A good freelance editor can help get you unstuck, give you a valuable gut check prior to pursuing publication, and can help elevate your craft to new heights.
But what should you expect from the process? How does the whole editing thing work anyway?
In this post I’m going to give you advice on:
- What to do before you search for an editor
- How to find an editor and choose the right editing approach for your book
- How to work with an editor and get the most out of your engagement
If you need an editor: please reach out to me!
Before you start
Getting the most bang for the buck out of the editing process starts with good preparation. Before you even start searching for an editor, do some reflecting and get your writerly affairs in order.
Get in touch with your goals
It’s really important to know what you’re looking for from your editor. Is it a high level gut check? Do you want detailed feedback?
Here are some questions to ask yourself before you even start. You don’t have to know the answer to every single one, but the more you know the more targeted you can be with your approach to editing:
- Are you planning to pursue traditional publishing or self-publishing? You don’t have to know this right off the bat, but there are genre constraints with traditional publishing that could influence the advice an editor will give you.
- Are you just wondering whether you should keep going? No one can answer that except for you, and if what you really need is encouragement, you probably don’t need to pay someone for that.
- Are you stuck? Try to go one step beyond just knowing you’re stuck and try to isolate some of the key questions you’re trying to sort through. This will help the editor guide you based on what they’re seeing in your book.
- Are you prepared to do the work? I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of clients and I’ve never seen a perfect manuscript. If you’re looking for a rubber stamp that your book is perfect go find a stationery store instead 😂.
Decide on the right time for feedback
There are no hard and fast rules about when to seek feedback from a freelance editors. You don’t necessarily need a finished manuscript.
In a totally ideal world you would seek feedback when you have self-edited your own work as much as you possibly can on your own. This way the editor is focusing on the problems you can’t see (or else you would have fixed them), rather than spending time pointing out things you already know are issues. This results in a more focused and ultimately more helpful edit.
But the writing process is messy and you may need a gut check well before your book is complete. This is okay too! You might be stuck or have a creeping sense that you went astray somewhere.
Trust your instincts.
If you feel like you need some feedback at a key juncture, listen to what your inner writing voice is telling you. It could help stop you from letting problems snowball, or it might confirm that you’re on the right track after all.
Prepare your materials
Sure, you’re the customer and editors will likely help you with messy formatting. But I still believe it pays to approach the process professionally.
If your materials are in industry standard format it will let the editor focus on your work without having to spend valuable time fiddling with your ideosyncratic formatting choices.
Correct formatting is the absolute easiest thing about publishing to get right. Get in the habit.
How to find an editor and choose the right approach
The freelance editing landscape is a bit of a confusing one to navigate. There are tons of editors with a range of backgrounds and approaches. But here’s what I think you should expect.
What freelance book editors do
A big reason the book editing world is confusing is because there are several different types of editors out there.
Here’s some terminology to help you tell them apart:
- Book editor at a traditional publishing house – Once you have a book deal, you’ll work with a book editor at a publishing house. The editor will manage your book throughout the publishing process, including editing your work. But before you find a literary agent or submit to publishers directly, this isn’t the editor you need to be looking for.
- Freelance book editor – This is someone who will work with you on your manuscript in advance of pursuing traditional or self-publishing to improve the structure and content of your novel or book proposal. Freelance book editors’ credentials vary widely, but many of them are past publishing professionals.
- Copyeditor – This is a magical grammar nerd who will help you spot typos and inconsistencies. You should definitely engage a copyeditor before you self-publish, but if you are pursuing traditional publishing you do not need one. It’s totally fine to submit to literary agents and publishers with some typos in your manuscript (within reason).
Don’t confuse developmental editing and copyediting
Once more for emphasis: developmental editing and copyediting are two separate stages.
Yes, there are some developmental editors who will take your money to also take a pass copyediting if you ask them to, but I would not recommend this approach. The point of a developmental edit is to help you make substantive changes in your manuscript. It doesn’t make sense to pay someone to fix all the commas in sections that are going to be swallowed in a larger edit (and you’re just going to introduce new typos when you revise).
Again, if you are pursuing traditional publishing you don’t need to copyedit your book, barring some truly significant grammar issues. Even if you’re self-publishing, copyediting should be the very last step once your manuscript has been finalized.
Types of developmental edits
There are many different ways of working with a freelance book editor, everything from general coaching and brainstorming to comprehensive book editing.
Book edits will largely fall into two broad categories (terminology varies throughout the business).
- Manuscript critique – An editor will read the manuscript and write you a 2-7 page editorial letter with their thoughts on areas of improvements. This is a more high level edit and is useful if you want to gut check your book. Sometimes this will also include margin notes throughout the manuscript with more targeted feedback.
- Comprehensive edit – In addition to an editorial letter, a comprehensive edit will also include line edits and margin notes, so you’ll get feedback on both a macro and micro level. This is useful if you want a very thorough edit and/or to improve your craft.
Because they take significantly more time to complete, a comprehensive edit will cost more than a critique.
Here’s some more detail on the terminology:
- Editorial letters – These are, well, letters that synthesize the high level feedback. Editorial letters are typically grouped into categories that articulate the biggest areas for concern, like “perspective” or “voice” or “X plot line”.
