Vetting an Independent Editor

I often receive questions from writers who are looking to hire an independent editor to polish their manuscripts, either for self-publication or for submission to agents and publishers, and want to know whether a particular editor or editing service is reputable. 

I usually tell them three things. First, paid editing can be expensive, so it makes sense to consider alternatives–a friend who’s not afraid to criticize, a local writers’ group or a critique circle, an online writers’ group (such as Critters Writers Workshop for SF/fantasy/horror writers), a peer critique community (such as Book Country or Authonomy), or a creative writing course. Any of these may be able to give you the help you need, free of charge or at a fraction of the cost. (You should be seeking such sources of feedback anyway–while self-editing is an essential component of the writer’s craft, no writer is capable of being completely objective about his or her work, and outside viewpoints are vital.)

Second, paid editing is not a magic fix. Editing is a subjective process–there’s no set formula for dynamic plots or well-rounded characters or even good prose style (beware of any independent editor who tells you there is). And even the most accomplished editor can’t turn a bad manuscript into a good one, or a mediocre manuscript into a blockbuster. They can only work with what’s already there.

Third, scams aren’t all you need to watch out for. Competence–or rather, the lack of it–is an equally hazardous pitfall. The Internet is rife with editors who’ve set up shop without much–or sometimes anything–in the way of relevant credentials.

These folks are often entirely well-intentioned, sincerely believing that a lifetime of reading, or a teaching career, or some technical writing experience, is enough to qualify them to edit manuscripts. But it’s much more likely that they don’t possess the specialized skills that are essential for a useful critique or a professional-quality line or content edit. Some provide no more than glorified proofreading or copy editing–things you really should be competent to do yourself, if you’re serious about writing. An inexperienced editor may also be unable to judge your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses for the trade marketplace (very important if you’re planning on seeking traditional publication), or have strange ideas about what constitutes good writing. Some amateur editors I’ve encountered aren’t even fully literate.

How to avoid unqualified or dishonest editors, and make sure the editor or editing service you’re considering is right for you? Here are some common-sense suggestions.


Be sure the editor (or editors, if it’s an editing service) is qualified. You’re looking for professional publishing industry experience–preferably, as an editor for reputable publishers–and/or professional writing credentials (legitimately-published books, articles, etc.). If the editor has a website, a resume or CV should be posted there. An editing service should post staff names and biographies. Be wary if you can’t find this information, or if requesting it produces excuses or obfuscation.

Also, for individual editors, membership in the Editorial Freelancers Association (US), the Society of Freelance Editors and Proofreaders (UK), the Institute of Professional Editors (Australia), or the Editors’ Association of Canada are all indications of professionalism. (The websites of these organizations provide a lot of helpful information, including sample agreements and charts of recommended rates).
– If you’ve been referred to the editor or editing service, verify that they’re independent. No third party (such as a literary agent or publisher) should benefit. 

– Be sure the editor you’re thinking of hiring has experience appropriate to your work. Editing is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Good editors specialize, both on the basis of experience and taste. Someone whose main work has been with nonfiction may not be the ideal choice to edit your epic fantasy novel.

 – Look for a client list, or a list of published books. Clients’ work published by recognizable publishers suggests that the editor has professional expertise and standing. If the editor or editing service specializes in self-published authors, get hold of a couple of the books so you can assess quality.

– Ask for references, and contact them. This is important for obvious reasons.

– Ask to see a sample critique or part of a sample edit. Not all editors may be willing to provide this, but if they do, it’ll give you an idea of what you’ll be getting for your money. Some editors or editing services have sample critiques on their websites.

– Make sure the business arrangements are clear–and get it in writing. You should know exactly what you’ll be paying for, including the scope of the work to be done, the charges you’ll incur, the time period involved, and who will be doing the editing (you don’t want to pay for a well-known editor only to discover that your manuscript is being handled by an underling). This is important not just for you, but for your editor, who needs to be clear on what you want the edit to accomplish. You should receive a contract or a letter/email of agreement that covers all these areas. Be wary if the editor is unwilling to provide this.


– If you receive a referral from a literary agent or publisher. This is not necessarily questionable. Reputable agents or publishers who like a project but don’t think it’s ready yet may suggest that writers consider hiring independent editors, and may recommend the name or names of qualified editors they’ve previously worked with and trust to do a good job.

But editing scams are out there. Common schemes include a kickback setup for successful referrals, where the scammer pays a percentage or a finder’s fee, a la Edit Ink–or the agent or publisher may actually own the editing service under a different name, and send writers there without disclosing the connection. An editing referral should always prompt some extra checking.

– If the publisher or agent recommends his/her own paid editing services. This is a clear conflict of interest. If the agent or publisher can make money from selling you editing or critiques, how can you be sure that the recommendation is in your best interest? Again, your editor or editing service needs to be independent.

– If buying editing is a requirement of representation or submission. Some scam literary agencies require clients to purchase a critique as a condition of representation. Some devious publishers make buying a manuscript assessment part of the submission process. Again, this is a conflict of interest, allowing the agency or publisher to increase its profit margin by charging authors for extra services–which may not be of professional quality.

