Everything You Need to Know About Finding and Hiring a Freelance Book Editor

So, you’ve finished writing your novel and have redrafted it and edited it as best you can. The first thing you should do at this point is jump to your feet, dance a funky victory dance and immediately open a bottle of celebratory wine.

But what’s next? Should you hire a freelance book editor? What kind of editing should you get? How do you go about searching for and then choosing the right editor for you? How should you go about contacting an editor?

Never fear, this article will answer all those questions. (And probably raise a few new ones. But, hey, I didn’t say I had all the answers. Or did I? Damn.) Anyway, grab a cuppa tea and a slice of cake, because this post is slightly epic.

The first step is to determine these two crucial pieces of information:

  1. Whether you want to self-publish or traditionally publish. If you want to do neither of these things, you don’t need an editor. An editor’s role is to help you along the journey to publication.
  2. The current state of your manuscript. I don’t mean to say your novel is in a mess but if you’re not an experienced novelist, it’s likely you’ll need more help than if you were a seasoned professional.

The Self-Publishing Route

If you want to self-publish your novel, you have to think like a business owner. Why? Because publishing is a business – especially if your goal is to make money from your writing.

Once you’ve finished writing your book, you have to shift your mindset. Instead of thinking about your novel as a piece of art, you have to start seeing it as a product. It still is a piece of art, of course, but when you have your publisher hat on (metaphorical or physical – that’s up to you), your novel becomes a product that needs to be sold.

In order for something to sell, it has to be of a certain quality. It has to be good enough to compete in a professional marketplace. As well as that, readers deserve a quality product – they aren’t just there to fund your hobby. As a self-publisher, quality control is now up to you.

In an ideal world, the self-publishing route should go something like this:

  1. You finish your novel to the best of your ability.
  2. You send your manuscript to beta readers to get general feedback.
  3. If it becomes apparent that the foundations of your novel (plot, characterisation, pacing, theme, etc.) need more work, you send your manuscript to a professional editor for substantial editing or a manuscript critique.
  4. You redraft based on the feedback until the foundations of the book are solid.
  5. You send your novel to a professional editor for copy-editing or line editing. This may or may not be the same editor as before, depending on the services they offer.
  6. You address any issues the copy-editor or line editor raises, and go through the manuscript to check you’re happy with the edits.
  7. You hire a professional typesetter or book designer to create the interior of your book. Who you chose will depend on whether you’re planning to publish hardcopies or as an ebook (or both). Both types of designing require different skills.
  8. Around this time, you also hire a professional book cover designer.
  9. Once you’ve had the book’s interior designed, you send it for proofreading. Again, this may not be with the same editorial professional as before.
  10. You address the issues raised by the proofreader, and your novel is ready to be published.

As I said, this is in an ideal world. In reality, this process can be extremely expensive. There are certain steps in the process you could handle yourself, depending on your skills and network.

For example, you might have a great network of beta readers who can help you get the foundations just right – or you might decide to enrol in a novel writing course, which would be a lot cheaper than paying for substantive editing. Or you might be a graphic designer by trade, in which case you might be able to design your own cover.

In general, though, I would always recommend you hire a professional for copy-editing/line editing and cover design (unless you are a fantastic graphic designer who understands the trends and psychology of cover design, of course).

Line editing will make sure your sentences are polished, correct and flow beautifully – and it corrects grammar and punctuation and catches most typos, too.

If you have an amateur cover design, you might as well burn your manuscript now because very few people will decide to buy it.

The Traditional Publishing Route

This process will vary a little depending on the exact way your agent and publisher operate. Most publishers take on very few unsolicited manuscripts. That means you, as the author, can’t just send them your book to consider. Instead, they only consider manuscripts sent to them by literary agents.

Publishers aren’t doing this to be mean – only to be practical. By reading only submissions sent to them by agents, someone has already vetted the manuscripts and decided they are viable in the marketplace.

Some smaller publishers accept submissions direct from authors. There are pros and cons of working with both big publishers and smaller publishers, but it’s my opinion that an agent is worth getting not only because they increase your chance of being selected by a publisher, but because they can provide you with a wealth of advice and legal knowledge. They handle contracts and rights, and (should) have your best interests at heart.

