5 Ways to Find the Right Freelance Book Editor

Find the right freelance editor

Today’s guest post is excerpted from the book The Editor’s Eye by Stacy Ennis (@stacyennis).

If you’re ready to hire and work with an editor, you may not know the first thing about how to start looking for one or how to evaluate candidates once you’ve found them.

1. Look for someone with experience.

First things first: If you’re going to hand over your manuscript to an editor, give it to a skilled, qualified editor. Just because someone teaches English or has a degree in English (or even writing), that alone doesn’t qualify that person as a professional editor. A qualified professional editor not only has appropriate academic credentials, but also, most importantly, has a proven track record of book-editing experience.

The experience part is particularly critical. I know many professional editors who are wonderful in their craft and have outstanding editing skills, but actually know very little about the book-editing process. They may have edited articles or shorter works, but book editing is a different game and requires a different level of expertise. An editor looking to gain book-editing experience may offer to do your book, and it may be tempting to take this low-cost option. But, unless he’s naturally talented or comes with excellent references, without the real experience of working on book-length manuscripts, he isn’t really the right editor for you. Don’t let your manuscript be practice.

2. Find a qualified editor that brings good energy to the process.

“An author and editor are on the same team,” says Pooja Lohana, a freelance writer and editor in Melbourne, Australia, who has ghostwritten three nonfiction books and edits several magazines and websites. “Editors who possess human relations skill and the art of negotiating and convincing with solid backup reasoning are authors’ favorites.”

Just like a good editor can substantially impact your manuscript in positive ways, a not-so-good editor can waste time and money—and might be a roadblock in your success as an author.

“Some people suck. In any profession that’s true, and editing is no exception,” says Jessica Stillman, a freelance writer based in London, who has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOm, and Brazen Careerist, among others.

“I’ve had nice editors who give lots of encouragement and engage with me on a friendly human level, and I’ve had some that can’t be bothered to type a two-letter salutation in an e-mail and are generally brusque (and I’m sure overworked). … I no longer work with the editors who stress me out with their gruffness and lack of human touch, and I’m happier for it. You’re not always in a position to choose, but if you can, avoid people who make your working life worse.”

3. Look in the right places.

Entering keywords into Google isn’t usually the best approach to finding the right editor for your book. Just like anything else, it’s always best to get a referral. Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations.

If you’re finding this to be a dead end, check the acknowledgments in well-written books, as editors are usually listed there. But be realistic: The editors of best-selling books or those published by the New York publishers might be out of your price range. It’s best to stick with regionally published books, if possible, as well as books published by partner publishers or small presses, since they tend to work heavily with freelance editors. Also, don’t be afraid to e-mail authors and ask if they were happy with their editors. Additionally, you can call local or regional publishing houses for a referral.

Finally, if you’ve exhausted these two options (really exhausted them, not just spent a day or two asking around), start looking online. A good starting place is the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). On the organization’s site, you can access their many resources, including guidelines for hiring and working with editors, a rate chart, and a job list where you can post your project. The organization is well-respected in the editorial field and has paying members, so you can feel more confident finding an editor on their site than, say, Craigslist.

4. Interview the editor’s past clients.

Regardless of which direction you pursue to find your editor, whether you get a referral or connect with a freelance editor online, be sure to talk to someone the editor has worked with in the past or, at the very least, look at a work sample (see next section). Be wary of any editors who aren’t willing to provide a reference, even if it’s just a written recommendation from a client.

As you talk to a previous client of a prospective editor, ask these key questions:

  • What type of book did the editor work on?
  • Were you happy with the quality of work?
  • Was there anything you were unhappy with?
  • Did the editor meet the agreed-upon deadline?
  • Did you end up paying what the editor quoted at the outset of the project? If not, did the editor communicate with you before charging you more?
  • Did the editor have a positive attitude throughout the project?
  • Was the editor willing and able to explain his changes? If questioned, did the editor have the attitude of a teacher and a willingness to go over details?
  • Does the editor live locally? If not, did you find working electronically relatively seamless?
  • Would you hire this editor again?

Note that it’s usually best to hire an editor who has worked in your genre or a genre similar to your own.

5. Interview the editor and work on a sample chapter together.

Aaron Patterson, CEO of StoneHouse Ink and best-selling author of four titles, adds, “[For] my first book, I hired a proofreader thinking that she was the creative and everything in one … it was a mess, and I still have the reviews on Amazon to prove it.” Learn from his mistake, and ask a lot of questions. Here’s a starting list.

