Val, thank you, lots of good stuff here, and it’s great to suggest giving a credible newbie a try. As an encrusted oldie, I can say that it’s sensible to deal with a niche/specialist editor, but sometimes editors have broad experience in both fiction and nonfiction writing (I’ve written and edited a good deal of both), and thus can edit with confidence across styles and genres. Thanks for a sound, thoughtful post.

Funny video! But as a freelance editor, I want to point out that “proving” my skills is only part of the equation. The bigger reason for me to offer a sample edit is to determine if the writing is READY for an edit. Learning to write fiction is a craft. Beginning authors are often better served by attending workshops or joining a critique group to develop their skills BEFORE submitting their work for editing. I simply cannot take on a new client without seeing any of their work.
I have over 30 years' experience in the publishing/writing industry, working as everything from an in-house editor to an investigative reporter to a novelist to a medical/technical writer to a screenwriter. I've been an independent contractor for 24 years working as a freelance editor (developmental and line editing), writer (fiction and nonfiction), ghostwriter, and copy editor.
Moreover, the casual distinction between a (developmental) “editor” and a “copyeditor” can be a bit simplistic, particularly in a self-publication or even vanity-publishing context. A self-published author may barely have the budget to hire one editor, so that editor needs to be able and willing to blur the lines between developmental editing and copyediting. The editor must also be accustomed to working with authors of a variety of strengths and weaknesses, including many whose work would not, in fact, have been accepted by a commercial publishing house in its current form. I have come to take great satisfaction in taking a new or newish author by the hand and helping them find ways of making their work the best it can be. Of necessity, this must include line-by-line correction of grammar and style (often a surprisingly great amount of such correction), but can rarely be limited to that.
As a book editor (PhD in Literature) who’s now writing fiction, I thought I’d add my comments, which are these: 1. You need an editor who is going to fix the story; the writing doesn’t matter all that much, the story dictates whether or not readers will be satisfied and ultimately how successful the book is going to be. For that reason, sample edits aren’t all that helpful – they tell you how editors can improve the line-by-line. Does the editor know how to plot a novel? Satisfy reader expectations, which differ for each genre? Read “StoryGrid” to better understand… Read more »

I’m a first time writer. Today I’m about 60% done with a “novel” (a thinly disguised autobiographical account of finding romance and starting a family during the Viet Nam war). I believe that hiring a developmental editor at this time would help me complete the work in a better ‘voice’, ultimately saving time and money. The alternative would be to finish the work as this column advises before submitting for edit.
If a book has an editor, you will be able to find their information in the opening pages of a book before the table of contents or first chapter. This information is often on the copyright information page, although the editor’s name may be listed in the acknowledgements or on the title page instead. If a book has no press or an editor is uncredited, you may need to do some research or contact the author to get editorial information. To contact an editor, contact their publishing company or use their personal or professional website to reach out to them. Remember to always be cordial if you’re planning on a getting a letter or phone call back!

Amazing post, Dave, and definitely an important topic. My first book I used one of the larger “editorial agencies” you mentioned. The quality wasn’t bad but there was no direct contact with the editor. Just ship it to them and they ship it back. I’ve tried out several editors now and found a very good one who did a great job on my list book. Once you find a good editor, stick with him/her and build a relationship if you can. Thanks for the list provided and this editors test is a great addition.
There are different levels of editing—developmental, copyediting, and proofreading. I’ve found that authors are often willing to pay good money for a developmental editor, someone who walks by their side and helps to shape the book, but when it comes to copyediting and proofreading, especially if and when an author has had a developmental editor, suspicion arises as to the value or merit of these more drilled-down types of edits. Don’t let this be a blind spot; they’re important—on par with a developmental edit for sure.
Good article. I especially like to see mention of the different types of editing. I find that a lot of new writers don’t know this; they get a copy edit and think everything is nicely edited only to discover once they’ve published that people are saying the book needs a good edit. That’s because it needed developmental and line editing as well. I often find that indie books could do with a line edit. I think it’s the most neglected area of editing.
If you’re a first-time author and have never hired an editor before, I would not recommend hiring an editor without first getting a sample edit. An editor can have a great resume and speak eloquently on the phone, but the real test of their skills is how they edit your book, and the sample edit is a quick, free way to find out. It’s standard for a freelance editor to offer a free sample edit unless they are exceptionally well-known.
After writing some of the book or a first draft of a book, some authors decide that they need more than an editor; they need a writer to take their writing to the next level, in order to get published or reach the level of sales they aim for.  I can refer aspiring authors to excellent, experienced co-writers, book doctors and ghostwriters, some of whom have worked on New York Times Bestsellers and other award-winning books. Find out more about ghostwriting services.

It’s difficult to answer this question without first addressing what an editor actually does. Editors can review the content of your writing (characterization, pacing, plot, etc.), which is often referred to as content editing; the form of your writing (the grammar, the punctuation, etc.), which is often referred to as copyediting; or both. (By the way, proofreading is indispensable, but it’s the final step of checking for typos and other glitches once the book is ready for print—any writer who thinks that proofreading is editing is in grave danger of getting ripped off.)
Stephen, I’m not sure what you mean by “time wasted matching a style guide.” Any professional editor of trade books knows the Chicago Manual of Style well and as a matter of course automatically makes changes that are in line with it. What you said is akin to “They waste time correcting spelling errors.” They’re not wasting any time; they’re doing their job and it’s a basic and automatic part of that job.

If you’re a first-time author and have never hired an editor before, I would not recommend hiring an editor without first getting a sample edit. An editor can have a great resume and speak eloquently on the phone, but the real test of their skills is how they edit your book, and the sample edit is a quick, free way to find out. It’s standard for a freelance editor to offer a free sample edit unless they are exceptionally well-known.

Before we explore what you ought to be looking and asking for when you hire an editor, let’s talk about you, the author of the work, for a moment. On the one side are authors who, in response to an editorial query questioning the reason a particular scene was included, immediately suggest ditching the whole thing. On the other side are authors who will fight editors to retain even the slightest word changes. Before you embark on an editorial journey, ask yourself which side you fall on, and then own this truth and be willing to share it with the person you hire.


This is basically like the “Quick Kill” service – or proofreading on steroids, and again we’ll hack, slash, rewrite, fix, tweak and improve anything we can, but this time we won’t comment on the bigger picture, and we’ll really hone down on the little details, eliminate repetition, trim the writing, and make sure everything is as good as it can be.
Inspect the spine of the book and look for a smaller name under the author. Turn the book over and look at the spine—the thin side of the book where the pages are bound to the cover. If there are multiple names on the spine of the book, they are always ordered with the author’s name first, and the editor’s name after it. On most books, the editor’s name will be smaller so that a passerby can quickly tell who the author is.[5]
I cannot speak for all editors, of course, but I know I and many of us would be open to editing just part of your book at first, say, a particular chapter or two that you sense needs a lot of work. That is often enough to show you mechanical errors that you tend to make repeatedly. You can then go through the entire manuscript yourself looking for as many of the same kind of errors as possible. You will sharpen your basic writing skills in the process, and it will pay off in all future projects.
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