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

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

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 and dance a funky victory dance. But what about after that …?

Should you hire a freelance 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.)

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.

Your chosen route to publication

If you want to self-publish your novel, quality control is now up to you. That means you’re responsible for every part of the publishing process, from editing to typesetting to proofreading to cover design.

Luckily, you don’t have to do everything yourself. You can hire freelance professionals. Yet doing so for every part of the process can add up, so it’s worth thinking about where your budget is best spent – which part of the process you need the most help with.

If you want to publish traditionally, the publishing house ends up paying for most of the quality control services – including editing and proofreading.

But if you want to go down this route, the most important thing is that the foundations of your novel are solid from the start. Publishers want to publish books that are as close to perfect as possible (so they can be confident it will sell with as little investment as possible!). That means your novel’s concept needs to be marketable, your plot needs to be solid, your characters should be vivid, your voice strong, the pacing balanced, and so on.

Editorial services explained

There are three levels of editorial services. The first looks at the 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 level.

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. Hey, that’s the arts for you.

Level 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 could 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.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing (also known as substantive editing, 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, developmental editing is a more intensive service than a manuscript critique (which is a type of developmental edit). Because it’s more detailed, it takes longer and costs more. 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.

Level 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 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.

Level Three

Proofreading

This the final stage, and comes 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 time and 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 or 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 for 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 access 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’re qualified to do the task at hand?

  • Have they completed any courses? Courses from the Publishing Training Centre and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders are 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. A degree in literature could also be useful.
  • 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 for Editors and Proofreaders is the most well-regarded body of professional editorial freelancers in the UK. Joining a professional society indicates that a freelance editor takes their role seriously. As well as that, members of the SfEP are encouraged to follow its Code of Practice.

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.

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.

Summing up …

That’s quite a lot of information to take in, so here’s a quick recap of what you need to do to find the right editor for you:

  1. Consider which route to publishing you’d like to take. This will indicate how much of the 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!

Sophie Playle profile picture
Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in copy-editing and critiquing, working directly with authors. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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