First published in WritersWeekly.com. October 24, 2012. Updated September 24, 2018.
You need an editor—of that much you are certain. But how can you avoid falling prey to incompetent, untrained, or inexperienced pretenders who may insert more errors than they correct? (Yes, it happens alarmingly often.) And how can you avoid falling prey to the scammers?
How to find the best book editor for your nonfiction or fiction manuscript
Though the work may look easy enough—I mean, how hard can it be, just pushing around someone else’s words?—editing requires a specific skill set, and not all editors are proofreaders. Being a good writer doesn’t make someone a good editor, nor does being a good grammarian. Some universities offer credit and noncredit courses in copyediting, but a certificate is a lot easier to come by than true editing expertise—especially with fiction. And a certificate does not make one a “credentialed” editor or proofreader. Also, English teachers are not editors; few of them are either trained or experienced in the rules of editing (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style or Associated Press Stylebook). The best editors have had experience working with professional writers through mainstream publishing companies where standards are high, and they know what ingredients make for a good story. They understand point of view, pacing, narrative arc, and a whole lot of things that the average English teacher or news reporter may not.
Developmental editing v. copyediting v. proofreading
It’s tempting to think that all you need is proofreading—someone to tidy up the spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes—but a good editor is likely to point out problems you didn’t know you had and save you from rejection and embarrassment. Good editors take their time and look at the manuscript from many different angles. Someone who’s just looking for typos won’t notice character inconsistencies, facts that don’t add up, or glitches in the visual logic of a scene.
Don’t focus on the lowest price
So how do you go about finding the right substantive editor, copy editor, or proofreader for you? If cost is a big factor, you may feel the urge to settle for someone who gives you the lowest quote. Resist. “You get what you pay for” is not just a cliché; in editing, it’s practically a universal law and the #1 reason writers make the wrong choice. A low price is often (but not always) a sign that the person is not getting a lot of work and not receiving referrals from publishers, printers, or writers.
Be realistic. If you get a quote of $500 and a turnaround time of one week for a manuscript of 100,000 words, and another editor quotes $3,000 and offers a turnaround of six weeks, you’re looking at two very different levels of service. Professional editing and proofreading take time. There are no shortcuts in this line of work. If you want to invest wisely, choose an experienced editor and pay her or him to spend quality time with your manuscript. See Beware the Lowball.
If you search the Internet, you’ll find numerous web sites that offer editing services—so many, in fact, that you can easily become overwhelmed. How can you possibly find a gleaming nugget in all that gravel? Part of the problem is that anyone can claim to be an editor. Technically, anybody who edits even one manuscript for pay can claim the title. But the title is no guarantee of proficiency.
A professional book editor should have a proven track record. That might mean an editor who has worked at a publishing house or with successful self-published writers (those whose work has been well reviewed by publishing professionals, literary bloggers, or other intelligent readers who haven’t been paid a reviewing fee).
A professional editor should be able to give you the following:
- a list of completed projects
- feedback and references from former clients
- a sample edit
- a price quote
- a contract for services
The challenge for writers—with editorial websites abounding—is to find an editor who is professional, knowledgeable, and highly skilled. It’s a tall order, but there are ways to separate the real deal from the wannabes.
Sites such as Writer Beware and Absolute Write let you check to see if anything negative has been posted about an editor (or agent, publisher, printer). Be aware that finding feedback depends on someone having made the effort to leave a review. (And you also have to wonder if a negative reviewer isn’t simply someone with an axe to grind, or someone who ignored more intensive sample edits and selected the lowest priced or least invasive responder and realized the mistake too late.)
Vetting, Testing, Feedback
An even better option is to look for sites that offer a selection of editors vetted by knowledgeable administrators. Steer clear if any self-proclaimed “editor” can join the site. But if editors must pass tests and prove their skills and experience, you’re likely on the right track. The testing process at Book Editing Associates is rigorous, and the feedback posted with each editor’s bio will give you an idea of the editor’s expertise, strengths, and communication style. Also important is direct contact with potential editors. Avoid sites that don’t provide real names and access to the editors you wish to interview for this important relationship. Many editors have their own sites and are not part of editing groups, but the same screening rules apply.
