Thursday, March 19, 2015

4 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Editor

by Harrison Demchick @HDemchick

We all need editing.
So after many months, and maybe even years, you’ve finally completed your very first manuscript. You’re proud of what you’ve accomplished, but at the same time, when you read through your work, you know you’re not quite where you want to be. Something isn’t clicking, and you don’t know what or why, so you’ve made the decision to bring on an editor.

Great idea! We all need an editor. (Even those of us who are, in fact, editors.) But if you’re new to the publishing industry, odds are you don’t really have a clear idea of what you should be looking for. The internet is filled with eager and enthusiastic people claiming that they, and only they, can enable you to complete the very best version of your story. Who do you pick? How do you know?
Finding your editor is a tricky process, but here are some questions that may make the road a little easier.

What KIND of an editor?
1. What kind of editor do I need?
Are you looking for feedback on your story? Are you concerned about characterization? Conflict? Description and dialogue? Then what you want is a developmental editor. A developmental editor, sometimes called a substantive or content editor, works with you on the big-picture issues—everything from character arc to logic to writing style.

If you’re looking more for someone to catch all the spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors, then what you need is a copyeditor. And if you want someone who will make more intensive changes than that, ensuring that each sentence is as strong as it can be, you want a line editor.

Knowing what you want is the first fundamental step toward finding your editor. Also helpful is knowing when you want these editors. A developmental editor typically appears early in the process, while a copyeditor usually comes in toward the end, when all substantive issues have been resolved.

2. But can’t I just have someone do both at the same time?
You can. But you shouldn’t.

The problem with simultaneous developmental editing and copyediting (which I practiced myself for many years) is that you’ll probably end up paying for copyediting at least twice. Suppose a substantial logic issue uncovered in the developmental editing necessitates a complete rewrite of Chapters 6 through 10. What was the point of having those chapters copyedited? You’ll only need them copyedited again once you rewrite them.

Focusing on one form of editing at a time keeps the process efficient and effective.

How do I know if someone is a good editor?
3. How do I know if someone is a good editor?
Here’s the really tricky part. Everyone with an English degree and a love of reading believes they can be an editor, but the truth of the matter is that editing, like any creative field, requires a particular set of skills. A developmental editor needs a unique combination of creativity and logic. A copyeditor needs a near-perfect eye for error. And these are probably skills you’re not in a position to evaluate.

So what can you evaluate?

You can look at experience. Does this editor have a background in the publishing field, or is she just starting out? Does she have a history of published books? Are there previous clients you can speak with? Someone who has been succeeding in this field for more than five years or so is probably pretty good at their job.

Consider your manuscript as well. Does this editor have experience in your genre? You don’t want to send a fantasy novel to an editor whose emphasis is prescriptive nonfiction. (Or vice versa.)

4. Can’t I save a lot of money by hiring someone without experience?
Sure. But it’s pretty risky.

In much the same way that you wouldn’t hire a med student to perform a tracheotomy or a law student to defend you in court, you should be wary about bringing in an amateur to edit your manuscript. You could wind up with a prodigy, but it’s more likely that you won’t, and without experience there’s really no way to be sure. Some seek out sample edits to alleviate this, but honestly, you learn a lot more from an editor’s history than from five pages of free edits—especially when you are, again, probably not in a position to evaluate.

That’s the other consideration. If you’re a first-time author, you get a lot more from someone who knows the field than someone every bit as new to this as you are. You will save money—there are tons of aspiring editors ready to work below minimum wage on your manuscript—but if your manuscript doesn’t improve, then it doesn’t really matter.

What are some other questions to ask a prospective editor? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? Share your own editorial experiences in the conversation below!


Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women's fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.

Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel
The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He's currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at The Writer's Ally (


  1. Amazing. I learned so much from your article. I am a new author looking for an editor. I am going to save this article for future reference.