The traditional publishing route goes something like this:

  1. You finish your novel to the best of your ability.
  2. You send your manuscript to beta readers to get general feedback.
  3. If your beta readers respond with oodles of enthusiasm, you put together a submissions package and start asking agents if they’re interested in representing you. If the feedback from your beta readers isn’t so good, or if you keep getting rejected by agents, you need to keep working on your manuscript, so you send it to a professional editor for substantial editing or a manuscript critique.
  4. You land an agent. The agent might suggest more changes to your manuscript, or they might think it’s ready to submit to publishers, which they will do on your behalf.
  5. Your novel is accepted by a publisher and your agent negotiates the best deal for you.
  6. The publisher might suggest more changes to the manuscript. They might pair you up with an editor for substantial editing, though more often than not they will pair you up with a copy-editor or line editor – which the publisher pays for.
  7. You address any issues the copy-editor or line editor raises, and go through the manuscript to check you’re happy with the edits.
  8. The publisher has the book designed and typeset, and they have the cover designed, too.
  9. The publisher has the book proofread.
  10. You address any last queries from the proofreader, and the book is ready to be published.

As you can see, the publisher ends up paying for most of the quality control services, but you’ll have a little less control over the editorial and design decisions. The agent is paid when you are paid – they normally take around 15%.

If you want to go down this route, the most important thing is that the foundations of your novel are solid from the start. That means your idea is marketable, your plot is solid, your characters are vivid, your voice is strong, the pacing is balanced, and so on. Working with an editor who offers substantive editing or manuscript critique is one way of improving your book in this way.

You might also consider hiring a professional editor to copy-edit or line edit your manuscript if you feel grammar and punctuation aren’t your strengths. Both agents and publishers are flooded with submissions, so the closer your book is to a publishable standard, the more likely it is to be accepted. Publishers would ideally like to pay for as little as possible during the quality control stages, so if the book is already in fantastic shape, they’ll likely be more willing to publish it.

Editorial Services Explained

I mentioned several different types of editorial services in the section above, so let’s take a look at these. You’re probably slightly in shock at the number of different services I mentioned. Isn’t it just editing and proofreading? No, I’m afraid it’s more complicated than that. Wrap yourself in a blanket and sip on some hot chocolate. I’m about to blow your mind.

There are three levels of editorial services. The first looks at the big-picture, foundational elements, such as story, plot, characterisation, marketability, pacing, voice, etc. You might even ask a professional to help you develop the manuscript as you’re writing it. The second level looks at the sentences and paragraphs. The third level is the final check.

Normally, you’ll only need one type of service from each section. Keep in mind that the services you might pay for will depend on both your intended route to publication and the state of your manuscript.

The descriptions below should be taken with a pinch of salt. They aren’t set in stone, and what one editor chooses to offer may be slightly different to what another editor chooses to offer, even though they call their services the same thing. For example, my line editing service also contains everything described under copy-editing.

Stage One

Manuscript Critique

A manuscript critique (also known as manuscript appraisal or assessment) is a summary of the big-picture elements of your novel. The editor analyses the manuscript, reflects back their understanding and provides unbiased guidance on how the novel can be improved. The critique is presented as a separate report or editorial letter, which is usually divided into sections based around the main components of storytelling – plot, theme, pacing, character, narrative style, etc. Though the critique may briefly describe these different elements, the author is expected to have at least a basic understanding of these components. The author should research any holes in their understanding and apply what they learn to their manuscript. A manuscript critique is a useful tool to help a writers see the woods for the trees and gain an objective overview. It will alert them to any major issues and point them in the right direction for further redrafting.

Development/Substantive Editing

Development/substantive editing (also known as content editing, structural editing, book doctoring and coaching) is probably the most flexible editorial service in terms of what’s offered – as you can probably tell by all the different names. Always check the editor’s description of this type of deep-level editing. In general, development or substantive editing is a much more intensive service than a manuscript critique – and more expensive, too. The editor will examine all the main storytelling components (such as plot, theme, pacing, character, narrative style, etc.) but will also focus on specific moments within the manuscript that need attention (where there’s muddled point of view, lagging tension, inauthentic characterisation, etc.) They’ll advise the author on how they might redraft the manuscript in order to achieve their authorial intentions. The editor will ask questions to encourage the writer to think deeply and critically about their manuscript, and may make suggestions on restructuring, deleting or adding parts to the story. The editor doesn’t rewrite the material or correct grammar and spelling. The suggestions are usually presented as a separate report or editorial letter that includes extracts from the manuscript for specific analysis, and/or substantial comments on the manuscript itself. The manuscript might go back and forth between the editor and writer, through various drafts, depending on the arrangement made.