  • What types of books have you edited (fiction, nonfiction, etc.)?
  • What is your writing and editing background?
  • What are your major editing accomplishments?
  • What is unique about your editing process?
  • What types of books do you enjoy working with?
  • Are you willing to provide an editing sample?
  • Prior to signing a contract, can you edit one chapter to make sure we’ll work well together?
  • What makes you a good fit for my manuscript?

“Don’t sign a contract with an editor until you have worked with that person on a sample chapter together,” advises Maryanna Young of Aloha Publishing. “It should either really work, or go ahead and find another editor.”

I couldn’t agree more, but don’t expect to get an editing sample for free, especially from busy or in-demand editors. A legitimate editor should be willing to do an editing sample (preferably the first chapter) for a normal or slightly discounted fee, prior to signing a contract. Then, when you discuss the overall project budget, if money isn’t a concern, don’t feel the need to broadcast this fact. If money is a concern, be sure to let your potential editor know.

If you have tips or experiences to share about finding the right freelance editor, please share in the comments!

The Editor's Eye by Stacy Ennis

Note from Jane: If you found this post helpful, I highly recommend you look at The Editor’s Eye, which takes you through the ins and outs of the book-editing process and teaches you how to work alongside professional editors. Click here to download a sample chapter at Amazon.

This post was excerpted from the book The Editor’s Eye by Stacy Ennis (@stacyennis). Copyright © 2013 by Stacy Ennis. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Night Owls Press.

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Stacy Ennis
Stacy Ennis is a book and magazine editor, writer, book coach, and speaker, as well as the author of The Editor’s Eye: A Practical Guide to Transforming Your Book from Good to Great. Stacy was the founding managing editor of a lifestyle magazine and later became the executive editor of Healthy Living Made Simple, a Sam’s Club magazine that reaches over 8 million readers. Her role at the publication involved writing around 50 percent of the magazine’s content, including a cover feature on Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra. She now works with a wide range of clients, from celebrities and corporate clients to independent authors and small book presses and also ghostwrites magazine articles, web content, and books, often reaching national and international audiences.
Stacy Ennis

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  1. Hmmm, Jane. I know you must be familiar with the editing industry of big publishers like HMH and Gale Cengage, where the turnover of the person who works with the freelancers is ridiculous. I’ve edited for large companies like these, and there’s no way I could find my contact again to provide a reference– it’s surely turned over 3 times since my last project in the fall (let alone previous, older projects)!!

    What I TRY to do to alleviate this, though, is to make sure my contact recommends me on LinkedIn before they move on (as soon after the project is over as possible).

    • Great point! However, this post is targeting independent authors looking for freelance editors. I would assume that freelancers working in this capacity would have references of some kind. It seems like you’re being proactive in getting recommendations on LinkedIn, which is great.

  2. As someone who does editing, I find your requirements for finding an editor rather . . . lengthy and involved. I’m going to edit their book, not marry them.

    • I think Stacy’s advice is spot-on for people who are investing a considerable amount in development or content editing, say more than $1,000. Just as you would research any service or product before committing, I think doing the same with an editorial service, which could affect long-term book sales, is justified.

      • It’s sometimes easy to think of it that way, but as I go through this process with new clients, I always try to put myself in their position. They spend months—sometimes years—writing their books. Trusting someone with their precious work can be difficult.

      • I completely agree and wish I had this information prior to spending $1200 on editing services that deemed invaluable to me through direct rejections. That rejection letter’s first comment was on the lack of editing abilities in whoever I had gotten to edit it. Devastated was all I could feel and it set me up for a bad start on my book. I also had to wait WAY longer than what was agreed upon in the contract. There was no warning for this, even with multiple email’s I sent. There was a temporary discount, however it wasn’t that great and it was made out as if it was my fault due to her failure in saving the documents. Then again, I waited for the edits to come back and there was no response. Actually, still there has been no response. :( This information is timely and I value this greatly!!! I wish I had it beforehand…

        Thank you!!

  3. Where are these organisms you call “qualified professional editors”? I’ve looked in every bar and library for one (and under bridges next to the libraries) and found either nothing or youngsters posing as editors. They are hard to find!

  4. Informative post, nice plug for the book. As someone working in the field, may I add a couple notes.

    When editor hunting, *start* with the major online editing groups. EFA is great, so is Bay Area Editors Forum and the CEL-List directory (google ’em). They all have searchable listings and you can post your job. I agree that craigslist and places like guru.com are *not* the best places, as the best editors don’t hang out there, and more than a few amateurs do.

