What Editors Do
When Do You Need an Independent Editor?
What Editing Can’t Buy
Literary Consultancies and Manuscript Assessment Services
Vetting Editors and Editing Services
Warning Signs

What Editors Do

An independent or freelance editor, sometimes called a book doctor, is someone who, for a fee, will undertake to read and edit your manuscript for structure, style, plot, character development, continuity, and grammatical and technical errors.

What’s the difference between an independent editor and an in-house editor (an editor employed by a publishing company)?

  • An in-house editor works with authors on a publisher’s behalf, editing books prior to publication. She edits to her own taste but also to the publisher’s standards. Any book acquired by a reputable publisher will be edited in-house. Editing is part of the publication process–the author should not be charged for it.
  • An independent editor is an independent contractor working directly for, and paid by, the author. What kind of editing is done, and how extensive  it is, is entirely up to the author.

Most independent editors offer different levels of editing. These may include:

  • Manuscript assessment or critique. A broad overall assessment of your manuscript, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses. Specific problem areas may be flagged, and general suggestions for improvement may be made, but a critique won’t usually provide line editing or scene-by-scene advice on revision.
  • Developmental editing (also known as content or substantive editing) focuses on structure, style, and content. The editor flags specific problems–structural difficulties, poor pacing, plot or thematic inconsistencies, stiff dialogue, undeveloped characters, stylistic troubles, flabby writing. The editor him/herself may rewrite the ms. to fix these problems, or may provide notations and detailed advice so the author can address them.
  • Line editing. Editing at the sentence level, focusing on paragraph and sentence structure, word use, dialogue rhythms, etc., with the aim of creating a smooth prose flow.
  • Copy editing. Correction of common errors (grammar, spelling, punctuation), incorrect usages, logic lapses, and continuity problems.
  • Proofreading. Checking for typos, spelling/punctuation errors, formatting mistakes, and other minor mechanical problems.

Editing terminology is fluid. Some editors define the above terms differently, or use different terminology. Others simply provide “light”, “medium”, and “heavy” editing–light being on the order of copy editing, medium and heavy being some combination of line and content editing. It’s important, before hiring an editor, that you’re clear on exactly what services s/he provides.

For more detail on the differences between developmental and copy editing, see this informative blog post from an independent editor.

When Do You Need an Independent Editor?

Hiring an independent editor can be an expensive proposition. A thorough content edit from an experienced, credentialed editor can cost four or even five figures. Is this an expense you really need to incur?

If you’re self-publishing, and are serious about building a readership, I think the answer is “yes.” As the self-publishing field matures, it’s becoming ever-more crowded and competitive, and  if you want to stand out and give good value to readers, it’s essential that you present a professional product. Editing and copy editing are an important part of that.

A qualified independent editor may also be a good investment if you’re not a professional writer but have written a nonfiction book on a subject in which you’re an expert, and want to submit it for traditional publication. If your concept is marketable, an editor may make the difference between publishable and not.

Or perhaps you’ve been submitting your polished manuscript to literary agents for some time and are getting positive comments, but still racking up rejections. Something’s wrong, and you aren’t quite sure what–or the rejections all seem to identify the same problems. A good independent editor may be able to help.

If you’re just starting to submit for publication, though, or are self-publishing but don’t care about starting a career, the benefits are less clear. Before you pull out your wallet, investigate alternatives–a friend who’s not afraid to criticize, a local writers’ group or critique circle, an online writers’ group, a creative writing course or teacher, a professional writer with whom you’re acquainted. Any of these may be able to give you the help you need, free of charge or at a fraction of the cost. (You should be seeking such sources of feedback anyway–no writer is capable of being completely objective about his or her work, and outside viewpoints can be very helpful.)

Whatever your situation, hiring an independent editor shouldn’t be like taking your car to a mechanic (i.e., you go away for two hours and when you come back your car is fixed). You’ll get the most out of your experience if you treat it as a learning opportunity–a chance to hone and improve your own editing skills. Self-editing is an essential part of the writer’s craft; if you’re really serious about a writing career, it’s something you need to master. In fact, investing in a writing course, or joining a critique group, may be a much better initial investment for a new writer than springing for an editor.

There’s more on the vital importance of self-editing at Writer Beware’s blog.

What Editing Can’t Buy

When considering hiring an independent editor, keep your expectations realistic. There are things even the best editor can’t do for you.

Provide a magic fix.

