The Writer’s Guide to Finding & Hiring an Editor

The Writer's Guide to Finding & Hiring an Editor

Your editor is more than a nameless someone who checks your work. The qualities you’d like to consider to find and hire an editor may be entirely different from the things your critique partner looks for.

Maybe you need help from a story coach to shore up the soft spots in your story. (C’mon over, I got you.) Maybe you need a motivational coach to keep you moving forward each month and get your manuscript over the finish line. (Not my gig—but I know a guy …) Perhaps you’re seeking turnkey project management for a self-published title. (I know that guy, too.)

Once you identified someone who offers the right services, it’s time to look for a comfortable fit. Are you looking for someone who can reliably pick up an edit on the fly, or are you hoping to find the perfect long-term someone who’ll become a valued member of your publishing team?

Here’s how to find and hire a qualified professional editor or story coach for your novel.


Do you really need professional editing?

If you’ll be querying literary agents and publishers, a polished manuscript is more important than ever. Some agents and publishers no longer consider naive, amateurish submissions, given that so many come in well beyond that level.

Today in traditional publishing, it’s no longer a certainty that an agent or publisher will put your book through rigorous comprehensive editing. Anything beyond basic copyediting is no longer a given. The only way to guarantee your book will receive developmental editing, for example, is to hire a developmental editor yourself before you submit your manuscript to agents or publishers.

Read more: Should you get professional editing before querying agents?

If you’ll be self-publishing, your customers expect a quality story and a thoroughly professional presentation. They won’t think your homemade cover is charming; they’ll be turned off from paying for an amateurish product.

As a self-publisher, you are solely responsible for ensuring the professional caliber of the story and writing inside your book—and how will you know you’ve achieved that unless you hire a professional editor? If you wouldn’t want a publishing house to release your book with copyediting from a student or from someone who got As in English ten or twenty years ago, you shouldn’t expect to scrape by with the same as a self-publisher.

How to tell what services you need

While it behooves you to understand the types of editing and what each is designed to accomplish, your editor should evaluate and help you understand what type of editing your manuscript needs and why. A prospective editor should ask to see your manuscript—often the entire manuscript, especially if you are seeking developmental editing or a critique—and ask plenty of questions about your work.

Read more: Is it safe to send your whole manuscript to a prospective editor? Could they steal your idea?

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive industry-wide standard for what the various levels types of editing include or are even called. What’s copyediting to one editor might be line editing to another. The important thing is that your potential editor defines and specifies the services you’ll receive. If your conversation with the editor doesn’t include any details about exactly what you’ll get, you’d probably be wise to continue your search elsewhere.

    • An ethical editor will refer manuscripts to colleagues for services or specialties they don’t provide, recommend additional revision or development for manuscripts that need additional work, and turn down edits for manuscripts that aren’t ready for editing. An editor should help you understand your individual editing priorities, based on your own manuscript and whether you’re planning to self-publish your novel or be published by a traditional publisher.

Read more: Developmental editing versus copyediting—which do you need most?

Is your manuscript ready for editing?

Nobody wants to spend time, money, and effort on a manuscript that’s not ready for prime time. Hiring an editor is not a fast-track solution to speeding through the tough stuff. Early revisions are an author’s responsibility.

What’s not so widely recognized about preparing for an edit is that revision is only half the task. The other part of preparation—the part I think is arguably even more important than the revisions—is a key I’ve shared in my post as a resident writing coach at Writers Helping Writers, When Are You Ready for Professional Editing?

Read more: The six-layer self-revision method

Where to find an editor

Anyone can hang out a shingle as a fiction editor, so due diligence in sorting out the pretenders is up to you. Even so, finding an editor shouldn’t leave you feeling as if you were dangling from a plank over a sea of unknown terrors.

New authors sometimes ask why they can’t simply have their book edited by a bevy of beta readers, a friend who’s a freelance writer, or a retired English teacher who moonlights as an editor. You could—but you wouldn’t be getting the same depth of experience and editorial standards that you’d get from a full-time professional.

Your helper may be great at grammar and spelling, but professional editors spend every day neck-deep in the intricacies of language. They’re completely immersed in emerging style and usage trends, genre conventions and trends, e-publishing processes and standards, book marketing and sales news, changing fiction conventions, typographical issues, and more. Someone who’s not a professional editor—including an established author—won’t even be aware of the things about editing fiction that they don’t know.

To find a professional editor, look in places where full-time professionals list their services. Professional associations offer directories where you can search for someone who fits your needs and job boards where you can post a free listing for the type of editor you’re looking for.

Yes, you could luck out and find a talented editor who’s just starting out on Facebook or Goodreads. You might discover someone great on a service like Fiverr Pro or Reedsy. But choosing an editor with a professional membership gives you at least some assurance of exposure to professional training, standards, and business practices, and working with an editor directly rather than through a booking service means no middleman upcharging the service or hijacking communications between you and your editor.

Read more: Best places to find a professional editor

How to find an editor with professional qualifications

To build your short list of candidates, look for editors with training and experience. Few professional certifications or training programs exist for editors, and standards vary widely. Some excellent editors may not have directly related training or backgrounds.

Unless you have a personal recommendation, you’ll want to use higher education, certifications, and experience to help you sniff out the baseline qualifications.

      • Does the editor have a college degree in English, journalism, or a related field, or have they earned an editing certificate? Have they undertaken recent continuing education in their field?
      • Do they belong to any professional organizations? Do they hold any certifications, or have they attended conferences or continuing education courses from professional groups?
      • Are they active with professional discussion groups online to consult with other editors and keep up with current trends and issues?
      • Can you find a website or LinkedIn profile showing their qualifications? Are their listings professional, well written, and error-free?

You may wonder if it’s important to find an editor with experience working for a publishing house. This is often a case of comparing apples to oranges. Freelance copyeditors are almost guaranteed to be seasoned, top-notch copyeditors, but they may have little to no experience helping authors get under the hood with line editing or developmental editing. These editors are typically independent contractors, not publishing staff members—the same editors you could hire directly through the channels listed above.

Hiring an editor for your book means hiring someone who’ll take the time to learn what you and your book need and then fulfill those specific needs. You need editors who do what you need, not editors who do what a publishing house needs.

It’s also important to know what types of editing and genres an editor specializes in. Most editors can do a respectable job with many types of projects. The shape and form of a story transcends genre.  But there are exceptions. Your epic fantasy is probably better off in the hands of an editor who’ll recognize when your one of your monsters encroaches on intellectual property from Dungeons & Dragons, romance is generally best off in the hands of a seasoned romance editor, and your middle-grade fiction could use an editor who can help you recognize what keeps a not-quite-dedicated reader turning pages.

On the other hand, being a skillful editor means being an advocate for readers, and a lack of exposure to certain niche topics or histories can be more of an advantage than a handicap. What’s unclear to the editor will also be unclear to many of your readers. Editors are trained to suss out those squishy places in your manuscript and ask the right questions to help you smooth them over. When in doubt, ask prospective editors about their experience and comfort zone, but don’t categorically rule anyone out because they’re not a specialist in your story’s geographic setting or era or the hero’s native tongue.

How to find an editor who “gets” your writing

How can you make that alchemical connection with someone who gets you and your writing at an intuitive level?

Your editor is more than a nameless someone who “checks your work.” Whether writing is your dream or merely a tolerable way of making some money, you deserve to find an editor who connects with what you’re all about. You deserve an editor who gets you, gets your work, and lifts up the things that make your novel distinctive so readers can appreciate them, too.

Do you want a particular service? Complete editorial development? Turnkey project management? Are you looking for someone who can reliably handle your project on the fly, or are you looking for someone who’ll become a valued member of your publishing team? All of these things are important when you’re hiring a creative service.

Most author/editor relationships evolve and become more casual and friendly over time, but you can find ways to get a feel for an editor’s working style before you commit. Your first clue is the tone of their website and emails, but those communications tend to be more formal in the early stages of a prospective business relationship, anyway.

Personal referrals are an excellent tool for finding the right editor. Ask around in writing workshops and critique groups, and bend the power of social media to find out who other authors have used. Referrals can help you identify editors with communication styles and personalities likely to click with yours.

My advice: Before you hire an editor, visit their social media feeds. Twitter and Facebook and Instagram can tell you a lot about a person’s demeanor as well as their interests outside of business. Look for an editor who sounds like somebody you’d be comfortable chatting with over coffee—because that’s what you’ll end up doing virtually during the editing process.

Read more: Find a compatible editor who fits your style

What does hiring the right editor look like from the author’s perspective?

One client describes how she connected with me:

Your book needs an editor. How do you find one?

What to tell a prospective editor about your book

Your first inquiry to a prospective editor sets the tone for your business and creative relationship. Give them the kind of details about your book and publishing goals that will help them decide whether your manuscript will be a good fit with what they do.

  • Total word count (or page count, using the industry standard of 250 words per page)
  • Genre and current competing titles you would expect your readers to be reading now
  • Revision status (How many drafts have you completed? Who else has read your manuscript—critique group members, beta readers, your mom …?)
  • The type of help you’re looking for (help with plot arc and characterization, polishing for flow and language, correction of grammar and spelling, and so on)
  • Your overall editing goals (to make the story flow more smoothly, to polish the writing, to check the grammar and spelling, etc.)
  • Your overall publishing goals (to submit to an agent or major publishing house, to launch a self-publishing career, to share and preserve your family story, etc.)

Even if you’ve never used an editor or been published, your inquiry is your chance to show that you’ve done your homework. Why would an editor want to schedule your book? This is your shot at showing that your manuscript is clean and prepared, that you’ve already begun studying who your readers might be and how your book will feed their interests, and that you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve from editing.

Read more: What to tell a prospective editor about your book

Do you need a sample edit?

A sample edit is one of the best ways to determine if a prospective editor will be a good fit for your writing. Because the process of editing requires a certain shared sensibility between an author and editor, many fiction editors provide a brief sample edit for prospective clients. This works for copyediting and line editing, but it’s difficult to evaluate things like plot, pacing, or characterization without reading the entire manuscript—not very practical for a sample or quote.

Because my edits begin at the story level, I prefer to start off with one-on-one story coaching, which serves as an affordable, low-risk introduction to my approach and work style while sending authors off with invaluable storytelling tools and techniques they’ll use the rest of their writing careers. (The service is called an Accelerator, if you’re interested in taking a sniff.)

Even my quote package includes enough feedback that you’ll get an idea of what the editing process looks like, how your story will read after editing, and the tone and approach I use in my feedback and suggestions. And at a time when you may be feeling overwhelmed by revisions, you’ll be uplifted at seeing how a skilled editor can transform your manuscript into something that reads as if it had come straight from your hand but stronger, smoother, and better than ever.

Read more: How to evaluate a sample edit

How far ahead to schedule your edit

It takes time to identify, screen, and select an editor who’ll be a good fit for you and your manuscript. While you could luck out and find an editor who has an unexpected scheduling lull—it happens to all of us—experienced editors tend to have built up a demanding roster of clients and referrals and are likely to be booked months in advance.

High demand doesn’t mean you can’t use or afford these editors too, but it does mean you’ll have to plan ahead. Six months before your edit would not be too soon to begin lining up an editor you’d love to work with. Bonus: There’s nothing like a looming editing deadline to motivate you to whiz through your last round of revisions.

Read more: Plan your editing schedule

How much fiction editing costs

Many editors who work with other types of editing than fiction charge more than editors who work strictly with self-publishers. The rates provided by the Editorial Freelancers Association rate chart include data based on slower, more technically demanding types of editing than the typical novel. Then again, I’m a fervent advocate for learning to do things the right way when you’re starting out.

Many self-publishers keep a stiffer cap on their editing budgets once they get things rolling. You can get a good feel for a realistic indie publishing budget based on this article at Reedsy. I don’t recommend dipping much lower than these rates in search of a good deal. You’ll find lower rates at places like Upwork and Fiverr—but remember, you get what you pay for. Make sure you’re not hiring a glorified spellchecker. If you want professional quality, look for someone who’s a professional—that is, someone who makes a living at editing.

Common sense goes a long way toward matching rates with an appropriate level of service. Ask your prospective editor how many hours they estimate spending on your manuscript. Could you support yourself on a month’s worth of work at those rates? If not, you’re probably looking at someone who offers services on the side. There’s no intrinsic harm in that, although it’s likely that the time and resources at their disposal won’t match those of a full-time professional. Again, you get what you pay for.

Read more: How much money should you invest in your writing?

Methods to lower your editing budget

If you could only afford one round of editing, should it be developmental editing or copy editing? Developmental (story) editing ensures that your story is strong and vital. Copy editing (or line editing) crosses all the t’s and dots all the i’s. Successful novels need both, but you may find yourself with the budget for only one or the other.

Even the dullest story can be copy edited into a beautifully polished volume, but will readers keep turning the pages? A compelling plot sells more books than correct commas every time. On the other hand, a look at the Amazon reviews of any title reveals angry readers who simply can’t get past glaring errors and quality issues. A hot, unedited mess turns readers off before they’ve had a chance to be captivated by your fantastic story line.

Read more: Developmental editing versus copyediting—which do you need most?

Read the full article: 10 ways to save money on editing

It’s the things you don’t know about editing—all types of editing, not just the kind that catches typos—that can hurt your book. In the old days, traditionally published books received rigorous shaping and developmental editing by agents and publishers, then traveled through a system of copyediting and proofreading before ever reaching print. When you self-publish your book, you take on the responsibility of managing all these processes yourself. Discerning readers will notice if you choose to skip steps along the way.

Understanding what kind of editing you need starts with understanding your publishing goals. Are you a hobbyist or an aspiring pro? If you’re self-publishing because you’ve always wanted to see that pet idea in print, your editing needs to meet different standards than if you’re hoping to attract the attention of an agent or publisher.

Read more: Should you let volunteers edit or proof your book?

Best practices and common expectations for working with an editor

Once you’ve hired a professional editor, it’s business time. What should you expect from the editing process? Are there contracts? Deadlines? When should expect to owe payments, and how much? How long will editing take? Will the editor check the grammar of the Spanish dialogue? Is your file format compatible?

So many questions—but I’ll help you ease into the water. Every editor does business a little differently, so ask your editor about these common expectations and practices before agreeing to any work. Read my checklist of advice at Writers Helping Writers, Best Practices & Common Expectations for Working With Professional Editors.

Understanding how stories work changes everything. I’ll show you how to back up your creative instincts so your ideas hit home. It’s time to accelerate your journey from aspiring writer to emerging author. 

Ready to get serious about your book? Apply to work with me.

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