A minimum of two editors is absolutely essential for any book headed to publication.
If you’re picked up by an agent and are published through traditional publishing companies, this will be taken care of for you. Likewise, most boutique and hybrid publishers have an editorial crew on call.
During the traditional or hybrid process, a series of editors will be assigned to your book. What do these editors do?
A copyeditor does the heavy rounds of revisions. They’ll check for glaring plot inconsistencies, smooth transitions between paragraphs, and grammatical issues. They’ll be very familiar with The Chicago Manual of Style. A proofreader will then comb through the copy for any missed typos or grammatical issues. If you write nonfiction, you may also work with a researcher who will verify citations.
Sometimes, an agent will express interest in a manuscript but decline representation at the moment because your book is too rough. This is often a good recommendation. However, if they tell you they’ll only represent you if you hire editor x, y, or z, you’ve probably found yourself the victim of a scam.
As a rule, agents don’t charge a reading fee or require you to use a specific editor. If it’s a recommendation with a casual “I can connect you with people I trust” mention, you might be okay. Make sure the agency is known in the industry and represents authors who have been successfully published.
Why Hire an Editor?
I don’t care if you’re the leading expert on the English language and writing a book about punctuation. If you’re self-publishing and don’t want your book roasted in the review section of Amazon, Kobo, Kindle you should hire at least one editor.
After 70,000 plus words, things tend to blur together. Humans aren’t good at repetitive, mundane tasks. We tend to breeze over text to infer words and sentence structure, particularly once we’re familiar with the text.
This makes us very bad at editing our own work.
Any person will only possess a single perspective on any given topic. Authors also inherently have more knowledge about their characters than what is actually documented in the text. A fresh set of eyes may identify that a character’s quirk is an offensive stereotype or pick up that a main character’s reaction to a situation is completely irrational without more backstory.
There is a reason why publishers view assigning a minimum of two editors to each book as essential. If there were a way to cut costs and still have a viable product, they would have figured it out by now.
If you’re still not convinced, go read a few rants posted by professional book reviewers about self-published authors who skipped an editor. Better yet, read reviews posted about talented writers on Goodreads. If you think they’re vicious when someone can write, find some poor person who slapped their half-assed book on Amazon and feel the burn.
Your book is usually a reader’s first impression of your work. The goal is to attract fans for future novels, not deter them. Putting your best foot forward involves hiring professional help for your cover, editing, and design.
Different Kinds of Editors
A lot of people ask, What do editors do?
There are over a dozen different kinds of editors, and they all perform a different function. Our list doesn’t focus on beta readers (see more on how to find and keep them here
) and critique partners—not because they aren’t useful—but because they’re typically not paid. Many writers volunteer to be a critique partner or beta reader in exchange for the same in return.
Commissioning or acquisition editors are editors who primarily work for publishing companies to source new material. Think of them as a less expensive agent for the publishing company. Associate editors also fall into this category.
The following editors are the different kinds of editors you’re most likely to need prior to publishing. What these editors do is work with you to improve your story in a variety of ways. What kind of editor you choose depends on how much help your book needs.
Developmental editors are usually hired before a book is finished or after an agent rips apart your plot (it happens to the best of us). Developmental editors comprehensively look at your story and determine whether you wrote yourself into a corner and need a rewrite. They specialize in plot structure, overall readability, and character behavior consistency. Because they go through so many revisions with the author—often before the book is even fully written—they are the most expensive editor you can hire. If your plot has issues, they’re also the most valuable. While many can copy edit (check grammar), it’s not why you would hire them.
A content editor is a lite developmental editor. You would hire them after the first draft of your novel is done. They’ll identify plot issues, but they won’t recommend a complete rewrite. They’ll try to make what you have work with a few alterations. They often also check for grammar, but their main focus is character consistency, plot, and chapter transitions.
Copy editors are grammar gurus. They study punctuation and word placement. They’ll agonize over word choice. They’ll identify your annoying word repetition. Copy editors will ensure your text is written as you mean it to be read: without flaws or ambiguity.
The difference between a copy editor and proofreader is what’s expected of the position. A copy editor does the heavy lifting. A proofreader should be able to quickly read your book once or twice and call out the occasional typo or missed comma. If they’re providing copious markup, you should reconsider hiring your copy editor again.
Where to Find an Editor
Because an editor plays such an influential role in developing your final product, you must choose someone with the right credentials and experience. Personal recommendations from writers you admire is a great way to go. You can also look at front cover information (even if it’s an eBook) and find an editor that way.
Word of mouth can expand beyond the people you know. There are Facebook groups for authors and online forums that can help connect you with reliable editors.