– If you can’t find a resume or CV, or claims of expertise can’t be verified. A reputable editor will provide a biography or CV that clearly states his or her experience–either on his or her website or on request. Ditto for the staff of reputable editing services. Be wary if this information is missing, or if it’s too vague to verify. Claims like “Joe Editor has published ten novels” or “Jane Editor has worked for two major publishing houses” are meaningless unless they’re specific. And if you request specifics and are refused–move on.

– If the editing is anonymous. Some editing services don’t just fail to provide the credentials of the editors who work for them, they won’t even provide names. You may learn your editor’s name only after he or she is assigned to you–or maybe not at all (I know of one dubious editing service where editors are identified only by number). This makes it impossible for you to verify your editor’s credentials, or whether he or she has experience appropriate to your work.

– If the editor edits any and all genres, all comers accepted. Expert editors have areas of specialization that reflect their professional experience and their personal tastes. The skills required to edit or critique a romance novel, for instance, are quite different from those needed for a work of narrative nonfiction. That’s not to say a single editor won’t possess both skill sets–but it’s not very likely that one person will be able to edit any and all subjects and genres with equal effectiveness.

Also, within the basic scope of services, a good editor will tailor the job to the client. Standardized services and a lack of specialization suggest either a dearth of professional experience, or an editor who provides a widget-like service.

– If the editor tells you that agents and publishers prefer manuscripts that have been professionally edited. Dishonest or ignorant editors sometimes prey on the anxieties of writers who are seeking traditional publication by saying that agents and publishers give preference to professionally edited manuscripts. This is false.

For one thing, agents and publishers know the limitations of even the best editing, which can make a manuscript better but won’t necessarily make it marketable. For another, they are well aware of the number of less-than-competent editors out there, and know that “professionally edited” may not mean any such thing. Plastering your manuscript with “Professionally Edited” or mentioning it in your cover letter is unlikely to improve your chances–in fact it may harm them, as savvy agents and publishers may assume you’ve been rooked, or worry that you aren’t capable of producing a publishable book on your own. Your manuscript needs to be as perfect as you can make it, but no one will hold it against you if you accomplish that yourself.

Vagueness about specific services. If an editor or editing service won’t give you a firm price, or doesn’t want to lay out a procedure and/or timeline, or won’t tell you who will be working on your manuscript, move on.

– Refusal of reasonable requests for information. A reputable editor or editing service should have no problem providing a resume, references, and work samples, or answering questions about prices and services. Be wary if you encounter resistance in any of these areas.


  1. Excellent list. Three more to consider:

    1) Run any correspondence, web site text, etc. you receive from the editor by a persnickety friend. Their business-related copy should be flawless (or only flawed by occasional typing errors)

    2) All critiques should arrive in writing with an oral explanation as a backup addition, not as the main form of communication. Almost always, people who don't know what they're doing talk better than they write.

    3) Main things to ask the reference: did the editor understand your book, or change it to one that s/he understood? was it artistically better when it was done, or just
    "more professional"? How much better did it get? Could you have done it yourself?

  2. I'd like to follow up John's comment, especially item #3, in regards to content or developmental editing.

    When an editor reviews your work and makes such radical suggestions that you no longer even recognize your story, stop everything.

    If the changes being suggested involve YOUR characters in a completely DIFFERENT story, then run, don't walk, and find someone else who actually gets the story you wrote.

    Follow step #1 and seek one or two opinions from trusted readers if you are having any doubts.

    And be specific about what you want from an editor. If you want an analysis of the overall plot line and suggestions for improvement, then make that clear.

    But if all you want is to tighten scenes within the story to make what you have better, then be sure the editor understands that.

    Poor communication with a freelance editor nearly cost me thousands of dollars, and thankfully we terminated our arrangement before it had done so. My story may still need editing, but at least it's still MY story.

  3. I used Writers Digest editing service and they were absolutely awful and I paid an arm and a leg and never got published!!!

  4. Great post, Victoria! I'll have to link to it. Too many scams and bad editing out there.

    I'd add a couple of items/nuances, too….

    If your editor makes changes "secretly" (without calling them out specifically or, if you agreed to use track changes, with track-changes turned OFF). Run. Fast. The other way….

    If your editor consistenly cannot clearly explain why they are suggesting changes (beyond simple grammar) changes to you, don't use that editor.

    Above all, remember that if you hire a freelance editor, that editor works for YOU. They make suggestions and comments and try to make your work the best it can be. You do not have to take any of these suggestions or changes if you don't agree with them.

  5. I think it makes more sense to work with a critique group as you suggested first and then maybe hire someone to proofread your manuscript.

    I'm a member of an online writing community. I've found the experience of critiquing other people's work and receiving critiques in return invaluable in making my work better.

    But some groups don't play nicely with others, so you have to check them out thoroughly before sharing anything with them.

  6. Thank you for all the great advice. I've been looking for an editor and this will help me so much.

  7. I usually agree with you and nod as I read. This time, I scratched my head. I think I heard you say ask your neighbor or cousin to edit your book. Then I think you said hire and editor and be careful to be sure they have the proper experience and credentials. I also read, in great surprise that hiring a professional will make publishers think you've been duped. I see nothing like that in our industry. Of course there are unqualified people ready to take your money. Vet your professionals and act cautiously. Would you hire a surgeon without checking credentials? Would you fly an airline known to hire pilots without training or experience?

