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How to Hire an Editor (Editing Series, Part 3)

If your goal is to publish your book, you’re going to need an editor at some point.

If you’re self publishing, this should be obvious. After all, who else will stand between you and your readers and make sure that you’re putting your best self forward? Who else will help you see the holes, the errors, and the missing pieces of your manuscript? None of us are perfect judges of our own work. (I was reminded of this today, when an acquaintance posted a heartfelt reminder on social media to “Proof read what you have written…Chances are you spelt things incorrectly.”)

But remember, it’s not enough to make sure that there are no typos. You also need to have a compelling story, a logical outline, and a clear connection to our readers…all of the things a developmental editor provides.

If you’re pitching your book to an agent or a publisher, you’re not off the hook. We’re way past the time in history, if it ever existed outside the sepia-toned movies like Genius, when an agent—let alone a publisher—would take a “diamond in the rough” pile of papers that had “potential” and invest time and money into them for years without reward.

Here’s the hard truth: Every active agent and publisher is getting more queries and manuscripts than they can possibly review, let alone publish. Publishers do not have the time, the budget, or the need to provide a lot of developmental editing to first-time writers.

Seven years ago, when I was an agent at a small niche firm with four agents, we got 3,000 unsolicited queries a year. In the last year I agented, we collectively agreed to represent 3 of those. And it’s just gotten crazier since then. Rock star blogging agent Kristin Nelson shares her statistics every year. In 2015 her three-person agency received 29,000 queries. They, too, signed only 3 new clients.

No matter how you look at it, those aren’t good odds.

With that kind of competition, your work has to be not just “a good idea,” but a “drop everything and look at this amazing writing” project.

So yes, whichever publishing path you choose, it’s a smart investment to get professional help.

Do you want an editor who still uses a red pen, or one who edits online? (Photo: Benjamin Solah)

Do you want an editor who still uses a red pen, or one who edits online? (Photo: Benjamin Solah)

But where do you start? Here’s my advice:

  1. Know what you are asking for. “Editor” is not a one-size-fits-all job description, and so there’s more to this than “I want to hire an editor.” What do you want that person to do? Do you want feedback on effectiveness and big picture, or do you want someone to clean up the grammar? At some point, you’ll probably need both, but don’t hire the copy editor until you’re sure that your foundation is solid.

You can hire a professional editor to review your work at any level: developmental, copy, or proofreading. (Click here for a concise summary of the differences.) Editors with traditional publishing experience can help you with your book proposal, poetry editors can talk to you about your verse, and academic editors know what your dissertation committee wants to see.

Just as you wouldn’t hire a podiatrist to treat your sinus infection, you wouldn’t hire a developmental editor to proofread. (Trust me on this…or just read through my own blog and count the typos.)


  1. Understand that you get what you pay for. Years ago, I got a call from a man who had used the website fivvr to hire a ghostwriter for his book, which would be based off a series of informal recordings he’d made. He hired the lowest bidder, paying $200 for a full book manuscript. Not surprisingly, what he got back was practically illegible.

Freelance editing rates can vary widely, based on an individual’s experience, workload, and confidence level. The most expensive options are not always the best; I’ve written before about the problem of vanity presses who overcharge unsuspecting writers. However, the cheapest options are usually cheap for a reason.

The Editorial Freelancers Association has a helpful page that outlines the average fees charged by editors for different kinds of projects.

  1. Hire the person with professional experience as an editor. This one is a bit controversial, but my experience is that just because someone has published their own work doesn’t mean they’re ready to evaluate yours. Editing is a very different skill than writing, so look for someone who spends the bulk of their time working with other people’s words, rather than writing their own. Even better, find someone who has worked professionally as an editor in some supervised capacity. They’ll bring the broadest perspective and knowledge about how to edit to get results (readers). As traditional publishers go through rounds of layoffs, it’s not hard to find freelance editors who have years of professional experience. Or look for those who have received formal training in editing. (That’s not to say you shouldn’t share your work with fellow writers and published authors; these are often the core of a critique group and make good beta readers.)


  1. Ask for referrals and/or samples. Editing is not always a black-and-white process (except for proofreading; that works within pretty narrow parameters). Before you trust a person with something as important as your manuscript, get a sense for how they work.

If you don’t already know someone who has worked with the editor you’re considering, it’s completely appropriate to ask for references from previous clients, or ask to see samples of work. Some editors will even give you a free or inexpensive “sample edit” of your own work, especially in copy editing or proofreading, so that you can see what kind of feedback you’ll get.


  1. Clarify up front what’s included in the fee. Different editors have different policies and structures. Make sure you know what you’re paying for. Some freelance editors charge by the hour, and others prefer flat fees based on the length of the project. Does their fee include the opportunity to ask follow up questions? Will they look at revisions you make? Do they invoice for the full fee in advance? How far in advance are they scheduling? What happens if they miss their deadline? You’ll eliminate many potential areas of conflict if you clarify expectations.


  1. Last but not least, make sure that you and the editor connect. This is a person who is about to become deeply involved in a project that you—I assume—care about deeply. Do you trust them? Do you communicate well together? Do you feel respected?


If you’re looking for an editor to help you with your work, here are a few places to start your search:

Northwest Independent Editors Guild: this professional network of freelancers has a searchable database, which you can narrow by type of project and editing, as well as a free-to-post job board, where you can post your project and see who’s interested.

The Editorial Department: one of the oldest editorial firms in the country, this organization draws together editors (including many with traditional publishing experience) for all types of projects, from screenplays to inspirational novels to children’s books.

Girl Friday: another northwest institution, this group offers a full range of services and can help connect writers with the specific help they need.

(And yes, you can also hire me for certain types of projects.)


Other recommendations? What’s YOUR experience hiring an editor, and what advice do you have for others?

  1. I note that you do book proposals, and would like help with my current project, a hopefully up-beat non-fiction book on successful aging. I don’t need an editor for the actual manuscript (I have published one other book, and have reasonable confidence in my writing style, as well as access to local readers)but I do struggle with what I view as “marketing.” I definitely do not wish to self-publish.
    What would you require me to submit (I’m sure you don’t want to read a whole book) and what is your current time-line, and what might be the approximate cost?

    • Helen, I’m sorry I didn’t reply to this sooner. Somehow your comment slipped through the WordPress cracks. I’d be happy to talk to you about a book proposal review. Please use the Contact form on this website to send me more information, or email me directly (address is on the contact page).

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