Hiring Your (Near) Perfect Editor

So you’ve written a book (awesome!) and you’ve given it at least one critical read to catch plot holes, poor characterization, unclear writing, and so on (fantastic!). You’re reasonably confident that your writing is publishable, but you’re not sure what to do next. Whether you’re looking for a publisher or planning to self-publish, you may need to hire an editor at some point. Here are some things you’ll want to know.

Learn the Fundamentals of the Editing Process

Before you even begin your search for a professional editor, familiarize yourself with the editorial process. By and large, there are a few terms that any editor will use, such as

  • substantive editing,
  • manuscript evaluation,
  • line/stylistic editing,
  • copy editing, and
  • proofreading.

Editors Canada provides general definitions of the different types of editing and various production tasks. However, different editors or publishers may use these terms in slightly different ways, so even if you are satisfied that you understand them, have a frank discussion with any potential editor to confirm that you are discussing the same thing.

Additionally, if you need someone to do fact-checking, ask if the editor includes that as part of their editing process or if that would be extra. If your writing includes a lot of specialized content, it may be better to have your work peer reviewed or fact-checked by an expert or someone who is strongly familiar with the topics you cover. Most editors are great researchers, but if they are not familiar with the topic, fact-checking will take longer and cost more.

Make Sure Your Work Is Actually Ready for Editing

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: good editing ain’t cheap, and cheap editing ain’t worth the money. We’ll talk about costs in the next section, but once you understand the editing process, you should get a second (and possibly third or fourth) opinion on whether or not it is worth your time and money to hire an editor just yet. Beta readers are your first line of defense.

Beta reading involves having other people read your book with a critical eye. Your readers do not need to be authors and editors themselves, but you should certainly pick people who are analytical, detail-oriented, and willing to give you an honest critique. If possible, choose people who like to read or are generally familiar with your genre so you can get better feedback on how your target readership might react.

Beta readers should be able to comment on how believable your plot, world, and characters are; how well you have paced the content; and whether your writing is clear and pleasant to read. They should also be able to identify confusing scenes, plot holes, and inquire about missing information. While they may not necessarily have solutions for your problems, they should be able to spot issues and bring them to your attention.

If your work is non-fiction or relies heavily on real-world facts (e.g., hard science fiction, historical fiction, etc.), find at least one knowledgeable reader who can critique the more technical sections of your work.

Set a Reasonable Budget and Schedule

Often, the biggest roadblocks to publishing in general and self-publishing in particular are constraints on the author’s time and money. Writing, rewriting, and editing require a lot of time if they are to be done well, and an editor’s time comes with a significant price tag. Since I know the Canadian market best, I will use Canadian standards to demonstrate my points.

Very generally, a Canadian editor with at least some formal training and/or an experienced mentor to help them develop their skills will charge $30 per hour or more depending on their experience and specialty. For fiction and non-fiction trade books, the typical range of rates is $30–$50 per hour; for business specialists and government editors, $50 per hour seems to be a typical starting rate; and editors who frequently work with law firms may charge $100 per hour or more.

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably written a fiction or trade book, so $30–$50 per hour is the range you should expect to pay. Some editors charge a little more, some a little less, but if you find an editor who charges $20 per hour or less, proceed with caution. Perhaps you’ve found a full-time editor who is trying to start their own business; they will have the right skills for the job but can afford to charge a lower fee while they build up a list of clientele. However, it might be a sign that this person has little or no training or has no contact with the professional editing community. Believe me, pricing is one of the first thing novice freelancers ask their experienced colleagues about. An editor who is not aware of the general standards of pricing may be out of touch with the industry and oblivious to general editing standards. Expect to get what you pay for.

Time is also important. A good edit can’t be rushed, and the better the condition of the manuscript, the less expensive the edit. To give you some very, very broad guidelines, the expected editing speed will likely fall within the following ranges:

  • substantive edit: 250–500 words per hour
  • copy edit: 1,000–1,500 words per hour
  • proofreading: approximately 2,000 words per hour

If you have an 80,000-word manuscript that needs a medium copy edit (around 1,250 words per hour), your editor is going to need about 64 hours to do the work. That’s roughly one and a half weeks of full-time work. Assuming a rate of $30 per hour, the fee will come to $1,920 before any applicable tax.

Last, if you’re self-publishing, be prepared to do a lot of waiting. Not only does the editing process take time, but the editors you contact may already be busy. You might have to wait a few weeks—or a few months—before they can start on your novel. A few of my colleagues have even managed to book themselves up a year or more in advance.

So, to avoid unnecessary frustration, don’t finish your first draft in April and expect to publish your book in July. Give your beta readers a month or two, maybe longer depending on the length of your manuscript. Expect each editing step to take a few weeks, prepare for a few weeks of waiting in case the editors you’d like to work with are booked up, and give yourself ample time to revise after each stage of editing.

I would also strongly advise that you not schedule any design work (other than the cover) until you’ve settled the copy editing and/or proofreading dates. There isn’t much point in laying out the content before the text has been finalized, especially if you have to pay someone to do it.

Find your Editing Soul Mate

The first trick is in knowing where to look. There is nothing wrong with googling the word “editor”, but sorting through the results might be an arduous task. If you’re going to do this, be sure to add the genre of the work you’ve written to help narrow down the field.

The other option, of course, is to look up editing associations, as many provide listings where members can advertise their services and/or prospective clients can post their own projects for editors to bid on. This also has the advantage of helping you find editors who are active members of professional organizations and therefore will have the support of community resources. They will also likely have some formal training. The following is a selection of organizations in North America and the United Kingdom that advertise their members’ services:

Shop around a bit and select five or six strong candidates. Send an identical query email to each that includes what type of editing you’re looking for; a brief synopsis of your story as well as its working title, word length, and genre;  and your approximate budget. Ask them if they would be interested in working with you and whether they might be available in the near future.

If they are interested and can get started on your book in a timeframe you can accept, then send them a list of any specific questions you have and request a sample edit and quote. A sample edit gives the editor a feel for your work and whether or not they think they can do the job within your budget. The quote will give you more specific numbers to work with, and the sample edit will show you what you can expect for your money.

As well, figure out how comfortable you feel with each candidate and whether they offer everything (or at least the important things) you’re looking for. Do they respond to your emails in a timely manner, and do they answer your questions completely? Do they volunteer additional information or address other concerns that may arise? Does their quoted fee include answering additional questions after the edit is done or will that cost extra? And so on.

Once you’ve decided who to work with, you may be expected to sign a contract and/or provide a deposit up front before work begins. Read the contract over carefully to make sure that you understand the terms and that everything you discussed with the editor is included. Double check dates and numbers. If something doesn’t seem right, ask questions or request revisions, and don’t sign until you are satisfied with all of the terms.

Patience Is Worth Its Weight in Gold

Your book wasn’t written in a day, and it won’t be published in a day either. Never rush yourself, your readers, or your editor. Setting realistic goals and being flexible will save you a lot of time, money, and heartache in the end. Above all, make sure you are satisfied that you have done the best work you could do and trusted the right people to help you.

Perhaps one day you will look back on your book and think you could have done better, but that just means you have evolved as a writer. This is a good thing. However, you don’t want to look back and realize your book is a disaster.

Take your time, do your research, consider your options, and be confident in your decisions. This way, whatever happens, you will achieve the best possible results under the circumstances, and your book will be a source of pride.

About quillsandqueries

My editing experience includes a wide variety of books, articles, and commentary in both fiction and non-fiction. I work with authors of novels and short stories, students preparing for their dissertations, and corporate clients who publish in the financial and education sectors.
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