    In addition to freelance editing, I work as an assistant for a bestselling author who is tops in her
    field. I get the incoming web queries. I’d consider an inquiry of “who is your editor” to be unanswerable. My author has been publishing for over three decades and publishers assigned her a different copyeditor each time. Who knows where these folks are now, as the publishing industry plays musical chairs.

    You also need to distinguish what type of editing you’re looking for: developmental, line, or copy editing. Some editors (like myself) can do all three at the same time, but others strictly specialize. Many clients think that they only need a light copy edit, when really they need the full monty. If you’re working in fiction, be sure to look for fiction editors; it’s a special breed.

    Good luck with your new book, Stacy! Looks like it has looks of good tips for new authors.

    • I don’t know about the other organizations, but EFA doesn’t qualify editors. All you have to do to be listed on their site is pay dues. Doesn’t mean you have any particular skill or experience. Post your job there, but it’s a crap shoot.

      And by the way, I don’t really see how you can do developmental editing and copyediting “at the same time.” If the work is still in the state of flux, why would you attempt to copyedit. Surely “at the same time” is not what you meant.

      • It’s a little like juggling chain saws, plates, and cats, but yep, it can be done.

        A sample interior monologue of the working, versatile editor: Let’s rearrange this, trim way back here, your heroine lacks motivation for this plot twist, suggest more depth needed here, denouement ignores the issues you laid down in chapters 5-8 (developmental edits) … nice images, but notice you’re wandering far off narrative base, the rhythm is off here, this section is repetitive (line edits) … and the character names need to match through out, this date is incorrect, this bit is anachronistic, verb tense wanders here, dangling modifier there, subject/verb agreement alert, misspelling, wrong word, put dialogue in quote marks, interior monologue in italics, yes, every time (copy edits).

        When you’ve been editing a long time, these things just pop out and are hard to ignore. Of course it’s not the final polish, and the manuscript will change. Ideally a manuscript goes through several passes, and it must have a proofreader before publication. But few of my clients seem to have the budget for multiple editorial passes, so they appreciate the wide approach.

        I’m an active member in two out of three of these editing organizations, and have observed that the standard is very high. The clueless are not made welcome. Of course an author will still want to vet, discuss the project with several prospective editors, and choose carefully to find a good match.

        • Mary, how do I get in touch with you? I will need an editor in September or October. I think my story is fine and I just need a line edit, but a fresh set of eyes might spot problems with the story as well. So it is good to know that there are editors who don’t ignore a problem because the problem isn’t the type of problem they were asked to look at. You can email me here: Intern at fortyorso.com

        • In the UK, the Society of Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) only allows qualified editorial professionals to advertise in their online directory (with two levels of qualification – ordinary and advanced): http://www.sfep.org.uk/. The SfEP itself offers training, but also recognizes training from other organizations when members apply to upgrade from associate to ordinary or advanced

          Louise Harnby has a wonderful resource on her blog that lists all the editorial organizations around the world (English and others): http://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/editing–proofreading-societies.html.

        • The Editors’ Association of Canadian has a rigorous certification process that has been in place for about six years, but it is not a membership requirement. Hundreds of EAC members are now CPEs (Certified Professional Editors).

    • Excellent additions! I especially like your comment about clarifying the type of editing; that’s crucial to finding the right freelance editor. I discuss the four stages of editing in detail in The Editor’s Eye. Thanks, too, for the nice words.

    • Hi I am almost done with my first work of fiction and am in need of a good fiction editor. Since you say they are a special breed, what are the best sources. I would prefer someone in the San Francisco bay area, where I live. Thank all of you for the comments, this is the first time I feel like I may be able to find a editor. Side note: the picture is close to 40 years old.

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  6. I agree with just about everything Stacy wrote. But I don’t believe in providing same chapters. In what other field do professionals provide free samples? Do you get a free sample from your doctor or dentist? A free sample from the painter who paints your house? Ask all the other questions and interview past clients, but sheesh, don’t expect me to work for free!

    • Hi Lauren,

      Just to be clear, Stacy was NOT advocating that freelancers offer free sample editing. In fact, just the opposite. Writers should ask for a sample chapter, but of course expect to pay.

      • Some of this depends on the editor – I don’t do a whole chapter for free, but I’ll do a five-page sample edit. This benefits both of us: the author can see what they’ll be buying, and I can give a realistic project fee, because I bill by the project and not by the hour.

