10 Things Your Freelance Editor Might Not Tell You—But Should

Before sending their manuscripts out into the world, many writers choose to work with a freelance editor to make their writing tighter, more engaging and ultimately more salable.

Whether you’re preparing to submit to literary agents or you’ve decided to self-publish, you don’t just want your book to be good—you want to make it great.

—by Tanya Egan Gibson

As a freelance editor, I get excited every time I embark upon this journey with a client. Being a novelist myself, I know how difficult it is to identify flaws in a manuscript on which you’ve worked for years. Partnering with a freelance editor sheds new light on your work—making it possible for you to see it from angles you’ve never imagined, capitalize on your manuscript’s strengths and root out problems that might earn you a form letter rejection from your dream agent or a “Meh” on your first Goodreads review.

Before you hire an editor, you need to know what kind of help you’re looking for. Do you want developmental editing—“big-picture” feedback about structure, style, pacing and voice? A developmental edit for a work of nonfiction may include feedback about the book’s organizational structure, as well as both stylistic and informational strengths and weaknesses. (For example: “The strongest parts of the book are where you use humorous anecdotes to illustrate your points about how bad managers don’t even know they are bad managers. Why don’t you try opening each chapter with one of those anecdotes, to make it easier for the reader to identify with the problems you’re about to discuss?”) If you’re writing fiction, developmental editing also includes notes on plot, point of view and characterization. (For instance, “I think the real story starts in Chapter 3, at the moment when she wins the lottery,” or, “While I love the way you show the character growing throughout the story and her sarcasm is often funny, she comes off as unlikable. Here are some things she might do/say to get the reader on her ‘side’ from the beginning.”) Often, a developmental edit is given in the form of a detailed report or letter rather than as notes made directly on the manuscript.

If you want the latter, you’re looking for someone to line edit your manuscript. In a line edit, your editor will point out specific things such as certain lines of dialogue that don’t sound convincing, or pacing problems in a given section. (“Why not skip the backstory here and move right to the kiss? It’s what readers have been waiting for!”)

Often, an editor provides both developmental feedback and line edits. Because developmental feedback assumes the writer will return to the manuscript and rewrite parts, line editing is sometimes held off until that rewrite has been completed. Alternatively, the editor may be contracted to work on a second line edit of the book to address anything that has been added or changed in the revision.

Copy editing and proofreading are about fixing errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice and sentence structure, as well as catching continuity issues. (For instance, a protagonist who is barefoot and locked out of her house is suddenly wearing boots as she trudges through the snow to a neighbor’s house.) If you’re certain you don’t want any content or structure changed and you just want the writing “cleaned up,” you are looking for copy editing only. (Some editors work only on the structural and line level. Others also copy edit, or specialize in copy editing alone.)

Hiring a freelance editor is a significant financial investment—one that can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand, depending upon the kinds of editing you require, the editor’s rate (which may be either an hourly rate or a flat fee, usually charged per page), and the number of revisions/rounds of editing. Freelance editors like me want you to get the most out of your money. We want to leave you feeling enlightened, empowered and excited to be putting your book out in the world. But some of what you need to know to best utilize us can be, well, difficult to bring up. Your writing is, after all, the sum of your energy, time, work and heart. You come to us with enthusiasm and passion—qualities you indeed need in order to survive and persevere in this profession—and we worry that unloading too many difficult truths at once may dampen your enthusiasm or intimidate you.

I love writing, and I love writers. So before you hire someone like me, it’s only right that you know the following:

1. You should avoid the temptation to hire someone to edit your first draft.

I know you’re really excited that you finally finished that book! I’m happy for you … you should be happy for you. Celebrate it! But don’t send it to an editor yet. Put it away for three weeks and then reread, making notes on its strengths and weaknesses, asking yourself what’s missing, and flagging places where you find yourself skimming. Then rewrite the manuscript at least once—twice is better. Don’t bring in a professional until you have made the book the best you possibly can on your own. At this stage, you are still best equipped to take your book to the next level. Only when you’ve taken it as far as you can on your own will you get the most for your money in hiring a freelance editor. Which brings me to a related point:

2. An editor is not a ghostwriter.

It’s not uncommon for nonfiction clients especially to believe that because they have an outline, research notes or interview transcripts, their book is “almost done” and ready for an editor. But if you’re looking for someone to take any of the above and shape it into a manuscript, what you want is a ghostwriter. A nonfiction editor won’t do extensive research for you. A fiction editor is not going to invent characters, flesh out dialogue or write missing scenes. If you hire an editor to do a ghostwriter’s job, you’ll surely be disappointed with the outcome.

