I keep seeing posts in writing groups where people say things like, “I don’t want an editor. They’re going to change my work and then it won’t be mine anymore.” I’m sorry, but that’s not what good editors do. A good editor shows you how to make your work more accessible to others. It’s still your work. They point out errors and weak spots, and they’ll ask you questions to help you determine whether readers are interpreting your writing the way you want them to. This whole process is designed to make your writing stronger and teach you how to be a better writer. Unfortunately, there are bad editors out there, too. Today I want to show you a few ways you can find a good freelance editor, and hopefully avoid the bad ones.
It’s easy for someone who has no qualifications at all to claim they’re a professional editor. I have seen SO many people post warnings about freelance editors who charged hundreds or even thousands of dollars to edit novels and then just ran the whole thing through Grammarly. I’ve also seen a few complaints about editors who took the writer’s deposit and ghosted. Obviously you don’t want to work with anybody like that.
So. Let’s talk about how you can avoid hiring bad freelance editors– shmeditors, if you will.
First, assess your needs
The whole point of editing is to make your work the very best it can be. Of course, everything about writing is subjective. If you show a story to twenty editors, you’re going to get twenty different opinions. There might be some overlap here and there, but maybe not as much as you’d think. We all interpret things a little differently.
Editing is a process that will vary from writer to writer and also from book to book. However, some elements of it will always be the same, and you can use those to vet potential editors.
Here are a few questions you can ask yourself if you’re having a hard time figuring things out.
- Do you have a complete draft of your story? If not, you might want to finish it before spending money on an editor. If you’re really stuck, you might check out this post about writer’s block, or look for a critique partner.
- Have you tried to proofread or edit on your own? You’d be surprised how many mistakes you’ll catch if you set your draft aside for a couple of weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes. Do this before moving on to a critique partner, beta reader, or professional editor.
- What do you feel is the weakest thing about your book? What is the strongest? These questions might help you figure out what type of editor you need. If you think your plot is solid, but you want help polishing up your style, you probably want a line editor. If you’re struggling with plot issues, you might need developmental edits. I have more information about types of editors below, so keep on scrolling if you need help in that area.
As a general rule, I try to make sure my draft is as good as I can get it on my own before I present it to anyone else. It’s a waste of time to give a critique partner or editor something that’s full of errors I could have fixed on my own. A lot of editors work either by the word or by the hour, so time might very well equal money if you’re paying them to correct mistakes when you could have done that yourself.
Looking for freelance editors
You can find freelance editors all over the place. I recommend starting with the Editorial Freelancers Association because they offer a lot of resources for both editors and writers. However, if you’re not comfortable with that, you can hop into a writing group on Facebook or put up a tweet. You’ll get dozens, if not hundreds, of responses. You can also try places like Fiverr, Upwork, or Reedsy. (You can contact me, too, but I may not be available.)
Finding editors is not a problem. Vetting editors is a whole different story, though.
Read everything first
Most freelance editors have some kind of platform, whether it’s a personal website, a Facebook page, or a profile on a gig site like Fiverr. Take the time to read whatever they have there so you have an idea of what to expect before you contact them.
They’ll probably have credentials of some kind on their site, too. I don’t care too much about where a potential editor went to school. A lot of courses just don’t offer basic English grammar anymore, so people don’t learn it unless they seek it out on their own. So I take any diplomas or certificates with a grain of salt. It’s nice if an editor has one, but I’m more interested in the work they’ve done. It’s even better if if I’ve read books they’ve worked on, or if I know authors they’ve worked with.
I’m also picky about editors’ online posts to their professional accounts. If I go to an editor’s website or social media account where they advertise their editing service, and I see a lot of errors, I will look elsewhere. I’m not talking about the occasional typo or possible autocorrect mistake–those happen to everyone and they’re hard to catch if you’re in a hurry. I mean consistent, repeat problems. Being casual about spelling and grammar on a personal page is fine, and I won’t hold that against them, but I feel like it’s a little unprofessional on a business page. It’s a bad first impression.
Ask for a sample
In fact, consider it a red flag if an editor doesn’t offer this. Basically, you’ll send them a small sample of your novel–maybe five pages–and they’ll go over it either for free or for a reduced rate. This is so you can see how well you’ll work together, and it also helps the editor decide whether they want to work with you. Sometimes people just aren’t a good fit for each other. It happens. Try not to take it personally if an editor suggests you try someone else.