Stage Two

Line Editing

Line editing (also known as stylistic editing or copy-editing) focuses on the sentences and paragraphs to make them artful in the way they flow, and correct and consistent in the way they are presented. Though the style of the writing is addressed, a line editor does not simply apply their own stylistic preferences; instead, they act as an intermediary between the author and the reader so that the author’s voice is amplified but the meaning behind their words is clear. For example, the editor will fix awkward phrasing, clunky syntax, unintentional ambiguities, misused words, inappropriate tone, ineffective use of cliché, repetitive sentence structure, inconsistencies in minor plot details (such as character eye colour) and more. As well as this, they also address the same spelling, punctuation and grammar issues as a copy-editor. The manuscript may go through one or multiple passes, depending on the agreement. Edits are made using comments within the manuscript, Track Changes and sometimes a brief editorial letter. The editor may also provide a style sheet that contains details of all the major editorial decisions.

Copy-editing

Copy-editing (also known as line editing – though technically line editing provides a deeper level of editorial suggestion) aims to make sentences and paragraphs clear in meaning, error-free, consistent in style and as concise as possible without impacting on authorial style. They’ll also flag up any potential legal issues, such as plagiarism or libel. In traditional publishing, the copy-editor will also mark up the manuscript for the typesetter/designer. A copy-editor will normally do a single pass (though this depends on the agreement) and will use Track Changes to edit the text, raising any specific queries as comments within the manuscript (or in a separate file). They’ll also provide a style sheet that contains details of all the major editorial decisions.

Stage Three

Proofreading

This the final stage, after the text has been typeset/designed. Proofreading does not aim to assess or improve the manuscript, but instead acts as a final check that everything is correct. A proofreader looks at nearly all the same issues as a copy-editor, essentially checking for any errors that have slipped through the cracks. The proofreader makes sure that the work of author, editor and designer/typesetter has been carried out to a satisfactory standard; they mark up any errors and flag up any last issues. Amending a page once it’s been typeset costs money, so the proofreader must use their judgement to recommend only the most essential changes. Because they work on final proofs, the proofreading is normally conducted using comments/BSI symbols on PDF or hardcopy. Alternatively, proofreaders will use Track Changes in Word, though technically this means they aren’t working on the final ‘proofs’.

How to Find the Right Editor for You

By now you should have a pretty clear idea of the type of editing you need based on which publishing route you want to take and the condition of your manuscript. Consider yourself informed!

Next, you have to actually find an editor. Here’s how:

1. Search professional directories

Use key words in your search, such as the type of editing you’re looking for and the genre of your book. In the UK, the most reliable and comprehensive directory comes from the Society of Editors and Proofreaders. In the USA, the Editorial Freelance Association has a similar directory. You could also run a Google search, but make sure you carefully assess the editors you find.

2. Ask for personal recommendations

If you have good connections to a network of writers, it’s worth asking around for personal recommendations. Don’t just rely on their experience, though –check out the editor they recommend to make sure they are a well suited to you. Be warned, if you post ‘Can anyone recommend a good freelance book editor?’ on Twitter, floods of freelance editors will pounce on you recommending their own services!

3. Read testimonials

Now you’ve hopefully found a few editors you like the look of, see if they have any testimonials on their website. This is almost as good as getting a personal recommendation and you’ll get a greater number of opinions. If you’re still unsure, ask the editor if you can talk to one of their previous clients.

4. Assess qualifications and experience

In an age in which anyone can set up a website and call themselves an editor, what proof does this editor have that they are qualified for the task at hand?

  • Have they completed any courses? Courses from The Publishing Training Centre and the Society of Editors and Proofreaders are most highly regarded in the UK.
  • What is their educational background? An MA in creative writing shows that they have a good understanding of the mechanics of good fiction writing.
  • What books have they edited? An established editor should have a portfolio listing previous books or projects they’ve worked on. An editor at the beginning of their career should have enough evidence from the other aspects listed here to show they are competent enough for the job.
  • What practical experience do they have? Have they worked in publishing, as a creative writing tutor, as a successful author, or in a job that relates to their field? These aspects might not be essential, but are something to consider.
  • Are they a member of a professional society? As mentioned, the Society of Editors and Proofreaders is the most well regarded body of professional editorial freelancers in the UK. Joining a professional society indicates than a freelance book editor takes their role seriously. As well as that, members of the SfEP are encouraged to follow its Code of Practice. If you don’t live in the UK, find your country’s professional society on this list created by proofreader Louise Harnby: list of global editorial societies.