3. Your editor is likely to feel more invested in the kind of book she enjoys reading.

Your editor should be familiar with the conventions of what you write. You don’t want her suggesting, for instance, that you include an explicit sex scene in your Christian women’s fiction. Even more important, you want her to like your book enough to want it to be the best it can be. If a prospective editor seems lukewarm from the start about your manuscript or genre, walk away. Find an editor who exhibits genuine excitement about your project. This doesn’t mean that if you’ve written a young-adult paranormal vampire romance you need an editor who specializes solely in that genre. But it does mean that you don’t want an editor who hates teenagers, hates vampires and hates love stories.

4. This might sound obvious, but: You need to prepare yourself for feedback, criticism and direction.

Ideally, the feedback you receive won’t hurt your feelings. After all, your editor only wants to help you see your manuscript with new eyes (“re-vision” it), by providing suggestions for how to capitalize on its strengths and address its weaknesses. But sometimes, what you’re secretly hoping to hear is something like, “This is just about perfect. Let’s change a few commas and get it published!” I can’t even count the times I’ve wished an editor would say that to me instead of, “So, let’s start by rethinking the opening chapters. …”

This kind of feedback can be hard to hear, particularly if the scene your editor suggests cutting is, in fact, your favorite part of the entire manuscript—a part you’ve already revised 23 times. Of course, it’s your choice as to whether or not you take the advice—but do try to go into the process willing to consider changes. You might, for instance, agree with the editor about a problem in the manuscript, yet disagree with his suggestions about how to fix it. By talking this through with him, rather than just dismissing it, you can brainstorm a different solution.

5. Revision takes time.

After investing significant time writing a book, it’s easy to start feeling desperate to finally have it “done”—so much so that you risk shortchanging the editing process. But the truth is you cannot respond to a round of thorough developmental editing in a week. (Well, you can, but it won’t be your best work.) If you’re asking an editor for feedback about big-picture issues like structure, point of view and character development, expect that integrating that feedback into a rewrite can and should take some time.

6. It’s a waste of time and money to hire someone to copy edit your book before you’ve addressed all developmental and line edits.

Why pay someone to make the words pretty in a section you might end up reworking, rewriting entirely or even cutting? If you want to identify the kind of grammar and punctuation mistakes you’re making so you can improve this aspect of your manuscript as you work on your rewrite, consider paying to have your first chapter copy edited to serve as an example. Otherwise, hold off until the manuscript needs nothing but that final polish.

7. There’s a difference between wanting to publish this book and wanting to learn how to write better.

If you know this is the only book you’ll ever want to write (say, your complete memoirs, a relative’s life story or an instructional guide to support your business platform), you may want an editor who will just fix things for you instead of teaching you how to fix them. There’s nothing wrong with that; choose an editor accordingly, and be clear about your needs up front. If, on the other hand, there’s any possibility that you’ll want to write additional books, aim for an editor who will explain her rationale for the edits, so you can learn from the process and truly make the most of your investment in her services.

8. Don’t be shy about telling your editor what you want your book to accomplish.

It’s important to have a sense of what you want the reader to think and feel when he has turned the last page. Remember that although you know what you want to say in this book, editors are not mind readers. If your editor knows what you’re going for, she has a far better chance of getting you there. If your editor doesn’t explicitly ask, “What do you want the reader to take away from this?” tell her anyway so she knows your goal and can make sure you attain it.

9. Tinkering is not revising.

If your editor gives you “big picture” (developmental) feedback and you choose to address only little things (instead of rewriting the opening chapter, you begin obsessing over the color of the character’s dress), you may be shortchanging yourself and your manuscript. If you disagree with the feedback, rather than completely disregarding it, it’s worth trying to discuss other ideas for changes with your editor so you can get the most from this experience. (See No. 4.)