Editing is a subjective process. There’s no set formula for dynamic plots or well-rounded characters or even good prose style (beware of any editor who tells you there is). And even the most accomplished editor can’t turn a bad manuscript into a good one, or a mediocre manuscript into a blockbuster.  They can only work with what’s already there.

Editor Jane Friedman makes the same point, in a slightly different way: “Writers must have a level of sophistication and knowledge about their work (or themselves!) to know where their weaknesses are, and how a professional might assist them. When writers ask me if they should hire a professional editor, it’s usually out of a vague fear their work isn’t good enough—and they think it can be ‘fixed.’ There are many different types or levels of editing, and if you don’t know what they are—or what kind you need—then you’re not ready for a professional editor.”

Turn a good book into a potential best seller.

Again, there are no formulas for this. Best sellers come in all shapes and sizes, and even publishers are sometimes surprised when best sellerdom occurs (and when it doesn’t). Only a dishonest editor will make such a promise.

Ensure a traditional publishing contract.

Good editing may improve your manuscript, but getting an offer of publication depends on more than just the quality of your work. Effective targeting of your submissions, editors’ judgment of readers’ tastes, the perceived marketability of your book, and what the publisher is already publishing all play a part.

An excellent, polished manuscript is essential, but it’s just one piece of the total picture. There are no guarantees.

Make literary agents and in-house editors more likely to look at your work.

Agents and in-house editors know the limitations of editing. They’re also well aware of how many under-qualified and unscrupulous independent editors there are. Typing “professionally edited” on the title page of your manuscript, or mentioning it in a cover letter, will not improve your chances. In fact, it may harm them–there are so many unqualified editors that agents and publishers may assume you’ve been duped.

Even if your editor is top-notch, agents and publishers may be put off–they may fear that the editing covers up weaknesses that could be a problem later on. As literary agent Denise Little explains, it’s a lot easier to work with a writer who can deliver a publishable manuscript without depending on outside help.

For more on these and other myths about editors and editing, see this informative article by editor Nancy Pesce: 7 Common Myths About Hiring a Freelance Editor.

Literary Consultancies and Manuscript Assessment Services

Common in the UK and Australia (though not in the USA), literary consultancies and manuscript assessors provide critique services, focusing on strengths and weaknesses and offering suggestions for improvement. Some also promise to evaluate the marketability of your work, and give you advice on where and how to submit it. The more established services may have contacts with literary agents and publishers, enabling them to pass on promising manuscripts.

Assuming that the staff of the service are qualified (and this is not necessarily a safe assumption–see the suggestions below on how to judge a service’s competence), writers may benefit from a thorough manuscript critique. Suggestions on where to submit can also be helpful (though these should always be supplemented with your own research, for the widest range of options), as can the better services’ industry contacts (though it’s likely that these benefit only a small minority of writers, since to maintain their credibility, the services must be selective with agent/publisher recommendations).

Another possible bonus: consultancies and assessment services can be less expensive than independent editors, and may have quicker turnaround times.

Marketability evaluations, however, are of doubtful usefulness, and not just because they depend at least in part on subjective factors. No marketability evaluation can take account of the many related issues that affect the publication process–editorial taste, publishers’ needs, what the publisher bought yesterday (it might have been a book very much like yours, which means that even if your book is better, it’s out of the running). Ultimately, the only opinions about marketability that count are those of the agent who signs you for representation, or the editor who buys your book. The only way to determine those opinions is to submit your work for publication.

Some consultancies or assessment services may encourage you to believe that agents and publishers give priority to assessed manuscripts. Be skeptical of such claims. A number of UK and Australian publishers’ websites do suggest that writers seek out assessment services to help hone their manuscripts–but this doesn’t mean that these publishers give priority to assessed submissions. A 2007 survey conducted by the Queensland (Australia) Writing Centre found that few writers who’d used assessment services had been able to gain representation or publication. And an earlier survey (quoted in the 2007 survey) found that attaching an assessment to a submission had little effect on publication.

Also in 2007, Writer Beware contacted a number of UK agents, all members of the Association of Authors’ Agents, to learn their opinions of consultancies and assessment services. Most agreed that the better consultancies could help writers improve their manuscripts (though some expressed concerns about the possibility of high fees), but they were unanimous in responding that they prefer to make their own assessments, rather than relying on others’ opinions, and would not give preference to assessed submissions.

The bottom line: If you choose to use a consultancy or an assessment service, do so because you want to improve your writing, not because you hope to make contacts in the publishing world. Remember that even the most positive assessment may not mean that an agent or publisher will be willing to take you on. And be sure to carefully research any consultancy or assessment service you’re thinking of approaching, to be sure its staff are qualified.

