Editor: How to Hire One

You have a manuscript. You have a pretty good idea of the kind of help it needs. You are almost afraid to ask how much it will cost, and your worst nightmare is having your book ripped to shreds by a grammar fiend who doesn’t understand the concept of style.

Hiring an editor is like selecting a combo plumber/hairdresser/pediatrician. You want someone who can track down, pinpoint, and fix your leaks and stoppages and make you look your best, while delivering scary and sometimes nasty tasting advice in a pleasant and confidence inspiring manner. A tall order, and you are probably not a human resources specialist. You many not even know where to look. And how do you ensure that the editor you hire will be worth the money you shell out?

Editorial Directories

There is no nationwide guild in the U.S. that certifies editorial competence. I don’t know why. There are, however, a handful of organizations—Craigslist is not among them—that offer resources and directories of professional editors. These include the Editorial Freelancers Association and the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors. There may be local or regional associations in your area as well. MediaBistro’s GalleyCat is another resource. Use the free directories of these organizations to view members’ profiles, or post your project to attract available editors. I am not a fan of sites such as Elance/ODesk that act as middlemen between authors and their editors. The bidding process (and the site’s cut) grinds away editors’ ability to receive fair compensation for the work they do.

No level of editing can be done in the time it takes to read your book. Even a simple read-through for mechanical errors will take considerably longer than a casual pleasure read. There are newbie editors who will cut their teeth on manuscripts for very little money, sometimes for free, and if they are gifted they can be good sources for an inexpensive, no-risk beta read. (The Goodreads Editors and Writers group has many such offers.) An experienced editor, however, will charge a living wage, and a busy editor with a full roster of authors can charge a premium rate.

Sample Edits and References

To establish their qualifications, editors may offer two useful forms of evidence: Sample edits and past achievement. Personally, I think a sample edit is the most useful indicator as it reveals as much about the editor’s predilections, method, attitude, and personality as it does about their abilities. Most editors will not charge for a sample edit, as it is as much in their interest as in yours and is necessary to establish an accurate estimate of cost. Some editors will charge for a sample for the same reason many service professionals will impose a service charge to come to your house and give an estimate—no one should be expected to work for free.

Still other editors will not do sample edits at all, relying on their references and track records to secure new clients. A good editor will have good references, of course. But even an editor with loyal clients may be a bad fit for you. If an editor has been highly recommended to you, get a copy of the author’s book and check out the quality of the edit—unfortunately, a pleasant experience is not necessarily a constructive one. If the edit was good, you might not be able to tell; if the edit was bad, it may be painfully obvious.

Interview Your Editor Candidates

So you’ve rounded up some candidates. You like their emails. You like their credentials. You’ve reviewed their sample edits and gotten quotes on the cost from each. You’ve checked their references. There are two or three you are leaning toward. Let them know you are down to your final selection, and request a phone call. Editors are shy beasts, but a person-to-person conversation can sway you one way or another. Ask about their process and what their standard contract looks like. A good editor will want to get a sense of you and what you are hoping for, what makes you nervous, what you may be hoping to negotiate, and what kind of a hurry you may be in. In return, you may be able to glean valuable advice on what to do after the edit as you move toward publication.

The editor you hire should understand your vision, be generous with advice, refrain from rewriting without express permission, and know how to bring out the strengths in your writing. Your editor must also be frank where weaknesses exist and instructive where improvement is possible. Don’t commit to an editor until you feel confident that your manuscript will be in trustworthy hands.

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