Editing is one of those skillsets that many people claim to do well but which few actually do. And while it’s probably the most important service an author can solicit (second only to book cover design), it’s often undervalued. Furthermore, most authors have no idea how to assess an editor’s work, and the result can be catastrophic, ranging from an editor who introduces new errors to an editor who changes the intention of your writing.
Book editing is both subjective and not. There are rules, and yet the rules of writing are often intentionally broken. You want to find someone who knows the rules, who will fix the writing, and who’s flexible enough to know that voice is sacrosanct, and that editing out colloquialisms, slang, and humor is a no-no (unless it’s overdone or not working, that is).
What Kind of Author Will You Be in Edit?
Before we explore what you ought to be looking and asking for when you hire an editor, let’s talk about you, the author of the work, for a moment. On the one side are authors who, in response to an editorial query questioning the reason a particular scene was included, immediately suggest ditching the whole thing. On the other side are authors who will fight editors to retain even the slightest word changes. Before you embark on an editorial journey, ask yourself which side you fall on, and then own this truth and be willing to share it with the person you hire.
What Kind of Edit Do You Need?
There are different levels of editing—developmental, copyediting, and proofreading. I’ve found that authors are often willing to pay good money for a developmental editor, someone who walks by their side and helps to shape the book, but when it comes to copyediting and proofreading, especially if and when an author has had a developmental editor, suspicion arises as to the value or merit of these more drilled-down types of edits. Don’t let this be a blind spot; they’re important—on par with a developmental edit for sure.
To stand out from the crowd, you have to have as flawless a book as you’re capable of producing. And while typos are pretty much par for the course, it’s poor grammar on the sentence level, plot gaps, character inconsistencies, confusing structures, lazy writing, and egregious errors that will ding you with reviewers, not a typo or two.
When You Hire an Editor, Consider the Following:
1. Determine what you need while also being flexible.
You might hire someone for a proofread, but let the editor know that you’re open to hearing from him or her if the work needs a heavier edit. The editor would need to present you with evidence in the form of sample pages that showcase what’s needed—and your job is to make sure you agree. You want to feel like an editor’s edits are polishing your work and making it shine. If you feel dread or anger, or even if you feel misunderstood, it’s likely not a good fit. At the very least you want to share your reactions with the editor so they can respond or change course.
2. Share any insight into your level of attachment to your writing.
If you know you are sensitive to changes, or that you only want edits that correct what’s wrong (and not subjective edits beyond that), tell the editor so. This kind of information is invaluable, and will prevent frustrations and misunderstandings. That said, don’t suggest this if you’re open to your work being better. Editors will bring your work to a whole other level if you’re able to loosen your grip on any notion that your creative expression is under attack when an editor makes changes to your work. The most successful authors are edited multiple times over.
3. Hire your editor for a two- to five-hour trial edit.
I implemented this way of working years ago and see how empowering it is for authors, and helpful for editors to boot. This doesn’t mean you’re asking your editor to do a free sample edit. (I discourage editors from doing this and caution authors who push for it as asking editors to work for free before you hire them may result in resentment.) Paying an editor for a few hours of their time to ascertain whether they’re a good fit for you is a great way to put your toe in the pond before submerging yourself. You can then see for yourself if the editor’s suggestions and comments resonate before moving forward with the whole project.
4. Be open to having your work assigned.
Lots of authors I know have a hard time finding an editor because they feel that they want to “know” their editor. This is understandable when you’re entering into a developmental relationship, but copyediting and proofreading are much more technical skills. The best copyeditors and proofreaders I know are freelancers who are hard to find because they’re working for publishing houses, and the only people who have access to them are companies and/or individuals with stables of editors they’ve cultivated over years in the industry. If you find a service (or individual) you trust with access to a stable of editors, be open to being assigned to one. Ask about the individual’s qualifications, and what other books they’ve edited, but let the trial edit be the deciding factor rather than any connection you hoped to have between yourself and your editor.
5. Check your expectations around cost.
Editors’ fees vary so drastically that authors are often (rightfully) confused about how much to pay. I’ve seen copyediting fees that range from $20/hour to $300/hour. That said, I’ve seen plenty of authors pay $20/hour for a poorly executed copyedit that needed to be redone. I know one author who paid $200/hour for a copyeditor who’d worked on a famous best-seller, operating under the false assumption that a good copyedit would be their ticket to best-seller status. That didn’t happen. Get a few bids and consider paying a couple different editors for two hours of their work and compare. It’s important to judge the work rather than the fee. Consider this investment as research rather than money wasted.