How to Find an Editor for Your Book: 5 Crucial Questions to Ask

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After self-editing your manuscript as best you can, it’s time to start looking for an editor.

You want someone who will give your book the best shot possible, but how can you make sure you select the right person?

There’s a big difference between editors who point out your weaknesses and come up with solutions, versus those who give general advice that doesn’t go anywhere. One author who kept getting generic feedback from editors that amounted to, “It’s good, keep writing,” ended up with a 215,000-word tome. The weary man finally found an editor who was able to show him how to cut the manuscript in half and tighten the plot.

Working with the wrong editor isn’t just a costly financial mistake, it’s demoralizing to put so much effort into a book and not feel good about the result. You want your narrative to live up to your expectations.

The right editor’s advice should help you achieve that. His feedback will make perfect sense to you, and the results will be true to your voice and your story.

To find this magical unicorn of an editor, here are five questions to ask and red flags to look out for.

1. Which publishers has the editor worked for?

Every editor you consider will have a list of books she’s edited — if she doesn’t, run the other way. This makes it seem like she’s experienced, but you need to take a closer look.

Are they all self-published titles?

There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing as an author (in fact, it’s the future of publishing), but there’s something wrong with being an editor who has only worked on self-published titles — it can be a red flag that she’s only ever worked as a freelance editor.

People don’t become editors by waking up one morning and saying, “I’ve read a lot of books, some good some bad… I was an English major… I need a job, so…”

The title of an editor is earned. It takes three years at a publisher before you can edit your own books. Editing is a skill that comes from working with experts — other editors — for years. People who have only freelanced likely never had the opportunity to be guided and mentored by editors.

The second issue with freelancers is they often don’t know what works in the marketplace. Traditional editors have acquired books from agents and published them. They understand the market, and they know what it takes to make something salable.

“It’s important to know the editor’s credentials in the publishing industry, to know that they know what works in the marketplace,” says Chelsea Lindman, an agent at Greenburger Associates.

This is crucial for authors planning to self-publish, too. These editors know what it takes to make a book appealing to readers, no matter how it’s published.

When you look through the editor’s booklist, check to see which books were published traditionally. Ask the editor if she’s ever worked for a publisher.

2. Is he an editor or a copyeditor?

If an editor tells you he edits and copyedits, consider that a red flag. Editors and copyeditors have different backgrounds, credentials and roles.

An editor will address your creative content, writing style and language use. He’ll focus on the way you communicate your story. A copyeditor is more technical. He makes sure your spelling, grammar, punctuation and syntax is in accordance with industry standards. (He also looks out for internal consistencies and fact-checks your work.)

There is some overlap between the work of a general editor and a copyeditor, since editors will fix some grammar and inconsistencies, but it’s not the specific purpose of an edit. A copyeditor has a rule-based understanding of the Chicago Manual of Style, which your editor doesn’t.

When you’re presented with an editor’s booklist, make sure you ask whether these books were copyedited or edited. If they were copyedited, you’re not dealing with an actual editor.

3. How many authors does the editor work with in a given month?

Editing is a time-intensive process. Your editor will carefully read your manuscript, sometimes more than once, and make notes along the way. She’ll take time to think about the weaknesses in the work and come up with accurate, successful solutions.

Experienced editors won’t accept more than two or three books per month, depending on the length and type of edit. If the editor you’re considering is juggling seven to 10 books per month, she doesn’t have the time to be thorough or thoughtful.

4. What’s the editor’s approximate quote?

Compare the editor’s quote to the standard rates from the Editorial Freelancers Association or from other published rate guides. If your editor’s quote is high, compare his experience to the other quotes you’ve received. Editors with many New York Times bestsellers who are in high demand will ask for higher rates.

However, it’s not uncommon to find an experienced editor at the standard rate.

If the rate is low, once again look closely at the editor’s booklist. Usually, this is a sign of inexperience. If you consider working with the editor, ask for references from his publisher and clients.

5. Can you get a trial edit?

Beyond experience, you want to find an editor who’s the right fit for your story. You want to know if you’d agree with her feedback and line edits.

To find out, ask the editor if she would be willing to do a trial edit, a short edit that may only cover 10 pages. The editor won’t know enough about your story to give you her authoritative opinion, but she’ll know just enough to show you what her thoughts look like.

It’s also ideal if a quick phone call is included in the trial, to make sure you have a good rapport. A trial edit is an inexpensive way to see if you’re partnering up with the right editor before you commit to a full edit.

