Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tips for Hiring an Editor

I met Marie Dees a few years ago through an online writing group and we've kept in touch. She's written romance, mysteries, and erotica. She posts snippets from her work on Sundays on her blog - - which are always fun and steamy! On top of her impressive fiction list, Marie also works as a freelance editor for publishing houses.

I’ve told Krista that I’m going to be snarky and perhaps downright bitchy in this article.  But I’m doing it to save someone some money and perhaps some grief.  Why? Because I recently sat through yet another writing group where I had to tell a writer that his work has basic problems with an uncontrolled point of view, rampant tag line abuse and lethargic pacing.  Problems an editor can help with, you say? 

Well, in this case the writer has already paid an editor to help him with the work. What I saw was the edited work.  But you know what, that’s not uncommon anymore.  I see it over and over again.  Someone with a background in journalism or non-fiction decides to pimp themselves out as an editor for works of fiction or as a book coach or a writing guru.  They make promises like “if I edit your book when it’s accepted, the publisher won’t have to send it through editing.” 

So, let’s set some overall expectations.

 - No editor hired by an author can guarantee a book will be accepted by an agent or publisher. 
- Hiring a freelance editor for your work does not mean that it will skip the editing process when it reaches the publisher. 
- Even if accepted by a publisher, your book may not bring in a large enough advance to cover the fees some editors charge. 
- If your book is good enough to interest a publisher, they will provide you with an editor at no cost to you.

Got all that?

Now consider this:
I’ve heard editors explain that they don’t edit for story consistency, plot development or basic accuracy of the information.  In other words, they proof-read.  Which is useful, but only if done after someone edits for plot, consistency and accuracy, not before.  And now I’m seeing editors actually create their own publishing sites so that if their editing isn’t good enough to land a publisher, they can provide self-publishing assistance for you.  All for a fee that the author pays. 

Still want to hire an editor? I’m not going to tell you it won’t help. But remember that there is no single definition of what an editor does and hiring an editor without clear expectations and requirements can be an expensive exercise in futility. 

If you’re looking for someone to read through your manuscript for spelling and grammar mistakes, you might just want a proofreader. Proofreading is a valuable asset to any writer, but simple proofreading should cost far less than hiring a full editor. In fact, often members of writing groups will proofread for each other for free.  Or are you expecting the editor to go through your story and offer story development advice? Have you considered joining a critique group? Because they may be able to help you with that free of charge. 

Now, if you’ve tried to above – I always like to try free help first, and feel you still need an editor, what should you look for?  Simple. You want an editor with direct and proven success in your genre. And success doesn’t mean they’ve edited a lot of self-published books.  Ask for references. Can this editor provide names of the authors, titles of books and names of the publishers the author published with? If so, contact some of the authors.  Find out if they were satisfied. I’ve been told by authors that they paid large sums to editors and still found issues in their work that the editor didn’t address. 

Know what you expect from the editor. Put together a list of the issues you’d like to see the editor address.  Yes, this means you have to be a strong enough writer to know where your potential problems lie. Remember, just plopping a manuscript down and saying “fix everything” gives an editor a chance to charge you for “everything.” 
Do a test run with a chapter or two.  Some editors will do this for free or for a nominal charge.  But don’t just look at that sample on your own.  Take it to a writing group, critique group or writing friend. Present it to them and get their feedback.  Are they able to find technical problems in the edited work?  Now, those technical problems may be the writer’s problems, not the editor’s mistakes.  But a good editor should still address them.

Also, keep in mind that the process an editor with a publishing house follows for a book is not to give the book a single editing pass and return it to the author corrected.  An editor with publishing house will first review the book for story, plot and structure.  They’ll return the manuscript to the author with requests for changes.  The author tackles the rewrites. Then the editor reviews the changes. The book goes back and forth this way until the editor and author are both satisfied with it.  Then it goes to the proofreader who checks again for spelling and grammatical errors.  Then back to the writer again for approval of the final copy.  A publisher invests the time for several editing passes in each book because it is seldom feasible to make a book publication ready in a single editing round. Are you hiring an editor who will work through multiple rounds of edits?

And always remember -- at the end of the day, the author is responsible for the quality of the manuscript.  Not the editor.  


  1. I also believe the editor needs to understand and spot some of the basic fiction buzzwords, including:

    head hopping
    purple prose
    info dump
    show not tell
    passive language

    If you, as a writer, don't understand these things, you probably aren't at the stage where an editor is going to be able to do much anyway. These are major issues in a fiction draft that need to be conquered.

    If you are self-publishing, an editor is vital. So, it's doubly important to ensure that you are using a good editor.

    I've seen too many people who are laid off or unsuccessful freelance nonfiction authors (i.e. magazine writers) who are passing themselves off as fiction and non-fiction editors. When pressed with my above list, they had no idea what I was talking about. Why? Because they'd never published any fiction in their lives. They had never gone through a publisher's editing system.

    In many ways, this has become yet another way that inexperienced writers are getting screwed out of their hard-earned money and fed a unrealistic dream.

  2. I can't tell you the number of MSS I get in slush that come with a cover letter saying, "I've had the book professional edited" and the book is in terrible shape. I agree with Krista--if you don't know what the editor should be looking for, you're not ready to even hire one.

    I've also had issues with authors telling me they paid for editing (proofreading) prior to even sending it in, and then balked at the changes the staff editor requested--they thought their work was done already.

    Editors are fabulous. I love editors, I am an editor, and they are completely necessary in this business. I do think, however, that most aspiring writers would do better with strong beta readers and critique circles first. There's no substitute for building your own self-editing skills.

  3. All excellent points. Before an author hires an editor they need to interview prospective editors to find out what exactly they're getting for their money.

    Crit partners help a lot, but they're still casual readers, so you can't expect them to do all your work for you.

  4. Actually, some of my critique partners have more experience working with fiction than the "professional editor" who makes it to all the local writing groups to promote his business. Now this doesn't mean that every critique partner is has that experience. But sometimes writers would be better off taking writing classes instead of paying someone to do the tough work for them.

    The published authors I know aren't paying for professional editors before submitting their work. They actually are working with beta readers who are casual readers and relying on their own skill to fix the problems. The professional editors seem to get most of their work from new writers.

  5. When I self-published "Wicca Dog", I hired an editor (shameless plug: Have Faith editing). However, I know Faith through my internship through Bards and Sages. She is experienced editing in speculative fiction, since she has edited a lot of their material - both fiction and non-fiction. So, for me, she was a perfect fit. If I self-publish again, I will definitely hire her, or another spec fiction-experienced, editor.

    I would also use my beta reader system and ask for very specific content editing, so that we can be sure a cleaner document arrives at the editor's doorstep.

    Re: Marie's "more experience working with fiction"

    I have a firm rule that I don't hire anyone to represent me or edit me who has less experience than me in my own genre.

  6. Great post, Marie. Not snarky at all - just honest. Thank you.

  7. oops, sorry, I didn't see the "read more" button on original column so may have repeated some of what she said.