5. Ask for a sample edit

Many editors will be happy to provide a short sample edit (usually between 500-1500 words) – sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee. This way you can see what type of editing your work will receive. Not only this, but it can be a good indicator of whether you are a good ‘fit’ with an editor. It will show you the depth of their editing, and demonstrate how they work – all useful things to know before you commit to a full manuscript.

Some more established editors might not have the time to provide you with a sample, but they will undoubtedly have an extensive list of books they’ve edited that you can take a look at. However, if you really want a sample, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

One of my clients said this about the sample edit I provided for her:

I am really pleased with the edit. Not only that but I’m also somewhat surprised and relived because I agree with all of your corrections. After my previous experience I felt like maybe I’d been quite naïve in my expectations of editing because he made so many changes and comments that I didn’t agree with. It made me think that editing was going to be more of a battle than a partnership. There was only one comment you made that had me going ‘Noooooooo. I don’t want to change that!’ but I made myself a cup of tea, got a biscuit, came back to it and realised you were right. Sometimes it takes a pair of eyes that don’t belong to someone who knows you to see those things.
— Jordaina Robinson

On the strength of the sample edit alone, Jordaina booked me in for four projects! And she really hits the nail on the head: tea and biscuits makes everything better. She’s also right that editing should be a partnership, not a battle – and that’s exactly why it’s important to find an editor suited to your style. A sample edit can be a really useful indicator of the compatibility between the author/editor/manuscript.

Communicating with Your Editor

Once you’ve found some editors you like, you of course have to get in touch with them.

Email is usually the best method. Personally, I hate it when clients phone me out of the blue. (An arranged call is perfectly fine.) More often than not, I’ll let the call go to voicemail as I usually have my phone on silent. Most of my work requires a lot of focused concentration, so a call is pretty disruptive.

On top of that, there’s no record of what’s discussed in a phone call, so I normally type up the gist of our conversation and email it to the person, anyway. If this sounds suspiciously like double the work, it’s because it is! But it’s my responsibility to keep track of our correspondence.

It’s fine to send enquiries to more than one editor at a time. You might request sample edits from a variety of editors to help you make your decision. I recommend you send the same sample to each editor so you can more easily compare the results. It’s not necessary, but it is polite, to let the editor know you’re contacting a couple of other editors.

My top tip is to never speak to the editors you contact as though they are an employee who is obligated to do what you tell them because you’re going to pay them for it. You are not my boss. I am my own boss. And I choose the clients I work with as much as they choose me. The editor-author relationship is one of equals. If I get an email that just says ‘Here’s a document for you to edit. I need it by tomorrow’, I’m highly unlikely to even respond.

Instead, politely enquire about the editor’s schedule and whether they’d be interested in working with you on your project. Most editors request a sample so they can assess whether or not they think the project is a good fit for them as well as so they can provide you with an accurate quote. Always read the guidelines on the editor’s website to make the enquiry process as efficient as possible.

How to Find and Hire a Freelance Book Editor – Recap:

  1. Consider which route to publishing you’d like to take. This will indicate how much of editorial quality control process is your responsibility.
  2. Assess your own manuscript and decide what kind of editorial service(s) would be best for your novel.
  3. Search for suitable editors and assess their competence. Make sure they offer the service(s) you’re looking for and work in your chosen genre.
  4. Get in touch with the editors you’re considering working with in order to a) ask for a sample and/or a quote, and b) allow both you and the editor to decide whether or not you’re a good professional match for each other.

There you have it! Now you should know exactly how to go about finding and hiring a freelance book editor. Now, go forth and publish excellent books!

Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments.

Hey, let’s stay in touch.


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By | 2017-09-05T13:45:52+00:00 September 28th, 2015|Novel Editing, The Business of Editing|0 Comments

About the Author:

Sophie Playle runs Liminal Pages, where she offers editorial services to authors and training to fiction editors. She's a Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and trained with The Publishing Training Centre. She worked at the largest publishing company in the world before galavanting off to do an MA in creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London (to add to her BA in English literature with creative writing from UEA). She would like to live on a steampunk airship.

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