Developmental editors might ask to preview a larger excerpt, or even the entire manuscript, if they like your first sample. Developmental edits cover the big picture elements in your story, and a few pages might not be enough for an editor to fully assess your work. Get references first if you’re nervous about sending your entire draft to someone without having a contract in place.
What I like to see in a sample edit:
- Tracked changes Ideally an editor won’t make any changes to your work without some way for you to accept them.
- Comments Rather than making big changes to your work, the editor should mark sections and tell you what they would like to see instead and why.
- Strong points marked as well as weak points If there’s something they really like, or they think works really well, they should mention that, too.
Be wary of an editor who rewrites massive chunks of your work for you without your permission. Ideally, the editor should tell you what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t work, and leave you to make any revisions on your own. Small corrections like spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors are fine, but they should still be tracked so you’re aware the editor altered your work.
Some writers may want the editor to rewrite everything
It’s fine if that’s what you prefer, but I think that makes it even more important to check them out thoroughly and make sure you trust them before giving them free rein over your work. So get a sample, get references, read some of their other work if you can.
I feel uncomfortable about letting a freelance editor rewrite my story for me. It wouldn’t be mine anymore at that point. I think I’d have to consider them a co-author, and give them appropriate credit. However, I can’t speak for everyone. If a writer feels like they need that kind of help, they should absolutely go for it.
Ask potential editors for references. If you’re lucky, they’ll have a list of published clients on their website and you can take a glace at their clients’ work and see how you feel about it.
If you have a writer friend whose work is always expertly polished, ask them about their editor. It’s possible that editor will work with you, too.
Don’t pay 100% up front
Most editors have a pay schedule, and it varies somewhat from person to person. Generally you put down some kind of deposit when you submit your story to them, and then pay the rest either in installments or prior to delivery of the finished document.
A deposit is reasonable, but I’d be concerned about an editor who insists on a full payment up front. What happens if they don’t finish the job?
Most editing is probably non-refundable
Read contracts before you agree to anything, and get a sample first. Don’t sign on with a freelance editor unless you’re confident in their ability. You probably won’t have much recourse if you’re dissatisfied after the fact, so make sure you ask lots of questions and inform your editor about any concerns you have up front. Also, be sure to save all communications you have with your editor, just in case you need to refer back to them later.
Sometimes the writer is the problem
I’m not trying to be mean here, but we can’t put all of the blame on the editors. Sometimes novice writers don’t do their research and don’t know what they’re getting into.
What kind of edits do you need?
Before you hire an editor, take a moment to figure out what kind of editing your book needs. Here are the kinds of editors you’re most likely to come across:
- Developmental editors: These editors help you with the macro parts of your story. That is, plot and structure, character development, and things of that nature.
- Line editors: A line editor helps you with your story’s style. They’re going to help make your work shine, but it’s mainly on a micro level.
- Copy editors: While a line editor will help you with a story’s style, a copy editor helps with its mechanics. They look for spelling and grammar errors, and they might also check for things like continuity and consistency. Some line editors also do copy editing as part of their process.
- Proofreaders: They also check for spelling, grammar, and consistency. Generally the proofreader is the last person to go over a story, just to catch anything the author or other editors might have missed.
There are freelance editors out there who do it all, from developmental down to copy edit. If you need that kind of service, feel free to use it. (My specialty is line editing, if you were wondering. I can do line and copy edits together, but developmental edits just aren’t my strong suit.)
Don’t assume edits equal acceptance
Most freelance editors don’t directly work for publishing companies or literary agents. Publishing is a highly subjective and selective business, and a freelance editor can’t guarantee their help will land you a spot with this agent or that publisher.
I know it’s not fun to spend a lot of money on an editor just to get rejected afterward, but that’s how it can be in the traditional world.
If you’re self-publishing, you can’t assume edits will equal sales.
However, a solid edit will probably mean better reviews (or at least fewer bad reviews), which might help you gain sales in the future.
You don’t have to accept every suggestion the editor makes
At the end of the day, you’re the one writing the story. Editors can mark it up however they want, but you don’t have to use any of their advice if you don’t like it. If you’re on the fence about whether to take specific suggestions, you might ask them to explain their opinions in more detail.
Here’s hoping you only meet good freelance editors
Have you ever worked with a freelance editor before? Feel free to share your experience in a comment. Also, use those social media buttons to share this with your writer friends. Let’s get the word out so fewer people fall prey to bad editors. Thanks, everyone!
I know that was a lot, but I hope it saves someone from getting scammed. Watch out for shmeditors, folks.
Image credit: Nordwood Themes