Earlier this month, I had the privilege of speaking with a group of emerging and published writers at an event hosted by Adventures by the Book in San Diego. Among the many smart questions posed by the authors in attendance was one about how authors can make sure they’re working with a top-notch editor.
Here, several items to consider before signing on with an editor:
Check credentials: Editors on staff with reputable publishing companies have been vetted, but if you’re hiring a freelance editor or paying an author services company for editorial services, be sure to ask about the qualifications of the person who’ll be editing your work. In emails received from people soliciting editorial work, I’ve found punctuation mistakes and grammatical errors. Among freelance editors hired by small publishers, I’ve come across those who don’t know the difference between proofreading and line editing. A degree in English isn’t enough to qualify someone as a freelance editor. A good editor should have experience in all types of editing—developmental, line edits, and proofreading. Ideally, she should also have publishing experience, and she should provide client references. She should use a stylebook appropriate for the type of writing you’re doing (Chicago Manual of Style for most trade publications) and she should be able to explain the reason for every suggested change. “A comma sounds right” isn’t a reason—there are grammatical rules that apply in every situation.
Make sure the editor works in stages: If you’re working with a legacy publisher, editorial work will progress in phases. If you’re hiring editorial assistance before submitting or publishing, there’s no sense spending a lot of money on proofreading when the big parts of the book—plot, character, structure, pacing—aren’t yet what they need to be. Likewise, when it’s time for proofreading, you don’t want a bunch of line edits that change the style of your narrative. Developmental editing should come first, followed by line edits, and then proofreading. If you’re considering an editor who doesn’t seem to understand these distinctions, keep looking.
Beware editors who change your style: A good editor understands that it’s always your project. She asks about—and pays attention to—the specific area in which you’d like help, and she works to refine your style without changing it into her own. If you’re hiring an editor, ask for a brief sample edit to make sure the editor’s work is done to your standards and expectations. To prospective clients, I offer a ten-minute sample.
Budget realistically: With legacy publishing, the percentage that goes to your agent and publisher helps to offset the cost of their editorial assistance. If you’re paying for editorial assistance on your own, you’ll need to budget at least 2.5 cents per word, or $50 per hour, for developmental editing and line edits. For proofreading (also called copyediting), expect to pay 2 cents a word, or $35 per hour. For my clients, I offer to bill either by the hour or by the word—whichever is cheaper. From my sample edits, I extrapolate the cost of projects if billed by the hour—because I’ve been editing for years, my hourly rate is usually substantially cheaper than the per-word rate.
Get it in writing: Regardless of how they’re paid, good editors will explain clearly, in writing, how their work will proceed. In either an email exchange or a formal agreement, they’ll cover the scope of the project, timelines, and any costs that will be incurred.