What to Look for in an Editor

Choosing someone to edit your book is like choosing someone to perform surgery on your child. You need to trust them completely. So how can you be sure the person you’re hiring is qualified? If, as I said last week, you asked other writers for recommendations and checked references, that should go a long way. But if you’re choosing someone out of a directory, or someone you’ve connected with through social media but without a recommendation, what can you look for?

Finding Editors
Illustration © -=MadDog=- • Fotolia


Check the editor’s resume not only to see how long they’ve worked as a freelancer, but what kind of projects they work on. Some editors specialize in a single field. Others are generalists who work across a variety of topic areas. Only you can decide whether depth of knowledge in a single area is more important to you than breadth of knowledge across several. You want someone who’s familiar enough with your genre not to be tripped up by its conventions. Someone who’s mainly edited literary fiction may not be appropriate to edit your epic fantasy novel, even though they’re both fiction.


If it’s not listed on their resume, ask your potential editor what kind of training they’ve had. Editor associations provide specialized training in various areas of the editing business. You want someone who’s been trained to edit the kind of book you’re writing, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction. The needs of each type are different. You also want to look for someone who regularly attends conferences or takes continuing education classes to keep their skills sharp.


Some writers are content to screen editors entirely by e-mail, and that’s fine. We’re writers, so communicating in writing comes more easily to many of us. But there is value to be had in a real-time conversation. If it’s something you’re comfortable with, arrange an interview with your prospective editor, either by phone or video chat. If they’re in your local area and can meet you in person, that’s a bonus. But if you’re the kind of introvert who gets hives at the thought of making a phone call, you can conduct an “interview” by e-mail or by text chat. If the editor you’re considering balks at communicating in the way that you’re most comfortable with, that’s a sign that they may not be a good fit.

Sample edit

One thing an editor can do for you that a surgeon can’t is give you a free sample. Many freelance editors will provide a sample edit for free so you can judge whether their editing style suits you. It is not out of line for you to ask for a free sample edit of up to 1,000 words. That’s about four pages, double-spaced. If the editor says no, they don’t do free sample edits, then you can decide whether to pay for a sample or keep looking. The sample will show whether they make cogent observations and valuable corrections. Something to watch out for is the overzealous editor who rewrites to the point of changing your voice. A deft editor will help you sound like you, only better. You want corrective surgery to fix what’s broken, not plastic surgery to make you look like something you’re not.

Also check whether their tone and communication style is a good fit for you. I tend to be wry and even a bit snarky at times. Some people are put off by that, others find it refreshing. It’s a matter of style.

Although all of these are important, I believe a sample edit is the best way to determine whether an editor is right for you.

Next time: How much you can expect to pay and what to do if you can’t afford a freelance editor.

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