The process of finding the right editor may seem like a slog, but it’s worth it. The rewards of working with the right person are legion.

Not only will a good editor raise the appeal of your manuscript, but more importantly, she will make you a better writer.

If you found a great editor for your work, how did you know he was the one? If you’re looking ahead, what questions do you have about the process?

Looking for an editor for your fiction or nonfiction manuscript? NY Book Editors can help connect you with the right editor for your story.

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Natasa Lekic is CEO and Founder of NY Book Editors, a concierge editing service. We help first-time authors connect with experienced editors from the major publishers.... .

NY Book Editors | @nybookeditors

Traveler and blogger Chris Guillebeau

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Comments

  1. Your article came at the exact moment I’m shopping for an editor for my manuscript. The editor I worked with on a previous MS was referred to me and isn’t available so I’m shopping for a different one, which has been a real nail-biter. Your tips provide me with some structure for this critical shopping expedition. Thank you!

  2. Glad to hear the article arrived at exactly the right time! If you end up considering a couple of editors, the trial edit will probably be the best tie-breaker.

  3. As a freelance editor, I would like to express my strong disagreement with the idea that a freelance editor must work as an employee of a publisher for three years to be any good. In my field, spirituality, many publishers have gone to having most editorial tasks beyond acquisitions performed by freelancers, so the in-house positions being held out here as a prerequisite for freelancing simply don’t exist; many editors must cut our teeth as freelancers. It also occurs to me that self-published authors usually bristle at the idea that they are not “real” authors unless their work is accepted by a commercial publishing house. Is it fair to apply this standard to the people they propose to employ as editors?

    Moreover, the casual distinction between a (developmental) “editor” and a “copyeditor” can be a bit simplistic, particularly in a self-publication or even vanity-publishing context. A self-published author may barely have the budget to hire one editor, so that editor needs to be able and willing to blur the lines between developmental editing and copyediting. The editor must also be accustomed to working with authors of a variety of strengths and weaknesses, including many whose work would not, in fact, have been accepted by a commercial publishing house in its current form. I have come to take great satisfaction in taking a new or newish author by the hand and helping them find ways of making their work the best it can be. Of necessity, this must include line-by-line correction of grammar and style (often a surprisingly great amount of such correction), but can rarely be limited to that.

    I urge authors to take the time necessary to choose the editor that is right for them, not to internalize an excessively rigid (perhaps even snobbish) set of prerequisites.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • Hi Trish,

      While some editors who have only freelanced may be excellent, it’s hard for new authors to evaluate their work.

      The chances of finding a good editor rise dramatically if authors pay attention to traditional experience. The freelancers that major publishers use have that experience.

      You also said it’s not fair for self-publishing authors to apply those standards to editors when they don’t work with publishers themselves. It’s one thing for authors to have the right to publish their work and make it available for readers to judge its merits, and quite another for someone to ask those authors to invest in them for their expertise.

      An edit requires a substantial investment, many times greater than the cost of a book. Editors who spent years as assistants, learning the craft of editing and acquiring the knowledge of how to guide authors, are a safer choice. Their track record speaks for itself; editors at this level have bestsellers and award winners in both the traditional and the self-publishing space.

      The other point you made was about line edits and copyedits. During a line edit, you’re right, editors tend to fix a lot of copyediting issues. (See the link about the overlap.) If the author is on a budget, the line edit is certainly sufficient.

      In fact, agents who assume their author will need a copyedit, end up changing their mind once they see the line edit. A detailed line edit is enough to help sell the manuscript and to self-publish.

      The problem with some freelance editors who edit and copyedit is that they’re basically doing a copyedit — and charging for an edit. The worst part is, a copyedit shouldn’t be done on a rough draft. You need to deal with weaknesses in the narrative, make cuts, revise the prose, before the grammar or consistency issues are addressed.

      Given budgetary restraints, I understand that you do as much as you can for your authors. However, if most of your time is spent copyediting, it’s worth asking whether the author would be better served if you explained that their manuscript isn’t ready for an edit.

      You can suggest books that will help them self-edit, and get to the point at which an investment in an edit makes sense.

      • I don’t wish to turn this into a public argument, because I think professionals should be supportive of one another, even when they disagree on details or serve different niches, but your words could take food out of my mouth, and I cannot leave them unanswered.

