We talk a lot in this space about language mechanics and writing better. But at some point, you have to let someone else handle your copy. You have to hire an editor.
This quick guide will help you determine what you need in an editor, where to find them, and how to evaluate them before hiring them.
A Writer’s Wish List
Start by putting together a list of what skills and knowledge your editor should have. At the very least your editor should …
- Be well acquainted with your topic or industry
- Have experience in the level of editing you need
- Be familiar with your style guide (APA, Chicago, AP, etc.)
- Have experience with your medium (book, business reports, web copy, etc.)
- Have and know how to use the software your copy is in (Word, Acrobat, Google Docs, etc.)
- Contact you with questions about the copy or the project
- Warn you if the project will take longer than expected
Should Your Editor Be a Subject Expert?
Like so much in editing, how much subject expertise your editor needs depends.
Let’s say you’re writing in the sciences, and you use lots of specialized words and formulas. If you want your editor to catch errors in your scientific names or formulas, you want someone who understands those names and formulas.
If you want someone to help you develop your Great American Novel, you want an editor who knows literature and the market. Look for someone who has edited other novels that have gone on to be published.
And anytime you write copy that has a lot of jargon, you want someone familiar with that jargon. Otherwise, the editor will spend their time—and your money—learning the jargon or you’ll spend your time stetting all their changes.
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t matter if your editor isn’t steeped in your subject. If your manuscript is for a mainstream audience, an editor new to your subject will identify areas your readers might struggle with.
What Kind of Editing Do You Need?
You know you need someone to look over your writing, maybe spruce it up a bit, but what exactly do you want your editor to do? Do you want someone to look at your ideas and help you organize or develop them? Do you need someone to read through and correct all the typos and nothing else? Most likely, you need something in between. Here are the definitions for different stages of editing Right Touch Editing offers:
- Developmental editing: Working with an author to develop a text or evaluate a manuscript for writing style, content, and organization
- Line (substantive) editing: Correcting copy for organization, structure, transitions, redundancy, jargon, sexist language, awkward construction, excessive use of passive voice, wordiness, logic, tone, and more
- Copyediting: Correcting copy for spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, usage, sentence structure, sentence length, and paragraph length
- Fact-checking: Checking factual accuracy of the copy, such as names, addresses, phone numbers, URLs, dates, and other numbers
- Editorial proofreading: Correcting copy (“cold-reading”) for spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style
- Proofreading: Comparing the latest version of a document (“live copy”) with the previous version (“dead copy”), including any indicated changes in the previous version
If you’re still not sure of what you need, make a list of things you want and don’t want the editor to correct. An experienced editor should be able to handle your list. They should also be able to give you a professional opinion of what your manuscript needs, even if it’s not a service they provide.
Right Touch Editing’s service is customizable. I talk to the client about what kinds of things they want corrected. I will give an honest opinion of what the copy needs, but in the end it’s the client’s project. We’ll do what the client asks for if it’s in our skillset.
Are You a Good Match?
It’s OK to want to see a sample of the editor’s abilities. Not only will you see if they have the right skills but you’ll be able to judge whether they’re a good fit for you and your manuscript. Editing is both an art and a science. Two editors might find the same problem but come up with different solutions for it. You want to find an editor whose style fits your writing style.
The best way to see if a candidate is a good fit is through a sample edit of your manuscript. The sample shouldn’t be too long; 500–1,000 words is typical. Allow the editor to see the entire manuscript and pick a section to edit for you. When you read through the results, ask yourself: Does the copy read better? Do I like the way it sounds? Did the editor miss any glaring errors? Did they introduce errors into the copy? Did they ask good questions? Present good solutions?
Some editors charge for sample edits, while others offer them for free. And some editors don’t offer samples at all. There’s no industry standard. It’s a business decision and doesn’t reflect an editor’s abilities or professionalism.
Our policy is to offer a free sample edit of up to 1,000 words. It gives us an idea of what the work will be like and helps us create more accurate time and cost estimates.
References are another good place to distinguish one editor from another. LinkedIn allows users to post recommendations to others’ profiles. This is a handy place to start. You can also check out the editor’s website for client reviews. Or search on the editor’s name or company name in a search engine. Do you find accolades or regrets?
If your project is particularly large—or you will send this editor lots of projects—ask if you can speak to other clients. Talk to someone whose project is similar to yours, so you can make an apples-to-apples comparison.
Where Should You Look for an Editor?
Personal recommendations are still the best way to find any service, including editing.
You can also check out sources that focus on editing or publishing. Professional editing organizations, such as ACES, the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading, and the Editorial Freelancers Association, have searchable member directories. MediaBistro is home to many media professionals. Editors of Color and Outside the Book are also excellent resources.
Consider posting a job ad on a specialized site as well. General job boards are OK, but most job seekers there are looking for permanent work. Organizations that post member directories, like ACES, also often post job ads for their members. Medical editor Katharine O’Moore-Klopf maintains a list of sites where editors can look for jobs; check them out as places to post your job.
Check In with Your Gut
Any editor you hire should have the skills and experience needed to do the project. They should be professional and knowledgeable and have good communications skills.
You should also feel comfortable with the person you choose. You don’t have to become best friends (and it’s better if you maintain some professional distance), but you must trust them and be comfortable talking with them.
Your editor will be pointing out errors in your writing. They will be asking questions and making recommendations. Be comfortable with the way they do that. Some writers like the unvarnished truth. Others prefer a gentler approach. Your editor should be able to communicate in a way that makes sense for both of you.
As with any other purchase, doing your homework pays off in quality and value. Think about what you need, and make the best choice you can.