    I completely agree, ask questions, check references, beware of sham. But I've read 50 self-published books this year as a judge for a competition. May I tell you, most , and I mean MOST are so poorly written and styled that I felt depressed. You can not do a final edit or a proofread on your own work. Editing is not necessarily "expensive." I'd say authors need to do their homework before they decide editors are frauds and books don't need good structure, flow, and polish. No editor should impose their plot or characters on your work or edit with a machete. You drive, they co-pilot.

  8. Victoria,
    I usually agree with what you post on your blog, but as a freelance editor I'd like to speak up for myself and my colleagues.

    1) Considering alternatives to editing: absolutely. In my opinion, working with an editor should happen after you've explored the alternatives when you're a) self-publishing (because *nobody* is a good copy editor/proofreader for their own material, editors included) or b) you feel the material still has weaknesses and you need an experienced eye to ferret them out so you can do better in the future.

    2) Editors make books better. Not necessarily 'good'. The more work an author does before hiring an editor, the less expensive time the editor will spend on fixing simple mistakes.
    What editors also can't do is ensure that a book is 'publishable' or that agents and editors will love it.

    3) Not all editors work in the same manner. The verifiable items you describe are a guideline, but none of these things make you a good or a bad editor. Refusing to give a firm price for editing before one has seen the manuscript, for instance, is standard practice among the editors I know – and if you're doing a substantial edit, it's impossible to know how much work a book will need until you have actually edited it. You can guess, you can offer X hours editing for $Y, but you can't make a firm comittment – unless you're calculating on the basis of 'think of a number and double it.'

    In short, I don't feel that most of the criteria you mention won't necessarily lead writers to the best editors for them.
    I would say that the main thing a writer needs in a potential editor is an editing sample and the correspondence that will lead up to it – that gives you the opportunity to see whether the editor's input is what you are looking for and how you react to being edited by that person. (Two equally competent editors might write vastly differing queries. If you're investing money and time and dreams, you need to be comfortable with the process.)

    Editing is *very* individual. Editors can argue all day long about minutiae and once you're past the basics of grammar and story structure there's no real yardstick for 'good' or 'bad' editing other than "I know it when I see it", same as with writers. You don't just want competent, you want right for you… and you want an editor who shares your vision for your writing.

    And last but not least, one way of making sure that a good editor will make room for you in their schedule is to be the kind of person editors want to work with: someone who is open about the process, who calmly asks for clarification instead of blowing off about critiques, who wants to learn, and who'll go home to write their socks off and deliver a second draft that's just so much better than the first.

  9. I think there are only two circumstances in which a writer should consider hiring a freelance editor at all:

    1. The writer is planning to self-publish.

    2. The writer isn't really a writer, but something else (a plumber, say) and just wants to write this one book (1000 Home Plumbing Solutions) and that's it.

    In the first case, as others have said, you're sunk without an editor. In the second case, you don't need to develop self-editing skills because writing's not your main interest.

    But for everyone else– including plumbers who want to write more than one book about plumbing– you have to develop self-editing skills by the means that Victoria mentioned or you'll never make it in this business.

  10. As a self-publisher and a former freelance editor, I agree with green-knight but have a couple of extra comments.

    There is a difference between a merely objective eye and professional editorial training. If you just want the objective eye, by all means circulate the manuscript to unpaid non-editors for comments. If you want an experienced editor, you will have to pay. I have toyed with the idea of taking up freelance editing again, only to be depressed by comments on self-pub groups about cheap editors, including the writer who paid an "excellent" editor nothing but a bottle of gin for closely editing an entire book. If you want the best of both worlds, you will have to get some real editorial training and experience and then learn to be objective about your own work. (A very good thing in in any case.) I self-edit, but I have the professional training. It really helps to put the manuscript aside for awhile. Some writers change the look–the margins and/or the font–to help themselves see the content differently.

    And, as someone with a experience in some very different fields, I'd like to politely disagree with Victoria. I would not tackle advanced-level nonfiction in a specialty in which I have no knowledge, especially for a rewrite job. But I can still edit many kinds of material, including fiction. Not for a bottle of gin though. Even if it's a large bottle and paid in advance.

  11. I will add that the definitions of developmental editing, rewrite editing, copy editing, even proofreading, do not seem to be universal. Editors can put careful definitions on their on websites; they can point to definitions posted on the websites of editorial organizations. Despite all this, it is very common for a client to specify one level of editing and payment for that, the editor agrees, then it turns out the client really wants something much more time consuming. (And this impacts the freelancer's schedule for other jobs as well as payment for that one clients' job.) Editors may well edit a few supposedly representative pages for free to assess the job–then find out these pages are not really representative. It is not therefore a scam if an editor does not want to agree to a fixed project price.

  12. There seems to be a worrying large amount of mistrust of freelance editors out there, judging by some of the comments to this post. The vast majority of us are skilled, honest and really quite nice! We're not there to take advantage of authors, but to turn their work to its advantage.

