September 14, 2017

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

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

Over the years, I’ve written several posts here 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. That’s why—even though I had all those posts—I also hosted a guest post a few years ago from development editor Stacy Jerger about her process of working with clients.

Along those same lines, today I’m sharing Part One of Jeff Lyons’ guest post about the questions we should ask before hiring story help, such as editors and consultants. In addition to talking about book editors and story analysis consultants, Jeff covers issues specific to screenwriting consultations as well.

Please welcome Jeff Lyons! *smile*


Ten Questions Every Writer Needs to Ask Before They Hire an Editor or Script Consultant: Part 1

by Jeff Lyons

Whether you are a screenwriter, novelist, or creative nonfiction author, at one point in every writer’s experience, there comes a day when you decide you need help.

Maybe the narrative wheels came off the cart. Maybe you wrote yourself into a dead end. Maybe you found yourself drowning in the story flood plains with no land in sight. Or maybe you just want to get an opinion on your work that is not your mother’s.

Whatever the reason, you determine that hiring a third-party expert might be a smart move, and so you bite the bullet and hire a story consultant or an editor.

For most writers, this decision is fraught with confusion and uncertainty, “What do these ‘consultants’ do anyway? How do I know they actually know what they’re doing? What’s the difference between a story consultant, line editor, and developmental editor?”

Quickly you discover the editorial zoo is crowded, expensive, and intimidating. But, it doesn’t have to be.

Finding the “Right” Help Starts with Us

The consultancy relationship is a two-way street. Both parties have responsibilities, but for any relationship to work, the partners need to:

  • be actively engaged,
  • have trust, and
  • hold one another in mutual respect.

If these three things are not present, then you run the risk of either being run over by the consultant, or becoming a traffic hazard stopping the consultant from delivering what’s promised.

It all begins with engagement, and you the writer are the initiator. Without you setting the right tone, expectation, and objective, the trust and respect will not be there, and the experience will probably be unpleasant (and costly).

Want to trust and respect your editor? Set the right expectations. Click To TweetIf you own your own business or a home, then you already have some practical experience hiring vendors. When you hire a plumber to fix your pipes, you do your due diligence, right?

You call around, get referrals, check reviews online, ask hard questions to make sure they’re bonded and have been in business a while. You set the tone (I’m the boss), have clear expectations (scope of work), and have a clear objective (deliverables).

It should be no different with a script consultant or book editor.

What 5 Questions Should We Ask the Consultant?

Here are the first five questions you can ask that will help you set the tone, expectations, and results of the consulting engagement so that everyone’s needs are met satisfactorily, or at least so that you don’t get screwed. These are the questions you should ask your consultant before you hire him/her.

(In Part 2 next week, I’ll look at the five questions you should be ready to ask yourself before you hire any third party.)

#1: What Was Your Professional Experience before You became a Consultant?

Most consultants have their “history” on their websites under a clients tab or as testimonials, but you want to know more than just their client list (we’ll talk more about this later):

  • What did they do before they were consulting?
  • Did they work in the field?
  • What production companies, studios, or publishing houses did they work for? How long?
  • What writers or projects of note did they work on when they were working in the field?

We want to know an editor's expertise and experience. Click To TweetYou might ask for a resume or curriculum vitae, but these are not typically used by script consultants. If they don’t have any prior industry experience (entertainment or publishing), then that is a red flag that they may not have the depth and/or experience you need.

In addition to the generic resume-like questions, there is value in finding out the following:

  • What formats do they favor?
    For script consultants that means hour drama, sitcom, feature film, animation, etc.
    For book editors that means short fiction, long fiction, series, comics, graphic novels, etc.
  • Do they have genre expertise? If so, which ones?
  • For book editors, how knowledgeable are they with the Chicago Manual of Style—any real editor will know this style guide well. There is no style guide for script consultants, not like in the book business, so it is hard to pretest their skill in this area.
  • Ask editors if they present at writer conferences, festivals, and book fairs, if so, which ones? This is important to gauge if they are well established and respected in the literary community. The same question should be put to script consultants. It’s not necessary they do these kinds of events, but it is a good sign if they do—it usually means they are well established.

#2: How Are Your Clients Better Off after You’re Done, and Can I Talk to Some of Them?

