This is a series on finding and working with a freelance editor. If you missed the earlier articles, check out these links to learn what types of editing are available and where to find editors.
There are several considerations to keep in mind when you are evaluating editors, and every author will have a different arrangement of priorities. Some people have a strict budget they must adhere to while others may want to focus on the personality of the editor they will be working with. There is no right or wrong answer on which aspect is most important, there’s only the issue(s) that is most critical for you.
Regardless of the order, these are the points I suggest you examine.
Your editor should be experienced editing in your genre. Each style of book – romance, memoir, thriller, essay – is packed with conventions that, if ignored or overlooked, can result in bad reviews, poor word-of-mouth, and low sales. An editor who is well-versed in your particular genre will help ensure that you’re not blindly missing or trampling over any reader expectations.
Editing can be expensive. A developmental edit on a 75,000-word manuscript could run anywhere from $300 to $3,000 depending on the editor you’re working with. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a page of recommended rates, but there are certainly editors out there charging way more and way less. To be honest, the romance community often charges on the lower end of the scale, but there are still huge variances even in our genre. Know your budget and be realistic about what you can afford.
How and when does the editor take payment? Do they require a deposit? Do you pay in full, or half when you submit the manuscript and the other half when the edits are complete? Is any portion refundable? What if you aren’t happy with your edits? Do they offer a payment plan? Do they take payment via PayPal or Transferwise or check or bank transfer or credit card or gold bullion?
Some editors present contracts or agreements for authors to sign and others use the emails you’ve exchanged as an informal statement of work. What are you comfortable with? Would you prefer to sign a contract or would you consider that a hassle?
5. Editing process
Proofreading and copy editing are pretty straightforward, and the vast majority of editors will edit in Word with Track Changes on or in Editing mode in Google Docs. Both applications allow you to see the changes that have been made and either accept or reject each individual edit. Line edits could include an editorial letter, or they may only have inline changes in the document. A developmental edit and a critique may be detailed completely in an editorial letter or might include comments in the document. Some authors appreciate a phone call after the edits have been delivered to talk through the changes and take the opportunity to ask questions. Others want a few days or weeks to process the suggestions and revise on their own without any additional input from the editor. If you aren’t sure of your process yet, ask the editor what their availability is after the manuscript is delivered for you to follow up with questions or requests.
If you have a specific timeline that you’ll need your edits completed by, then I suggest finding your editor well in advance. It’s not uncommon for editors to be booked out three, six, or even twelve months in advance. Rush jobs may be available but are often significantly more expensive. Also be sure to ask what the turnaround time is for an edit. Once you deliver the manuscript, does your editor plan to get it back to you in four days, two weeks, or a month? And don’t forget to schedule enough time for your own revisions before the next round of edits. I have a couple clients who can churn out a second draft on a developmental edit in four or five days, but the majority of my clients take anywhere from one to three months to fully revise their manuscript.
Evaluate the personality and communication style of editors through their websites and their emails with you. Do you want to spend hours of your day reading this person’s thoughts about your manuscript? If you get a sample edit from them, do their suggestions feel empathetic, implementable, and realistic? Do they offer encouragement and explanations or examples? Are their responses to your emails timely and professional?
As I mentioned earlier, these aren’t in a particular order of most or least important. You’ll make that determination based on your own needs. But each point is important to consider in your overall evaluation of editors.
Part 2: Editors in the wild (AKA – Where to find them)
So you understand the different types of edits a manuscript may need and that there are lots of editing skill sets to choose from because you read part 1 of this article.
But how do you track down one of these mythical beings? Read on, my friend, and I’ll tell you where we hang out. (Hint: it’s the bar at writing conferences.)
The best way to find an editor? Ask your writing buddies for referrals. Just like when looking for a new doctor or a new job, referrals from friends and colleagues are indispensable. Though not every author-editor pairing will be a match made in writerly heaven, asking friends for recommendations gives you the chance to learn more about the working and communication style of the editor before you ever contact them.