If you’re operating on a budget, you can try one of the freelance platforms like UpWork, but exercise a lot of caution. Carefully read reviews and testimonials and ask for examples of work, preferably published books. Reading the free snippet on Amazon can give you a great idea of whether or not to hire them.
What to Look for in an Editor
With the kind of workbook editors do, you’ll need to find someone you can work with. If you jump on a call with a prospective editor and they rub you the wrong way, don’t be afraid to go in a different direction. They’ll do the same. They don’t want a high-maintenance author calling them at all hours unless that’s their specialty (developmental editors earn every penny).
You’ll want an editor who charges a reasonable rate (more on that below), but keep in mind that you often get what you pay for. If you go for the cheapest bid on a website like Fiverr or Upwork, you may end up working with someone who doesn’t speak English as a primary language or has a less than stellar reputation.
Other things to look for:
Are they a Specialist?
Do they specialize in a specific kind of work, and do you fit in that niche? If someone edits cookbooks all day long, you probably don’t want to approach them for an epic fantasy novel job.
I have worked with some awesome editors who didn’t have an editing certificate, but I knew their work. They were highly recommended, and I liked the examples of their work. If you’re in a rush and need to find someone fast, credentials from a reputable university can hint at the quality.
An editor should offer a list of testimonials on their website. Reverse lookup the author of the comment and verify they’re a published author, and the editor is credited as being the editor on at least one of their books.
Most publishers use The Chicago Manual of Style, but there are exceptions. Nonfiction work may require different styles.
A good story is a good story, but a thriller novel requires different pacing than a romance novel. Nonfiction and fiction can be worlds apart. Many editors even list which genres they prefer not to work on.
The internet has opened up options for freelancers, and many of them work on international accounts. Make sure your editor has works published in your language, whether English (British) or English (American).
This is a little different than finding someone you can work with. Many writers have non-negotiable style requirements. A horror author may like to throw in profanity or avoid it altogether. Some writers insist on the serial or Oxford comma, while others detest it. Your editor must agree. #teamoxfordcomma
Not all writers and editors are fans of technology. Make sure your editor will work on a platform you use. Google Documents is a great place to edit and collaborate, but some editors insist on Word format only. Scrivener fans also may want to find a developmental editor that will work with them on the same platform.
Do you want to get your book out in the next month? You’re probably cutting it too close and will either need to negotiate your timeline or pay a premium. Talented editors often have a waiting list.
How to Interview an Editor
In addition to asking about the traits listed above (What’s a reasonable timeline? Do you mind working in the xyz genre? etc.), it is fair to ask for an example edit if the person has limited testimonials and experience. While you can’t expect someone to work for free, having two editors critique a sample set (1-5 pages) is a great way to determine which person to go with.
You should also set expectations about what you’re looking for. I personally wanted an editor who would rip apart my book. I wanted the best product possible, and someone who’s worried about hurting my feelings is going to hesitate when giving feedback. Figure out what you’re willing to change and what you aren’t, and discuss whether or not your boundaries are a deal-breaker.
The Cost of Hiring an Editor
Editors can and do charge by the hour, page count, or word. I prefer pricing to be broken out by word. Some people use insanely huge or tiny fonts, and this can skew the price in either direction.
I’ve outlined a range of pricing per word I’ve found online in United States dollars, but several factors can impact the cost of hiring an editor. The number of revision cycles, a tight deadline, the kind of editor you employ, and how demanding you are as a client can factor into pricing.
- Developmental Editing: $0.07-$0.15+ per word
- Content Editing: $0.04-$0.10 per word
- Copy Editing: $0.02-.$06 per word
- Proofreading: $0.01-$0.04 per word
If you have a 90,000-word novel, the cost of hiring an editor will range from $10K for developmental editing (although $6,500 is more realistic and some editors offer tiered pricing for higher word count) and to as little as $900 for proofreading.
How to Work With an Editor
You’re hiring an editor to point out the flaws in your work. If you become emotional when someone suggests a particular facet isn’t well done, you shouldn’t publish your book. Reviewers won’t care how much time and heart you put into your novel. Their subjective opinions will be all over the place and often harshly written. Plus, it isn’t fair to handle an editor’s critique poorly. No one wants to work with someone who doesn’t really want to change their book for the better because they believe it’s already perfect.
Communicate about timelines, keep track of revision cycles, and pay them promptly. For example, after receiving the editor’s first pass, ask when they need to receive the revision. Let them know whether or not it’s taking longer than expected.
Provided you’re in the game to create the best book possible—and you communicate regularly—you’ll work well with an editor.