An American Editor

March 5, 2014

Why Are You Hiring a Professional Editor?

Increasingly, I wonder why professional editors are being hired. In reading online discussions, it is pretty evident that (a) everyone thinks they can be an editor, (b) a growing number of authors think that self-editing or peer editing is more than sufficient, (c) professional editors are believed to be overpaid, and (d) people who have edited a romance novel think they can as competently and easily edit a 5,000-page manuscript on the genetics of cancer.

Of course, a lot of discussion online centers around price. Not only are editors offering services at unsustainable prices (see The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It for a discussion of sustainable pricing), but users of the editing services offered are balking at those prices. (How absurd is this “pricing war” becoming? I received a job application from an editor offering to work for 25¢/page!)

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that those who need a professional editor’s services have no clue as to why they need those services except that everyone tells them that they do and because using an editor is what authors have done for decades. The users of editors do not contemplate the purposes for which they want an editor’s services.

We have discussed professional editors and what their role is in the publishing process numerous times over the life of this blog. The editor’s role hasn’t changed, probably since the time of the very first editor. Yet even with that history, when asked “Why are you hiring a professional editor?”, the answer is rarely inclusive of what the editor does.

Within the past few weeks, I was asked to edit a paper that was going to be submitted as part of a grant proposal. The instructions were clear: check spelling and look for egregious grammar errors but touch nothing else. Why hire me? (I turned down the work for a multitude of reasons, including the project’s schedule was incompatible with my schedule, but largely because I am not a spell checker — I am a professional editor who expects to make use of my editorial skills, not a verifier that spell check software didn’t miss something.)

I think a significant amount of blame for the state of editing lies in the hiddenness of what editors do. It is hard to point to a paragraph in a book and say that because of the suggestions of the editor, this paragraph altered the author’s destiny, turned the author into a star or into a has been. Editors may have star-making power, but if they do, it is not readily apparent to either the editor or to the person who hires the editor.

The person hiring the editor is really looking for someone who can take away embarrassments before they become embarrassing. That’s because of the limited understanding of the editor’s role. Each person who hires an editor needs to ask, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” If the answer is to verify spell checking software, then the follow-up question should be, “Why am I hiring a professional editor for a job that doesn’t require a professional editor?”

Ultimately, there should be an epiphany. The questioner should realize that what she needs to know is what a professional editor does. It is this appreciation of the skills owned by a professional editor that will enable the answering of the original query, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” Importantly, once the question can be answered, it is likely to move the focus away from pricing and toward skillsets.

Another result of being able to answer the question is that the asker will be able to analyze her needs and guide the editor as to what is needed and wanted: If all you need to do is cross the street, you don’t hire a taxi. It is the lack of understanding on the part of an editor’s clients as to what an editor does and why it is important that is at the heart of the problems professional editors face in terms of unrealistic expectations and downward pressure on pricing. It is hard for an editor to convince a client that she is worth $50 an hour when the client thinks the editor is just a glorified spell checker.

Someone who understands what an editor does, understands the need for a professional editor. It remains true that no one will be able to point to a single paragraph in a book and say that the editor’s transformation of that paragraph instantly altered the author’s status; such singular events remain within the realm of the speechwriter. Unfortunately, because readers never see the before and after of an editor’s work, it is not possible for readers to see how the editor has improved or worsened an author’s work.

In addition, an editor suggests and the author decides, which means that an author can easily reject the advice that would transform his work from a member of the pack to leader of the pack as accept the advice.

The reason a professional editor is hired is that the client wants to ensure that her manuscript is accessible and understandable, that it flows not just in her eyes and mind but in the mind and eyes of others. She wants to know that her word choice conveys the meaning she intends. Professional editors have honed the skills that deliver these results. Professional editors are able to maintain a distance from the manuscript that enables an objective assessment; it is very difficult for a mother to objectively assess her child.