  13. I agree with Steph, Frances Grimble, green knight and mkpelland. As a freelance editor with accredition from the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) in Australia (one of only 200 accredited editors in the country) I am concerned about this blog entry and its portrayal of freelance editors. I consider myself to be a professional. I am highly skilled, honest and extremely hardworking. I normally work many more hours on a manuscript than my original quote indicated, because I care deeply about the copy and about my clients. I am not a fiction editor; I edit non-fiction, mainly in the social sciences. If a potential client contacts me about editing a fiction MS, I refer them to an editor skilled with fiction. My piority is always to apply my skills (developed over many years of training) to do the best for each and every client.

  14. I really appreciate all the differing points of view expressed in these comments, and the advice that's being offered by professionals.

    I certainly didn't write this post to cast aspersions on freelance editors as a group. There are many highly skilled and conscientious freelance editors who do a wonderful job for their clients–no question.

    However, as in any profession, consumers can't simply assume that everyone they encounter is competent or reputable. Advising writers to do their due diligence in order to weed out the bad apples isn't denigrating the editing profession–it's just good sense.

    And there truly are a lot of bad apples out there. Editing scams do exist. So do incompetent editors–now more than ever, in fact, since the boom in self-publishing has really increased the market for editing services. This truly is a major potential pitfall for writers, especially inexperienced writers who don't know how to judge an editor's skills, or may not be clear on what editing can and can't accomplish–or may not even really know what they want from editing. I hear all the time from writers who are considering spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on self-styled editors whose only qualifications are having read a lot of books, or written a bunch of trunk novels, or published some stories or articles in obscure online journals.

    Wendy Monaghan, you may have noticed that I mentioned membership in the Institute of Professional Editors as one indication of an editor's professionalism.

  15. Victoria, I've never belonged to any editorial organization. At least not that I remember. No client ever cared whether I did. All they cared about was my references and work samples. And I was working for book, magazine, and academic journal publishers, not individual writers.

    To those who want to learn to self-edit to the level of copy editing, I recommend buying a copy of the Chicago Manual of style, and memorizing (at least) where everything in it is. Also buy a copy of one of the books available for people learning to copy edit. Apply yourself closely to this material. Copy editing is not as much fun for writers as writing, developmental editing, or heavy rewriting. It may, however, make a good impression on publishers without your spending much money.

    When I was an editor working for book publishers, one nonfiction publisher was willing to do a lot of editing for authors with subject expertise. I did developmental editing to the extent of writing their initial outlines for them. I rewrote to the extent of being an unacknowledged coauthor. BUT, the publisher was always thrilled to acquire authors who turned in manuscripts that needed nothing but a light copyedit. We loved perfectionists and we kept buying their work. They cost us so much less trouble and money.

  16. First, paid editing can be expensive, so it makes sense to consider alternatives–a friend who’s not afraid to criticize, a local writers’ group or critique circle, an online writers’ group (such as Critters Writers Workshop for SF/fantasy/horror writers), a peer critique community (such as Book Country or Authonomy), or a creative writing course.

    I think this is the perfect place to start. If you're going to self-publish, though, it's better if you also go to a professional. A professional that you vet. Ask what style guide they use. Ask what copyediting tests they've passed. Some people sincerely they're good enough to charge for their services, but that doesn't mean they are.

  17. As someone who runs an editing service [BubbleCow] I would like to add three points to this excellent article:

    1. Writers MUST be aware of the type of editing they require. Copy editing is like a very in-depth proof read, where spelling and grammar will be corrected. However, structural editing is different and will offer a big picture overview of the manuscript. I suggest you speak to the editor/company before parting with any cash and ask them what is the best approach for your work. I often find that writers come to us wanting 'editing', but have no idea what type of editing is suitable. It is only after a conversation about their goals and publication route that we can offer the correct service.
    2. Turnaround time. We offer a 21 day turnaround (for copy editing) and this is on the very limits of our capabilities. In fact, we have found that we have had to employ more editors to ensure we match this promise. When assessing an editor get a clear picture of when a manuscript will be returned. As a rule of thumb it can take a couple of weeks to edit a large novel. If an editor is saying you can have your book back in a few days or six months, then alarm bells should be ringing. If an editor isn't busy then ask them why? I am a structural editor with a reputation for certain genres (history and sci fi). I get a lot of writers coming to me from recommendations. The result is that I am very busy. If you want me to look at your work, then it will be at least a month (if not longer) before I can provide feedback. I tell writers this up front and then let them make the choice. I am worth waiting for 😉
    3. My final nugget is to use google and forums. Do a bit of research. Type in the name of the editor or company and add words such as 'sucks', 'scam' and 'rip off'. It is impossible to hide on the internet. Also go into forums and and start a thread about the company and editor and see what people say. A number of writers have done this for BubbleCow. We have found that writers who have had a good experience will be quick to pop up and provide feedback.

    At the end of the day you will be handing over a lot of cash and you need to ensure that you are getting value for money. At BubbleCow we are happy to chat with writers weeks ,or even months, before they are ready to submit their work. An editor should be a partner in your publishing process. You need to feel 100% comfortable with your editor before moving forward.

  18. Ask what style guide they use.

    That's only a good question if you know what the answer is supposed to be:

    'Well I mostly use Chicago, but I'll go with anythig the author suggests and make it consistent.'

