Ask Midge: Hiring an editor

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Publishing, On Writing

Q: How do you know when you need an outside editor for your work, and what’s the best way to go about finding one? — K.S., San Diego

A: The first part of this question depends on several things: your goals as a writer, the shape your project’s in, and whether you have access to classes and/or writing colleagues. If you are able to participate in a writing class, fantastic — here, you will meet an instructor (who may also be an editor, or can probably help you find one), and you’ll also meet fellow writers with whom you can consider forming a writer’s group. Both instructors and fellow writers can help you determine where your work stands in terms of quality and readability; also, you may find that being part of a class and/or working with a group can be just as good as working with a professional editor, depending on your needs.

If, however, you know you want a professional editor — a good choice for writers who don’t have time for/access to classes or a writing group; for writers who are ready to submit manuscripts to agents, publishers, or contests and know they need help with polishing; or for writers who simply want to work with someone who has the experience and background of a pro — then below are a few things to consider.

  • Make sure you find a good match. Check out an editor’s experience and bio, which is a good start (if you looked at my bio, for example, you might consider hiring me if you write fiction or memoir, but you wouldn’t want me editing your poetry). It’s also important that you and your editor are compatible in ways that go beyond genre — ideally, you’ll want an editor who respects your voice and who works with you to make your project the best it can be, not to transform it into something you don’t recognize as your own.
  • Know what type of editing you want. A good editor will help you clarify this, but it helps if you have a good idea yourself. You may want copyediting (editing for grammar, punctuation, style — I like these definitions of light, medium, and heavy copyediting — but keep in mind that writers can’t always be objective about their work, and while you think your writing may only need a light copyedit, your editor may feel differently — so be open to suggestions). Or you may need developmental editing (more thorough editing for content and structure; rewriting as needed; suggestions for additions, deletions, and other changes). If you’re not sure what type of editing your work needs, have an editor look at 10-20 sample pages to determine what type of approach would be best. The difference between a light copyedit and a substantial developmental edit can add up to a lot of time (and dollars), so it’s important to be on the same page here.
  • Know exactly what you’re getting for your money. If you’re not sure what the going rates are, check out the Editorial Freelancers Association’s list of editing fees — these are in the ballpark of what you’ll pay for copyediting or developmental editing, though keep in mind that all prices will vary depending on the project itself.
  • Ask for a sample or discounted edit. The only way to know if you and your editor have similar sensibilities is to work together — yet you don’t want to find out, too late, that it’s not a great fit. Before I commit to a large project, I’ll offer a complimentary sample edit of a few pages to make sure the writer and I are on the same page in terms of what he/she expects and how I can best help. If I’m working with a new writer on smaller projects, such as short stories, I’ll offer a discount on the first story to ensure that the writer is getting exactly what he/she needs before we continue further.
  • Ask for references. A good editor should have plenty of happy clients out there.
  • Be clear about the terms. Even after you and your editor agree on a price, make sure you’re comfortable with all the terms: What you’ll pay up front, what you pay upon completion, whether follow-up questions are included, what the deadlines are, whether your work will be edited electronically or on hard copy, etc.
  • Make your own goals clear. If you’re seeking an editor to help you polish your first three chapters so you can send them to an agent, let him/her know this. While you may hire this editor to give your chapters a copyedit, if there’s a major logic flaw in Chapter One, wouldn’t you love to have this pointed out? Editors often go above and beyond this way (we’re trained to be picky; we can’t help it). And if you’re planning to self-publish, your editor will need to know that he/she may be the last set of eyes on the book before it goes into print.

So how to find an editor in the first place? Good places to start, as mentioned above, are classes, fellow writers, and writing organizations — always get a recommendation if you can. If you’re starting from scratch, try listings such as Poets & Writers classifieds for editors seeking clients. And if you don’t have a personal recommendation, here are a few things to be aware of:

  • Beware of quotes that seem too expensive. If an editor’s prices are, say, more than double the common rates, this should be a red flag. On the other hand, some editors charge a lot because they’re worth it. Find a balance between working with the editor you want and staying within your budget. Again, ask for a complimentary sample edit so you’ll know what you’re getting, and agree on a total price up front (even if an editor charges by the hour, which most do, you should be able to get an estimate on the total so there are no surprises at the end of the project).
  • Promises, promises. Avoid working with editors who promise you perfection, miracles, publication, etc. First, the only editor that can promise you publication is an editor at a publishing house, and second, an editor’s job is to make your work the best it can be, not to promise miraculous transformation (this is more along the lines of ghostwriting).
  • Take your time. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time, but you also don’t want to make a hasty decision about someone who could become a valuable resource and sounding board for you. Feel free to talk to a couple of different editors before making a decision, and never hesitate to find a new editor if the one you’re working with isn’t a good fit.

Questions? Comments? Send them along.


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