10. The editor’s job is to make your book the best it can be.

“The best it can be” does not mean “the best book in the entire universe.” It also doesn’t—and shouldn’t—mean “the vampire-free book the editor wishes it were.” It means making it something you feel truly represents what you wanted to do and say.

Because achieving this for you is paramount, your editor has to tell you things about your manuscript that your friends, relatives or even critique group members might be afraid to say, such as, “Your protagonist isn’t very sympathetic early on. In fact, she’s whiny.” (We know you didn’t intend for her to be whiny. We know you meant for her to be funny. Perhaps we’re even personally familiar with thinking we are being funny when we are being a bit, um, whiny.) Let us help you bring out your protagonist’s good side, so she can voice her many complaints about life in a genuinely humorous way.

Our job, in the end, is to partner with you on a journey to reconcile your vision of your book with the way your prospective readers will see it—ultimately producing a book that says exactly what you want
to say.

Follow me on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Check out my humor book, Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl.
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19 thoughts on “10 Things Your Freelance Editor Might Not Tell You—But Should

  1. AvatarChristianProofreaders.com

    Excellent article! I love how you clarify the important differences and degrees of editing versus (not verses 🙂 ) proofreading. If all authors understood these points when seeking editors or proofreaders, they’d be more likely to find the perfect match for their projects—resulting in happy clients, happy editors, and happy readers.

  2. Avatarairclowns

    Thanks, good article. I recently reached this stage where I knew I needed an editor’s help to ground my writing experience. I did not know how to approach it, as I knew I wanted someone to evaluate the story, the structure, and the concept. I also wanted line editing and copy editing. I didn’t know how to ask for any of this, but the editors I sought out were very helpful and helped me to realize the difference between a content evaluation and an actual edit. I am in a writer’s group which evaluates work, and I have some beta readers (I need to offer them something to get them to work faster I think- when I ask friends, I am obligated to them, not really the other way round) but there is a point when a professional is necessary. I have also read enough books I was not happy with to decide mine was good enough to put out into fresh air.

    1. AvatarPhantommy

      I recently found a group called Manuscript-Magic (www.manuscript-magic.com) that actually offers both editing from industry pros and evaluations from potential fans. I used them for my last novel and they were super helpful in comparison to the typical “Oh your story is amazing!” or “I really like this and that!” that you typically get from writer groups. BUT WARNING: YOU WILL GET AN HONEST CRITIQUE! So, if you’re still looking for reader feedback and a professional edit I would give them a try.

  3. Avatarairclowns

    Thanks, good article. I recently reached this stage where I knew I needed an editor’s help to ground my writing experience. I did not know how to approach it, as I knew I wanted someone to evaluate the story, the structure, and the concept. I also wanted line editing and copy editing. I didn’t know how to ask for any of this, but the editors I sought out were very helpful and helped me to realize the difference between a content evaluation and an actual edit. I am in a writer’s group which evaluates work, and I have some beta readers (I need to offer them something to get them to work faster I think- when I ask friends, I am obligated to them, not really the other way round) but there is a point when a professional is necessary. I have also read enough books I was not happy with to decide mine was good enough to put out into fresh air.

  4. AvatarVignesh Ravichandran

    Dear All,

    This is Vignesh Ravichandran from India. I am looking for an editor who could work substantive editing for my fantasy fiction novel in affordable flat rate. My novel has 110,000 words and approximately 300 pages in MS Word. Editors please send me your pricing quotes to endeavourvignesh@gmail.com.

    Thanks in Advance,

  5. Avatarlaurenruiz05

    This post hit close to home since I’m a freelance editor. I like that the post says “might” not tell you because I do actually explain these things to clients.

    I once turned down a job that I felt wasn’t ready for the basic editing the author wanted. Like in another commenter’s example, the client got upset with me, but I didn’t regret my decision: I wouldn’t have felt right performing the copyedit when a substantive edit was needed, especially since the client had explained money wasn’t an issue–I think it was a matter of him being too attached to his work and not willing to trust me. So I knew we couldn’t work together; or rather, he wasn’t ready to work with any editor yet.