If an editor or script consultant just gives you generic or spin-doctored answers to this, then you know they don’t have a clue what their value is. By generic, I mean answers like:

  • “My clients get a solid script at the end of the day.”
  • “My clients end up with a good story they can sell and market.”
  • “My clients end up happy and positioned for success.”

These are all useless. You want to hear things like:

  • “My clients walk away with a process they can use on their own that will help them succeed on their own.”
  • “My clients are given specific marketing strategies they can use going forward for any book or script they write.”
  • “My clients walk away with a professional level of understanding about story development and story structure.”

These can be spin doctoring too, and sales talk, but at least they show the editor or consultant has clear deliverables and a process (more on this later).

We want to know what help an editor will deliver. Click To TweetThen ask to talk to former clients. They may just have a few friends lined up to spin for them, you can’t ever really know, but hopefully not. Regardless, ask to talk to former clients.

If the editor or consultant balks because of confidentiality issues, this might be valid if they have a confidentiality agreement in place, but ask anyway.

How they react to this question can tell you a lot about their integrity and their willingness to be transparent. It’s a red flag if they get defensive or deflect with legalities and other nonsense.

#3: Do You Have a Methodology or Process You Use, or Do You Just “Do Your Thing” as You Go Along?

So many writers hire an editor or consultant and then hand over their book or script and walk away, waiting for the final results to be handed to them. Big mistake.

You have to find out how the editor or consultant works:

  • What is their workflow?
  • How do they handle their financial flow; do they have a refund policy, for example?
  • How will they deliver feedback?
  • Does the editor or consultant have sample manuscripts, notes, or coverage they can give you so you can see their approach?
  • Does the book editor use Microsoft Word “track changes” to document all edits and comments inline in the manuscript (this is essential), or do they just wing it in a text file with a bunch of colored text inserts (crazy making)?

We want to know an editor's process will be thorough. Click To TweetProfessionals, regardless of their industry, have established process procedures and deliverables for every client. You have a right to know those process procedures and the nature of the final produce before they start work.

This is critical, because the way the editor or consultant answers this question tells you boatloads about their professionalism, experience, and attitude toward you, the client. Ignoring this question can set you up for scope creep, battles over poor work and redoes, and a host of other consulting nightmares.

#4: Will You Do a Sample Edit?

It is not at all uncommon for book editors to give a free editing sample of your manuscript (usually no more than a few pages), so that you can see their process.

We want to know an editor can deliver quality help. Click To TweetScript consultants typically do not do this, which I think is a bad policy. Sometimes script consultants will give a free mini-consult over the phone and talk about your script and give some feedback, and perhaps this can suffice as a “sample,” but most script consultants won’t work on the actual script without being hired first. In this case, it’s reasonable for you as the client to ask for a mini-evaluation, or consult, to get some sense of the consultant’s ability to quickly assess your story or writing.

If they refuse, this is not a sign (necessarily) that they are jerks, but it is reasonable to ask them why they won’t do it. Maybe they have a good answer, maybe not.

Just asking can tell you a lot about how they are approaching the relationship. Book editors will usually not hesitate to give a free sample edit, but some may. Use your judgment and always ask “why not,” if for no other reason than to get a sense of how they’ll respond, and then make your decisions accordingly.

#5: Will You Sign a Contract?

Contracts exist for one reason: the two parties hate each other, won’t talk things through, and refuse to compromise. Thank goodness for contracts.

Even so, this is problematic for a lot of people, because they don’t want the hassle of doing contracts, negotiating, etc. And for small, one-off projects, contracts can feel like overkill (and they are).

But, there is a tangible and intangible reason for asking the question. The intangible reason is that you want to see how they’ll react.

  • If they are firm and tell you they never do contracts (script consultants almost never do), and they feel solid and clean (no agendas) about it, then you’ll probably be okay, but you should still insist on putting something short and specific in writing.
  • If they say “no, I don’t do those” and it feels avoidant and defensive, then you’re probably on shaky ground.
  • And if they say “no, I don’t do those, but what would work for you,” then you are definitely okay.

Working without some form of an agreement opens you to misery if there is a dispute. The tangible reason for a contract is when you have a long or complicated project with due dates, deliverables, and many moving parts.

We want to know an editor will be professional. Click To TweetLike I said, script consultants almost never do contracts and will surely push back, so it’s just a psychological game you’re playing when you ask the question. But book editors are more accustomed to contracts.

