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Page updated/links checked 12/11/23

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
Caution Signs

What Editors Do

A freelance or independent editor 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 editor and an in-house editor?

  • An in-house editor is employed by a publisher, and works with authors on a publisher’s behalf to edit books prior to publication. They edit according to their own judgment 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 is not 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, is entirely up to the author.

Most freelance editors offer different levels of editing.

  • Manuscript assessment or critique provides 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 the critique won’t usually provide line editing or scene- or chapter-level revision advice.
  • Developmental editing (also known as content or substantive editing) focuses on the “big picture”: structure, style, theme, and content. The editor flags specific problems–structural difficulties, poor pacing, plot or thematic inconsistencies, stiff dialogue, under-developed characters, stylistic troubles, flabby writing, and the like–and makes detailed suggestions for addressing them.
  • Line editing provides 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 focuses on the mechanics of writing: common errors (grammar, spelling, punctuation), incorrect usages, logic lapses, and continuity problems.
  • Proofreading aims to ensure an error-free manuscript, flagging 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–and also exactly what services you need.

For more on the different types of editing, see this helpful article by editor Mary Kole.

When Do You Need To Hire An Editor?

Hiring an editor can be an expensive proposition. A thorough developmental or content edit from an experienced, credentialed editor can run well into four figures. Is this an expense you really need to incur?

If you’re self-publishing, and are serious about establishing a career and building a readership, the answer is “yes.” Today’s crowded self-publishing field is highly competitive, and a professional product is essential for success. 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. If you’re seeking traditional publication, hiring an editor before you start submitting may make the difference between marketable and not.

For most writers submitting for traditional publication, however, the benefits are less clear. Despite what you may have heard, publishers don’t expect writers to present “professionally edited” manuscripts (they provide their own editing, in-house). And while a good editor may make a manuscript better, a better manuscript still won’t necessarily be publishable.

Before you pull out your credit card, investigate alternatives: a local or online writers’ group, a creative writing teacher, a professional writer with whom you’re acquainted, a discerning friend who’s not afraid to criticize. 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.) Investing in a writing course or joining a critique group is likely to be a better choice for a new writer than springing for an editor.

Whatever your situation, hiring a freelance 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. Regardless of how you plan to publish, it’s something you need to master if you’re serious about a writing career.

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

What Editing Won’t Do

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

Provide a magic fix.

Qualified editors bring experience and training to the task, but at bottom, editing is a subjective process. There’s no 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.

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 they happen (and when they don’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 publishers more likely to look at your work.

Agents and publishers know the limitations of editing. They’re also well aware of how many under-qualified and unscrupulous freelance editors there are (see Warning Signs, below). 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 that 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 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 open your wallet. (For suggestions on how to do that, see this helpful article from author K. M. Weiland.)

Literary Consultancies and Manuscript Assessment Services

More common in the UK and Australia than 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 competence), writers may benefit from a thorough manuscript critique. Using a consultancy or assessment service may also be less expensive than hiring a freelance editor, and may offer 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 publisher that accepts 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: agents and publishers prefer to make their own assessments, rather than rely on unknown outside sources.

The bottom line: If you choose to use a consultancy or assessment service, don’t do so 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

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

The boom in self-publishing has vastly increased the prevalence of unqualified editors. Many are well-meaning, sincerely believing that a love of reading, or a teaching career, or some technical writing experience, or some editing done for friends, is enough to qualify them to edit manuscripts professionally.

But an editor who lacks relevant training and/or work experience may not 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. An inexperienced editor may also be less able to judge your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, or have rigid or arbitrary 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? A few common-sense guidelines:

Be sure the editor has credentials.

You’re looking for things like prior editing experience with a reputable publisher or publication, or training or apprenticeship with a reputable editor or editing service. Higher-level education (like a MA in English or an MFA) and professional writing credentials may also be relevant (though keep in mind that good writers aren’t necessarily good editors). The number of years the editor has been in business can also be important: an editor who has been editing for years may be a safer bet than one who is just starting out.

If the editor has a website, a resume or CV should be posted there. An editing service with multiple editors should provide staff names and biographies. Be extremely cautious of editors whose websites are vague about their credentials, and of editing services that don’t identify their staff.

Some editors will tout the fact that they’ve passed an online editing or copy editing test, or have some sort of certificate from some training course or other. But such tests  and training vary widely in their usefulness, and aren’t a substitute for actual work experience.

For individual editors, membership in the Editorial Freelancers Association (US), the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (UK), the Institute of Professional Editors (Australia), or Editors Canada are all indications of professionalism.

Be sure the editor has experience appropriate to your work and your needs.

Like good agents, good editors specialize. Someone whose main experience involves nonfiction is probably not the ideal choice to edit your epic fantasy novel, for example. Someone who primarily does copy editing and proofreading may not have the skills to do a thorough content edit. An editor’s website should make clear what their specialties are.

Ask for references, and use them.

Many editors include testimonials on their websites, but it’s always a good idea to go beyond these and actually communicate with clients. Be wary if the editor balks at this request.

Check out the editor’s clients and their books.