        You draw distinctions that use idiosyncratic definitions of some fairly standard terms. For example, Chicago defines the terms “manuscript editing,” “line editing,” and “copyediting” as synonymous with each other, and none of them as synonymous with “mechanical editing,” although that is one element of them. Certainly, I agree that an author has a right to expect more than merely mechanical editing unless that is specifically what they have requested. However, I cannot agree that the only route into competent and appropriate freelance editing is internal employment within a publishing house, and that the only clients who should be counted as a relevant part of a freelance editor’s curriculum vitae are those who are traditionally published.

        Of course, my c.v. does include traditionally published books, but in those cases, I was hired (yes, on a freelance basis, which you would not “count”) by the publisher rather than by the author. The reason my marketing to authors instead emphasizes my experience with self-published and even vanity press authors is because working with a publisher is different from working directly with an author, particularly with an author who has made a conscious choice not to be traditionally published. Some might even say that working within a publishing house provides less preparation for working with self-published authors than does working with other self-published authors. I, however, would not go so far as to say that, because I really do believe we can come to our profession by different paths, just as people can come to writing by different paths.

        I do think that self-published authors would have a right to feel a little insulted at being told that the experience of working on their book will not “count” for as much on their carefully chosen editor’s c.v. as the work that editor has done on traditionally published books.

        In the end, each author must decide what he or she is looking for in an editor. That includes not only what tasks will be performed and what background the editor will have, but also what attitude the editor has acquired toward authors in their own situation.

        There is room for both of us, and for the authors who prefer each of us. I wish you well in your work, and I wish your clients success in their writing and publishing goals, whatever they may be. I would feel more comfortable if you could wish the same to me and my clients, but you must do as you think best, as must I.

        Trish O’Connor, MDiv
        Epiclesis Consulting LLC
        “Enhancing Spiritual Communication”
        epiclesisconsulting.com

        • Authors can google ‘editing vs. copyediting’ for a better understanding of this discussion. Sources like Nathan Bransford’s blog are reliable:

          http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/07/editing-vs-copyediting.html

          At NY Book Editors, we hear from authors such as Chee Kian:

          “My manuscript was edited four times before it came to NY Book Editors. The comments made by Dan helped me realize I was heading in the wrong direction entirely. After Dan’s two rounds of line editing, I finally feel that I have achieved what I wanted to accomplish in this book.”

          And Sean Dow:

          “I loved William’s suggestions and wish I would have used him for previous novels–the best edit I’ve had.”

          Most authors can see the difference that veteran editors bring to the work. Dan, for example, is a Senior Editor at W.W. Norton, William was an Editor at Little, Brown.

          We’ve considered working with countless freelancers who apply to NY Book Editors. To date, everyone who meets our high standards has worked in the industry.

          This doesn’t mean there aren’t excellent freelancers out there. However, given our experience, this is the best advice I can provide to authors.

          Of course I wish you and your authors continued success.

    • I’m in need of an editor for the children’s book that I wrote and I’m not sure how’d to do so! I love really close to Tampa fl and in search for one! Any ideas?

      • Congratulations on completing the first draft of your book, Justin!

        First of all, I would suggest that location is the least important issue in selecting a freelance editor. In these days of electronic communication, many authors never even talk to their editor on the telephone, let alone meet him or her face to face.

        You can get to know enough about an editor to get a sense of whether you will be a good “fit” by first browsing their website. If the website lists testimonials, take a look at the kind of books (s)he has edited. If you can contact some of the former clients, ask what it was like to work with that editor.

        When you’ve found someone who seems like a decent candidate so far, make first contact. (The contact form on the website is fine as a first step.) Introduce yourself and state what you are looking for (a developmental critique, copyediting, etc.). Give a very brief description of your project, including its genre and approximate length. Give an idea of your planned next step and any deadlines (even if only approximate ones). For example, have you already signed a contract with a subsidy press for publication next fall? Are you planning to submit the manuscript to publishers and/or literary agents after editing?

        Conclude by asking the editor if this is the type of project (s)he might like to be involved in and, if so, how long it would take to prepare an estimate of both the money and time editing will require. Offer to send your manuscript or, if the editor prefers, a sample from it.

        Along with the estimate, the editor should be able to provide you with a short sample of how (s)he would improve your work. Your communications during this process will also help you get a feel for whether you and the editor will be able to work well together.

        Don’t be surprised if the estimate comes back higher than you budgeted; it is common for first-time authors to underestimate the cost of professional editing. If you believe a particular professional is the right editor for you, inquire about any payment plans (s)he may be able to offer.

        Best wishes as you embark on this project!