    And that's because Chicago (the most common) and every other style guide was developed for non-fiction – and every house will still use exceptions and develop their own house style. In some places style guides are not suited to fiction (in fiction, I'd write out all numbers, for instance). In some, there's absolutely no reason not to follow author preference for or against serial commas or the use of the spelling 'grey' in an AmE novel. (So many writers I know use both grey and gray to refer to different shades of the colour.)

    But the clincher is that you don't edit a novel for maximum clarity and improved communication – you do some of that, yes, but you also need to allow the author's voice to stand as it is. So a fiction copy editor needs to distinguish between things that would confuse the reader and things that are unusual but which readers can cope with, and the more literary a style, or the more non-standard language characters use, the more an editor needs to exercise their ear – and here, a degree in literature or years of experience reading and critting in the genre you're aiming at (so the editor knows the reader expectations) will trump membership in an organisation and knowing Chicago backwards and forwards.

    Let's take

    Copyedited Yoda should not be .

    How would you edit that sentence?

    If you answer 'Yoda should not be copyedited' you lose. This might be 'correct' but it will also destroy the character's voice.
    If you answer 'it should be left alone' you also lose. As it stands, the sentence is in character, and readers will probably understand what is meant, but there's also a reading of (Copyedited Yoda) (should not be) which might cause confusion on first reading.

    So change it, for instance, to

    Copy edit Yoda you can not.

    and you get both, a preservation of the character's quirks and additional clarity.

    *That's* what fiction editors do. Understand what the author is doing and helping them to achieve that.

    No copy editing course or membership in an organisation can teach you that, and if you don't already bring a lot of it to your job, a working for a publisher won't teach it to you either.

  19. Heh. Yes, good points. I should have said that the point isn't just to see if the editor uses CMS. Here's what I'd be looking for:

    Good answer: "Well, I mostly use Chicago, but I'll go with anythig the author suggests and make it consistent."

    Not ideal, but acceptable: "I generally use AP style. What would you like me to use?"

    Bad: "What's a style guide?"

  20. @BuffySquirrel:

    Thank you! <bows>


    The point is not that editors need to know what a style guide is – of course they do – but that I've seen some of the most unfortunate copy editing of fiction by people who think that a style guide must be appllied. Publishing houses try to impose one so all books across their catalogue are consistent (but it's usually house style and very often 'if the auhor is consistent, leave it alone'), but copy editors who feel that their job consists of applying style guides to a novel often a) are imposing rules that make little sense in fiction [which leads to writers foaming at the mouth and screaming STET at the top of their voices] and b) failing at other parts of the task, such as noting that every character uses the same unusual term to refer to prostitutes (really spoiled the book for me, that's how jarring it was)

  21. Even with nonfiction, it is necessary for an editor to consider the author's voice, what terms his/her readers expect, and what specialized terms or spellings are necessary for the book. I kind of channeled the author–it's a term I hate but right now I can't think of a better one. The goal is to make it a better book of the kind it's supposed to be, not to turn it into a different book.

    However, style guides such as Chicago alert you to a huge number of details that you should be aware of and which usually have little to do with the author's voice. For example, a mostly otherwise good book that a friend self-published contained things like, one paragraph where the same term was hyphenated in three different ways. My first editing instructor used to say that consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds–and of copyeditors.

    I can copyedit and proofread, although I do not do either for most of my net postings. I am a bad typist and life is too short to polish everything. But I am naturally more of a developmental and rewrite editor. When I first took a copyediting course, I could not believe the level of fiddly detail I was supposed to pay attention to. But someone has to do it, and what I am saying is, if you learn to do it you can make a better impression on potential publishers and save money. Even if you hire an editor, figuring out whether punctuation goes inside or outside quotation marks is one more thing the editor will not have to do.

  22. Oh yes, authors need to be available to their editors for the entire course of the project. That way the editor can just ask why you used some unusual term or spelling, and so forth.

    And try not to be defensive. A bad editor can be very annoying, but a good one will be invaluable.

  23. Thank you for this post, Victoria. Although I have an excellent critique partner and belong to a writing group, I've been considering looking for an editor before I begin the querying process. I appreciate your advice.

  24. I'm later than usual in getting to your column. (Thanks to Porter Anderson for the link.)But I'd like to say–as a former freelance editor and advice blogger for new writers–I agree with this 100%.

    The self-publishing revolution has spawned a service industry for self-publishers that is full of unvetted, unregulated amateurs. I see so many new writers getting burned. Most new writers are so inexperienced they can't tell if an editor or designer is competent or not.

    I personally know unpublished, untrained amateurs who have hung out their shingles as "editors" on the basis of nothing but a few "A's" in grammar in the 8th grade. They do not have a clue about the publishing business or how to prepare a manuscript for today's marketplace. They can mangle a manuscript and destroy a fledgling writer's self-esteem as well as taking money for something that can never be publishable.

    The only way to learn to write is by getting critiqued by your peers or teachers until you are ready to become a professional. That can take years. It SHOULD take years.

    Paying an amateur to edit your book is like paying an amateur to be your lawyer or doctor. Don't hire anybody who doesn't have proven credentials.

