How to Find the Right Editor

by Erin Brenner on April 15, 2010

We talk a lot in this space about language mechanics and writing better. But at some point, you have to let someone else handle your copy. You have to hire an editor.

A Writer’s Wish List

My editor…

  • Is well acquainted with my topic or industry.
  • Has experience in the level of editing I need.
  • Is familiar with my style guide (APA, Chicago, AP, etc.).
  • Has experience with my medium (book, business reports, Web, etc.).
  • Has and knows how to use the software my copy is in (Word, Acrobat, In-Copy, etc.).
  • Contacts me with questions about the copy or the project.
  • Warns me if the project is taking longer than expected.

Does My Editor Have to Be an Industry Expert?

The short answer is it depends.

Let’s say you’re writing in the sciences, and you use lots of specialized words and formulas. It’s really in your best interest if your editor has some knowledge of your topic. If you want your editor to catch errors in your scientific names or formulas, you’d better hire someone who understands those names and formulas.

Or if you want someone to help you develop your Great American Novel, you want someone who knows literature and the market (e.g., he’s edited other novels that have gone on to be published). And anytime you write copy that has a lot of jargon, you want someone familiar with that jargon. Otherwise, he spends his time (and your money) learning your jargon or you spend your time steting all his changes.

That said, there are times when it doesn’t matter if your editor is new to your industry. If you’re looking for someone to copy edit or proofread your copy, you want someone who has a strong grasp of language. Topic is still important, but less so when your editor is focused solely on mechanics. Also, if your copy is for a mainstream audience, your editor doesn’t need to be an expert in your field. You want him to catch instances where mainstream readers might be confused.

What Kind of Editing Do I Need?

You know you need someone to look over your writing, maybe spruce it up a bit, but what exactly do you want your editor to do? Do you want someone to look at your ideas, help your organize or develop them? Do you need someone to read through and correct all the typos and nothing else? Most likely, you need something in between. Here are the definitions for different stages of editing I use on my editing Web site:

  • Developmental editing: working with acquisition editors or authors to develop a text or evaluate a manuscript for content and accuracy.
  • Line (substantive) editing: correcting copy for organization, structure, transitions, redundancy, jargon, sexist language, awkward construction, excessive use of passive voice, wordiness, logic, tone, and more.
  • Copy editing: correcting copy for spelling, grammar, punctuation, style, usage, sentence structure, sentence length, and paragraph length.
  • Fact checking: checking factual accuracy of the copy, such as names, addresses, phone numbers, URLs, dates, and other numbers.
  • Editorial proofreading: correcting copy (“cold-reading”) for spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style.
  • Proofreading: comparing the latest version of a document (“live copy”) with the previous version (“dead copy”), including any indicated changes in the previous version.

If you’re still not sure of what you need, make a list of things you want the editor to correct and what you don’t want her to correct. A well-rounded editor should be able to handle your list. She should also be able to tell you what your copy needs if you’re totally at sea. My own service is customizable. I talk to the client about what kinds of things they want me to correct. I will give an honest opinion of what the copy needs, but in the end it’s your project. I’ll do what you want.

And by the way, it’s OK to want proof of an editor’s abilities. You do it for other services, why not editing? One way is to see an editor’s past work: viewing marked-up documents and final pieces. But a better way to judge an editor’s ability is to test her. Your company may have an editing test floating around, one that tests an editor’s knowledge of grammar rules and the like. This is good. The test shouldn’t be too long (about an hour to complete is reasonable).

Even better, though, and what I offer all my clients for free, is to have her edit a sample of your copy. Again, the sample shouldn’t be too long; 500-700 words is what I like to see. Try to take something from the middle of the piece. The beginning and the end have either been picked over several times and are in better shape or are in the early stages and are still rough. Either one would give you and the editor a false idea of what the copy needs. When you read through the results, ask yourself: Does the copy read better? Do I like the way it sounds? Did she miss any glaring errors? Did she introduce errors into the copy? (Quelles horreurs!) Did she ask good questions when he had concerns? Present good solutions?

References

Sometimes the competition for a project or an ongoing relationship is fierce. References are a good place to distinguish one editor from another. LinkedIn allows users to post recommendations to others’ profiles. This is a handy place to start. You can also check out the editor’s Web site for client reviews. Or search on the editor’s name or company name in a search engine. Do you find accolades or regrets?

If your project is particularly large — or you will feed this editor lots of projects — ask to speak to past clients. Talk to someone whose project is similar to yours, so you can make an apples-to-apples comparison.

Where Should I Look for an Editor?

Personal recommendations are still the best way to find any service, including editing.

You can also check out sources that focus on editing or publishing. Editorial organizations, such as the Editorial Freelancers Association and Copyediting, have directories of members. MediaBistro is home to many media professionals, and FreelancerSwitch is a source of many kinds of freelancers, including editors. Katharine O’Moore-Klopf has a page of places editors can look for work; one may be right for you to post your job on.

General job boards are OK, but most job seekers there are looking for permanent work. It’s like finding a needle a haystack. Steer clear of bidding services, however. While it’s true you’ll pay lowest dollar, you’ll also get what you pay for. Quality editors who know their stuff want to be paid a fair wage and don’t look for work on such sites. The EFA also posts a list of common rates; rates can vary wildly from industry to industry and based on experience, but the EFA is a good place to start.

In the end, you should feel comfortable with the person you choose to edit your copy. He should be professional, knowledgeable, and approachable. As with any other purchase, doing your homework pays off in quality and value.

What does your editor wish list look like? Where do you find your best editors? Leave them in the comments section!

And if your current editor isn’t meeting your standards, give me a shout. I’ll be glad to help you out.

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