Hiring An Editor? Five Questions to Ask First

So far this week we’ve been considering feedback from fellow writers and interested readers: critique groups, beta readers, manuscript swaps. As helpful and encouraging as they can be for new writers, nothing takes the place of a professional editor. Editors know what agents and publishers are looking for. They are trained to identify your strengths, help you understand and correct your weaknesses (we all have them), and make your work shine. Since hiring an editor is a considerable investment, here are five questions to ask in advance to make sure you get full value for your money:

1. What type of editing service do I need?

There are four basic kinds of edits, sometimes done by different editors with different skills. They are (in ascending order of expense—with some overlap):

a. Proofreading is a final check for typos, repeated words, and formatting.

b. Copy editing deals with errors in punctuation, grammar, capitalization, word usage, figures of speech, factual information, and internal consistency.

c. Line editing is a detailed, line-by-line edit for style, word choice, redundancies, and use of language to improve the readability and flow of the manuscript.

d. Developmental editing looks at the overall structure and elements of the book—pacing, plot lines, character arcs, dialogue, narration, point of view—suggesting actionable avenues of improvement.

2. How much am I willing to spend?

No one works for free. Many professional editors charge by the volume of work (so much per word or per page). Some charge an hourly rate—difficult to evaluate in my opinion since one editor may work more quickly than another. Still others charge a set fee, based on a sample edit of a chapter or two [see below]. Beware of someone offering a contract price without first seeing and evaluating your manuscript.

3. Will the editor offer a sample edit?

Most professional editors offer a free or low-cost sample edit. This gives the editor a chance to evaluate your work and give you a realistic cost estimate. A sample edit also allows you to evaluate an editor’s skills and style. You need someone you can work with and trust—even when they say hard things. Another option is to ask for a paid partial edit of, say, fifty pages or several chapters. This can save you money in the long run because you then have a chance to understand and fix repeated errors in the rest of the manuscript before submitting the whole thing for editing. Usually the cost of editing includes a concluding phone call, giving you a chance to ask for clarification.

4. Is the editor familiar with my genre?

Some editors specialize in a particular form or genre—romance, for example, or domestic suspense. A couple of years ago I wrote a short story. Since it was my first attempt, I contacted an editor known in the industry for helping writers of short fiction. After reading my work, she emailed back: “This is literary fiction. I don’t think I’m the right editor for you.” I appreciated her honesty. Good writing is good writing, but hiring an editor who is familiar with the particular expectations of your genre or form gives you the advantage of specialized advice on overall word count, tone, format, and tropes.

5. Does the editor provide references?

Most professional editors have websites listing referrals and references. If not, ask—and then follow through by contacting those references. The best references in my opinion are published authors whose work you admire. While attending Malice Domestic some years ago, I sat in on a panel of debut authors. One panelist said she’d sent query after query with no results. Finally she hired an editor and, once she was (in her words) “off suicide-watch,” began making the changes she realized were necessary. The developmental edit got her an agent and a publishing contract. I hired that same editor; experienced the same initial despair; and plugged through a similar complete revision.

Question: Have you used a professional editor? Leave a comment below and share what worked for you.


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