So let's suppose now in our first example you're writing a story. Maybe you just completed NaNoWriMo, perhaps this is something you've been writing every night for the last two years while your spouse puts the kids to bed, maybe this is something you started writing now that you're retired...whatever the situation, you've been writing this story and you're at a point where the story is done, and you had a hero and they did stuff and now you want it to be read by other people.
Congratulations, first of all, you've done something that a lot of people wish they could do, and you're taking a brave step in saying you want to do something with the story other than just leave it in your desk drawer. It's brave, not because the editor is about to tear it to shreds like a Skyrim dragon, but because you're sharing something personal to you. That takes guts, and a good editor will recognize and applaud that.
So you find an editor. Maybe you check out their blog, or meet them at a conference, or get referred to one from a friend...it's not hard to find us. And you write an email.
I'm a new author and I've just written something. Can you help me? I want to be the next (famous author).
Your Name Here
Okay, so I abridged it. But let's list some things you should mention in your email.
1. Talk about what you've written, but don't give every plot detail. What I want to hear, what I look for in that email is how you see your story. Is it a love story involving robots and a 70s porn soundtrack? Is it a coming of age story for a young car mechanic? Is it a steampunk memoir of a mad scientist?
Nope, I don't need the plot. Not yet. If the description you give me excites me, then a second email will ask about plot. I promise.
2. Talk about other things you've written/you're writing. It is remarkably encouraging to know that you haven't just handed over your one and only creative endeavor and you're hanging on my every word (and refreshing your inbox every two seconds) waiting to hear my response.
3. Talk about what you want to do with the story. Are you planning on just posting this to your own blog? Is this going to one day be on store shelves? Is this going to be the next hot thing for my Kindle? What's your project endgame?
From there, a conversation starts and a relationship develops.
In our second example, let's say you're a game designer.
NOTE: Not all editors work in game design. Some do...make sure you do your homework.
Alright game designer, you've got your game (aka "your baby"), And you write an email:
I've made a game! I need help. Help me (Editor) you're my only hope.
Your Name Here
All three of the above should be mentioned, but let's throw in two more:
1. Has this been playtested yet? It helps an editor to know if other people have seen it, or checked out the mechanics (see below), or if the project is getting polished before it gets played. Yes, that is possible, and no, it's not always a bad idea. Depends on the project (I can see some people (hi Fred) making a face at this).
2. Is this a matter of text (flavor and exposition) only, or only the mechanics or both? Again, I'm odd in that as an editor, I will take a look at the mechanics if you ask. Also, I will visit the mechanics if the text changes radically, to make sure there is continuity and a cohesive theme.
Again, it's all about the conversation.
Lastly, here are three things you should bear in mind before and during this exchange:
A. By handing your project over to an editor, you understand that some elements are going to change. Keyword: SOME. An editor who slashes and burns without explanation is not someone you should be working with. Always get an explanation. And understand that you're going to find that some of your sentences, paragraphs, commas and phrases are going to go away. You may also hear the word "rewrite" a lot. Writing is not static-craft.
B. You are entitled to an explanation. When you were in high school, that English teacher didn't have to explain why she crossed out the sentence and wrote a question mark in the margin. But this isn't high school. This is the evolution of you as a writer and the production of your work, and you should have answers. A good editor will tell you what's wrong, explain why it's wrong, and tell you how/why it should be altered/fixed. And if you don't understand the explanation, ask questions until you do. If you don't get an explanation, then that's not the right editor for you.
C. You have free will. Just because you give over your project does not mean you have to necessarily make all the changes suggested by the editor. Yes, the changes and ideas are at best suggestions and you can refuse to do them. But at least think them over. Maybe down the road you'll revisit them and they'll make more sense to you. The choice is always yours. Remember Rule #1 - Writing is the act of making decisions.
Part 2 will get a little more in-depth about how a sample edit goes and what a writer can do to make the process easier.
Enjoy your writing!