, and not being managed by them? Because if you don’t take control of the relationship, the consultant will—by necessity.

The consulting relationship will go off the rails unless someone is managing the process. That “someone” should be the client, not the consultant.

Before hiring an editor, ask yourself if you're comfortable managing them. Click To TweetPart of that process involves hiring, but also firing. Can you do that? It’s easier said than done for a lot of people.

Most people want to avoid conflict and will just ride out the experience and move on, losing money, time, and their sanity. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Build checkpoints into the relationship so that you can measure progress and discuss problems, delays, or failure sooner than later. In short, one-off projects, this is less of an issue, but you still have to be willing to step up and fire the consultant if things are going south and you are not happy.

This is where contracts are important. Termination clauses need to be written so that you can fire someone cleanly and with as little exposure as possible on your end.

If you don’t get a contract, at least get written agreement in an email explaining your criteria for releasing the consultant if you are unhappy. The bottom line here is: are you willing to be a boss and not a passive player in some consultant’s agenda?

#4: What Kind of Consultant Do You Really Need?

Before hiring editing help, make sure you get the right kind. Click To TweetAll consultants and editors are not created equal. Many consultants will tell you they do it all, don’t believe them. It’s best to work with professionals who specialize in one type of editing, not doubling or tripling up on skill sets.

Here are the basic types of editors and consultants you will need:

Types of Book Consultants:

Line Editors:

These are the “small picture” editors focusing on grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, consistency of word usage, spelling, and some rewriting, but at a very light level. They should have a solid understanding and knowledge of the Chicago Manual of Style—this is the main style guide used in the book business.

Their job is one of crossing t’s and dotting i’s (novels, nonfiction, newspaper/magazine copy, online content). Copy-editing is essentially the same thing as line editing.

Proof Readers:

Proof readers are the last person to get their eyes on the manuscript. They essentially “proof” the final typeset text for its final approval before it goes to actual press.

Outside the special world of the publishing company, proofers are often just seen as another kind of line editor, but they are really more than that. Even after line editing, you may want to hire a proof reader to do the final-final on your manuscript, but that all depends on the competency level of your line editor.

Developmental Editors:

These are the “big picture” editors. They focus on storytelling, author voice, narrative design, research, book formatting and organization, make suggestions on story or content revisions, and generally assure the manuscript is well-organized, consistent in style and tone, and clearly articulated as a piece of fiction or nonfiction.

Sometimes they’ll fact check, but this is usually a separate person.

Types of Screenwriting Consultants:

Story/Development Consultant:

These consultants are essentially developmental editors, but specialize in the film/TV format. Story consultants focus on the big picture, just as book editors do, and concern themselves with the large story structure, pacing, formatting, and narrative flow issues any developmental editor would be concerned with in a fiction or nonfiction narrative.

The key difference between them and book developmental editors is that they have expertise in feature film, television, and new media storytelling vs. long-form prose fiction/nonfiction.

Pitching Consultant:

Pitching consultants specialize in preparing you to pitch your film or television projects to contests, pitch fests, or to production companies.

They help you come up with a great log line, develop a “pitch package,” identify market opportunities, write a good synopsis, and possibly have some other value-added services to set themselves apart in the marketplace.

Story Analyst:

These consultants are the workhorses of the script evaluation business. Commonly known as “readers,” story analysts provide industry standard coverage, which is a standard deliverable common to creative agencies, production companies, studios, and indie producers.

Readers are usually not something indie writers would have to worry about unless their script got picked up by an interested agency or producer, but many script evaluation services exist now giving this service.

Adaptation Consultant:

These consultants help you adapt your screenplay to the novel format, or the other way around. They will help you rewrite your book or screenplay, depending on which service you seek, and guide the process so the final deliverable will be a marketable book or screenplay.

This requires specialized understanding of either the publishing and prose worlds, or the film/TV worlds, so it is important to make sure the consultant has experience in their given area.

The more you are exposed to professionals, the smarter you will become recognizing those who are truly talented and productive. You will have to kiss a lot of frogs, however, before you find your prince.

#5: Can They Do an Interview and Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time?

It should be obvious that asking the first five questions will require actually talking to the editor or consultant. If at all possible, talk to them over the phone or video chat. Don’t settle for texting or email.

Need an editor? Find one with good communication skills. Click To TweetHow they present in person can tell you a lot about how comfortable they are with you and vice versa. Can they talk clearly? Do they make sense? Are they confident? Do they ask you questions and not just passively wait for you to ask them?

Do they leave you feeling they can do the job and that they actually like what they’re doing? That’s more of a issue than you might imagine.


Asking these ten questions (read Part 1 and Part 2) will help you not only find the right editor or script consultant, but will make you the kind of client consultants will enjoy working with. The snake-oil-salesmen hucksters will quickly expose themselves, and the gems in the rough will always shine through.

Writing is a lonely game, but you don’t have to do all of it alone—in fact you can’t, if you expect a real career. Learn the skills for hiring third parties and empower yourself with the confidence and composure that comes from knowing what you want, without giving your power away to any expert or consultant.


Listen to everyone, try everything, follow no one.
You are your own guru. 



Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons is a published author and screenwriter with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television and publishing industries as a writer, story development consultant, and editor. He teaches craft-of-story-development classes through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, and guest lectures through UCLA Extension Writers Program, and is a regular presenter as leading entertainment and publishing industry conferences in the U.S. and the U.K.

He has written for leading industry trade magazines such as Script Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is published through Focal Press.

Visit him at:
www.jefflyonsbooks.comTwitter @storygeeks



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Thank you, Jeff! You’re so right that we need to be knowledgeable before we hire editing/consulting help.

As Jeff said, we are just important to a productive consulting relationship as the person we hire. His questions aren’t about trying to find someone who gives us the “right” answers.

Rather, his questions here are mostly about helping us figure out if a editor or consultant will be a good partner for us:

  • Do their fees feel reasonable to me?
  • How is their editing/consulting experience relevant to me?
  • Will I be comfortable being their boss?
  • Are they going to deliver what I need?
  • Can I communicate well with them?

There are no wrong answers to those questions unless we’re uncomfortable with the answers. The best editor for us isn’t necessarily the one with the impressive client list if we find them too intimidating to manage or confront with questions. Etc., etc.

Editors can be expensive. Really expensive. The best way to avoid wasting money is to match what we need and expect with the editor we hire. *smile*

Are you thinking of hiring an editor or other type of craft consultant? Have you thought through these questions yet? If you’ve been unsatisfied with a consulting relationship before, would any of these questions have helped you find a better match? If not, what do you wish you’d thought through before hiring them? Do you need clarification on any of these or do you have any questions for Jeff?

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[…] so it’s important to do it right. Sarah Moore tells us when NOT to hire an editor, Jeff Lyons has questions to ask before hiring an editor, Joel Friedlander gives us all we need to know about hyphens, em-dashes, and en-dashes; Anna Davis […]

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