If the referral track isn’t working for you, then next I recommend checking out the copyright and acknowledgments pages of the books you love and respect. Often, authors thank their editors for the work they’ve done, and some indie authors will list their editors (and cover artists and formatters!) on the copyright page.
Still looking? Facebook has approximately eleventy bajillion groups for writers. Join some! Make some new author friends. Ask in the groups if people have editors they recommend. If you write romance, check out the Romance Editor Q&A group to get started.
Online searches work too! I probably get one inquiry a week through my website where the author says they simply googled some combination of romance+edit/coach and my site came up.
As you’re looking for editors, be sure to find professionals who know your genre. There are lots of unspoken “rules” in genre fiction that you simply don’t know if you don’t read widely in that genre. And though it’s okay to break rules in writing, it’s best done when you know what the expectation is and flout it intentionally. Ignorance of the standards often just angers readers and makes them throw your book at the wall or – worse – leave a bad review.
Once you’ve narrowed your list of potential editors down to your top three or so, ask them for samples! This will give you a chance to see how they work, evaluate their communication style, and decide if you mesh as a team. Some editors charge for samples, some charge and put that amount toward your final invoice if you book with them, and some will do a sample for free. Some proofreaders won’t offer sample edits because proofreading is relatively clear cut, but other types of editors usually will. Some editors will request pages from the middle of your manuscript since that’s usually been through fewer rounds of perfecting than the first chapters, but some will take first pages also. There's a lot of flexibility around samples.
A compassionate editor will always give you positive feedback about your story as well as making clear, actionable recommendations on what can be improved. Avoid anyone who only tells you what you’re doing wrong.
And there’s my two-part series on finding an editor for your novel. Stay tuned for more posts about working with editors, things to consider (like cost and schedule), and the emotional gut punch that your first editorial letter will probably be.
Part 1: What does an editor actually do? (AKA – Do I really need an editor?)
You’re writing a book. Or maybe you’ve finally typed The End on your manuscript. Congratulations!
Now, it’s time to find an editor.
You can actually do this at any point in the process. You don’t have to have a finished manuscript (MS) to research, communicate with, or even schedule an editor. Though I do recommend being self-aware enough to know whether you can stick to a deadline if you book that editor before your MS is done.
So, what’s the first step to finding an editor?
You must understand what the different editing passes are, how they affect your MS, and who performs them. Editing skills come in all shapes and sizes, and many editors prefer to specialize in a certain type of edit or even a particular type of story. Take me, for example – I only work with romance authors.
The first type of edit a book needs is focused on content.
A content editor reviews your story as a whole. In general, they don’t care if you have typos or your character changes eye color in chapter five because they are making sure that you have strong characterization and dire stakes, a clear goal and ever-rising conflict in your book. They ensure your plot makes sense and follows the guidelines of your genre – if it’s romance, the people fall in love by the end; if it’s mystery, the crime is solved and the bad guy is caught; if it’s thriller, the pacing stays fast and keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
A content editor may advertise their services as a content edit, a developmental edit, or a substantive edit. These three terms mostly mean the same thing, but request clarification if you’re not sure exactly what an editor is offering.
And before you ask…
(Warning: soap box)
Yes, you need a developmental edit. This is where cranky Editor Jess comes out, because I see new authors needing to save money on the production costs of their book, and I totally understand that, you guys, but if you’re not putting out a quality story, you’re not going to get the sales you need to be able to afford to keep writing. Yes, some people (like the old Amazon scammers) released not great books that made lots of money, but that was because they also paid thousands of dollars in advertising to make sure they were casting the widest net in finding readers. If you can’t afford a developmental edit, you likely can’t afford $10,000 in advertising either.
There are ways to make a dev edit more affordable if you have a tight budget. I’ll write a post on that one of these days too. But please don’t skip this step in your production process!
(/end soap box)
Because a content edit deals with the whole story, it doesn’t make any sense to edit the actual words on the page until you know your plot is solid. That’s why content is step one. It’s a waste of time and money to check the spelling in Chapter 1 when you might end up removing that whole chapter.
