What Editors Do
When Do You Need a Freelance Editor?
What Editing Can’t Buy
A Note About Beta Readers
Literary Consultancies and Manuscript Assessment Services
Vetting Editors and Editing Services
Warning Signs

What Editors Do

A freelance or independent editor, sometimes called a book doctor, is someone who, for a fee, will undertake to read your manuscript for structure, style, plot, character development, continuity, and grammatical and technical errors. They may rewrite your ms. to fix problems, or provide notations and detailed advice so you can address them.

What’s the difference between a freelance/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. This is part of the publication process–the author should not be charged for it.
  • A freelance or 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 freelance 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.
  • 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 they provide.

When Do You Need a Freelance Editor?

Hiring a freelance 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.” The self-publishing field is highly competitive, and if you want to stand out, not to mention 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 freelance editor may also be a good investment if you’ve written a nonfiction book on a subject in which you’re an expert, but you aren’t a professional writer. Especially if you’re seeking traditional publication, 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 freelance 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 are essential.)

Whatever your situation, hiring a freelance editor shouldn’t be like taking your car to a mechanic (e.g., 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 a freelance 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 and author 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 freelance 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.

A Note About Beta Readers

No writer can be completely objective about their own work. An outside eye is essential to spot mistakes, inconsistencies, plot holes and other problems the writer may be too close to see. For many writers, that means finding a beta reader: a friend, a colleague, a fellow member of a writing group or online community who’s willing to read the work and offer feedback.

Beta readers aren’t professionals. You don’t hire them, and they don’t charge you any money (though they may ask you to read their manuscript in return). Recently, however, a growing number of freelance editors have started offering “beta reading” services for a fee. In fact, what such services are selling is not beta reading at all, but a paid critique. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long whoever’s providing the service is competent–but associating a term that already has an established meaning with a moneymaking service is at best confusing, and at worst misleading.

If you want to buy a critique, buy a critique. If you want a beta reader, find someone who won’t ask you to haul out your wallet. (For suggestions on how to do that, see this helpful article from author K. M. Weiland.)

Literary Consultancies and Manuscript Assessment Services

Common in the UK and Australia (though not in the USA), literary consultancies and manuscript assessors provide critique and editing 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. For writers looking for traditional publication, suggestions on where to submit can also be helpful, as can the better services’ industry contacts. Using a consultancy or assessment service may also be less expensive than hiring a freelance editor, and may have a quicker turnaround time.

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.

Some consultancies and assessment services 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.

The bottom line: If you choose to use a consultancy or 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 Assessment Services

There are plenty of expert freelance 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 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 it’s much more likely that they don’t possess the specialized skills that are essential for a useful critique or a professional-quality line or content edit. Some provide no more than glorified proofreading or copy editing–things you really should be competent to do yourself, if you’re serious about writing. An inexperienced editor may also be unable to judge your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses for the trade marketplace (very important if you’re planning on seeking traditional publication), or have strange ideas about what constitutes good writing. Some self-styled editors I’ve encountered aren’t even fully literate.

And then there are the 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. In New Zealand, the New Zealand Association of Manuscript Assessors is a professional body specifically for assessment services.

Check out the client and/or book list.

An editor’s or assessment service’s website should include a list of clients and/or books (if not, ask–and be wary if you have trouble getting an answer). Check out excerpts, investigate publishers (you can usually do both on Amazon). Do you see errors? Really bad writing? Dodgy publishers? All are warning signs.

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 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 editors sometimes 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 traditionally-published writers do not use freelance 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 unready 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 they provide, 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 they 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 should have no problem providing a resume, references, and samples of their work. Be wary if you encounter resistance in any of these areas.

Vagueness about specific services.

Editors should be willing to say exactly what they will do for you. If an editor 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 Editorial Freelancers Association is a similar organization in the USA. Its website includes a Code Of Fair Practice defining ethical standards for freelancers and their clients, as well as an excellent job board where requests for editors can be posted for free. There’s also this helpful chart of common rates for editorial services.
  • The Institute of Professional Editors Limited (IPEd) 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

  • Jane Friedman’s Recommended Resources page lists a number of editors and editing services. Writer Beware generally avoids suggesting specific services, but Jane is a trusted resource.
  • 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 2/10/17

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