- Margin notes – Highlighted sections with targeted feedback within the manuscript. These are helpful because they can illuminate some of the points in the editorial letter with more specificity. I also use these to point out things the author did well.
- Line edits – Suggested edits on the sentence and paragraph level to improve prose and pacing. Do not confuse line edits with copyediting! A developmental editor may help you with obvious typos, but line edits are more intended to do things like clearing clutter from your verbs, paring back what’s extraneous, suggesting rephrases, and helping you become a better writer. Line edits are not about making sure every comma and semi-colon are perfect.
I also include an “action plan” with all of my edits with specific suggestions on how I would approach the revisions.
How to find an editor
Do. Your. Research.
Check an editor’s credentials and vet them thoroughly. There are many freelance editors out there who have worked for major publishing houses/literary agencies and have a wealth of experience. There are others who don’t really know what they’re doing.
Particularly if you are planning to pursue traditional publishing, I would recommend focusing on freelance editors who have significant previous publishing experience. They may be more costly, but they will look at your project with a different eye than people who have never worked in publishing.
Here are some places I’d recommend searching for editors:
- Reach out to me! – I’m a former literary agent and a published author, I’ve worked with bestselling authors, and I really love helping writers improve their work. At the very least I can help point you in the right direction even if we don’t end up working together.
- New York Book Editors – This is a terrific service run by a friend of mine that connects authors with editors who have a minimum level of previous publishing experience at major publishers and/or literary agencies. (Full disclosure: affiliate link)
- Reedsy – This is a database of freelance professionals with many good editors, though you really seriously need to do your research on the individual editors because experience levels vary widely and there are editors on there who frankly don’t really know what they’re doing. I also no longer recommend Reedsy as I do not believe they have good policies toward the freelancers on their platform.
How much does editing cost?
As with many things in life, you will largely get what you pay for. Depending on the length of your manuscript, expect a good full manuscript edit to cost north of $1,500 or more.
Don’t spend any money you can’t afford to lose (working with a paid editor is no guarantee by any means of finding publication), but also don’t just look for a bargain basement edit. Try to strike a balance between an editor’s cost and experience level that you are comfortable with.
Make sure that you are very clear about what is and isn’t included in the edit and when you can expect to receive the edits before you proceed with someone!
How to work with an editor
Once you’ve vetted your prospective editors, assembled quotes, and decided on someone you want to work with, here’s what happens next.
Communicate your goals
Be very proactive about sharing your goals and what you’re hoping to get out of the edit, even if the editor doesn’t specifically ask you for this. This will help orient the editor and will increase the chance that you’ll get exactly what you need from the process.
What an editor does with your materials
Essentially, editors read your work very closely, take notes, and begin to spot and synthesize strengths and weaknesses. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Editing is a very difficult, mentally challenging, and at times exhausting form of reading. An editor has to keep track of what’s happening in the story at the same time that they’re trying to articulate ephemeral instincts around why something isn’t working. It takes quite a lot of time and brain power.
When they’re finished reading the manuscript and taking notes, the editor will assemble the common threads and try to give you the most help “level” of feedback. If the book needs a ton of work this might mean spotting broader issues with the perspective or narrative voice. If the book is pretty much in place it might mean focusing on individual characters or even just the line level.
A good editor shouldn’t tell you how they would have written the book, but rather they should be attuned to what you’re trying to accomplish and help you do it better.
How to process feedback from a book editor
I like to compare editorial letters to a radioactive substance that must be acclimated to through time. Take some time to process the edit, get to calm, and approach your plan for revisions with a clear head.
Here’s some advice on how to process editorial feedback:
While minor edits like short excerpts and query letters don’t usually require a follow-up phone call, I would strongly recommend that you have a substantive discussion by phone or Zoom with your editor to discuss the feedback after any full edit.
There’s really only so much an editorial letter and margin notes can convey, and talking it through usually leaves the writer with a much clearer sense of what needs to be done and how to move forward.
Try to prepare for these discussions as much as possible. Come with your key questions and make sure you know what you want to get out of the call and how you want to use the time.
Do you have any questions about how to work with an editor? See anything I missed? Leave a comment!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Detail of Ein Schreiber am Pult by Anonymous
Deri Reed says
Great, thorough overview of the process! I would just add that the Editorial Freelancers Association is another great resource for finding a freelance editor. You can search (by edit level, genre, location, etc.) their database of 2,800 editors, or submit your job to the Job List. https://www.the-efa.org/hiring/
Wendy Peterson says
This post is synchronicitis, Nathan. Only yesterday, I decided to send you a query letter and a first chapter in the hope you had time to edit/comment. No rush as it’s Christmas, of course.
Ken Hughes says
Rule of thumb:
Developmental editing is on the scene level.
Line editing is on the sentence (line) and paragraph level.
Proofreading is on the word level.
I would add that when considering freelance editors, especially copy editors, it’s good to get a short sample edit. This should be just a few pages and ideally the editor won’t charge for it, but it can help a writer see an editor’s style and approach. A good match between editor and book goes a long way.
Nathan Bransford says
This is fine to ask for, but bear in mind that not all editors offer sample edits. I personally don’t think it’s fair to *expect* this from an editor, not least of which because I’ve heard horror stories of authors simply assembling free edits from a variety of editors without any intention of hiring one.
If an author wants a short sample edit from a reputable editor I think they should be prepared to pay for it.