Vetting Editors and Editing Services

There are plenty of expert independent editors and manuscript assessment services. However, there are also many who set up shop with little experience and few qualifications.

The boom in self-publishing has vastly increased the number of these. Many are entirely well-meaning, sincerely believing that a love of reading, or a teaching career, or some technical writing experience, is enough to qualify them to edit manuscripts. But such people rarely possess the specialized skills, not to mention the industry knowledge, needed for a useful critique or a professional-quality line or content edit. They may not be able to properly judge your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses for the marketplace, or they may have strange ideas about what constitutes good writing. They may not even be fully literate.

Other services are outright frauds–Edit Ink, for instance, an editing firm that engaged in a kickback scheme with agents and publishers and employed underqualified staff to perform rudimentary, overpriced edits. (For an in-depth look at Edit Ink, see the Case Studies page.)

How to avoid unqualified or questionable editors and editing services? A few common-sense guidelines:

Be sure the editor or manuscript assessor is qualified.

You’re looking for professional editing experience (preferably with a reputable traditional publisher) and/or professional writing credentials (legitimately-published books, articles, etc.). If the editor has a website, a resume or CV should be posted there. An editing or assessment service should post staff names and biographies.

Be extremely cautious of editors whose websites say nothing about their credentials, and of editing or assessment services that don’t identify their staff.

For individual editors, membership in the Editorial Freelancers Association (US), the Society of Freelance Editors and Proofreaders (UK), the Institute of Professional Editors (Australia), or the Editors’ Association of Canada are all indications of professionalism. (The websites of these organizations provide a lot of helpful information, including sample agreements and charts of recommended rates–see the Links section, below). In New Zealand, the New Zealand Association of Manuscript Assessors is a professional body specifically for assessment services.

Look for success stories.

Commercially published books indicate professional expertise and standing, though an increasing number of good independent editors specialize in self-published authors (if that’s the case, try to get hold of one or more of the books so you can assess quality). Again, if the editor or service has a website, the information should be available there. If not, ask–and be wary if you have trouble getting an answer.

Be sure the editor or assessor has experience appropriate to your work.

Good editors and assessors specialize. Someone whose main experience involves nonfiction is probably not the ideal choice for your epic fantasy novel.

Verify that the editor or assessor really is independent.

No third party (such as a literary agent or publisher) should benefit from your use of the editor’s or assessor’s services. This is especially important if you’ve received a referral.

Get references, and use them.

Other than a recommendation from someone you trust, it’s probably your best way to judge professionalism.

Ask to see a sample critique or assessment.

Not all editors will be willing to provide this, but if they do, it’ll give you an idea of what you’ll be getting for your money.

Before making a final commitment, speak or correspond with the editor or assessor.

You want to be sure the person you’ll be working with understands your needs, and that you understand what they will do for you. You also need to feel comfortable with the editor or assessor, and s/he with you. Be very wary of editorial services that won’t identify the editor you’ll be working with.

Make sure the business arrangements are clear.

You should know exactly what you’ll be paying for, including the scope of the work to be done, the charges you’ll incur, the time period involved, and who will be doing the editing or assessing. Ideally, obtain a contract or a letter of agreement that covers all these areas.

Warning Signs

Be wary if you encounter any of the following.

A referral from a literary agent or publisher.

This is not necessarily questionable. Reputable agents do sometimes suggest that writers consider hiring independent editors–usually for projects they believe may be marketable, but need work the author may not be able to provide. They’ll often recommend a few names, qualified editors they’ve previously worked with and trust to do a good job.

You should always think carefully about such a recommendation, though, because it’s an expensive gamble that may not pay off. And be on your guard if the recommendation comes from a publisher (publishers provide their own editing at no charge), or from an agent who doesn’t have much of a track record or charges fees. Some sort of kickback arrangement may be involved, a la Edit Ink, or the agent or publisher may own the editing service (possibly under a different name).

Recommendation of a publisher’s or agent’s own paid editing or assessment services.

This is a clear conflict of interest. If the agent or publisher can make money from selling you editing or critiques, how can you be sure that the recommendation is in your best interest?

Editing or assessment as a requirement of representation or submission.

Some questionable literary agencies require you to buy a critique as a condition of representation. Some dubious publishers make you purchase an assessment as part of the submission process. Again, this is a conflict of interest, allowing the agency or publisher to increase its profit margin by charging you for extra services–which may or may not be of professional quality.