    There are obviously professional editors commenting here. But they do not benefit from defending people who are giving editors a bad name.

    A writer should not hire a professional editor until she is ready to be a professional writer. (With the exception of the great example in the comments of the plumber who has only one book in him.)

    Thanks for this much needed post, Victoria!

  25. Please consider adding Bay Area Editors Forum ( to your list of reputable organizations. Some of my clients have found me through BAEF. Friendly edit advice: Tell your readers first what TO look for in an editor. Then tell them the 3 downsides. I see your commenters, though, helped you there. Camille

  26. I found your post very interesting Victoria – clearly it is not written to "cast aspersions" on freelance editors, but to point out all sides to hiring a professional.

    I found the input by Frances Grimble and Green_Knight also useful.

    I am a published author, about to self-publish, and would appreciate a recommendation for an editor specialising in non-fiction narrative.

    I have a budget for quality editing since to self-publish without a well edited MSS is like throwing money down the sink.

  27. Anne,

    So how do you tell whether you are "ready" to be a professional writer? I just started sending out magazine articles and editors accepted them, starting with the first one.

  28. I just went to the EFA website, searched for editors who do developmental editing for fiction, and got back 244 hits. Very few have editorial experience with traditional publishers. Less than a handful specialize in fiction; even fewer mention my genre (thrillers). A random sample of the websites yielded very few resumes, and the ones with client lists don't make it very easy to tell which authors have been published.

    There are current and former journalists, teachers, translators, doctors, marketeers and academics. Many are also writers, and many of them are more interested in telling me about their own published books than those of their clients. A great many say they'll edit anything (novels! sales brochures! textbooks! graduate theses!).

    Based on the qualifications you listed, most of these people — members all of the U.S. freelance editors' association — fail to meet the mark. Does this mean they're not good candidates, or does it mean that the sort of editor you describe is the publishing equivalent to a unicorn?

    Assuming I can find an appropriate editor, and he/she does quality work on my MS, then what? Am I any more likely to find an agent? What do I do with a $2000-4000 editing job on an MS that's too short/too long/too original/too unoriginal/not commercial enough/too commercial/"not for us"/NRMN? (I know — someone's going to say "self-publish". So why did I bother trying to find an agent after the edit?)

    I now have to decide whether it's worth probably weeks of effort to find a worthwhile editor, then spend a couple mortgage payments to edit a MS that still may never make it off my hard drive. Or, do I self-publish and in so doing take on a full-time job doing all the things a traditional publisher used to do before the Big 6 started expecting authors to do all their work for them?

    This has been a depressing experiment. It's good I enjoy writing and have a day job.

  29. LC–If you're looking for traditional publication, paying for an edit is most definitely NOT a requirement. As I say in my post, a clean, well-written manuscript is essential–but no one will hold it against you if you accomplish this yourself. And you _can_ accomplish it yourself–plenty of writers do, using the kind of outside help I identified at the beginning of the post. I've never paid for an edit, nor have most of the professional writers I know, and I'm acquainted with numerous first-time writers who broke into the traditional ranks without going the paid editing route.

    If you're planning on self-publishing, on the other hand, and are serious about putting out a professional product, hiring an editor is probably a good idea–even if it's a copy editor to to do the micro-polish, rather than a content editor to help you with structure.

  30. does it mean that the sort of editor you describe is the publishing equivalent to a unicorn?

    In my opinion – judging from my own experience and contact with a number of freelance editors- yes. You can get some of them but probably not all in the same package.

    LC, what I would do in your case is approach editors – ones you like the sound of – (fiction experience is a necessity, mystery is desirable) and ask for an initial evaluation based on a short sample and your synopsis. Then pay for 3-4h of an editor's time to answer your core questions: is the writing tight enough? Does the concept appear commercial? Be open about your situation: you don't know which route you want to go, you might opt for self-publishing, you might rewrite based on the feedback, you might submit to publishers and not pay for further editing.

    Of course one can find people for that elsewhere, but if you chad access to them, you probably would have done that already.

    Save the main expense until you're certain where you want to take this project (and yes, 'the trunk' is a valid option) and don't pay if you're planning to submit. If I were a acquiring editor I'd be wary of a writer who submits a manuscript that had been professionally edited – because I need to know what quality prose the writer delivers on their own. If an editor asks you to rewrite an entire section of your mss, you want to deliver the same skill, the same sparkle as the original submission.

  31. Victoria Strauss, it is misleading to speak of 'membership' of the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd). Members of IPEd are not individual editors but rather the state societies of editors, such as the Society of Editors NSW (of which I am a member) and Editors Victoria. It is important for readers of your blog to understand that IPEd assess (and accredit) individual editors based on a rigorous examination process. To date, only 209 editors in Australia have achieved accreditation. Therefore, the appropriate term is an editor 'accredited by IPEd', not an editor who is a 'member of IPEd'. One can be a member of a state society of editors and not be an accredited editor. This is important information for authors to keep in mind when considering hiring an Australian-based accredited editor.

  32. Interesting I came across your post. I just went through an issue with the person I hired to do my copy editing. They were the sister of a close friend, who "did this for a living" and as such offered me the family rate.

