An American Editor

October 19, 2010

Finding a Professional Editor: The Needle in the Haystack Problem

On one of the ebook lists of which I am a member, the question was asked: How does one find a professional editor? On the surface, this doesn’t seem like too big a problem, but dig deeper and one realizes that this can be a gargantuan task, like finding a needle in a haystack. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of people calling themselves professional editors, but there is no governing body that issues editorial licenses after proof of minimal competency.

The issue really comes down to how one defines professional when speaking of editors.

In past articles [see, e.g., The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)], I suggested some of the things that separate the professional from the amateur editor. The problem is at least twofold: (a) you can’t easily verify that the editor really owns and knowledgeably uses these resources, and (b) owning the right tools doesn’t turn a person into a professional.

The definition of professional also turns on what the editor is expected to do (for an explanation of what editors do, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). A professional copyeditor is not necessarily a professional developmental editor nor vice versa. Different skills and resources are needed.

As you can see, the problem of defining professional and then finding a professional editor is just that — a problem! I am not sure there is an easy or sure way.

One suggestion that many editors make is to ask about books (or articles or journals or whatever is appropriate) that the person has worked on in the past. The idea is that someone who has already edited 200 fantasy novels would be a professional editor of fantasy novels. I’m not sure that is sufficient. My own experience — I’ve been editing medical books for 26 years — tells me that all that it proves is that I have edited books, not how well I have edited them, and how well I have edited them is the true crux of the matter. I think past work is one criterion, but what do you do with the brilliant, young editor who is just starting out? We all had to start at zero at some point in our career.

There is something else to note about the past projects list. If a person copyedits only short journal articles, it is possible that their list would be thousands of titles long and thus impressive by sheer weight of numbers, especially compared to the person who edits primarily long tomes and thus can do fewer projects over the same timeframe. I know this because most of my work is on books that are 5,000 manuscript pages or longer, and it isn’t possible to complete such long projects in the same length of time as a 150-manuscript-page project.

Another suggestion was years of experience doing the particular type of work. I admit that I like this criterion better than the past project criterion for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is that it would be difficult to sustain a livelihood as an editor over the course of many years if you didn’t have at least minimal competency. This is even more impressive if the person has a couple of long-term clients. But, alas, this, too, is insufficient to separate the professional from the professional-wannabe.

A third suggestion that is often heard is to ask for references. But how telling are they? You have to trust the person giving the reference and have to assume that the person knows the difference between quality and nonquality work. A glowing reference may be because the work went smoothly and was finished on time and on budget, rather than because the work was of exceptional quality — even if the person giving the reference believes it was for superior quality work. There can be a chasm between belief and fact.

A fourth suggestion has been to ask for samples. This raises a host of problems and also doesn’t really answer the question. Among the problems it raises are whether the editor has the right to share the work with you. I treat all of my clients’ work as confidential and would not share it with anyone without written permission; after all, isn’t that how you would want me to treat your work? But a more important problem is determining whose work you are really seeing. If you are being shown or referred to the final version, you do not know what improvements to the manuscript were made by whom, not even if you can compare the originally submitted manuscript with the final version. And viewing a copy of the manuscript that shows tracked changes doesn’t really indicate a lot either. If it is the first go-round, the editing will be rougher than the final go-round; if it is the final go-round, you will have missed the important intermediate steps that brought the manuscript to this point and not know whether it reached this plateau through the editor’s efforts or despite the editor’s efforts.

Of course, there is one final problem with this last suggestion: you really can’t evaluate an editor’s work without knowing what limitations were placed on the editor by the client or the client’s approach to having someone edit their work. I can’t tell you how many times in my 26 years I have had authors tell me my job is only to code the manuscript for typesetting, not to make corrections or suggestions.

I could go on for many more paragraphs and I would still be no closer to solving the original puzzle: How does one find a professional editor, that needle in the haystack? Perhaps together we can find a viable answer by addressing these questions:

  1. How would you find a professional editor?
  2. How would you define professional?
  3. How would you evaluate an editor’s work?

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