        Trish O’Connor
        Epiclesis Consulting LLC
        Freelance Editorial Services
        http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com

  4. As one person who “woke up and decided since I’m published and an English major, I should be an editor,” I can see your point of being only one type of editor. I’m not a good copyeditor at all and don’t offer my services for that situation. It’s funny that you would say a traditionally published type editor would be better than the independently published editor. I found this to be totally untrue since I have worked with both. My traditional editors from St. Martins Press and Bantam books working a total of 35 years in the industry, was the worst editor of all. My independently published editor/book coach, is the most knowledgeable. So there is a bit of a disparage. It’s not an absolute science, editing.

    But being prepared before hanging my shingle is very important and thanks for pointing that out.

    • Hi Carol,

      You’re right, there are always exceptions.

      At New York Book Editors, we’ve interviewed at least a hundred freelancers who have never worked for a publisher. We ended up working with one of those editors.

      It worked out for you, but statistically speaking, we’ve seen that there aren’t many exemplary editors who have never been hired by a professional publisher.

    • Carol, welcome to the editing profession! I believe you will find most of your fellow-freelancers welcoming and supportive to you and one another as we serve our diverse clients with diverse skills.

      Most authors who have learned to trust their instincts are savvy enough to choose the editor who is right for them.

      Trish O’Connor, MDiv
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      “Enhancing Spiritual Communication”
      epiclesisconsulting.com

      • Trish – I agree with your replies to this article and Carol, I agree with your comments too. And while I disagree with some of Natasa’s points, a sample edit is definitely good advice, not only for the writer, but also for the editor to ascertain what type of editing is needed. Many new, inexperienced writers still ask for a ‘proofread’, only to discover what they actually need is a developmental edit. I also agree with Natasa’s point that a good rapport is crucial. As to the suggestion that an editor shouldn’t be working on seven to 10 books per month, well, I never work on more than two (although I do fit in other small projects for regular business clients – they break up the working day and help me to refocus). I don’t know how anyone could work on such a large volume of books effectively — or at all — unless they were very short books!

        • Carol, I agree with the exact same points you do! I always edit a sample before giving an estimate of both time and fee, and of course, rapport is absolutely essential.

          As for multitasking, believe it or not, I try to schedule so that I am only working actively on one book at a time. Research keeps showing that “multitasking” is actually less efficient, because of the time lost to leaving behind one task to restart another. (Think of it this way: If you take on two clients at once for work that would take one week each with your full attention, either you can tell both clients the work will be done in three weeks because you’ll be alternating between them, or tell one client it will be done in one week and one that it will be done in two weeks, because you’ll complete one before you start on the other. Which of those makes more sense?) Obviously, with back-and-forth communications, sometimes complete “monotasking” is impossible, but I think it should be considered the ideal.

          (By the way, isn’t it a scary commentary on our society that “multitasking” has become a real spellcheckable word and “monotasking” hasn’t?)

          Trish O’Connor, MDiv
          Epiclesis Consulting LLC
          Freelance Editorial Services
          epiclesisconsulting.com

  5. Thabo Wells says:

    Hey, I’m matric and starting out in the world, I was thinking of getting a job in the editing,publishing business. Can you give me some advice on what to look out for in this career option.

  6. Katelyn Hadley says:

    As a wanna-be writer, I have found the article above quite informative and refreshing. I have also learned quite a few things from the earnest discussions I have read. Having said these things, I would now like to turn to my question:

    What are the chances of having a book accepted to be edited and published if the writer is under the age of 18?

  7. I’m a first time writer. Today I’m about 60% done with a “novel” (a thinly disguised autobiographical account of finding romance and starting a family during the Viet Nam war). I believe that hiring a developmental editor at this time would help me complete the work in a better ‘voice’, ultimately saving time and money. The alternative would be to finish the work as this column advises before submitting for edit.
    I’ve had friends review it, making enthusiastic comments. One friend panned the style. I’d rather learn from a professional.
    Is it unreasonable to expect to learn from the editor’s inputs so that I might finish the work in a better style and voice?
    Thanks

    • Definitely not unreasonable, Frank. However, you have a couple of options. Rather than pay for a full developmental edit on what you have written so far, you can ask the editor to do a manuscript assessment – which includes a detailed written report. An MA is usually done for a fixed price based on the word count. Alternatively, you could ask the editor to do a sample/developmental edit on one chapter only. Using track changes, they can go through and make edits and comments. It’s good that you are already thinking of hiring an editor before you complete the MS. It will help guide you with the other 40% and revisit what you’ve written so far, so that once you are finished, the MS will be in much better shape for the next stage of editing.