    I realized just how poorly of a job she did when my teenage daughter came downstairs after reading the book and showed me the 20 or so pink page markers where she'd found mistakes!

    I guess it's true and you do get what you pay for.
    I'll bookmark and follow these pointers the next go around.


  33. It never ceases to amaze me how many people will put up a CV in plain view on a website, and here is a website actually advocating that people do exactly that! Have you never heard of identity theft? With the kind of information available in a CV, a scammer would have no problem racking up thousands in debt on credit cards. Don't do it – if someone wants your CV, they should ask for it.

  34. Interesting blog post. I often find that a lot of independent book publishers don't seem to have their work edited. I wish I could point them out to this article without seeming rude!

  35. Before enlisting the services of an editor, I recommend that fiction writers vet their own manuscripts using SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Renni Browne and Dave King. Then consider using beta readers for feedback. Also the right critique groups are great and can help one along the way, even with a first draft. (Need I say, grow a thick skin and lock away your ego?)Revise, revise, revise. Put it away for a while and then revise, revise, again. By that time, the manuscript you send to an indie editor should require very little editing. And yes, be specific about what you want from the editor.

  36. Ditto the recommendation for Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I wish all of my clients had a copy.

  37. Hello. This is great advice not only for writers but also a good set of guidelines for independent editors to see and adhere to. Would you mind if I reprint this on my writing blog? You can check it out for legitimacy: http:www/
    I'll also add your blog to my blogroll. 🙂

  38. This is a great post, but I am wondering about one thing. Why should a memberships in associations be "indications of professionalism?" The Editorial Freelancers Association, for example, does no testing or background checks. Yes, there are some great references on the site, but anyone has access to most of them. And to be a member, all you have to do is pay the membership fee. That's a measure of disposable income, maybe, but not really a measure of professionalism.

  39. That's a measure of disposable income, maybe, but not really a measure of professionalism.

    Yes and no. Membership in the EFA or other professional associations doesn't guarantee a specific level of competence. It is, however, an indication of awareness. A lot of people think that because they're good at spelling and majored in English, they can be an editor. People who bother to pay the fee for a professional organization will probably at least know what a style guide is. And if not, they'll be more likely to pick it up eventually through talking with other professionals.

  40. Anonymous–that's true, and any editor a writer is thinking of hiring should be carefully vetted, memberships or no memberships. But joining a professional group is an extra step that amateur editors and scammers don't typically bother with (often because they don't want to pay a membership fee). It suggests a certain level of professionalism, even if it's not an on-its-own certification of competence.

  41. Great post Victoria!

    The only thing I might take issue with is the membership in professional associations point. While it's true that many reputable editors hold such memberships, it's also worth pointing out that anyone can pay the fee and become a member – whether they know how to edit or not. So while it might help to make a person look more credible, in reality, it's actually no guarantee whatsoever that they actually know what they're doing 🙂

    My two cents…

  42. @ Victoria Strauss My problem is being a new author and not knowing what to expect from an editor. I've read books on publishing, but it's really hard to know if the editor knows what he/she is doing or not. I'm at their mercy… especially when I'm not the best at proper grammar or punctuation. So I would really have no way of knowing if they did it right or not.

    So far, I've been through 2 proof/editors that were both very amateur. One of them refused to call me on the phone after she couldn't seem to comprehend what I re-explained in my email to her several times, and the other person only somewhat proofed and acted as if that was sufficient. One of them said she was a double major in English Literature, yet she didn't even know how to properly cite sources. One claims to have written (half-assed) books, yet didn't know how to properly format one… and she told me to incorrectly reformat what I had already learned from a professional in a book.

    Thank God I at least have enough common sense to know I needed to run from both clowns. But I'm frustrated because it really wasn't worth the time I wasted to go the cheap route. The sad part was, that I hired one of them from a website where the person had over 200 positive reviews. Apparently those people must be really bad at writing, or don't car if they buy sub-par services.

  43. Sorry you've had such a hard time, Angela. Did either of these editors give you a sample edit? That's a quick way for an author and an editor to see if they're a good match, and you can get some idea of the person's competence too.

  44. In reference to a previous commenter, Gary Smailes, I have to point out that his comment, when compared to the quality of his website and his "Writing Manual," constitutes a case in point which serves to amplify Victoria's original post.

    The blog links don't work, the "Writing Manual" has some good information but is teeming with errors of grammar and typos. And, though Gary states that the ebook is unproofed and unedited, wouldn't we, at minimum, expect those functions to have been performed on a book published for writers by an editing service?

  45. I recently discovered the importance of interviewing a prospective editor. The person had impressive credentials and was listed with a writing organization I respect. I told her, before the meeting, I wanted developmental editing; I was not interested in line editing or proofing at this time. During the interview she kept returning to line editing, and then, as we chatted, disclosed she wasn't very good at it: "My client asked if it really was okay all his characters were blond. I didn't even notice." and "I have to remind myself to focus when I get to parts that don't interest me. Otherwise I'll skip right over them without noticing." She laughed as she said these things.

    Not what I was looking for, despite the credentials.

    I know there are good editors out there and appreciate their importance. I am currently getting recommendations from fellow writers.