As we go deeper into the manuscript, a line edit is the next level. This is also sometimes called a substantive edit, so again, ask your potential editor for specifics on what their services are. Line edits are still looking at your story, but this time it’s more about writing style and how you convey the story. At this point, the editor is considering your pacing – do you have a lot of white space on the page for a fast-paced scene? Do you slow down and give the reader a chance to breathe after a particularly thrilling scene? Are your characters interesting or relatable? Does the voice of the writing match the character you’ve created, their life experience and education and career? Are your chapters ending on hooks that entice the reader to keep turning pages rather than set the book down?
After the line edit is the copy edit. Now, we’re finally at the step that many people think of when they hear the word “editor.” The copy edit is all about the technical stuff – grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling – plus consistency and sometimes fact-checking. The copy editor has an ear for repetition, so if you’re repeating words or phrases or even sentence structure too often, your copy editor will point it out and may offer suggestions or simply edit the document to make changes. The copy editor is also on the lookout for that eye color change in chapter 5 and other story inconsistencies as they correct misspellings and misplaced commas and confirm the dates of real-life events you mentioned in the MS.
And finally we get to the proofreader. I always always always recommend that this be a new person, regardless of how many other people have worked on the MS thus far because you want a fresh set of eyeballs looking at your writing for this last step. No editor is going to guarantee they will catch all the typos in your MS, so having more than one person looking for those typos is essential.
Some editors offer manuscript critiques or assessments as well, and those are often similar to a developmental edit – they are focused on story, not grammar – but in a lighter style. My critiques, for example, are usually a scaled-back version of an editorial letter that outlines the two or three aspects of the story that are working really well and the three or four that could use some additional strengthening.
Keep in mind that not all editors perform each type of edit. It’s not uncommon to find people who only work on content edits, or only on copy editing and proofreading. Some editors may also decline to do more than one or two passes on an MS. I usually max out at two – a dev and maybe the copy edit after the author revises. I know that if I try to go through the MS a fourth time (because I do two rounds on the dev), that I’ll miss glaring typos because I’ve seen the document too many times already. My brain will automatically fill in correct information where it’s actually typed wrong or simply missing.
And there we have the different editing passes. This has turned out to be way longer than I expected, so check out part 2 for where to find editors in the wild.
I. Am. So. Pumped!
I've been talking about offering a course on editing and story structure for over a year now, and I'm finally in the last stages of fine-tuning!
In a few short weeks (well, it's quarantimes, so maybe the longest weeks of our lives, but still...), I will open up a class on the Six Foundational Elements of Romance Fiction. These are the six core aspects I look for when I'm starting a developmental edit. Like puzzle pieces, these elements lock together to support each other, and as a whole, they create a deeply engaging story that readers love.
If you'd like to learn more about the course - and what exactly these "puzzle pieces" are - sign up for a free download that outlines the six elements and get notifications when the course is available.
There are a million ways to write and revise a romance novel, and using these core aspects to shape your story is just one method. I'll have more for you in the future, but I'm super excited about this framework because it often works for authors who just don't get story beats like "inciting incident" and "dark night of the soul."
When I'm doing developmental edits, I often run into the same issues across manuscripts and authors and even genres, so I wanted to offer a (not at all exhaustive) checklist you can use to help determine if you're ready to submit to an agent or editor yet.
Of course, please be sure to read, understand and follow the submission guidelines listed on the agent's or editor's or publishing house's website - the #1 way to get rejected is to not follow instructions. Below are a few more suggestions to help you avoid that "thanks but no" response.
If you would like some great resources on writing craft, check out Debra Dixon's GMC and Gwen Hayes's Romancing the Beat (specifically for romance authors, obvs). Both books are easy to read, straight to the point, and offer lots of great examples to help you understand the concepts.
Those are affiliate links to Amazon. That means if you click them and buy something from Amazon, I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.
I was invited to talk about editing as a profitable side job on Chris Guillebeau's Side Hustle School podcast recently. If you'd like to learn more about how I got started in editing and the tips I have for other people interested in this field, give it a listen!
(It's about ten minutes long.)
Don't expect anything on a set schedule, but when I have something interesting or useful to share, I'll post it here.
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