Most professional editors operate under the best practices set up by the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and use contract templates and pricing schedules based on the EFA’s recommendations.

Long or involved projects need contracts, especially those stretching into the thousands of dollars in consulting fees. Contracts are too complicated to discuss here, but they are not rocket science, and there are good samples online you can use to guide you.

Once you create one, you just clone it for future jobs. I cannot stress enough the importance of having your professional working relationship spelled out with third-party vendors before you engage them to work. It’s your time and money, so gamble accordingly.

In Summary…

Are there more than five questions you should ask any third party consultant before you hire them? Of course.

There are lots of questions, but these five are the essential ones that will give you the strongest foundation for building a professional and productive working relationship.

But, as I suggested in the opening remarks of this post, this is only half of the equation. To balance the calculus, you must also be willing to ask yourself some hard questions regarding your ability and willingness to really do this third-party-thing.

In Part 2 next week, we will look at those questions and arm you with all the tools you will need to enter into a third-party relationship with confidence and poise.


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! There’s some great information here that I hadn’t thought of before.

I appreciate how Jeff points out that the goal of many of these questions isn’t to get a specific answer. In other words, answer A doesn’t automatically mean “good” and answer B doesn’t automatically mean “bad.” And with freelance editors in the self-publishing world, some of these questions might seem like they don’t apply at all.

However, the goal with these questions is to see the story consultant’s reaction. A huge aspect of a good consulting relationship is trust, so questions that give us insight into how an editor thinks is very useful.

For example, I do occasional freelance developmental editing, but I don’t offer sample edits. That no answer doesn’t mean that I’d “fail” Jeff’s questions because that’s not his point.

As he said, the important aspect is my why, such as how I believe they’re a waste of time for evaluating a developmental editor. A handful of edits on a few pages won’t tell you if I can point out how to strengthen your Black Moment or create a stronger arc for your protagonist, as those require seeing the full story.

Instead, like I said in my post about picking a developmental editor, I request a sample chapter from potential clients to discuss expectations, how I may or may not be a good fit for their story, and how I think I could help them improve their work. That discussion is my “sample-edit” feedback (and “contract” of work) because the point is making sure we’re on the same page as far as goals and potential for the story.

Every question in Jeff’s list is about trying to determine if a story consultant will meet our expectations for expertise, assistance, professionalism, thoroughness, etc. Do we feel comfortable with them and their answers? Do we think we can trust them?

As we all have different weaknesses and needs, there’s no one right answer to each question. But hopefully, these questions can help us find the right match for what we need. *smile*

Have you hired an editor or other type of craft consultant before? If you were unsatisfied, what made the relationship a bad match for you? Would any of these questions have helped weed out that consultant? If not, what do you wish you’d asked before hiring them? Do you need clarification on any of these or do you have any questions for Jeff?

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Carradee / Misti

Good questions! (And I agree with your reason for not doing sample developmental edits.)

Something to keep in mind about EFA recommended rates—they haven’t been updated in years. (I don’t remember them changing at all in over a decade.) So they don’t necessarily account for inflation.

jeff lyons

Good point…

jeff lyons

There is an article by Lynn Wasnak in The Writers Market (online) that has a more current list of rates for a much broader range of services … a little old but better than EFAs …. 🙂

Carradee / Misti

I just compared the current version to some old versions I have, it looks as if that has been updated in the past few years. So that’s good. 🙂

jeff lyons

I think its still out of date … I appreciate you raising that issue … even so, it’s better than nothing … place to start.

Carradee / Misti

Oh, it is out of date, but at least it’s 10. 🙂

The age and inflation factors only occurred to me in the past year or so, as a [facepalm]. They’re important factors though, because there’s a tendency in some circles to look at those numbers and say, “Oh, those are the pros with years of experience and hundreds of books under their belts” (which is false, but that aside…) and who then focus on undercutting the EFA prices and wondering why they can’t seem to make a living wage…

Carradee / Misti

Er, Jami, I just noticed that my comment isn’t all showing—there’s text missing before the “10”. I assume it got grabbed by the < and >. Is there any way to recover that?

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks. No, I’ve never done those.

Donna L Hole

Thank you.


[…] a list of standard editing reference books and advice for hiring an editor, Jeff Lyons sets out 5 questions to ask before hiring editing help, and Roz Morris advocates book editing as a form of creative […]

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