    BTW: I think it needs to be noted that the best editing possible does not guarantee the ms will be accepted somewhere for publication. Or even move out of the slush pile.

  46. This is not as simple as it sounds. An analogy: I once worked at an organization that was considering hiring a consultant. I did a little digging and found a report written by the last consultant. Every single suggestion was so basic as to be obvious. The organization had failed to implement anything the consultant suggested. Authors have to be willing to take constructive criticism. That's difficult. Sometimes the editor misses a vision. Sometimes when the editor says something like, "Your story has no inciting incident," you really need to take some classes on the fundamentals of craft.

  47. Did people commenting here such as calsea find editors they hired, I wonder? If so, any chance of getting that info?

  48. It's really hard to judge an editor – a little sample isn't very helpful, as an editor's best value will be in the form of improving the entire story, fixing plot holes, character motivation, big picture stuff that matters. Anybody can proofread and catch typos and grammar problems – those won't help the book's sales or success.

    Experts know writing and plotting and can take an ordinary story and make it remarkable.

  49. Derek: Yes and no. It really depends on what level of editing the manuscript needs in the first place. If there are still problems with the story like plot holes or questionable motivation, then you're right—those issues need to be fixed first and copyediting isn't the right tool for the job. That said, don't underestimate the value of copyediting. While missed typos here and there aren't a big deal, grammatically incorrect sentences throughout (not counting intentionally colloquial dialogue) can kill a book's readability.

  50. I am the Owner/Editor at Last Stop Editing. I completely agree with cinderkeys. Developmental editing certainly needs to happen before copy editing, but copy editing is also a needed step. I have seen many ads looking for editors that state their book was self-published and now they are receiving complaints on the grammatical errors – so it does matter! I also agree that writers need to be careful who they hire and check their credentials.

  51. It's also important to take into account whether the editor in question specializes in your subject or not – otherwise, how can they hope to comment on how it compares with other books on the market in terms of length/subject matter/tone etc., or suggest ways for the writer to identify their target market?

    Writing for children is one such market – very specialized, with lots of different divisions within it. Most writers fail to get published because their content and/or writing level doesn't match the target age group. Personally, I feel that it takes a published writer (or at least a developmental editor in the field) to be able to suggest how a writer can strengthen their plot or develop their characters – the other most common reason that books don't get published… I offer developmental editing for children's books at, and you can find other agencies by looking in children's book magazines, or in the small ads at the back of magazines for writers. I'd recommend only going with an agency who can tell you which of their writers is looking at your work. Good luck!

  52. Rob Morgan actually made a crucial point:

    When an editor reviews your work and makes such radical suggestions that you no longer even recognize your story, stop everything.

    If the changes being suggested involve YOUR characters in a completely DIFFERENT story, then run, don't walk, and find someone else who actually gets the story you wrote.

    I was looking at finding an editor, and the one who offered me a 1000 word sample edit did such a basic edit of my work, that I could not even work out if they had even bothered.

    Than they made the changes, well suggestions for it at least, which totally changed the nature of my story, and I was left scratching my head over the validity of their work.

    I searched up some of the work the editor listed as having edited, and out of curiosity just retyped the first 1000 words or so of the Look Inside preview (a bit naughty to do but I did it as a temporary measure), and the self-edit software I use actually red-flagged over half the text with things about adverb use, passive voice, and a few other things wrong. And this same editor critique-ed my work as having "a dull flawd [sic] start with no life to it" (oh and I copy/pasted this from the email she sent me, and notice HER spelling error!!!).

    She had maybe 30 books listed as having done, and it only was from maybe 6-7 authors in total, and her domain name was registered 2 years ago.

    The cautionary "don't judge a book by its cover" (that cliché!) applies to finding an editor. Or not…

    Because in the minefield of "do you need an editor or don't you?" I've actually come across a huge number of articles which say that self-editing IS okay as long as you follow strict rules of being critical and precise among them. And to use common sense, which you should be too when you look for an editor (which I've found in the end).

    I use two separate self-edit software, and I am going to see how my handiwork stands up in quality when my book is entered into 2-3 book awards. If they pass the first eliminitation round, it says something about hw well I self-edited. If they get to the finishing line, even with merit, it justifies to me that the self-editing is okay to do.

    Not including my name to protect the identity of the editor I encountered. I did subject to a few dozen editors to check their skills so the mention here was just used as an example of the sevaral variations of "bad editor syndrome" I encountered…

  53. A very helpful article, thanks! I've been trialing editors for my current romance WIP, including industry stalwarts from The Big Four, to freelancers and hobbyists, *budget* options and the gurus who cost a pretty penny. From 9 to 5 I'm an editor myself, so it's been great experiencing the process from a writer's perspective. I've documented some tips below on what to look for in an editor (and what should send you running), which you might find interesting.

  54. A very helpful article, thanks! I've been trialing editors for my current romance WIP, including industry stalwarts from The Big Four, to freelancers and hobbyists, *budget* options and the gurus who cost a pretty penny. From 9 to 5 I'm an editor myself, so it's been great experiencing the process from a writer's perspective. I've documented some tips below on what to look for in an editor (and what should send you running), which you might find interesting.

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