A self-published writer recently confessed that while he doesn’t mind investing in a good editor, he finds it difficult to determine what constitutes a “good editor” before writing the check. I get it. Why fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars to someone who will only skim your work and correct glaring grammatical errors? Why contract with an editor who doesn’t understand your genre, or worse, is openly hostile toward your style? (As an example, I will decline religious texts and nonfiction books beyond my scope of knowledge. There are editors out there who will give you a better read on those than I will.) Choosing an editor is often as much a personal decision as it is financial; an editor proficient in her craft may still alienate you with her style. How can you find out what the experience will be like before you sign the contract?
- Determine the type of editing your work needs. When you match your needs to an editor’s skillset, you’re more likely to receive the results you want. Understanding the editing process helps lessen surprises, too. (Hint: if you think your work only needs proofreading when it’s never skimmed an editor’s desk before, you may be in for some wonky quotes.)
- Ask around. Freelancers often receive the lion’s share of their business from word-of-mouth referrals. Crowdsource your editing needs—your writing group, forum, or institution may have reliable, honest recommendations. Many of my clients find me through social media.
- Read testimonials. Most editors post client testimonials—including me. While testimonials showcase praise rather than problems, they can still give you a feel for what clients liked. If an editor produced “great results” but was “slower than anticipated,” you may have found a meticulous editor who’d be a great fit—if you have the time to spare. Check to see if the editor has additional freelance profiles on LinkedIn, Upwork, Guru, Reedsy, or Freelancer. Many of these sites allow clients (or associates) to provide unfiltered feedback.
- Check professional associations. Membership in a professional association does not guarantee the quality of work. However, membership can indicate that an editor is dedicated to advancing his or her craft and has enlisted the resources to do so. These editors also have access to networks of like-minded peers for support. As a result, they may be able to refer you to another, better-suited editor when warranted. Check out the American Copy Editors Society and the Editorial Freelancers Association.
- Compare bookshelves. Ask your prospective editor about the last book he or she read. Most editors will be delighted to share their literary proclivities, and their responses may help you determine whether they’ll be interested in your work. One individual asked me to provide a list of the last ten books I’ve read, as well as a list of my ten favorite books. It was a fun exercise, and it provided a personal connection point. Just remember—an editor’s interest in hard science-fiction may not preclude them from being awesome editors of paranormal romance (and vice versa).
- Send a sample. Most editors will ask for a sample of your project, especially if it’s big (e.g., grants, dissertations, novellas, novels). Don’t choose the first chapter. Instead, pick five to ten pages that represent the messiest portion of your work. Giving your prospective editor the chance to read a challenging section lets the editor properly gauge the complexity of editing required, which ensures you receive an accurate quote. I once provided a copy editing quote based on an early chapter of a story. It seemed fairly tight, and I accepted the contract. It turned out that the writer had, in earnest, sent me the best chapter. The remainder of the book required far more time and editorial effort than I’d planned for, which necessitated a revision of my initial quote. It worked out in the end (largely because we both kept open minds), but you may not be so lucky.
- Request a trial proof. Great editors will offer you a trial proof. If they don’t, you should request one. Remember that sample you sent for an initial quote? Your prospective editor should take three to five of those pages and perform a sample copy edit, gratis. You can look over the type of changes provided, as well as query style (if any), and make a more informed decision.
- Check the contract carefully. Don’t provide any type of payment until you’ve signed a contract you’re satisfied with. The contract doesn’t need to be elaborate, but it should include detailed information about preferred payment methods, total costs, late fees (if any), timelines, and the exact services provided. If any of this information is missing, request clarification. This ensures that both you and your editor are on the same page.
Vetting a potential editor requires your being open and honest about your expectations. If something doesn’t make sense, request clarification. One editor may be willing to Skype with you on a weekly basis, while another will only send you an editor’s letter at the end of the project. (And both options are equally great depending on your needs.) The person who edits a best seller may not be the optimal choice for your project. Remember: a little extra work at the beginning of the editing process can prevent chaos or disappointment at the end.