This is important. Testimonials and references are all very well, but the proof of the pudding is the actual books.

An editor’s or editing service’s website should include a list of clients and titles (if not, ask–and be wary if you have trouble getting an answer). Consider ordering a couple of books; you can also spot-check by using Amazon’s Look Inside feature to sample the first few pages. Do you see common grammatical mistakes? Poor writing? Bad dialog? If the book is self-published, are there typos or other proofing errors? All are warning signs, suggesting the editor or service may not be competent.

Verify that the editor really is independent.

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

Do a websearch.

If there are complaints, a websearch may surface them (or the editor may have been featured on Writer Beware’s blog, as in this case).

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. Some editors will provide a free edit of your first few pages.

Communicate with the editor before hiring them.

Emails, phone calls, Zoom–the method doesn’t matter, but it’s important to consult with the editor ahead of time, so they understand your needs–and, just as important, so that you understand what they will (and won’t) do for you. You should feel comfortable with the editor, and they with you. Be very wary of editorial services that won’t identify the editor you’ll be working with, or of an editor who is unwilling to dialog with you.

Make sure the terms are clear.

The editorial contract or letter of agreement should detail the scope of the work to be done, the charges you’ll incur and when they’re due, the time period involved, who will be doing the editing (the editor themself, or a staffer or trainee?), termination provisions, and any provisions for followup or questions on the finished edit. Never work with an editor on a handshake basis.

Last but definitely not least: know in advance what you want from the editor…and also what you need.

Good advice from editor and author Jane Friedman: “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.”

Caution 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 (reputable publishers provide their own editing), or from an agent who doesn’t have much of a track record, or charges fees, or makes the recommendation based on a partial read. 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–or even be married to the editor, as in this case.

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 recommending editing or critiques, how can you be sure that the recommendation is in your best interest? The Association of American Literary Agents recently updated its Canon of Ethics to address this issue.

Editing as a requirement of representation or submission.

Some questionable literary agencies and dubious publishers require you to buy a critique as a condition of representation or 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 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 critique will improve your chances of selling your work to a publisher. Why? Because these are promises that can’t be guaranteed, and a good editor, 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 to help you get your manuscript into marketable shape, other than paying for editing–critique groups, colleagues, writing courses (and don’t forget the importance of being able to self-edit). Traditionally-published writers do not typically 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 of close work 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.

As noted above, expert editors 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; and copy editing skills are not the same as line editing skills.

That’s not to say a single editor won’t possess multiple skill sets–but it’s unlikely that one person will be able to provide every kind of editing for any and all subjects and genres with equal effectiveness.

Also, within the basic scope of services they provide, a good editor 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 an absence of specialization suggest a lack of professional knowledge and/or experience–or, at worst, a scam.

Anonymous editing or assessing.

Some editing services don’t post staff lists on their websites, and won’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 even to be sure that they have experience appropriate to your work. A reputable editing service will be transparent about its staff and their qualifications, and you’ll know ahead of time which of them will be working with you.

No contract.

Like a publishing contract, an editorial contract does more than just lay out the terms of the business arrangement: it protects both you and the editor in the event of misunderstandings or disputes.

Direct solicitation.

Editors and editorial services 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. There are also many scam editing services that aggressively target self-published writers.

Refusal of reasonable requests for information.

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

Vagueness about specific services.

Editors should be willing to stipulate exactly what they will do for you. If an editor won’t give you a firm price, or doesn’t want to specify what their fees will cover, or won’t tell you who will be working on your manuscript, move on. Ditto if they want to work without a contract.

A demand for full payment upfront.

Paying the full fee upfront leaves you without leverage if the work isn’t satisfactory or the editor fails to complete it as agreed. An initial deposit with an invoice when the work is done, 50% down and 50% on completion, or payment tied to specific benchmarks are all reasonable payment arrangements.

A claim on your rights or future sales.

Unless you’re dealing with a ghostwriter, an editor should not demand payment in the form of a claim on your rights or future sales. Reputable editors get paid by the word or the hour or the job, and should not make claims beyond that. (From Writer Beware’s blog: one editor who did, and other professional editors’ reactions.)


Professional Resources/Finding an Editor

  • 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.
  • Editors Canada, another national professional organization, provides training and certification for editors. Its website hosts a discussion of professional editing standards, a searchable database of editors, and a downloadable standard freelance editorial agreement.
  • 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.
  • Editors of Color maintains a database of freelance editors that’s searchable by location and specialty. (Note: these listings aren’t vetted, so be sure to use the tips above to research anyone you approach.)
  • Reedsy is an online marketplace where editors (and others) make their services available. (Again, not all the editors are vetted, so research anyone you’re thinking of approaching.)
  • The New Zealand Association of Manuscript Assessors is, as far as I know, the only professional organization of its kind. Members must prove competence in order to join, and must abide by a professional code of professional practice.

General Information

  • Author and editor Sandra Wendel provides a detailed explainer on the differences between line editing, copy editing, and proofreading.
  • A fraudulent editing service: Edit Ink.

Alternatives to Editing and Assessment Services

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