      • Excellent advice, Sally!

        In Frank’s situation, I would lean toward the first option of getting a written “developmental critique” or “manuscript assessment.” While a sample edit would be helpful in determining whether this person would eventually be a good choice as an editor, I believe the critique on everything written so far would, for most authors, be the most useful for making course corrections before completing the manuscript.

        Trish O’Connor
        Epiclesis Consulting LLC
        Freelance Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources
        http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
        http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

        • Thanks, all.
          I need to start somewhere.
          I do feel, however, that my meager effort will require someone versed in the genre (if I can ever figure out which genre it would fit best).
          At this point, identifying a developmental resource with experience in this type of subject matter is a hurdle I have no idea how to address.
          It’s a ‘coming of age’ story in a way. The working title is “Finding My Own Heaven, A story of self-guided fulfillment”. pen name Anthony Zell.
          The Vietnam war is on and our protagonist (me) joins the Navy to avoid being drafted. Ordered overseas, he loses his respect for the cultural norms of his parents’ generation regarding sex, marriage, and the war. Tom is on a great adventure. He also loses his virginity at the age of 19 while stationed in Korea. The narrative is full of shocking revelations about the conduct of that war along with sweet and very personal vignettes concerning Tom’s personal life (nothing salacious, no titillating descriptions of the passionate and torrid sex which occurred). Stories and pictures relating to women in three countries who competed for Tom’s affection. The epilogue reveals that Tom is still married to the woman that won him 41 years ago. They have four grandchildren today. Tom (me) has a positive outlook throughout, enjoys all the challenges and relationships, and is still convinced he has achieved his life’s goal of being a dependable husband, father and grandfather.

          Would anyone want to read a story like mine? (other than my children, one of whom has read a draft and is asking me to complete it soon).

          What would the genre be?

          Thank you in advance.

          • Like Sally, I would be happy to take a look at your work so far and see if I can be of help. Based on the outline you give above, I think it might be up my street, because my niche is books concerning whatever gives the author a sense of ultimate meaning. One project I particularly enjoyed was a fictionalized but autobiographical spiritual novel.

            I encourage you to browse my website, epiclesisconsulting.com, and if you feel I might be a good fit, use the Contact link to get in touch with me.

            If neither Sally nor myself feels quite right for you, then I suggest you browse the bookstore or even the public library for books published in the last few years that remind you in some way of yours. Check the Acknowledgments page to see if they thank an editor. If not, see if there is any information to contact the author and ask if they used a freelance editor and if so, would they recommend them.

            No matter whom you choose, I wish you success with this interesting project!

            Trish O’Connor
            Epiclesis Consulting LLC

        • Recently a client asked me to do a sample edit and quote to copyedit his MS, which is a biography of his late grandfather’s career (and exploits) as a senior police officer early last century. When I did a short sample edit (4 pages), I realised there were some pretty major issues with his writing and the structure. So I sent it back with my comments and we discussed doing an MA, which I did. Now he’s working on sections of his MS and then sending them to me (he has poor health so we are doing it in stages). It’s a collaborative effort and we’re enjoying working on it together. If you have a client who is open to working with their editor, their book can become something they are really proud of, and it’s equally satisfying for the editor.

      • Thank you..I don’t mind paying full rate for development edit on 10 pages to see if we can work together.
        How can I find dev editor for autobiographical romance thinly disguised as novel by changing names, during Vietnam war?

  8. One important question not listed here is: exactly what sort of editing do you need?

    Is the MS incomplete and you need the support of a coach or developmental editor? Have you finished it and want to know what to do next – perhaps you need a manuscript assessment? Are you confident that the story is the right shape and you need a copy editor? Do you just need that very final polish before it goes to print?

    The distinctions between different types of editing is nowhere near as clear as Natasa asserts. Different descriptions are available on the websites of the Institute of Professional Editors (Australia) iped-editors.org, Editors Canada editors.ca and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders sfep.org.uk, among others.

  9. I want to thank the author of this article, the people responsible for this website, and the helpful comments I’ve read here, before discontinuing my watching of this thread. I have reached out to several developmental editors through emails and by posting my need for such an editor on the-efa.org. If anyone decides to go that route, the response has been tremendous. Be aware of their policy for posting jobs, though. They require aspiring authors to adhere to the ‘going rates’ shown here: http://the-efa.org/res/rates.php.

    This forum has been most helpful.
    My thanks to all as I discontinue following this thread.

    Frank R. Nichols
    Oceanside, CA

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