        Allison K Williams
        Unkind Editor

  7. Great article, spot on! As a freelance editor myself, I would add one more thing: don’t expect that a professional editor will be able to start work on your project immediately. I’m booked six months in advance. Thanks also for reminding folks that samples aren’t free.

    • Definitely. Although, a caveat: Many editors will squeeze in a last-minute client if the author is willing to pay a rush fee. I’ve done it a time or two. I’m glad you liked the article!

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  13. The one thing I seeing missing from this is genre – making sure the editor likes and is fairly familiar with your genre is important. I’m seeing more and more well edited books except due to editors lack of genre knowledge they missed critical trope issues or other things that are very important to genre readers.

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  18. So how would someone who wants to get into editing get a job as a freelancer? I have worked on one project (a short story) for a friend and loved it, so now I was looking into the world of being a proofreader/copy editor/line editor. How could I possibly gain the experience required to qualify as an option according to this article?

  19. Stacy, great post. The more authors know about the editing process, the better our drafts will be, which should lead to editorial comments that go deeper than surface level remarks like ‘show don’t tell.’ Authors should address that type of issue ourselves and let the editor delve deeper.

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  21. I am looking for affordable resources for putting a book together(editor/printer/cover) in Oregon. Any direction wold be greatly appreciated!!

  22. Question: Should a writer be careful about an editor’s particular expertise? For instance, I am working with one who is editor of top newspaper but I am wondering if she’s too journalism-slanted, since she “cuts my pieces to the bone.” Should I be concerned that her world generally revolves around 800 words per Op-Ed (and would hurt my chapters that tend to go longer?) At this rate, at her rate of condensing, I fear I’ll have a pamphlet in lieu of a book.

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  26. This may not be the place to network; however, I figured I could give it a try. I am 23 and trying to write my first book. I am in the process of finishing an Autobiography. So far, I have roughly 70,000 words. The book illustrates a sordid life of drug, alcohol, physical and sexual abuse while developing into a teenager. It is very graphic and probably can be compared in some ways to “A Child Called It” by Dave Pelzer. I have newspaper articles detailing the abuse that I would like to include, but still have to educate myself on the legalities. I am not sure whether I should pursue an agent or have it edited first. I have let several people read it and I have received nothing but great feedback. They couldn’t put it down and even brought a few of them to tears. If anyone has any advise on the first steps I should take, that would be greatly appreciated.

    • I recommend finding a critique group (online or off) or a writing course to get some objective feedback. If the several people who have read it are people you consider friends and family, they won’t give you the honest truth.

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  33. All I can say about this is process is buyer beware and YMMV. There are a lot of incompetent “editors” out there who will take your money and deliver shoddy results. I agree that interviewing past clients is key to understanding what this person will and will not do for you. Their fees should negotiable, especially if you are not satisfied with the quality of the work. Additionally and most tellingly, is that the people who write about the need for editing, all have irons in the fire.

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  43. I am looking for a recommendation for a very sharp editor experienced in editing complex adventure novels. The work is 110K, well-polished and ready for queries. The book is a near-future political thriller intending the same purpose as Orwell’s 1984, but is a completely different story written for modern audiences. The story is deeply romantic, vivid, and imaginative, with many unusual themes. I am hoping to find someone experienced with similar kinds of work.

    The material is time-sensitive, so I need someone who is willing to fit it in… I am prepared to pay a premium to get the right person for the job.

    Mostly, it just needs a stiff proofing, and some advice on technical matters. I am more than satisfied with the story, voice, and almost all of the prose.

    Thank you for your referrals!

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  45. Good advice overall, although I’d probably go to the EFA and even the ASJA before I’d go to a regional book publisher, unless your book is actually on a regional topic. As an editor, I work with people all over the world and you’d never find me through a regional book publisher, but you would find me through the ASJA, a Google search, or Publishers Marketplace—and I am listed in the acknowledgements of many books. Also, while it may be expensive to hire someone who has worked on books published by a New York publisher, many developmental editors and ghostwriters I know have service packages where they will help you envision your book’s marketing plan as well as point out its editorial strengths and weaknesses. It might be a good idea to hire them for this service, incorporate that advice into a second draft of your book or book proposal, and then go to a line editor who is less expensive than a top developmental editor/ghost. Remember, the top editors are often booked up for some time, but you might be able to get invaluable advice relatively quickly and cheaply before hiring a line editor to clean up your book or proposal.

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