Once it is realized what a professional editor does and what skills he has, it becomes clear that not everyone can be an editor, just as not everyone can be a lawyer or doctor; that peer group editing is not the same as using a professional editor; that professional editors are skilled artisans who are worth more than a bottom-scraping fee; and that the editor who has successfully edited a romance novel is not necessarily the editor who can successfully edit a large manuscript on cancer genetics.

In other words, once one realizes what skills a professional editor possesses, it is easier to see that different skills are needed for different projects. Now one can answer the question, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?”

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. It’s sad that some writers don’t see why a professional editor is a crucial part of the process. My editor doesn’t use a lot of red with my work, but what she does do is tighten and add a shine that it otherwise wouldn’t have.

    Alas, it’s often the writers who need an editor most who don’t use one.


    Comment by Vicki — March 5, 2014 @ 4:36 am | Reply

  2. […] The reason a professional editor is hired is that the client wants to ensure that her manuscript is accessible and understandable, that it flows not just in her eyes and mind but in the mind and ey…  […]


    Pingback by Why Are You Hiring a Professional Editor? | Edi... — March 5, 2014 @ 6:49 am | Reply

  3. The recent explosion of self-published authors has brought me to a new perspective on my editing services and how I present them to potential author clients. These authors are passionate about bringing their work to the reading public, but most times their experience in writing and publishing books is extremely limited. My job from the outset is to inform and educate – not just on the importance of editing but on the entire process of publishing. I take heart in the fact that the author is at least aware that editing is part of this process and am happy to help them understand the deep benefits available to them.
    I have maintained in the past and still maintain that the ‘problems’ with freelance editing (cheap rates, unregulated definitions of services, etc) stem not so much from authors refusing to pay reasonable rates and respect the editorial craft, but rather from ill-equipped and disrespectful individuals who determine they can perform edits. These folks decide that ‘anyone’ can edit and with that mindset assign rates that match their comprehension of the craft. As always, such diluted perceptions are like toxins that attempt to pollute the mainstream.
    Serious authors who view their work as professional endeavors will always use professional editors to ensure that work is as powerful as possible.
    It can be frustrating to encounter people who demand services for next to nothing and people who will provide services for even less. But those people aren’t serious about their work and will fade away, grumbling about the asshats in the world of books as they look for the next shiny object in their lives.


    Comment by — March 5, 2014 @ 10:55 am | Reply

  4. I love this: “I am not a spell checker — I am a professional editor who expects to make use of my editorial skills, not a verifier that spell check software didn’t miss something”! I may have to come up with a version of my own to use.

    Most of my editing clients are organizations, companies and businesspeople who understand that they have good ideas or important information to relay, but are not as skilled at writing as they would like. They turn to me to do, as Rich says, more than verify that spellchecker worked. I made a “Why hire a professional editor” page for my website to tackle this very topic (it makes a good segue to testimonials!).

    I sometimes hear from individual authors who want editing help. Some are willing to pay my rates, some aren’t. I’m lucky to be in a position to say that I won’t drop my rates to peanuts for those who can’t afford a professional editor, and do my best to nicely educate them on the value of a professional editor and ways to save up for that service.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 5, 2014 @ 11:09 am | Reply

  5. While I agree with Rich’s premise in principle, I believe there are many interactive factors at play here. We editors are the “quiet professionals” (which makes me chuckle, since we used that moniker to describe ourselves when I was in Special Forces. Does that make us the Green Berets of publishing? I would argue in the affirmative, as our primary concern is “winning the hearts and minds” of the reader.)

    If it was difficult to discern how an editor improved a manuscript in the analog world, the Digital Revolution renders it nigh impossible. The World Wide Web (which I contend is synonymous with “Wild Wild West”) is a free-for-all space in which everyone with an opinion is magically transformed into an “author” (often the same prose stylists who think they don’t need an editor, find self- or peer-editing perfectly acceptable, and can’t imagine why they should PAY someone to do that!). As a corollary, any sodbuster with a computer and an Internet connection can hang out a digital shingle and call themselves a “Web designer” or an “editor.” This has yielded a tsunami of aspirants in our field bearing bogus bona fides and sullying our good name–and that’s what’s led to the downward-sprialing “price war” Rich alluded to. Publishers (broadly defined) or businesses that produce some form of “content” only muddy the waters by advertising for an “editor,” but insisting that the job description entails editing, proofreading, content creation (aka “writing”), digital layout and design, SEO, XML, website management, and of course, that millennial catch-all, “social media ninja.” As there is no consensus regarding clear definitions of the various subsets of editorial specialties within our trade, it’s no wonder those who reside beyond the pale have no idea what we are (and are not) capable of. The world is changing, and if we don’t define ourselves, someone else will…