Extravagant praise or promises.

No reputable editor or assessor will tell you that your book has huge commercial potential or that it’s likely to become a best seller. Nor will they claim that an edit or assessment will make agency representation more likely, or improve your chances of selling to a major publisher. Why? Because these are promises that can’t be guaranteed, and a good editor or assessor, like a good agent, knows better than to make them.

Assurances that agents and publishers prefer manuscripts that have been professionally edited.

Dishonest or ignorant independent editors often prey on the anxieties of aspiring writers by saying that agents and publishers give preference to manuscripts that have been professionally edited. In-house editors, they say, no longer have the time to edit–they want books that are letter-perfect and ready to publish, and it’s impossible for authors to get their manuscripts to that point on their own.

This is false on two counts. First, as noted above, there are many resources other than paying for editing that can help you get your manuscript into marketable shape–critique groups, colleagues, writing courses (and don’t forget the importance of being able to self-edit). Most writers do not use independent editors.

Second, it’s true that in today’s world of big publishing conglomerates, where in-house editors must handle enormous workloads and do double duty as administrators, the days when an editor could afford to invest months working with an author to shape a promising but not-quite-ready manuscript are largely gone. But it’s false to say that in-house editors don’t edit (they do), or that professional editing is a prerequisite for publication (it isn’t), or even that the name of an editing service on a manuscript will make a publisher more likely to read it (it won’t. See above).

Your manuscript needs to be as perfect as you can make it–finished, polished, and properly presented. But no one will hold it against you if you accomplish that yourself.

One-size-fits-all editing or assessing, all comers accepted.

Expert editors and assessors have areas of specialization that reflect their experience. The skills required to edit or critique a romance novel, for instance, are quite different from those needed for a work of narrative nonfiction. That’s not to say a single editor or assessor won’t possess both skill sets–but it’s unlikely that one person will be able to edit any and all subjects and genres with equal effectiveness.

Also, within the basic scope of services s/he provides, a good editor or assessor will tailor the job to the client–including asking for a sample of your work ahead of time to make sure it’s something she can work with (good editors do turn down jobs). Standardized services and a lack of specialization suggest a lack of professional knowledge and/or experience.

Anonymous editing or assessing.

Some editing and assessment services don’t post staff resumes on their websites, and don’t tell you in advance who will be assigned to you. This makes it impossible for you to verify the credentials of the person you’ll be working with, or to ensure that he or she has experience appropriate to your work.

Direct solicitation.

Independent editors or assessors may maintain websites or advertise in industry journals. But they don’t cold-call writers. If you’ve registered your copyright or subscribe to a writer’s magazine, you may be a target: disreputable people sometimes purchase mailing lists from these sources.

Refusal of reasonable requests for information.

Like a reputable agent, a reputable editor or assessor should have no problem providing a resume, references, and samples of her work. Be wary if you encounter resistance in any of these areas.

Vagueness about specific services.

An editor or assessor should be willing to say exactly what he will do for you. If an editor or assessor won’t give you a firm price, or doesn’t want to specify what your fees will cover, or won’t tell you exactly who will be working on your manuscript, move on.


Professional Resources

  • The Institute of Professional Editors Limited is the professional editors’ association in Australia. Its website includes the Australian Standards for Editing Practice, which identify and define the knowledge and skills expected of experienced Australian editors. The Institute offers an accreditation program for Australian editors.

General Information

  • Should you pay someone to edit your work? This blog post from former literary agent Nathan Bransford offers common-sense advice from the perspective of traditional publishing (the comments are helpful too).
  • If you’re submitting for traditional publication, should you hire an editor, and if you do, should you mention it in your query letter? Editor Jane Friedman blogs about why you may want to think twice, on both counts.
  • Conducted in 2007 for the Queensland Writers’ Centre (Australia), this survey of writers’ experiences with manuscript assessment services highlights the pros (professional and manuscript development for aspiring authors) and cons (dubious operators, little correlation between positive assessments and obtaining an agent or publisher) of these services.
  • A fraudulent editing service: Edit Ink.

Alternatives to Editing and Assessment Services

  • An old but excellent series of articles on critiquing and writers’ critique groups, by children’s author Margot Finke. Oriented toward children’s writers, but includes advice that any writer should find useful.

Links checked/page updated 11/11/13

Except for graphics, and where specifically indicated, all Writer Beware® contents copyright © 1998-2013 Victoria Strauss