8 Warning Signs Authors Need to Know When Hiring a Professional Editor

for writers

Anyone can call themselves an editor. Plenty of people think that just because they: a) read a lot, b) are good at spotting typos, c) have written a book, or d) picture themselves wearing a tweed jacket and teaching Shakespeare to enraptured students on the coiffed lawns of Harvard, they can sell their services as editors.

The worst of these people will take your money, run spell check and grammar check on your document (something you can do yourself for free), maybe run a few Word macros (or PerfectIt) to catch further errors, and send it back to you. It's an easy way for them to make quick cash on the side, and many have no training whatsoever. Even the ones who truly believe they're qualified can be dangerous, however. Read on to discover the warning signs.


1. Their background is only in writing—not editing

A published book (or even a few!) does not a professional editor make. Writing does not equal editing, especially when it comes to editing other people's work. They're two different—and highly nuanced—skill sets. A great editor may make a fantastic writer, but a great writer won't make a great editor without training and experience. 

When you hire an editor, you want someone with an editorial background, not just a writing background. Especially when you're in need of a copyeditor—these editors need solid training and grounding in not just grammar and spelling, but in style manuals like the Chicago Manual of Style. 

If the person you want to hire is a published author and a trained editor, great! Just watch out for the writers who assume they can edit others' work with zero experience in the editorial arts. There's a reason multiple vocational schools for editors exist around the world. It takes training and experience.

2. They don't understand the four levels of editing

The four levels of editing are:

  • Developmental editing
  • Line editing
  • Copyediting
  • Proofreading

Yes, they are sometimes called by different names (for example, some editors refer to line editing as stylistic editing). Yes, some trained editors consider manuscript critiques to be a separate level (I lump them in with developmental editing). But any professional editor should be able to explain the definition of each level to you.

A good editor should also be able to tell which level your manuscript will most benefit from—don't assume it's ready for copyediting, for instance. If they can't, or if they accept your manuscript for copyediting without taking a close look at it first, watch out. They may not be experienced enough to know if your book actually needs a different level of editing, which will lead to problems down the line (like when they get halfway through and realize the manuscript needs developmental editing before it can be copyedited).

3. They work for peanuts

If the editor you're interested in charges extremely low rates (say, $100 to copyedit a 50,000-word novel), steer clear. It's very likely that the person is not a (well) trained editor.

Price is a signal. if you're thinking, "How could this possibly be so cheap," listen to your gut and move on to a different service provider.

4. They don't have a contract

If the editor doesn’t talk about their process or ask you to sign a contract for larger projects, tread with caution. Contracts protect both you and the service provider, and they ensure that you both agree on the project scope, timeline, and details. Having a formal agreement in place keeps the project on track and helps you resolve any issues that may arise.

5. They don't have a website...or any online presence

Can’t find any information about the editor online? No website, LinkedIn, or any kind of online presence? It could be that this person is just starting out, but be careful. While some editors only work for publishing houses or long-term corporate clients and may not need a website, for editors who work with independent authors, a website is a must. (Case in point, I don't refer clients to editors who don't have a website.)

6. They work suspiciously fast

Use your common sense here: if an editor can return a full manuscript to you in one day, something’s up. Time to high-tail it out of there.

7. They offer the best of three worlds

If an editor offers to edit your book for dirt cheap and promises to get it back to in record time, it won’t be good work; it just doesn’t happen that way. When it comes to hiring an editor (or any freelancer, really), the work can't be cheap, fast, and good. You'll need to pick two of the three, depending on what you value most:

  • Good and fast? Okay, but it's not going to be cheap.
  • Cheap and fast? You got it...but it's not going to be great quality.
  • Good and cheap? It's possible with the right person, but it's not going to be fast.

8. They won't provide a sample edit

Legitimate, qualified line editors and copyeditors will provide you with a sample edit of 250 words, which is one standard page in the publishing world. Don’t expect to get a sample edit for free, although many editors will offer this. Also, keep in mind that sample edits don't apply to developmental editing—developmental editors don't (and shouldn't!) focus on things like grammar, syntax, and typos, although they will always recommend having the book professionally line edited and copyedited.

The bottom line? Vet any editor you’re considering hiring, and trust your intuition. A fool and his money are easily parted, as the saying goes. Don’t be that fool! Spending money on quality work from a professional will be worth it, so don’t mess around when you need your next book edited.


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