    Anyway, I found the end of the post touching! This one has to be one of my favorites from this blog.

  6. AvatarJeffrey Marcus Oshins

    Beta readers do much of the work if not all of the work of editors for free or little money. While there is no replacing a professional editor if you can afford one, beta readers are a great resource to polish your work before sending it off to your publisher to be edited or the final edit of a self-published work. Beta readers can be found on Facebook, Goodreads, and at http://www.betareader.us.

    1. Avatarlaurenruiz05

      I wouldn’t say betas do the work of a professional editor, but I agree they are important: they offer objective and varied perspectives—for free. I’m a freelance editor, and on my page for Author Services I recommend seeking out betas before working with any editor. It makes the work you submit to an editor more refined (you’re more informed as an author by this point, too, and have thicker skin) resulting in the editor likely suggesting fewer rewrites and in you getting more bang for your buck from the edit, which will usually offer insights betas have missed—but is certainly not free.

      Anyway, those have been my observations. I’m going to check out Jeffrey’s betareader.us link ASAP and perhaps share it with my clients to help them with the (ever-difficult) task of finding the right betas. 🙂

  7. Avatarmikepascale

    Excellent advice and very useful.

    Only thing I’m confused about is the article’s author. The tag at the top and the pic at the bottom (along with social media info) are for Brian Klems. The credit after the second paragraph says, “—by Tanya Egan Gibson”. The book advertised at the start of the article is (from what I can see) by Kelly James-Enger (giving the impression this may be an excerpt from that book).

    As an art director/graphic designer, I’d like to suggest you make the authorship clear so your readers know whom to thank, and whom to follow. As a fellow writer, I think it’s simply ethical to give a clear credit to the author. Thanks for listening, and Happy New Year!

  8. Avatardymphna st james

    Excellent advice. I want to rewrite my novel twice. The first time with my critic, beta reader, editor and then after the first rewrite do a second rewrite on developmental notes alone. My manuscript is not ready to be sent to agent and I am going to make my 2014 goal to write the best women fiction novel I can possibly write. I have put my novel away and am going to read it again after the first of the year. I am to close to my novel at this time and that will give me distance and objectivity so I can write fresh and new. For Nanomowrite I am writing a short story a week (the goal is to write 4, 15 page short stories by the end of November.) Have a good Thanksgiving everyone.

  9. AvatarEliA

    Hay . . .

    Thank you, that was quite a nice read . . . Well, I must admit, the hardest part, for me, is editing . . . I can write a poem in 15 min, nevertheless, it takes me the whole day, to edit it properly, given, I ahve dyslexia as well, I do apprecite grammar check we have now everywhere: )
    Light . . . Eli

  10. Avatarbendwriter

    I read this entire article and each point was meaningful to me. Thank you! When I completed my first draft, a year ago, I did #1. Whoops. Now, after many edits and beta readers later, I’m ready to work with an editor again. I will keep your advice close at hand!

  11. Avatarmwebster

    Thank you for this post. I am a freelance editor myself. I turn down more work than I accept simply because the authors do not fully understand what I do. One writer who inquired about my editing services recently is a prime example. I asked if he wanted a developmental edit or if he was simply looking for a copy edit or a final proofreading. He said, “Why don’t you do both?”

    The fact is, a reputable editor will not agree to do a developmental edit and a copy edit at the same time. These are two entirely different tasks. I read this author’s first chapter and felt he wasn’t ready for even a developmental edit. I spotted several issues that I thought he should attempt to fix himself before wasting money on an editor (I suspect what he sent me was a first draft.) I wrote a 2-page letter explaining the issues and even offered him a list of resources to help him get through an edit on his own prior to hiring outside help.

    I did all of this work for free. My reward? The “author” accused me of trying to rip him off and get him to pay for more edits than he needed. I suspect what he wanted was for someone to proofread his first draft and call it done. But I can’t do that. I turn down more work than I take on simply because the authors do not understand what a real editor does.

    1. AvatarSvapne

      I’m nowhere near publishing my various works in progress, but both the article and your comment are really helpful and insightful! I hope my future editor(s) benefit from what I’ve learned here. 🙂


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