A Sample Edit
Once you select a few editors who have the right sort of training and background, you should contact them and ask for a sample edit of the same material. Most will happily edit a couple of pages of your manuscript. This crucial step will give you an idea of the kinds of issues the editor will spot and how the editor will communicate with you when explaining problems and making suggestions.
As you compare samples from a few different editors, it may become obvious that one editor seems to be a good match with your wants and needs. Editing fiction is, in many respects, just as much an art form as writing. If you don’t like the editor’s style, perhaps you aren’t a good match artistically, and you need to keep looking. Also, an editor has the right to turn down your submission. The match needs to work both ways.
More Tips from the Pros
Traditional publishing experience v. self-publishing
An editor who has worked only on self-published titles likely does not have the same skills as editors who have worked for reputable publishing houses or on manuscripts that were bought by traditional publishers. If your goal is traditional publishing via a literary agent or pitching directly to a publisher, use an editor who has credits with traditional publishers.
Be open to input
Know what type of editor you need, or at least accept input from the professional editors who provide you with samples. You’re going to get a lower price quote from a proofreader, but that won’t solve your big-picture issues such as voice, point of view, and dramatic tension. If your story/presentation needs serious revision, it’s vital to start with a structural/developmental editor. A proofreader who works on bad material will return to you the same bad material—spelled and punctuated correctly and minus the grammatical errors—but that won’t pass muster with an acquisitions editor, and if you self-publish, your reviews will focus on the unimpressive content. A developmental editor may suggest using a proofreader for a final review. Again, these are often separate skill sets.
Increase your chance of finding the best book editor for your manuscript
You may be justifiably concerned about judging the results of the sample edits. You may not know what changes are right or wrong—which is why you’re hiring an editor. A wrong choice may mean a waste of hundreds or thousands of dollars. You stand a much better chance of connecting with a “good” editor and having a positive experience if you go to a reputable editing service that contracts with only vetted editors and proofreaders who have passed screening exams. If you’re considering an individual editor with his or her own site, look up the edited titles on Amazon or Goodreads. The book reviews may disclose issues the editor missed.
Ask what style guides the editor will use and if he or she will provide you with a style sheet. A pro will know what a style sheet is and be more than happy to establish one.
Avoid confusion by resisting the temptation to send your sample to dozens of sites. You will lose track of which editors came from vetted sources.
Self-publishing doesn’t necessarily mean lower standards. Polishing isn’t just for publishers and agents—it’s also for the readers. Legitimate print-on-demand publishers will turn down your manuscript if there are obvious errors; they don’t want their names tarnished by putting out flawed products. Before self-publishing, hire an experienced editor who will engage in direct back-and-forth communication and not rush through your project. This is the only way to ensure a quality product that you are proud to release to the world.
Be willing to wait for the best book editor
Good editors are likely to have projects in process, and that may mean a queue. Never select an editor based on availability alone; good editors may be open immediately or they may be booked months in advance. The nature of freelance work results in ebbs and flows of availability. If you’ve done your research, received an awesome sample edit, and agree to the cost of service, get on the editor’s calendar ASAP!
Don’t give up. There are many excellent editors out there. A little investigative work may be in order, but the sites mentioned above may be all you need to find the right match.
Book Editing Associates
Lynda Lotman, a professional copy editor since 1976, coordinates Book-Editing.com and other specialized networks that screen and test editors and proofreaders. The network was formed to protect writers from wasting time and money on self-proclaimed book editors and proofreaders. Of course we think you should start the search for your book editor on the Book Editing Associates website. Contact Lynda if you feel uncertain about your needs and overwhelmed with the choices.