    1. I really appreciate that, Cherrilynn! I hope it helps you!

  2. Great tips. I'm a freelance editor and the problem I run into most is writers thinking one round of edits will do them. Three edits (content, copy, proof) would be ideal. And don't do the proof read until right before you're ready to hit the publish button. Finding well edited books and asking the author for a reference is a great way to find a competent editor. There are also tons of sites that will give you self editing tips. The cleaner the MS you send to an editor, the better the job they can do. My favorite self editing tip is using the find function to search for quotation marks " this will highlight them, making it easy to visually check dialogue. Dialogue is punctuation heavy and prone to errors.

    1. That's a clever one, Sharon! I hadn't thought of it myself. One of the ways to look at the process for authors who self-publish is that, when you decide to self-publish, you're taking on *everything* a publisher would usually do. Does a publisher go with just one edit, or just one type of edit? Of course not--a publisher works to ensure that the book they're publishing is the best they can make it. Self-published authors should share that aspiration.

  3. Thanks so much for this article. It was timely for me and very helpful.

  4. Extremely helpful info with the right caveats. Thanks! Am sharing...

  5. I'm not yet ready for an editor, though I am almost finished (finally!) with the roughest draft. I am bookmarking this article in my "writing helps" tab to go back to when the time is right. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights with people like me.

    1. Congratulations on nearing the end of that draft! We all know the first one is rough, but that doesn't make it any less remarkable an accomplishment.

  6. Good info! I particularly like this, since I've found it to be very true: "We all need an editor. (Even those of us who are, in fact, editors.)"

    I do think it makes sense in any new editorial relationship to do a sample section or chapter first (and yes, you should pay for that, and that's a good chance to find out what you're getting for your money). Find out if you are on the same wavelength at all. I have no desire to edit someone who's going to ignore every substantive suggestion I make (although disagreeing with some is reasonable), and anyone who hired me and then did that would be wasting her money.

    1. Interesting thoughts, Sandra! The sample edit concept is always a point of debate. I tend to come down on the other side myself--I don't think personal chemistry has much relevance to a positive editorial experience. Definitely you want to find someone who knows your genre, but beyond that, a good editor is a good editor. That said, it *is* important for author and editor to talk to figure out what the author is really looking for, because if an author genuinely doesn't *want* developmental feedback, then there may be something more appropriate to recommend.

      I've generally found that authors who choose to make the investment will also choose to make the changes, because bringing on an editor to begin with shows that they're serious about improving their work. Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't hesitation or serious doubt, because sometimes the manuscript needs a lot of work, and that isn't easy to hear. But as long as such authors understand that they can improve their manuscript--and I consider it part of my job to make sure they understand that as well--positive changes are nearly always made.

  7. These are great tips! I'm finishing up a YA manuscript and considering hiring an editor before I submit. Thanks for your help (and your contact info!)

    1. Of course, Julia! Considering that now is definitely the right thing to do. (Whether or not it includes my contact info!)

  8. Excellent article! Self-editing is difficult. As an author, I realize that I often times develop emotional relationships with my books or certain text/ideas. Sometimes what I think is wonderful may not appear so to the reader (as my writing-savvy adult children have expressed). I know having another person, one trained in the art of editing, critically reading my manuscripts should help me convey my ideas to the reader. I have a children's book series in progress and, per your article, realize I need different editors for the different stages of development in the 4 books. The first, a picture book, would be improved by a line editor. The second one probably only needs a copy-editor (My weakness is in verb tense usage in anything I write!). The third is a chapter book and the fourth is a full-length YA novel - both would benefit from a developmental editor. So, do you have any suggestions for children's book editors? Do you edit those?

    1. This sounds like a *really* interesting concept. If I'm understanding this right, the picture books, chapter book, and YA novel are all part of the same series? Is the idea that the books will become more advanced as the reader grows? That's pretty clever. I definitely edit YA and middle grade--in fact, I think that likely comprises the plurality of my work--but while I have edited picture books before, I wouldn't call it an area of expertise, and you're right that developmental feedback is often less necessary on that level.

      Your concept here is pretty distinct, and I'm hesitant to give you suggestions and/or recommendations before I understand it fully. Why not get in touch with me at Then we can set up a phone call (no charge, of course) and figure out the best approach to your unique project.