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How to Choose a Good Editor

It doesn't matter how well you write – everybody needs an editor. Here's how to choose the right one.

Writing a book is a huge time investment. Depending on the wordcount and your skill level, reaching the end can take anywhere between a few weeks and a few years. Yes, there are outliers who can fire words onto the page and get one done in less than a week, but those cases are rare. Most of us labour over each sentence, slowly crafting what we deem to be a perfect manuscript. And even then, they aren’t publishable. If you’ve reached this stage, congratulations but beware. While your work might be good, and no one can stop you self-publishing, know that nobody can adequately edit their own work. To publish well, you must employ an editor.

Yet how do you find one and assess if they’re any good? These are valid questions. After all, unless you’ve worked in publishing for a while, or come from a family of book trade professionals, you’re unlikely to know a lot of editors before finishing a book for the first time. Likewise, even if you did know some, you probably can’t tell if they’re any good. It stands to reason; how can any author judge an editor when they’re new and can’t see the gaps in their own knowledge? The industry is a minefield. And there are no definite indicators:

  • A high fee doesn’t guarantee results.
  • Qualifications don’t guarantee results.
  • An impressive portfolio doesn’t guarantee results.

So, how do you find an editor and — more importantly — figure out if they’re right for you? Firstly, finding them is easy. Thousands advertise their services on marketplaces like Reedsy, Fiverr and Upwork. As for assessing their quality, picking a good one isn’t easy even when you have experience. Veteran authors still make mistakes. Bad actors are everywhere and good eggs sometimes crack under pressure or disappear when deadlines swamp them. However, it is possible to separate the word wizards from the blaggers who introduce more issues than they fix. You just need to keep a lookout for the right qualities and follow a stress-tested process.

Experience in Your Genre

The first quality you should look for is experience in your genre. This is vitally important. Indeed, while those who understand the mechanics of book-writing can edit anybook to a reasonable degree, it’s only those that have immersed themselves in a genre that can truly help you cater to its superfans. Say you write epic fantasy. A specialised editor will understand how much page space you should dedicate to battles and understand that readers love the teenage farm boy trope. Meanwhile, an editor who only reads historical romance might want to downplay fight scenes and make that farm boy a wealthy landowner in his thirties who needs a wife.

What happens if you choose an editor that favours the wrong genre? Worst-case scenario: they lead you to use a story structure or lexicon that doesn’t interest your ideal fans, causing you to garner a low review-star average and, as a result, fewer long-term sales. Fortunately, identifying an editor’s preferred genre before you hire them is straightforward. Many state theirs in their profile bios. And if one isn’t clear, it’s fine to ask. Alternatively, it’s customary for authors to namedrop editors in their acknowledgements. Hence, you can gather appropriate editors’ names from acknowledgement sections of books like yours and find them on social media.

Strengths at Your Stage

Next you should look at what editorial stage the editors in your longlist consider their speciality. You see, there are two main kinds of editors:

  • Developmental editors
  • Line editors

Developmental ones read manuscripts with structural changes in mind — elements like plot continuity, character development and worldbuilding consistency. They won’t check for typos but they will point out where there are gaps in your storytelling or where you contradict yourself. A line editor, meanwhile, largely ignores plot and character arcs, instead opting to focus on more granular issues like typos, word choice and sentence structure.

Some editors can do both at once. However, if you’re a new author, starting with a developmental edit is ideal. That way, you can address any broad issues with your writing.  You’ll likely introduce extra errors while addressing these anyway, so there’s little point fixing typos in your first pass. After that, the same editor, or a different one who excels at line editing, should swoop in to “clean up” your manuscript. Consider the stage your manuscript is at when comparing editors because working with them in the wrong order can lead to you either producing a nonsensical, error-riddled book or one that holds its own against comparable, polished page turners.

They Meet Practical Requirements

Say you’ve shortlisted developmental editors who understand your genre. Now what? Next you need to determine if they can meet your practical requirements. For example, what’s your current budget? Many editors will offer flexible payment options but they won’t charge less than their standard rate, especially if they have a queue of authors who can afford them. Likewise, they won’t slot you into the front of that queue even if your book sounds interesting. Remember, they need to pay their bills and enjoy a reasonable work-life balance, too. If you can’t afford them or they can’t hit your deadlines, it’s better to look elsewhere for your ideal editor.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re banned from working with that editor for the rest of your life, though. Who says you won’t be a little more flush in the future once you have a few titles under your belt and bigger ebook royalty cheques start hitting your account? Likewise, just because they have a waiting list right now, it won’t necessarily stay that way forever. If the future, you might be able to give them more time or they might lower their rates to fill a hole in their diary. If you love an editor’s style or want to work with them for whatever reason, save their details. One day you could both be in a better position to work on a mutual project.

A Compatible Work Style

No two editors work the same way. Some like to do a developmental pass then a line edit; others stick to one stage. Some want a whole manuscript upfront; others will edit one chapter at a time as you send them. Some write copious notes but will never talk to you in person; others are happy to book a Zoom call to answer questions after you’ve read their notes. Each has different working preferences and a unique personality. It often helps to figure out a potential editor’s quirks before you choose to work with them because successful author-editor relationships often stretch over several books and those with incompatible work styles struggle long term.

It’s also important not to disregard the style of an editor’s writing voice. For instance, when they email you about your project, do they seem enthusiastic? When they make comments, are they cutting? Sarcastic? Encouraging? When they critique your work, do they make gentle suggestions or strongarm you into adopting their style? No editor is necessarily wrong, but a blunt one might be wrong for you if you have a thin skin, just as a gentle one might frustrate others who want clear guidance. If an editor’s personality isn’t obvious in an email, you can always ask them to sample-edit a 1,000-word passage. It’s standard practice and most editors will happily oblige.

They Hold Their Own

A sample edit can help you whittle down your shortlist in a variety of ways. Firstly, going through this process will help you get a feel for an editor’s voice but, equally, it can help them decide if they want to work with you. Moreover, it provides you with a good opportunity to analyse their technical ability. In doing so, you’ll find many editors will talk a big game but can’t tell their semi-colons from their em-dashes in practice. It isn’t until you see a real example of their work on a passage you wrote that you’ll know if they pick up on errors like anachronisms and dangling participles. Ask yourself, “Are they just a good salesperson or can they walk the walk?”

Ensure you run a fair experiment, though, for best results. Don’t intentionally introduce mistakes into your work to test them. Otherwise, the test won’t accurately reflect drafts you’ll give them in the future, self-edited to the best of your ability. Similarly, if you request a sample edit from multiple editors, send them all the same passage and brief. Do you have a self-made style guide? If so, give them all access to that, too. That way, when it comes to the editing, any issues they raise will be genuine ones and will show you what each individual brings to the table. Generally, a winner becomes obvious when you compare their notes in a fair competition.

Admittedly, even after following all these steps, you might still not find your forever-editor on your first attempt. However, the process will help you narrow down the first batch. You’ll uncover one that most understands your genre, will satisfy your needs, delivers on time and in budget, and has a compatible personality. In essence, it’ll help you root out whichever one is most right for you at this moment. Will that editor be perfect? Probably not from day one. But build a relationship with a few editors over time and you’ll find several you can rely on over the long term. You will not fail; you will simply succeed or learn and grow from the experience.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.