    I empathize with Rich’s vehement exclamation, “I am not a spell checker — I am a professional editor who expects to make use of my editorial skills, not a verifier that spell check software didn’t miss something,” but I fear it sounds a bit overly defensive. In fact, there is a very legitimate professional editorial role encompassing this kind of QA–it’s called “proofreading.” Yes, it’s a broader mandate than simply verifying the accuracy of spell-checking software, and it requires a different, though related, set of editorial chops, but many (if not most) editors at least occasionally wear both hats. There are plenty of self-professed freelance editors who think that “proofreading” is synonymous with “light editing” (it is not). So again, who shall we blame for the confusion?

    We are currently passing through the eye of the storm; in time, those in need of quality editorial services will seek out professionals and be happy to pay an appropriate tariff for services rendered. The unqualified poseurs will fall by the wayside (for as my ol’ pap used to say, “Son, you can’t sell five-dollar bills for a dollar for very long.”). In the meantime, we just have to suck it up and do our best, as Ruth advises, to “inform and educate.”

    Aden Nichols
    Digital Warrior-Poet


    Comment by Aden — March 5, 2014 @ 6:45 pm | Reply

  6. I agree with Aden. Copyediting is more than simply checking for errors in spelling, and there’s no need to denigrate that part of the process.

    In my experience, the problem isn’t that writers try to hire developmental editors for copyediting. The problem is that they don’t believe they need developmental editing. Explaining to would-be clients why their manuscript needs more work than they think it does is a painful task, and it often doesn’t end well.


    Comment by Susan Wenger — March 6, 2014 @ 1:18 pm | Reply

  7. Mea culpa! In re-reading my post, I see that I need an editor–I misattributed the quote to “inform and educate” to Ruth, when in fact it was Maria who offered that useful phrase. That’s what I get for hammering out a response and hitting ‘send’ just as I’m out the door…


    Comment by Aden — March 6, 2014 @ 2:56 pm | Reply

  8. There’s also the cost/benefit problem. Depending on what, and how often, you write, it is easily possible to wind up earning less for a piece than you paid the editor (presuming they’re a good one – who wants the other kind?). If you’re writing a submission to a professional journal or similar, where the real payoff is in prestige and career enhancement this won’t matter. Otherwise, can be a major discouragement.


    Comment by anansii — March 6, 2014 @ 11:53 pm | Reply

  9. Couldn’t agree more! I work exclusively with romantic fiction, and the competition (word sometimes used loosely) in this arena is all over the board. It also doesn’t help that definitions of editorial terms given by editing leaders such as the EFA aren’t specific to fiction–and fiction really does have some unique elements for an editor to address–so I think fiction writers have a particularly blind approach as to what an editor can offer at various stages of the editing process. Added to there being conflicting definitions out there, it’s no wonders self-publishing authors are clueless. On my website I’ve done my damnedest to write out a very detailed explanation on the differences between and synonyms amongst Book Doctor, Manuscript Assessment, Developmental Editor, Substantive Editor, Content Editor, Structural Editor, Line Editor, Stylistic Editor, Copy Editor, and Proofreader, as they relate to fiction editing, with the caveat that authors must always check with individual editors to confirm how each professional defines their services. I also use the same breakdowns in my contracts so that an author knows exactly what they’re getting for their money. No disgruntled clients yet!


    Comment by Rachel Daven Skinner — March 12, 2014 @ 5:57 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: