Your Publishing Journey Part 1: How to Choose a Freelance Editor for Your Novel

Stock Photo by Chaiwei Lin

If you plan to self publish, or if you want your manuscript to be professionally edited before submitting it to literary agents or publishing companies, you’ll probably need to hire a freelance editor. A plethora of editors advertise their professional services on the internet, and they vary widely in terms of skills and qualifications. How do you find an editor who is well qualified and a good fit for you?

1. Are You Ready for An Editor?

First, take some time to consider whether you’ve reached this stage. If you’re like most of us, having finished a manuscript, you’re eager to move forward. But resist the temptation to hire someone to edit your first draft. This is likely to be time-consuming and expensive, and even the best editor won’t be able to help you bring your manuscript to its full potential.

Take a breather from your novel for about a month; then revise, revise, revise until you have gotten as far as you possibly can on your own. Then workshop your book with a writer’s group, share it with a critique partner, or enlist the services of a beta reader. Every step you take to ensure your manuscript is the best it can be is likely to help you save on editing costs.

If you find yourself stuck in the revision process, or if you’ve just started your novel and are having difficulty pulling it all together — and if a writers group or critique partner isn’t fitting your needs — you may want to consider enlisting the services of a writing coach.

2. What Kind of Editing Do You Need?

Various levels of editing services are available, and definitions of each type of editing vary widely. So when the time comes to hire an editor, be sure you clearly understand how that editor defines developmental editing, line editing, or copyediting.

In general, developmental editors work with writers to strengthen aspects of the novel such as plot, organization, style and narrative voice, characterization, dialogue, and use
of descriptive detail.

Line editors or substantive editors work with manuscripts that have already been developmentally edited — or which the authors don’t plan to have developmentally edited — and focus on polishing each line so the writing shines. A line editor won’t critique the book as a whole or help you rework the organization or plot. The focus will be on things like clarity, sentence structure, word choice, the rhythm of the writing, trimming out superfluous words, and effective use of dialogue tags, as well as spelling and grammar.

Copyeditors or proofreaders add the final polish: correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation, and capitalization, ensuring consistency in formatting, and making sure the manuscript matches stylistic conventions for the publishing industry.

There is some overlap among the categories and, again, when considering a particular editor, it will be important to understand that editor’s definition of the service you need. Peruse prospective editors’ websites — many of them explain the elements of each editing service offered. Be sure you know exactly what you’re getting when you contract with an editor for a particular service.

For now, think about where you are in the revision process and anticipate what level of editing you will need. It might help to jot down a list of concerns you have about your book and things you want from an editor. For example:

I think my character development is strong, but I’m afraid that, in the dialogue, everyone’s voice sounds the same. (This is a developmental issue.)

My beta readers said the pacing in the first third of the book was too slow. (This is a developmental issue.)

My writers group says I’m still doing too much “showing” rather than “telling.” (This is a developmental issue.)

I realize that I have a tendency to write run-on sentences, and I am the queen of wordiness. (This is an issue for a line editor or copyeditor.)

I’m going to be self-publishing, so I need a final polish and to make sure everything meets the standards of the publishing industry. (This is a job for a copyeditor or proofreader.)

3. Consider Your Budget

How much should you pay for editing? It depends, of course, on the amount of work involved. The Editorial Freelancer’s Association offers these guidelines.

It is a good idea to consider standard rates in the industry and the kind of editing you need and have a price range in mind before approaching a prospective editor. Although this may seem obvious, it’s something some people, when focusing on the “writer” side of our brains, forget at this juncture.

Consider how much you can afford to spend on editorial services. If money is tight, will you need time to save up the funds, ask an editor for a payment plan, or launch a Kickstarter campaign?  Coming up with a game plan will help ensure that you’re well prepared.

4. Generate a List of Potential Editors

Make list of potential editors who offer the service you need. (If you aren’t sure what type of editing you need — and often we’re too close to our own work to assess this — a prospective editor can help you.) Ask fellow writers for referrals to editors they’ve worked with. If you’re part of a writer’s group, that might be a good place to start. Look at well-edited books you’ve enjoyed that were independently published or published by small presses. Often the editor is mentioned in the acknowledgements section, or you can email the author to ask.

Another possible route is to visit the website of a professional organization such as the Editorial Freelancers Association that offers a searchable directory of members who offer freelance services.

5. Look at the Editor’s Educational Background and Experience

Unlike lawyers or licensed therapists, professional editors do not have a particular accreditation process to follow. Qualified freelance editors have traveled multiple paths. Some hold degrees or certificates in editing, English, literature, or related subjects, and some have been trained through experience in publishing houses, working with mentors, or courses through colleges, universities, or professional associations.Most editors have honed their skills through a combination of these. I can’t tell you what combination of training and experience is optimal for you. But don’t hesitate to ask about an editor’s background if it isn’t described on his or her website.

Unless the editor is new to the field, a list of published books he or she has edited should be available. You probably want to look for someone who has worked on published books in your particular niche or genre and loves the type of fiction you write. Someone with a passion for the type of book you’ve written brings positive energy to the project.

6. Email Potential Editors

The initial email exchange will probably give you clues as to whether an editor is likely to be a good fit for you. If the prospective editor doesn’t respond to your inquiries within a couple of days, unless there is a good reason for it this may be a warning flag.

Also pay attention to the prospective editor’s communication style and look for someone you’ll enjoy working with. There’s no formula for this, of course, and each person is different. If I were considering working with an editor, I’d look for a style of communication that’s warm and engaging as well as professional, because that’s what I’m comfortable with. Some people prefer someone who’s businesslike and gets right to the point. In any case, consider whether this is someone you’ll enjoy working with.

7. Ask for a Sample Edit

Most editors offer a sample edit free of charge or at a reasonable rate. Take advantage of it! This is a terrific opportunity to see what an editor offers and get a sense of whether he or she would be a good fit for you. It will also help ensure that you understand what comprises a copyedit, a line edit, or a developmental edit by this particular professional.

Pay attention to the tone of the editor’s comments and feedback. You probably want an editor who offers clear direction and conveys confidence in his or her expertise but doesn’t project an authoritarian vibe. A professional editor shouldn’t usurp ownership of your book or make changes simply for the sake of substituting his or her writing style for yours. If you don’t understand why a revision was made or a change was recommended, the editor should readily answer your questions, offering editorial expertise in the spirit of collaboration rather than from a position of authority.

8. Consider the Editor’s Estimate:

When returning the sample edit, the editor will probably provide an estimate for your project. Some editors bill hourly rather than charging a flat fee. In this case, I recommend asking for a cap that won’t be exceeded without your consent.

How much should you pay for editing? It depends, of course, on the amount of work involved. The Editorial Freelancer’s Association offers these guidelines.

9. Look at Testimonials and References

Many editors list client testimonials on their websites. In addition to that, feel free to ask for several references: email addresses of former clients who are willing to talk to you.

Questions you may want to ask:

  • Were you happy with this editor’s work?
  • Was there anything you weren’t happy with?
  • Did the editor meet the agreed-upon deadline?
  • Was the editor willing and able to explain any changes that were unclear to you and answer other questions?

When you reach this point, you’re probably ready to choose an editor. Take your time, weigh the qualifications and strengths of each prospective editor, and trust your instincts. This will help ensure a strong working relationship and help you get the most out of your investment.

Best of luck! Please feel free to email me at with any questions about this article or about the editing process.



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