How to Avoid Choosing the Wrong Editor

I've been quiet for a few weeks trying to think of the best way to post this. At this point I think I'm just going to throw it all out there and hope it's helpful to new authors.

I belong to a lot of editing and writing groups online, and sometimes I see people--editors--give advice that is awful. It's the exact opposite of everything known about language or the publishing industry. It always makes me cringe so hard, but in those instances it’s not my place to do more than offer a different view.

In one writing group I'm in, an author mentioned they had paid a steep price for a professional edit, only to have the manuscript come back without a single change or comment. I’ve seen pretty clean manuscripts before, but even the best writer isn’t perfect. Even if the manuscript was flawless, I’d leave comments pointing out the various strengths the story or language.

And you’d be surprised how many other editors you get to know when you freelance. This spring and summer I met up with several, and a surprising pattern emerged. While I met a ton of people and loved spending time with all of them, I also met three different editors who were clearly in no way, shape, or form qualified to be doing this work. To be clear, these are people who work full time as freelance editors and are currently being paid by authors for their efforts. They’re also people who have never had a single hour of professional education, they just “really like to read.” They’re people who don’t know the basics of modern grammar use in publishing and edit based on incorrect rules they learned in fifth grade twenty years ago. One of them, someone I know who was recently hired as a copy editor by a local woman hoping to start a small press, not only has no experience but doesn’t even speak English as their first language!

I don’t say this to be shady or judgmental. I’m posting about this publicly because this knowledge has given me a lot of sleepless nights, worried about the authors out there. Especially authors who are new to publishing. How are they supposed to know who they can trust? They’re spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on these people’s expertise and they are getting ripped off.

So today I am going to try and get the word out there about how authors can choose their editors, and hopefully avoid problems like this. Here's some key things you can look for when hiring a freelance editor:

  • Check for membership. In the US, unfortunately, there is no official certification for editing that ensures you are working with a professional. However we do have professional associations and guilds that freelance editors pay a fee to join. In the USA that’s the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) and American Copy Editors Society (ACES). While there’s no proficiency test to join, someone who is willing to pay a couple hundred dollars to be part of a professional organization is probably someone who takes their editing career seriously.

  • Insist on a sample edit. Most editors I know do this for free; some charge a small fee that can be applied to your editing cost. Either way, a sample is a must when you’ve narrowed down your choices. It’s not just about the technical editing, although that’s important. You’ll also get a chance to see how responsive the editor is, how well they use software, and what their communication style is like. Spend some time educating yourself about styles and check to see that your editor follows those rules in the sample. (Some easy ones often missed by amateur editors are punctuation marks like em dashes, ellipses, and punctuation around parentheses.)

  • Ask the editor what style guide they work to. A fiction editor should say Chicago (sometimes written CMOS) 16, or version 17 by the end of this year. Most publishers also standardize to Merriam Webster 11. If your editor uses a different dictionary that’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but they should be able to immediately tell you the name of some dictionary that they use.

  • Don’t hesitate to ask about education and experience. Any editor will be glad to provide you with this information. Our paths are different, and some might have an MFA, some might not. Some might have worked with famous authors for decades, some might not. However, no education beyond a college degree in an unrelated field and no copy editing or storycraft-specific coursework is a red flag. These days freelance editors can take online coursework at an affordable price from anywhere, so if they haven’t that’s a good piece of information for you to consider. Be aware that many editors, including myself, will not or cannot give out the names of previous clients or titles. We seek to protect the privacy of all our clients, you included. And editors who contract with publishers often can’t say anything about the books they’ve worked on. I will tell you instead how many years I have been doing this, approximately how many books in what genres, and that many have been best sellers.

These are some basic screening tools that can help you hire a competent editor. Cost and personality / fit are also important. But don't make the mistake of hiring the stranger who approached you online and offered to edit your manuscript for $100. Someone who does this for a living will not be able to charge so little, and someone who is only playing around with the idea of editing might introduce more errors than they correct. I have certainly worked with authors before who paid a cheap editor and, in the end, had to pay that money again twice over to hire a qualified editor to fix everything.

Writing a book is a long and sometimes frustrating process, and getting the book out into the world is even harder. I hate seeing authors struggle when they're so close to the finish line! Choose your contractors wisely. If I can offer any advice, I'm glad to do so. Email me any time.

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